Like you, I'm crazy about cars. I hope here I can share a few unknown models with you. If you know of others, please share in the comments.
Key's over there on the left, behind the wheel. Neutral? Waggle to to make sure. Ready? Contact
"No. It emphatically has not exploded. Those great rolling swells of noise, like the unrelenting Galveston surf, are what it’s supposed to sound like . . . . And the vibration . . . . Just sitting here at idle, the fenders are rocking maybe two full inches up and down in time with the engine . . . . You’re rocking back and forth in time with the engine . . . You can feel the motor right in behind your sternum – throb throb throb throb throb."
— Rich Taylor, on starting the Shelby Cobra 427
20 Great American Cars
In this article we discuss twenty cars built by American entrepreneurs and eccentrics in pursuit of the fast and loud, with plenty of cross-fertilization from companies abroad.
- Cobra 289
- Cobra Daytona
- Cobra 427
- Shelby Mustang
- Corvette Sting Ray
- DeTomaso Pantera
- Devin SS
- Edwards America
- Sunbeam Tiger
Stanley "Wacky" Arnolt 11 was a huge man who made himself even bigger by only ever wearing Texas Stetson hats and high-heeled boots. In World War II he won some big government contracts by making his Arnolt marine engines. By 1950 he was the biggest industrialist in Indiana and had factories all over the country.
He had a passion for cars, so he became the largest BMC importer in the Midwest. In 1952 Wacky attended the Turin motor show. He was drawn to the Bertone stand where Bertone was displaying a coupe and a cabriolet. Unbeknown to Wacky, Nuccio Bertone was suffering a huge postwar lull, and was just days away from bankruptcy. Wacky loved what he saw and marched right up to Bertone and said he’d like a hundred of each. Bertone literally fainted and had to be carried from the show. Bertone’s cars were based on MG-TD’s. Wacky went straight to Abingdon and got them to send the MG-TD chassis and running gear straight to Bertone. The only feature they retained was the MG grill. Bertone then made a body around them that wasn’t unlike a small Ferrari. A classic American sports car.
Being MG powered, these cars weren’t quick but they looked great. Wacky put a price of $3195 on them, which was $1000 more than an MG roadster at the time, and sold all that Bertone could make – that was 100 of them.
Inspired by this success, Wacky next headed to Bristol in 1953. Bristol were making some nice cars at this time. But they were building a really nice 6-cylinder engine that was designed for the BMW328 before the war. You could coax a lot of horsepower out of this motor, in fact 150 hp, but one problem it had was that it was very tall. Wacky took the whole car to Bertone who threw the body away and came up with something totally glorious.
It was a stunning example of how Bertone was able to create a beautiful body around a very tall engine. Wacky produced it as a street car, but before long amateur racers were powering them around tracks. It wasn’t long before Wacky had a factory team, and in 1955 and 1956 they finished first, second, and fourth at the Sebring 12-hour in the 2-liter class.
Wacky went on to make 130 of these right up until 1964, completely unchanged from the first. Incredibly, Wacky was able to buy the chassis from Bristol, ship them to Bertone who then made and assembled the bodies for them, then ship them to Chicago and he could still sell them for a profit at less than half what Bristol was charging for their cars in England. Wacky was charging $4250 and the Bristol 404 was $9900.
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Bob Carnes was sure, just like everybody else in the late 50’s, that if he built a nice looking roadster people would beat a path to his door. They didn’t do that until he built the Bocar XP-5, having failed with the XP-1, -2, -3, and -4. One of the first US made sports cars.
Everyone was out to beat Lance Reventlow in the outstanding Scarab. But few could match Reventlow’s deep pockets.
The XP-5 was very close in performance but lacked the balance and sophistication of the Scarab. It actually went like hell; up to 175 mph, and through the quarter mile at 112mph. They were powered by Corvette or Pontiac engines. They were only 34 inches tall and you could have a choice of radio, heater, hardtop and seven different suspension set-ups. They ranged in cost up to $11,000.
