Essex Wire: 427 Cobra track star
The Cobra roadsters’ hit song
“Hey Little Cobra“ (1963) by the southern California rock quartet The Rip Chords took on a special meaning for Essex Wire Corporation in the mid 1960s. In those years the Ford 427 Cobra was one of the most exciting new sports cars on the road. The 427 Cobra was designed, as The Beach Boys sang, to “Shut Down” the legendary Chevrolet Corvettes and Jaguar XKEs.
The mid-1960s were, in fact, among the most exciting years in American and international road racing with Essex at the center of It all for two years. In 1965 and 1966 the company sponsored a major U.S. racing effort that featured these hot new sports cars. They were manufactured by Essex Wire’s biggest customer, Ford Motor Company.
During the early ’60s, Henry Ford II was particularly annoyed with European racing enthusiasts who delighted In belittling the American auto giant. They compared Ford Motor Company to Grand Prix Circuit favorites Porsche and Ferrari. Perhaps more important, Ford’s archrival, Chevrolet, had dominated the road with its legendary Corvette. The business impact was clean when Corvettes won notoriety and publicity for high performance, Chevrolet sold Bel Airs. Ford, determined to sell more Fairlanes, decided to become aggressive in this road racing circuit. One of Ford’s brilliant strategies was to identify itself with one of the world’s most dynamic and successful race car designers, Carroll Shelby, of Texas. His Cobra was a proven Corvette killer.
Shelby’s rise to fame In the late 1950s culminated with his spectacular win at the renowned 24 Hours of LeMans In 1959. Dreaming his “Plan” for an American-made sports car that would rival the Europeans, Shelby’s earliest Ideas centered on the big V8 engines made by Chevy. In 1962, he tried to sell his ideas to Chevrolet, but they were happy with the Corvette, then the king of the road. Shelby then turned to Ford, who had begun producing its own line of V8s. One of these was a big-block series that eventually would produce the 427 monster that was the heart of the winningest Cobra—the Essex Wire Corporation’s car.
Shelby’s vision was to combine the new Ford big-block V8s with the unique aluminum-bodied British roadster known as the AC Bristol. In January of 1962 Shelby took the new Ford 260 cubic inch engine to London (England), and installed it into the British racer. After a roaring test drive through the English countryside, the new machine was shipped back to California. Cobra development began in earnest at Carroll Shelby’s typical frenetic pace. Shelby managed to get the prototype Cobra into the Ford section of the prestigious New York Auto Show. The brilliant yellow roadster, scarcely three months old, stole the show and the Cobra/Ford partnership was sealed.
On the race circuit, the Cobra debuted at Riverside in California. During the next three years, as the Cobra was driven in all the major U.S. and European contests, it went through many changes. By 1965 different versions, such as the Daytona Cobra Coupe and the King Cobra, had appeared and won the great races at LeMans, Targa, Sebring, Rheims and Spa. The best drivers in the world, from Bob Bondurant, Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, and Ken Miles to Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, Jo Siffert, Masten Gregory and Peter Revson, put the car through all the paces imaginable.
In 1965, the Shelby American team driving the new 427 Cobras had their best year. Ford’s Cobra engines evolved into ever bigger powerplants and, in 1965, reached the height of the 427 cubic inch V8. Only 356 Cobra 427s were built, and they were in a league of their own.
The Essex Wire Cobra
1965 was the year Essex Wire entered the intense world of Grand Prix Road Racing.
The late Walter Probst, Essex Chairman of the Board, recalled that Essex responded enthusiastically to the opportunity to sponsor the Ford Racing Team. This was a means for promoting not only Ford’s products, but also a host of specialized wires and wire assemblies produced by Essex. “It seemed a great way to share a promotional opportunity,” Probst remembered, “and Paul O’Malley, Essex President, took the challenge and turned it into a winner for both Essex and Ford.”
Fred Krammer, Essex Account Executive to Ford, was put in charge of the project and oversaw the purchase of the automobiles, their preparation for racing, and the recruitment of Team Essex. Jim Kress, Essex Public Relations Director, saw immediately that the biggest challenge for Essex would be to make sure both the U.S. and the World viewed the racing circuit newcomer as a serious contender and a winner.
To organize the Essex team, Krammer turned to Skip Scott. An outstanding 23-year-old driver from Paoli, Pennsylvania, Scott had been recognized as Rookie of the Year only a few months earlier. Scott had first worked with the Carroll Shelby racing organization in California. He apprenticed under Ken Miles, one of the finest race car drivers in the world and the second driver Shelby hired to test the new Cobra. One Essex executive recalled that Scott was “a driver who would go any distance just to be able to race—the sort of guy you wanted at the head of your team!”
