The Cobra Phenomenon

The Cobra Phenomenon

[by Curt Scott, 1998. Reprinted with permission, Car Collector Magazine]

The Winchester ’73. The North American Aviation P-51 Mustang. The Shelby Cobra. Three winning products of the modern age that stir men’s souls.

The .44-40** Winchester, introduced in 1873, was reliable, rapid-fire, and American-made. It was universally acclaimed as “The gun that won the West.”

The P-51 Mustang, perfected in 1943, was an American-made, aluminum-bodied flying machine equipped with a powerful, supercharged, British-designed/Packard-manufactured Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 powerplant shoehorned into its sleek engine cowling [and it was… in point of fact… the British who christened it ‘Mustang’]. It cleared the European skies of Messerschmitt 109s and Focke Wulf 190s. It was “The fighter plane that won the air war over Europe.”

The Shelby Cobra, conceived and introduced in 1962, was a British-made, aluminum-bodied racing machine equipped with… does this recipe sound vaguely familiar?… a thundering American V8 powerplant stuffed into the engine compartment. As with the P-51 Mustang, this intersection of British and American technology produced the right machine at the right time, a mechanical marauder greater than the sum of its individual parts. Like the P-51, it blew away all competition. It was “The take-no-prisoners racing machine that won the World Manufacturers Championship.”

And it won the hearts of racing enthusiasts around the world, apparently for all time. Nearly forty years after its debut, this sidepipe-packing predator still displays the most widely recognized profile in racecar history. In its heyday a Shelby Cobra had no equal on the track. The Ferraris, Maseratis and Jaguars of the era (1962–’66) were dusted away by 289 and 427 Cobras and Peter Brock’s aero-sculpted Cobra ‘Daytona’ Coupes, piloted by such racing icons as Bob Bondurant, Bob Olthoff, Fireball Roberts, Dave McDonald, Bob Johnson, Ken Miles, Lew Spencer, Jerry Grant, Dick Smith, Phil Hill and Dan Gurney, to name just a few. Its persona has proved to be timeless.

The final topless variant of the breed—the snorting, flare-fendered, big-block 427S/C Cobra roadster—is today regarded as the very essence of brute automotive power. By any measure, it’s the mucho-macho, Marlboro-man musclecar.

above: This breathtaking, authentically-detailed, track veteran and award-winning Midnight Blue #98 E.R.A. 427S/C is the proud possession of Steve Jaques of Greenville, Rhode Island.

Photo by Curt Scott [Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Fairgrounds, 1998].


Carroll Shelby built the last of the original 427 Cobras in 1968. It appeared that these reptilian road rockets had finally dipped into the dustbin of history.

In 1970 the first of the Cobra reproductions entered the scene, introduced by a firm in California. Within a few years other manufacturers appeared as the popularity of replica Shelby 427 Cobra roadsters began soaring… to a far greater degree than Shelby had ever imagined only a few years before. Shelby built just over 1,000 originals of all varieties in the ’60s; by 1998 an estimated 40,000 full-sized reproduction Cobras are on the road worldwide, and there’s no apparent end in sight to its astonishing popularity. Many of today’s Cobra enthusiasts weren’t even born when the originals were in production. No sportscar or racing machine that I’ve photographed or driven elicits more admiring stares and thumbs-up gestures of esteem than a 427 Cobra roadster.

Today there are nearly two dozen manufacturers of Cobra replicas in North America alone. Even Shelby-American has re-entered the fray, with the firm’s 4000-Series Cobra roadster replicating the original, the preponderance of them with fiberglass skin—the body material of choice for most of the reproduction Cobras.

What you should look for in your Cobra replica…

The quality of today’s facsimile snakes runs the entire gamut from marginally-engineered to world-class in every respect. Unfortunately you cannot determine quality of engineering or robustness of construction by reading the magazine ads or looking at photos of Cobras. From most angles, one brand of Cobra reproduction looks about the same as another in a photograph. If you’re shopping for a Cobra replica, you must do some homework and a little research to be sure you’re making an informed decision. You want to wind up possessing a Cobra that you’ll be proud of, that will provide you with the superb acceleration and handling performance that you probably desire and expect, and that will retain its value when the time comes for you to sell it. The better-quality Cobra you buy or build, the better it will attain and retain its value.

above: engine well of a 289 Cobra reproduction [another fine E.R.A. drivin’ machine], with a 289 cid Ford V8 topped off with a full ensemble of Webers. This FIA is one Cobra replica you can fit with a small-displacement V8 without torpedoing its resale value.

To help you become an informed Cobra replica shopper, I’ve borrowed elements of our own “10 Golden Rules for Selecting and Purchasing Your Cobra Replica” buyer’s guidelines and I consulted with several industry leaders [a tip of the racing visor to Cobra replica manufacturers Phil Gaudette of E.R.A. (Era Replica Automobiles) in New Britain, Connecticut and Steve Newmark of Lone Star Classics in Keller, Texas, and to Cobra reseller Dave Radtke of House of Cobras, in Orange, California]. The basic guidelines you’ll read below will provide you with a primer of various issues you should be aware of and some of the questions you should ask as you whittle down your choices and determine which Cobra reproduction offers your best price/value ratio.