Impressively, Carnes sold about 15 of these classic US sports cars. He would have sold more but had a fire in his workshop in 1962 that destroyed a complete car along with two chassis. He went on to make a single XP-6 with a huge GMC supercharger, giving close to 400 hp. He then built a naturally aspirated XP-7 and three XP-7R’s. These cars wore a sleek racing body and were all supercharged.
Nobody’s too sure how many still survive. But the earliest car, the X-1, is in the hands of a Texan doctor; the X-2, X-3, and X-4 are still to be located. Only one XP-5 is known to exist, but I’m sure there must be others out there, and all three Stilettos survive.
Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes were responsible for Lance Reventlow’s Scarab project. They were brilliant at hot rod sports cars like this but out of their class when Reventlow took them to Europe to compete for the season in a Scarab F1. At years end when the writing was on the wall that Reventlow was so despondent about their F1 results, they knew that for 1961 they’d have to find a new job. By chance at a Riverside meeting they met up with Jim Hall. Hall said he’d bankroll them into a Scarab-type project, but this time they’d be selling the cars.
As Hall was from Texas, he called the car the Chaparral after the Texan road bird. They designed a very sophisticated chassis after their experience with the Scarab and fitted a bored-out Corvette engine of 318 cu inches and 325 hp. This was mounted right in the middle of the chassis, and the driver sat so well back that the driveshaft was only a foot long. Like the Scarab, the body was built in hand-beaten aluminum, and the whole car weighed 1700 lbs, 300 lbs less than the Scarab.
The Chapparals were only moderately successful, probably because others were catching up with mid-engined technology. They built about six of them and all were sold for a healthy $16,000 each.
Bill Thomas was Mr Chevrolet. He knew everything Chevy and became the go-to guy for them. He had a workshop out of Disneyland, California and did things like stuff Corvette V8’s into the back ends of Corvairs. What he really wanted to do, though, was be the Carroll Shelby to Chevrolet that Shelby was to Ford with the Cobra.
But Chevrolet didn’t want to know. So Thomas decided to go it alone and build the Cheetah to take on the all-devouring Cobras. He was right. They could blow the socks off a Cobra. So he set to build 100 of them for homologation for 1964, but only got to 16 of these classic us sports cars before the money dried up.
The engine was planted so far back that, with the driver, 55% of the balance sat over the rear wheels. Also the engine was so far back that the 4-speed transmission was bolted up to the differential not by a driveshaft but by a U-joint. Most suspension parts were taken from the Sting Ray parts bin. The rear suspension which was all independent anyway was all Sting Ray except he changed the leaf springs over for coils. He built his own very strong tubular chassis for it and the whole thing even with a 400 cu inch; the 400-hp engine weighed only 1500 lbs.
The very mean little body was either made in aluminum, for the first ones, or fiberglass and sat on a 90-inch wheelbase. The brakes were from Chevrolet NASCARs so stopping a 1500-lb. car was quick and easy, as they were good on a 4000-lb NASCAR too. Massive magnesium wheels and tires completed the package. Thomas sold them for a fairly respectable $10,000. Today all sixteen survive.
5. Cobra 289
Carroll Shelby, a failed chicken farmer and dump truck operator from East Texas, is the hero of this story. He became a highly paid racecar driver and did remarkably well on both sides of the Atlantic, driving sports cars. He helped Aston Martin in 1959 win the manufacturers championship and he also won Le Mans with Roy Salvadori, but in 1960 he retired with some heart trouble.
He already owned a Goodyear racing tire dealership for the West Coast and a race driver school.
Shelby had heard that Bristol were no longer going to supply engines for the absolutely drop-dead gorgeous AC Ace, and he had an idea spinning round in his head that that little car would be perfect for Ford’s brand new 221 cu-inch V8. So Shelby called Dave Evans at Ford with a line that he was a rich Texas oilman and briefly told him the story of matching the AC with the new Ford V8. Within two weeks they delivered two shiny new V8s to Shelby in Los Angeles.
Shelby then shipped the engines to AC in Thames, England and had them shoehorn the V8 into the AC. The AC was a beautifully built, very well-balanced sports car, but had been underpowered with 2-liter engines its whole life, despite a breather it got with the 2.6 liter Ford Zephyr engine for a very brief time. But they found was that not only was the V8 lighter than all the other engines, it was smaller too, so they didn’t have to shoehorn it in at all; it was just a neat fit.
