Because life is better when there’s a 7.0-litre V8 in front of you
What is it?
I’ll tell you what it’s not – an original Shelby Cobra. You probably guessed this already from the wheels, 18s rather than 15s. But it’s close. Made by Superformance, the only firm licensed by Carroll Shelby to build reproductions and new Shelby Cobras, they do two different versions: the MkIII and the Shelby Cobra CSX. The MkIII (the one featured here) is slightly more illegitimate, employing a box section ladder frame chassis, while the CSX features the same four-inch round tube construction as the original. That one gets to use a continuation of the original CSX chassis numbers, too.
Bit of history. It’s a can of worms, but it goes something like this. Carroll Shelby was a successful racing driver in the mid-1950s. Hillclimbs, Bonneville, a couple of seasons in F1 and victory at Le Mans in 1959 driving an Aston Martin DBR1. Legend has it that during the race he was struck by the speed of the AC Ace. A couple of years later, having retired from racing but wanting to build a race car of his own, he called AC and ordered an Ace, but with the steering box moved so the engine bay could accommodate a Ford V8. The chassis was sent from England, the engine (a Ford Windsor 221) from Detroit, and the first Cobra was created. It took just eight hours to build.
It, and the evolved Cobras that followed, were never particularly successful (racing at Sebring in 1964, driver Ken Miles nicknamed it ‘The Turd’), but that didn’t stop Carroll Shelby taking it ever further. The MkIII, with thicker diameter tubing and the 427 cubic inch (7.0-litre) Ford V8 was coil sprung all round, but missed homologation for the 1965 season. Intending to build 100 cars (the minimum number necessary), but only building 56, Shelby ended up detuning 31 for road use, wearing the S/C tag – semi-competition.
It’s that car that this one is referencing with its side exit pipes, single-roll hoop and ‘quick jack’ bars at either end. Under the hood sits a Roush-tuned Ford 427 sucking air through a Holley 4-barrel carb and blowing power past a five-speed manual to a rear axle containing a limited slip diff and absolutely nothing electronic to mitigate mistakes. It develops 520bhp and 515lb ft of torque at 3,700rpm – even more than the 485bhp it had back in the day. The Ferrari 365 GTB4 ‘Daytona’ had over 130bhp less.
The Cobra’s fame never came as a racing car. Instead, for 20 years, from 1965 until the Porsche 959 arrived, this was the world’s fastest accelerating road car. 60mph in four seconds, 100mph in, well, it’s all a bit lost in myth and legend, but somewhere in the nine second range, the quarter mile in 12. Carroll Shelby used to tape a $100 bill to the dash on test drives and tell punters they could have it if they could grab it.
An original is now a million quid and upwards. This replica retails for $94,535 – about £73,000. It’s fibreglass-bodied, but you can have it in original aluminium if you value authenticity.
What is it like on the road?
Never in the field of modern motoring has a smaller key unleashed a bigger noise. You grab the dainty little key between finger and thumb and twist, sparking not an engine, but some sort of localised volcanic eruption. And now you’re riding this on-going geological event, the whole car trembling and buzzing and shaking so hard you fear for the longevity of the engine mounts. It’s like Wreck-it-Ralph is punching each cylinder up and down, while someone underneath the car appears to be letting off a belt-fed shotgun.
Yes, everything you thought, read or heard about a 7.0-litre Cobra is true. Modern supercars aren’t like this. They yelp into life, maybe buzz noisily for a bit, but soon settle. But in this you’re sitting there amongst the mayhem, grinning inanely and feeling like this is all you’ve ever wanted and electric cars can just p*ss off and die.
It’s a deeply primal response. And now you’ve got to get it moving. This is very simple. Provided you can press the clutch. As long as you can do that (and summon up similar power for the unservoed brakes), you’ll be fine. Because you don’t need to apply any throttle, just ease up on the clutch and the engine does the rest. The gearlever moves way more precisely than I’d expected, slotting cleanly and mechanically around the gate. It likes a heel n’ toe to smooth the downchanges, and so do I because it’s a legit excuse to brrraaapp the throttle another time. So I do it on upshifts too. And when I pass under bridges, next to walls, or in the vicinity of anything that might bounce the sound around.