Dr. Dick Thompson, one of the first Essex drivers and a regular with the Shelby organization, noted that Scott “was a good businessman and a great promoter. He really put Essex and its machines on the world racing map.”
Scott, who is retired today, remembers the excitement of being given the opportunity to develop a world-class team. “Fred Krammer,” Scott recalled, was terrific. Every time we needed something–even entirely new wiring from Essex—he would see to it that we got it and then—this was real important—stayed out of our way so that we could win on the race track. And we did!”
Scott left Essex after the 1966 season to drive Ferraris and Lolas to top performances at Sebring, Elkhart Lake and Bridgehampton before retiring from racing in 1970.
1965, the first year of competition, was one of practice, teamwork development and learning about the machines. The company released announcements that it was sponsoring the team “in order to initiate an engineering and testing program for advanced electrical systems concepts.”
The Essex team initially competed in races sanctioned by the U.S. Road Racing Championship (USRRC) with two cars: the Shelby Cobra 427 (model CSX3009), which promised deadly challenges to the dominant Corvettes, Ferraris, Porsches and Chaparrals, and the Ford GT40, which was the talk of the tracks.
In successive road races throughout the season, the Cobra, sporting the distinctive Essex paint job, performed “like clockwork” at Pensacola, Elkhart’s Road America 500, the Bridgehampton Double 500 in New York, Laguna Seca in Monterey, California, Times Grand Prix, Riverside, California, the Stardust Grand Prix in Las Vegas, Vineland, New Jersey, Lime Rock, Continental Divide, and at Nassau, the Bahamas.
The Team fondly called the snow white Cobra “Ollie the Dragon”; however, because the 427 had the scary habit of belching about two feet of flame through the intake on the hood. Team Leader Scott laughingly recalled that if you didn’t keep throttling up, the big Weber downdraft carburetors would erupt in fire. Dick Thompson still remembers that the “Cobra was beautiful in the straightaway, but because it didn’t have much in the way of brakes, it was always hairy in the turns.” The car was so powerful that difficulties with tires being too small or its lack of aerodynamics were not important. Ed Lowther once commented, in fact, that the car was so good that “I can start the engine on this car, put it in gear and go to the men’s room, and it will win the race by the time I get back!”
The drivers of the Cobra in the 1965 circuit were first-rate and world class. Dr. Dick Thompson, a Washington, D.C. dentist was a semi-pro who drove some of Carroll Shelby’s early Cobras. Not long after he was recruited by Skip Scott to drive for Essex, he drove the race at Riverside, California. Ray Heppenstal, the Team’s crew chief and master mechanic, souped up the carburetion on the Cobra for this race so that Thompson could open it up to over 150 mph when he came into the long straightaway. Dealing with the sharp turns at the end of the straightaway without brakes was “always interesting.” Ed Lowther was another highly respected semi-pro who drove the Cobra throughout 1965. Like the other drivers, Lowther started racing for the fun of it, competing in ’66 sprint cars” shortly after World War II. While trying to build his construction company in the Pittsburgh area, he drove stock cars and midgets. In the late ’50s he drove Corvettes with Dick Thompson on the Gulf Oil team. As he won more races and his reputation grew, Skip Scott recruited him to race the Cobra with Dick Thompson in several key contests. Lowther fondly remembers the calm, professional teaching by Thompson. For Lowther, the formula for success in this Cobra was that everything was stock – no special designs or equipment – and this equipment, including the Essex Wire throughout, held up better than all the specialized gear. Lowther eventually built one of the most successful construction and supply companies in the Pittsburgh area and continued sports car racing until 1984, when he finally went back to midgets as a hobby which he still enjoys today.
Of course, abusing a car on a road racing track for a few hundred miles results in time on the repair track, even for a car with a racing pedigree as impressive as the Shelby Cobra.
By the end of the 1965 season these drivers had managed to win an overall national Fourth Place for Essex Wire in U.S. road racing competition, a remarkable feat for a team in its first year. Essex chose to move onto the International Grand Prix Circuit for 1966 with the new Ford GT40, abandoning the Cobra. The Essex team Cobra 427 was eventually sold to Ed Lowther, who went on to win numerous races, finishing first at Riverside and Daytona and winning a national championship in 1967. This particular Cobra, known affectionately as “Ollie the Dragon,” was, in fact, the winningest Cobra ever made.
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