So Dave Evans backed Shelby with Ford money. Four months after that first contact with Evans, Shelby was testing the first AC prototype and it became part of Ford’s New York auto show exhibition. Lee Iacocca had just replaced Bob McNamara as head of Ford in late 1960 and luckily for Shelby he loved motor racing and saw it as a huge part of car marketing, unlike the other manufacturers. And Shelby unlike all other mad keen sports car manufacturers at this time actually secured a deal with finance from a major manufacturer. As soon as he’d signed the deal with Ford he employed Peter Brock, who was an assistant on the Corvette project and Phil Remington who had done such a great job on the Scarab and they started building Cobras at Lance Reventlow’s old workshop in Venice, California that had been the home of the Scarabs.
They finished homologation by building the required 100 Cobra’s by December 1962. By the time production started Ford had released the 260 cu-inch engine so these were used in this first run instead of the 221 cu-inch in the two prototypes. This pushed out 164hp compared to the 143hp of the 221 cu-inch. But almost as soon as Ford had released the 260 they started on the famous 289 cu-inch. So by the time Shelby had got to car number 76, the next cars appeared with the 289. This was the high performance version 271-hp version. The Cobra’s sold for $5995. The Corvette was $2000 less but incredibly you could have an AC anemic Bristol powered car for $5775, so the V8s sure were a bargain compared to what AC were actually offering.
Curiously though. the entire Shelby operation, which included both the 289 and 427 Cobras and the Shelby Mustangs from 1961 through to 1968 although completely funded by Ford, never turned a profit. But Iacocca just put this loss down to a very cheap marketing exercise that reaped rewards for Ford on the racetrack and the youth market.
This period in Ford’s life gave them a huge involvement as subcontractors in motor racing. In England they were supplying Ford engines to Lotus who turned them into twin cams and returned them to Ford for their Lotus Cortinas and Lotus-powered Ford Escorts. From 1967 right through to 1983, the engine of choice for F1 was the 3-liter Ford V8, 4 valves per cylinder Cosworth DFV engine that won 10 F1 championships.
Pete Brock was joined by the Englishman Ken Miles who was behind the design of the Scarab and they concentrated on the Cobra’s race program. Although the standard 289 was putting out 271 hp, you could opt it out with stuff like quadruple Weber carburetors that would ring it out to 370 hp for the race version. All manner of diff’s were available depending on what you wanted to do with it. A 2.72 ratio could propel you up to a theoretical 180 mph if you had the horsepower. But with the standard diff a Cobra was good for 150 mph. If you know anything about these very classic American cars, it's that these Cobra's are now worth millions.
6. Cobra Daytona
In 1964 Pete Brock designed the quite beautiful Daytona Coupe with aluminum body and Kamm tail. Through its aerodynamics it added 25 mph top speed to the roadster's top speed. The Coupe was designed for the 289 cu inch. It first appeared at Daytona and became the Daytona coupe from that day. Only six were built, but they spurred thousands of imitations around the world, as did the AC-bodied Cobra.
Production of the AC Cobra finished in May 1965 in Britain, although the English company made their own 289 until 1968. These were called AC 289’s. Two hundred were manufactured, so the entire run combined with the Shelby examples in 289 form, was 855.
I show this because this was the very first prototype made: Chassis CSX2287. It was the only Daytona made at the Shelby workshop by Peter Brock, at Venice, California. The other five made were bodied in Italy. This car was only recently found; we have very few details except it was recovered in Southern California and was once owned by Phil Spector. This Daytona is the first car to be recognized by the Library of Congress as a National Treasure.
7. Cobra 427: "Too Much Car for Almost Anybody"
I’m going to give you with Rich Taylor’s description of the Cobra 427 that he wrote in 1978 because I’ve never found anyone anywhere to beat this: Let Rich take you for a drive…
Shelby’s Cobra 427 is the quintessential American sports car for the quite simple reason that it is nothing more than a lightweight set of wheels upon which to set a great hulking V8 engine.
