Q: Greg, when the late Carroll Shelby debuted his first batch of Cobras, can you tell us what really went on and how many he built through the last year of 1968? Also, please touch on the Corvette response to the Cobra if you will. Thanks much, Charles W., a car lover from New England.
A: Charles, I’d be more than happy to, and it’s a great Ford versus Chevy story.
Carroll Shelby’s drive and desire to build the ultimate “street” car that would beat the Zora Arkus-Duntov built Corvettes started when he made a deal with A.C. Cars in England to secure bodies for his soon to be born Ford AC Cobra. Here in the states we knew of the foreign AC car as an AC Bristol. Originally, it had an underpowered six-cylinder, but when Shelby received the cars, they were sans any power trains and ready for some real performance engineering.
Shelby’s initial Cobra came to life in 1962, where he dominated road racing by trouncing the “always winning” A/Production Corvettes in road racing events. Not to be outdone, Arkus-Duntov responded by building his Cobra destroyer, the 1963 Corvette Grand Sport, which was a lightweight ‘Vette with a special small block V-8 under the hood. Duntov built these highly sophisticated Grand Sports specifically to beat Shelby.
Thus, the race was on.
Although I never saw any Corvette Grand Sports on the road as they were race only, I did see several real Cobras back in the 1960s. I wouldn’t dare call one out back then with my ’67 GTX 440 or even my ’68 Camaro 396/375, as I knew of Cobra’s lightweight attributes and power availability.
Speaking of power, Shelby’s Cobra offered small block Fords in either 260 or 289 cubic inches with up to 306 horses or the thundering 427 side oiler V8, listed at 425 horses but putting out near 475. As for Duntov’s Grand Sport, a stroked 377-inch small block fed by four Weber side draft carbs developed 485 horses, more than enough to outpace the Shelby Cobras in the Governor’s race at Nassau in December of 1963.
Overall, only 654 small blocks and 350 or so big block AC style Cobras were ever built in those seven years of availability, and many were indeed for street use. Today, if you see a real Shelby AC Cobra cross the auction block at Mecum or Barrett-Jackson, you’re talking big money for sure.
In contrast, only five of Duntov’s Grand Sports were ever built, two of them converted to roadsters. These cars are priceless, and word has it GM wanted the cars destroyed along with the 1963 Daytona 500 427 Mystery Motor cars as the company was “officially out of racing” in 1963. Regardless of corporate edit, all five Grand Sports survived and exist in good hands today, two of them with Roger Penske.
Thanks for your question, and I hope you enjoyed the condensed Cobra and Grand Sport history lesson.
Greg Zyla writes weekly for GateHouse Media and welcomes reader questions on old cars at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.