If you’re shopping for a Cobra replica…

1. Don’t be a price shopper. Steve Newmark (Lone Star Classics) has this to say: “Advertised prices mean nothing. What appears to be a very favorable price often means that you’re relinquishing something that no informed buyer would be willing to give up. You must look behind the advertised prices to determine what you’re getting for your money… and what you’re not.”

2. Comparison shop. Even if you think you’ve decided upon one brand of Cobra replica, contact several others and ask them your list of questions. Let each one of them know whom you’re considering purchasing from, and take advantage of their feedback. Even though the Cobra replica industry is highly competitive, which means you’ll occasionally find it necessary to filter out some competitive rhetoric, you’ll learn a lot about comparative advantages and disadvantages by eliciting critical feedback from each manufacturer.

above: engine compartment of Sean McGrath’s Monterey Red Backdraft Racing Cobra.

3. Gather information from every resource available to you. Periodically call up the big Cobra Country ( website and check it out for current Cobra information and scheduled events. Contact the nearest Cobra owners club (or sportscar club) and see what they have to report to you about various manufacturers. SAAC (Shelby American Automobile Club, P.O. Box 788, Sharon, Connecticut 06069, phone 860-364-0449; email: is one of the best motorcar-enthusiast clubs around, with affiliate chapters all over the globe. Attend the Cobra carshows and events (the AHA’s Knott’s Berry Farm Show in Buena Park California, SAAC’s Annual Convention every summer), and the “Run and Gun” event (all of these events are posted well in advance on the Cobra Country website) are three of your best bets. You should take full advantage of all of these resources.

4. Most Cobras look about the same at first glance. Translated: Don’t trust your first glance. The underpinnings should be your first concern. Any open roadster must have an especially solid foundation. Excessive chassis flex will eventually result in body damage [no matter what material… fiberglass, aluminum or steel… the body is constructed of]. Your Cobra chassis must be robustly engineered, both for torsion resistance and for overall handling & performance capabilities. Phil Gaudette of E.R.A. zeroed in on safety as chief among your chassis considerations. The doors must be reinforced with rugged, steel side-impact beams. Your rollbar must be fully functional, high-quality and capable of protecting you in case of a rollover. The fuel tank must be mounted in a protected area, free from collision intrusion, and the fuel filler must have a grounding system. The front of the car should be designed to absorb impact with a controlled collapse of its components, and the steering column should likewise be collapsible. It must have a dual braking system, and it must have a well-designed steel safety loop for the driveshaft. Some cheaper Cobra replicas skimp on one or more (or all) of these critical areas. You should avoid them. Don’t be lured by a low price, don’t be a price shopper.

above: Ray Wiebe’s (Vancouver, British Columbia) Royal Blue Superformance drivin’ machine.

The coachwork. If all you know about the body is that it’s constructed of fiberglass, so far you know next to nothing about its quality of construction or its strength. Is it handlaid, “chopper-gunned,” or a combination of both. Most Cobra replicas are a combination of both, with the larger areas handlaid [for increased strength and for weight reduction, with such areas as the headlights chopper-gunned, due to the difficulty of handlaying such hard-to-access areas. You should also expect to see additional [carbon fiber, Kevlar®, Coremat™ or steel] structural reinforcement in such high-stress areas as the decks, doors and and body-to-chassis mounting points. Are the hood and trunk deck of flimsy, unlined construction, or are they made with an inner liner that enhances both the strength and the under-deck appearance? Is the resin a premium, heat-resistant vinylester variety, or a cheaper “general-purpose” variety? Heat resistance is critical over the engine area; it’s critical in sunbelt states; it’s critical if you plan to paint your car in a dark color that absorbs heat. It’s well worth your while to demand solid answers to these questions. All hinges and door-latch striker plates should mount into steel. Period. You don’t want these critical hardware items mounted into fiberglass. The various body panels should be smooth and ripple-free, and should fit together properly, with little retrofitting and bodywork required.

5. The Devil is in the details. Easily-overlooked items such as the wiring harness, the suspension and steering components, the gauges, the seats, even the nuts & bolts can return to haunt you. A high-quality wiring harness is well worth the premium price you must pay for it. Some low-buck Cobra manufacturers skimp on the wiring harness [or don’t provide you with one at all], but this cost savings does not equal a bargain, and indeed may not even result in a lower package price. Well-constructed seats are generally more durable and more comfortable; a poorly supported dashboard can result in cowl shake. The preferred windshield frame is made of high-quality, triple-chromed brass (not aluminum); brass is heavier and more durable, and worth your extra investment. Similarly, aesthetic authenticity can affect your enjoyment of your Cobra, and will definitely bear upon its resale value. How close to an original 427S/C (or 289FIA) is its overall appearance? Does the cockpit display the original-style dashboard, steering wheel, gauges and gauge layout, seats, carpet and tunnel? It may use an authentic-appearing steering column (such as the Ididit™ aftermarket unit), or it may employ a discordantly late-model GM or Mustang column, with the ignition switch on the column… thus canceling out your cost savings with a seismic jolt to authenticity and resale value. Does it look “menacing” just sitting there… does it display the correct stance, the correct… attitude?