The whole car, in a very real sense, is merely an engine accessory, no more important than a spark plug. Driving a Cobra 427 is the closest it is possible to come in this life to riding bareback aboard a thundering V8 engine, and it’s not something you forget too quickly.
More brilliance from Rich Taylor, on the Shelby Cobra 427:
The Cobra looks like a car. Bright green, green and shiny in the soft green summer light, like a fire department hose truck on a hazy Saturday morning when they’re washing it down. And it’s startlingly small. Honest to God, the damn thing is within an inch or so in every dimension of being a Volkswagen Rabbit. Got this? This is a 2,100 lb. VW Rabbit carrying somewhere over 500 horsepower. Gives you pause, doesn’t it? That’s only 4 pounds per horsepower for those of you who weren’t keeping count.
This, then, is some different car than a goddamn Rabbit. Those huge mag wheels, for one thing. Real knock off hubs too. And the tires. Car outa handle, with incredible rubber like that on the road. Jeezus. This thing looks mean, no matter where you look at it from. Sort of scary too – like it would just as soon take a munch out of your leg as it sits there. Just kind of eyes you, quiet like. But you can see the muscles tensing under that smooth skin if you get too close. Mean. Don’t lean on it. It’ll probably bite your arm off at the elbow if you get too close.
Door handle’s on the inside. Careful, don’t startle it. Slide your right leg in first, snake it under the wheel, then…plop. No room for your knees, right? Driving position reminds me of a pre war Alfa. Wood rimmed wheel right up near your chin, hip hugger bucket seat that fits only if you take your wallet out. Pedals too close. And that long green hood stretching – grasping – out front.
The top of the windshield cuts right across your line of vision, so you sit up extra tall and look over the glass. Christ. Can’t see a damn thing.
What’s this? The tunnel is big enough to hold a driveshaft carved out of a telephone pole, and that curving gear lever has all the heft of a Louisville Slugger. The Cobra is not a, ahhh….dainty car. You know the minute you clamber in, it’s going to take some muscle to move that shift bat from notch to notch, and the steering’s going to take two hands. No showing off. Even the clutch pedal might take two feet, and God only knows about the brake. Anyway you get yourself all nicely slotted in for a long spell. Survey that double row of white on black Stewart-Warner gauges – the very best. Kind of aircraft. You know? Key’s over there on the left, behind the wheel. Neutral? Waggle to make sure. Ready? Contact.
Holy mother of God! Sheeut. No. It emphatically has not exploded. Those great rolling swells of noise, like the unrelenting Galveston surf, are what it’s supposed to sound like. What? I can’t hear you. What? It’s okay. Oh. And the vibration. Honest, this is no exaggeration. Just sitting here at idle, the fenders are rocking maybe two full inches up and down in time with the engine. Hell, the whole car is rocking back and forth on the suspension like a crazy thing. You’re rocking back and forth in time with the engine. That big 427 just sits there and throbs, right in cadence with your heartbeat, like a Double-A-Fueler. You can feel the motor right in behind your sternum – throb throb throb throb throb. Jeezus.
Lock your knee onto the clutch. Jam the old Roger Maris signature model into first. Eeaasee down on that throttle, gently up on the clutch and throb throb throb throb off we go in a faint squeal of tire smoke, just the slightest twist sideways. And that’s with no gas at all. Run it up to two grand in first. Get it all pointed nice and straight down the highway. All lined up. Now. Hold on tight, tense your back muscles and…. Floor this sumbitch. Yaaahoo! Shiiift. Ecstasy. You can’t hear anything, and the vibrations so bad you can’t see much, and your eyes are pouring out tears past your ears, and the winds whistling, and your goddamn knuckles are clenched so tight the wheel’s gonna crush in your hands. That pounding V8 plays up and up and up on the little nerves in the ends of your fingers and toes, and your pucker string is wound up so tight you won’t be able to crap for a week. Jeezus.
The blood’s all up in the back of your head, and your eyes are seeing little red dots swimming around like baby amoebas on your corneas and throb throb throb throb your blood is charging through your body like gas in a neon sign, maybe 5000 volts. Hell if it were dark out, you’d be goddamn lit up. Hooha. The trees are streaking by into a tight green tunnel with a black ribbon, yellow dots streaking under your ass. Hooha.