And yes, it still feels proper fast. It barely needs revs really. It might be lumpy low down, but that doesn’t stop it hauling hard on not much more than a whiff of throttle. Once it gets going airflow through the exhausts blends the gunshots together, the engine smooths out and from 3-5,000rpm it feels pretty bloody tremendous. It’s perfectly good above there too, but you’re aware of the engine having to work harder, of the speed the pistons are now travelling at, the thrashing becomes maybe a little too intense. Torque peaks at 3,700rpm and that’s where the 7.0-litre is happiest.
Probably in third or fourth gear. You shuttle up and down between them using the long lever, allowing each gear to give a burst of acceleration before trying the next one up. It’s not about getting the most from each gear, but about letting the car work where it’s happiest. And yes, it’ll cope with a twisty road – chiefly because it’s so stiffly suspended it doesn’t appear to roll at all, and it wears fat Nitto Extreme Drag tyres, 275-section at the front, 335s at the rear. Handling isn’t as tactile and informative as I expected, though I suspect that plumper, less grippy tyres and a more malleable chassis set-up would improve things.
It’s the filtering process that’s missing. You’re getting so much information as each wheel bounces and skips about, as the steering fights, as the engine thrusts and burps, that detecting the signals you do want is tricky. And it’s very physical of course. The unassisted steering requires you to swing it into tight corners with your shoulders, to lean with it like a pre-war Grand Prix driver, and that’s not conducive to delicacy and finesse. I drove it on the smooth roads of Arizona, but you get the feeling it’s not a car that would travel. Lurching, bucking B-roads in a Cobra? No thanks. And imagine if it rained…
It did in Arizona actually, forcing me to forget speed and instead sit back and just woofle about. And this is when the Cobra feels fabulous, when you have your arm resting on the doortop, looking out past the skinny-framed windscreen with its surprisingly effective tacked-on deflectors, out over the voluptuous bonnet and the priapic pulsating V8 beneath it, just soaking up the experience. Travelling fast in a Cobra is hard work. Slowing down and soaking it all in is plain epic.
On the inside
Layout, finish and space
First you have to get in, reaching over the door to flick the little catch with your fingers, before giving the (potentially hot) exhaust a suitably wide berth, sliding knee under steering wheel and backside into cupped chair. Not much to play with once you’re in, but lots to look at. The Smiths instruments, placed where they fit so that the water temperature gauge is what you see through the slender spokes of the steering wheel, are gorgeous; so too the bullet-shaped door mirror, the chrome, the goose-neck lap belt, the massively offset pedals, forced to the outside by the huge transmission tunnel.
All the controls operate with a meaty, yet precise action. There’s not even that much slop in the steering. If it rains you get wet. Yes, you can have a tonneau cover – even a full hood – but let’s just say the sealing around the panels and chassis isn’t impermeable. The boot’s big and there’s still room for a 17-gallon fuel tank. The fuel gauge, however, isn’t the most accurate, and the speedo needle flaps back and forth giving no more than a broad suggestion of your speed.
This is a car that brings the outside in. You’re aware of smells (not least pungent unburned hydrocarbons), sights and sounds, of being more involved with what’s going on outside the car. Which is chiefly the attention being directed your way.
Running costs and reliability
This is not a rational purchase, so owning advice is largely useless. Here’s something useful though. The fuel gauge can only have come from an old British sports car, because when it tells you you have quarter of a tank left, what it actually means is ‘the misfire will begin in ten seconds’. I ran out of fuel. I had assumed that even with a 7.0-litre engine doing the sucking, a 64-litre fuel tank would last more than 150 miles. It didn’t. I reckon that’s about 10.7mpg.
Because of the legality surrounding small run production in the US, you actually buy the chassis and engine separately. Here, the chassis costs $53,900 (£41,900), the 427 engine $17,500 (£13,600), the five-speed Tremec ‘box $2,495 (£1,940) and installation $8,500 (£6,600). This one lists with options at $94,535 (£73,000).
Final thoughts and pick of the range
It might not be an original Cobra, but let’s not hold that against it. The Superformance Cobra still delivers a very authentic driving experience. Which is to say that it’s flawed in many areas, showing just how far modern supercars have come in the last fifty years, but that you forgive all of that because this is also the antidote to the modern supercar. A 7.0-litre carburettored V8 has that effect.
And yes, that does make it hard to justify in a world now rapidly adopting an electric future, but if you want to get back to what made motoring great, why people just went for a drive for the hell of it, why speed doesn’t matter, then driving a Cobra, even a recreation, will show you.
Our choice from the range
This is the one we'd pick...