AC Shelby Cobra – 1961

One of the top 1960s sports cars, renowned for both speed and looks, the Cobra is a winning combination of lightweight British roadster and hefty high-torque American Ford V8 engine.

Whether you regard it as a British or an American car depends entirely on which side of the Atlantic your loyalty lies. Texan racing star Carroll Shelby certainly considered it his baby — he even declared that the name ‘Cobra’ had come to him in a dream, and after AC went bankrupt in 1967 he sued for rights and won acknowledgement that he was the maker of every Cobra in the USA, ‘even though they had indisputably been designed and partly built in AC’s Thames Ditton workshop.

The Cobra story starts in 1961. Shelby expressed interest in fitting a V8 engine into AC’s Ace competition roadster, which had hitherto been equipped with a straight six. A prototype was produced and the Cobra was born. The first 75 were fitted with a Ford 260 HiPo 4.2 litre engine while another 51 had the larger 289 (4.7 litre). At the end of 1962, Alan Turner, AC’s chief engineer, made major modifications and fitted new steering using a VW Beetle column.

About 530 of these Mark II versions were produced but they were outperformed on the race track and in 1965 the Mark III was designed to be powered by a whopping ‘side-oiler’ Ford 427 7 litre engine. AC sent some 300 rolling chassis to Shelby and at the same time produced a narrow-fendered AC 289 version for the European market.

The Cobra was almost too fast for its own good. Legend has it that racing driver Jack Sears reached 185 mph (298 km/h) on the M1 in 1964, supposedly a contributory factor in the government’s decision1 introduce speed limits on British roads.




1961 (unti11967)


4.2 l (260 cid); 4.7 I (289 cid); 7 l(427 cid) V8


Top speed of around 163 mph (262 km/h) in standard model and 180 mph (290 km/h) in competition model; 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 4.2 secs


In 2006, Carroll Shelby’s own Cobra sold at auction in Arizona for a record $5.5 million.



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