Your neck is already stiff from fighting the wind and the damn engine is just goin’ on and on. This incredible, painful tortuous, wonderful envelope of noise. Somewhere up around 160, it starts to feel a little wound up tight; a hard metallic clamor that seems like it would have to shatter something. Your eardrums maybe. The glass on the instruments. Hell, the damn windshield.
Enough is enough. Take your foot off the gas and let it roll. The bark from those big pipes comes sucking back in, crashing and booming. Touch, just toooouch the brakes. And whomph. Like running into a gigantic pillow. This huge Claes Oldenburg soft sculpture of a pillow comes down across the road, ten-foot high lipstick stain on the corner, and you run right into it. Whomph. And there you are, feeling kinda foolish, sitting in the middle of the highway, perfectly still, with only the incessant throb throb throb throb battering its way through your senses. The key. KEY. Silence. Jeezus. This is it.
A 427 Cobra is the most incredible experience in the whole damn world of automobiles. There are a few – damn few – racing cars that will accelerate faster. Turbo Porsche 917s, Can Am McLarens, top fuel dragsters and funny cars. But when it comes to street cars, this is it. This is the ultimate. Listen to the numbers. A Jaguar XK-120 – the hot car of the early 1950’s would do 1-100mph in 25 seconds. A Ferrari 275GTB/4 will do it in 15 seconds. A good – now I mean a really sharp fuel injected Corvette from 1964 onwards will go from 0-100 in 14 seconds. Which is very, very quick. I promise you, too fast for most people to handle.
No listen very carefully.
A decent 427 Cobra – not the best – not the worst – a decent 427 Cobra will go from 0-100mph and back down again to 0 in less than 14 seconds. Think about it. A 427 Cobra will do 0-100 in less than 9 seconds. And 100 to 0 in less than 5 seconds. Consistently, time after time. Hell, all day and all night. While that goddamn Ferrari is still struggling to get to 100, the Cobra will be sitting perfectly still, pipes crackling and brakes sizzling, having already been up to 100 and back down again.
The 427 is the Ultimate. But what a handful. Even though the leaf spring suspension was switched to coils and the frame was beefed up, most of the dimensions from the smaller Cobra – hell- from the AC Ace---from the 1953 Tojeiro-Bristol, really –remain, including the embarrassingly short 90 inch wheelbase. So a 427 Cobra will swap ends, and sides and middles and fronts for that matter, faster then anything.
This is not to imply that a 427 Cobra doesn’t handle. There is so much rubber on the road that you can go whipping around high speed corners so fast that your spleen will end up in the passenger seat, and if you’re really good – I mean really good – the 427 Cobra is faster, point to point, than virtually anything else on the road. Period. Its ultimate limits are much higher than those on the smaller 289, and it will go, and go and go and go some more, till you just can’t believe you’re still on the road, whistling through a 90mph corner at 140. However, and that’s a big however, if you don’t know what you’re doing, the Cobra will turn around and bite you faster than you can scream for help. Like a canny dog, it senses whether or not you are in command, and if you’re not – watch out. Once it starts to go, there’s no catching it. No gradual falling off, no reassuring understeer, just ….nothing. And there you are upside down in a pine tree. The Cobra 427 is not a car for the inexpert or the intemperate. It emphatically does not suffer fools.
So you end up with a tremendously ironic contradiction. The 427 Cobra is the quickest car you can buy. In first gear alone, it’ll easily break the speed limit and half again. But there’s almost nobody around who’s good enough to really push it. I only know one 427 Cobra owner who had the balls to drive the thing on the street anywhere near its limit on a regular basis, and he just got out of a Westchester hospital after a year of plastic surgery to give him back a nose, cheekbones and a jaw. When you hit something hard at 160, a Cobra 427 doesn’t offer many places to hide.
Personally, I can’t imagine racing one.
Just acceleration in a straight line overtaxes the limit of most drivers’ reflexes. Corners are much too much even to think about. The combination of 200mph in a chassis that’s basically engineered for about 90mph tops is not for me. I would not want to open one up in anger, thank you. The Cobra 427 is a damn brute is what it is, and too much car for almost anybody.