Let’s face it: it’s entirely appropriate for this gunslinger of the motorways to have an attitude.

above: a striking portrait of this Rangoon Red reptile (Shelby CSX4753) in Camarillo, California. Photo by Curt Scott.

6. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If you get pressured to make a quick decision to purchase your Cobra based on “A special, once-in-a-lifetime deal that’s about to expire,” then bolt for the nearest exit. You seldom get added value for your dollar by pouncing upon “special deals.” This is the perfect time for you to disengage and phone another manufacturer and ask his opinion about ‘the special deal’ you just got offered.

7. Are you over six feet tall? The original Shelby Cobras, as well as the majority of replicas, have a wheelbase of only 90 adequate for under-six-footers, but starting to get a bit cramped for taller drivers. Some Cobra replicas engineer an extra few inches of legroom into their stock-90–wheelbase machine, while others stretch the chassis by a few inches in order to provide you with more legroom and easier entry/exit. Either approach is fine as long as it results in a car you’re comfortable driving. Just be sure that you actually get behind the wheel and drive each Cobra replica you’re considering, so that you can validate any manufacturer claims of ample legroom. It’s also a good idea for a taller driver to install a tilt steering column for easier entry/exit [the Ididit™ unit mentioned earlier offers an excellent “period-look” tilt column].

8. Ford live-axle (i.e., straight-axle) rear or IRS? Each type has its inherent advantages. For both high-performance driving and occupant comfort, a Jag/Salisbury, Corvette or T-bird IRS usually takes the honors. On the other hand, a good Ford 9 is inexpensive, robust and easy for you to service and repair. There are excellent Cobra replicas on the road with each type of rear-end architecture. More important to you than the issue of “IRS vs. live-axle” should be how each setup is engineered. I’ve examined and driven poorly-engineered IRS setups and well-engineered live-axle setups.

above: all decks open shot of Ed Gonzalez-Hernandez’ Guardsman Blue & Arctic White CSX4327.

What about the powerplant? Ford or Chevy, small-block or big-block. According to Dave Radtke, for resale purposes it’s almost unanimously Ford. Ditto SAAC and its affiliate chapters, which won’t even accept you into the fraternity if your car doesn’t boast a FoMoCo thruster. And, for 427-style Cobras at least, most buyers prefer big blocks… any of the “FE” (Ford-Edsel) engines from the 390 to the 428 Cobra Jet [for trivia buffs: the Ford-Edsel series encompassed a grand total of nine powerplants—the 332, 352, 360 truck, 361 Edsel, 390, 391 truck, 406, 427 and the 428].

On that note, both the venerable 390 and the 428 are capable performers, are widely available, and can power your 427S/C Cobra (“S/C” stands for “Street/Competition”) for a fraction of the wallet-busting outlay required for a 427 sideoiler V8. Little-known factoid: the 390 was the first of the throbbing big-blocks that Shelby stuffed into a Cobra [just as it was a 260 V8 that he first dropped into a ‘slabside’ Cobra in 1962]. If you’d like to install a small-block, but don’t want the “underhood incongruity” to weigh heavily on your car’s resale value, you might consider going with one of the increasingly-popular 289FIAs [“FIA” is an abbreviation for the Paris-based “Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile”], a Cobra originally designed for the Ford small-block V8, and today offered by several of the replica makers. There’s a hardcore contingent of Cobra aficionados who deem the nimble 289s (“slabsides”) and 289FIA “Competition Roadsters” to be the most exciting Cobras of all.

These guidelines should provide you with a respectable head start in becoming an informed Cobra shopper. Suffice to say that if you invest some time and research up front, you’ll wind up possessing the best Cobra reproduction for your dollar… and you’ll experience the visceral thrills of driving one truly spectacular sportscar.


Car Collector Magazine, 1998

Editor’s note (Car Collector, May, 1998): Curt has been writing about and photographing Cobras and Cobra replicas since the 1970s. His book, “The Complete Guide to Cobra Replicas,” currently in its 3rd Edition, is embraced as ‘The Bible of the Industry.’ You can reach him in California at 661-251-2223, or email him at:

… and Curt’s tip ‘o’ the racing visor: That dramatic “rapidly-approaching hammerhead shark” shot of Guardsman Blue/white stripes CSX4158 at the top of this page was skillfully captured by its owner Mark Reber (Bedford, New Hampshire) with his Canon 5D MkIII and his Canon 16–35mm L-grade lens.

**Ironically, that iconic .44-40 Winchester cartridge has a bullet diameter specification of .427″ yet another curious connection to the Shelby Cobra. Jeopardy buffs would want to know that… //:=)


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