Fordimages Archive: Cobra In The Pits

When Carroll Shelby silenced his critics by transforming a modest British sports car, the AC Ace, into a competitive race winner, he knew that despite the huge injection of power the newly installed Ford 4.7-litre V8 provided, his Shelby Cobra would soon be left behind by the opposition. Team driver and skilled mechanic Ken Miles had helped turn the Cobra into a winner so when Miles suggested a short-term up-grade by simply installing a much larger engine, Shelby listened. He provided Miles with an ex-race 289 Cobra and the British ex-pat set to work, somehow shoe-horning a 7-litre engine into the engine bay.

Fordimages Archive: Cobra In The Pits

The original Cobra could barely cope with the power of the 289 engine so the stresses of a 500bhp engine made for an interesting driving experience. Shelby entered three roadsters, one Daytona Coupe and the 427 Cobra for the world championship race at Sebring in Florida in March 1964. During practice, the 427 Cobra left the circuit and managed to hit the only tree in the area to the detriment of the front bodywork, suspension, chassis members and Ken Miles’ ribs. Never one to accept defeat, he ignored the pain and to the disbelief of the team, worked through the night to repair the damage; the car arrived on the grid the next day.

Shelby had not assigned a co-driver for Miles as he expected at least one of his cars to retire before he completed his alloted time at the wheel. However, when the time came all his cars were still circulating. During practice, Miles had taken out an insurance when he managed to persuade the organisers to grant an international licence to Shelby employee and would-be race driver,John Morton who was not part of the race team so had made his own way from California driving non-stop, four-up in a friend’s Karmann Ghia. Morton only had a club licence and he had never driven at Sebring but now Shelby had no option other than to put him into the evil-handling 427 ‘prototype’ while an exhausted Miles had a brief rest. Morton left the pits and was appalled by the car which was decidely quick in a straight line but “handled like a ‘49 Buick”. Despite several pit stops for repairs and fuel, he finished his stint and was happy to hand it back to Miles. Against expectations, the other team cars continued to circulate and by 7pm Morton was once again told to go out but to keep the revs down as the car was literally falling apart. He hoped his race had ended when the clutch failed but it was repaired and he was told to rejoin the race. Morton was delighted when a con-rod punched a hole in the engine block and the car finally expired.

The photograph shows the Shelby team 427 ‘prototype’ in the Sebring pits, having cold water poured over its over-heating brakes. In the backgound is Ken Milles (profile) while Morton stands to his left, crash helmet on and waiting to take over. The car was christened “The Turd” by the Shelby American team and it never raced again. It was clear that if the Cobra was to continue to compete, a big engine was essential but so was a new chassis.


These photographs by Dave Friedman are Copyright The Henry Ford Museums and are published by Fordimages under license.


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