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Main | Almost Ferraris »
Friday
Apr282017

Cobra vs. Corvette

By William G. Sawyer, Editor at Large

All photos © Legendary Motorcar Company, 2017

The intense focus on Carroll Shelby’s rivalry with Enzo Ferrari often takes attention away from his role in the century-old feud between Ford and Chevrolet. At the time Ferrari’s annual production numbered in the hundreds, and in today’s baffling politically-correct atmosphere, Ford’s aggression against the much smaller Italian team might be termed bullying. The war between Ford and Chevy was a better match, although one could argue that Chevy fought with one arm tied behind its back due to upper management’s stubborn adherence to the Automobile Manufacturers Association’s (AMA) racing ban.

GM’s Zora Arkus-Duntov’s frustration level must have been palpable considering the immense engineering talent at his disposal. Glimpses of Chevy’s potential appeared through corporate show cars with obvious performance potential, and engineering innovations released through ‘independent’ teams like Penske, Chaparral, and a myriad NASCAR entrants. Porcupine head V8s, automatic transaxles, and stunning aerodynamic advances appeared in the pit stalls of teams with largely volunteer staffs operating out of humble facilities. Few believed those teams were solely responsible for engineering racers that ran like scalded impalas straight out of the box. The Ford faithful claim Chevy showed all their cards, but hid in the shadows out of cowardice, while the Bowtie boys argue Ford hid behind Shelby American, All American Racers, and others in case things went wrong — as they often did. Ford won but one Can Am race (under AAR’s banner) while Chevy-powered racers dominated the series. Ford made up for that (and more) by winning the World Manufacturers Cup, not to mention outright victories at Le Mans from 1966-1969.

In this issue, Virtual Collection considers the 289 Cobra and C2 Corvette as applicants for our simulated museum. As always, we concentrate on examples offered for sale through dealers or auctions. We have no connection with the vendors, other than frequenting their websites and drooling over their offerings, as we suspect you do as well. Legendary Motorcars’ stunning array of Cobras and C2 Corvettes is this issue’s source of inspiration, nearly all of which deserve a place of honor in our Virtual Collection.

Let the latest battle in the Cobra/Corvette War commence.

Shelby 289 Cobra

The Legend of Carroll Shelby is too familiar to recap in detail. If you don’t already know most of the story, you probably wandered here by mistake. Shelby and his Cobra literally set the world on fire, creating a cult following that has yet to be equaled. Shelby the man was a flawed individual who transformed racing success and a snake charmer’s talent for showmanship into a Swingin’ Sixties phenomenon that rivaled The Beatles, although one could argue Shelby’s fame outlasted the Fab Four’s. I recall standing in an autograph line at Greenfield Village during Ford Racing’s Centennial celebration. Don Nicholson, Jackie Stewart, Dan Gurney, and Shelby sat side by side accommodating fans. Behind my young son and I were several men in their forties gushing over “The Great Carroll Shelby” and his accomplishments, oblivious to the fact that all of the racing stars were gracious except one. Shelby was cantankerous and rude, but that didn’t faze the idolaters behind us in line.  It reminded me of a cocktail party I attended during the Greater Greensboro Open a few years earlier. Leslie Nielsen, celebrated performer and prankster, amused us by acting rudely toward fawning females who refused to acknowledge that the object of their affection was farting up a storm. Nielsen wasn’t really passing gas. He had a device in his pants pocket that produced a realistic flatulence sound whenever he squeezed it. The women only saw the Hollywood image before them, and ignored the reality of Nielsen’s ‘flaws’ — just as Nielsen predicted they would. But while he used this trait to prove a point, Shelby’s rudeness was all-too real.

The Texan’s rise was the result of circumstances that arose over decades. The confluence of Southern California hot rodding, the growing practice of stuffing American V8 power into European chassis, Lee Iacocca’s desire to promote Ford performance, and the demise of Lance Reventlow’s Scarab team (providing a ready-made group of experienced racers and Shelby American’s first real headquarters) created a perfect storm that engulfed the automotive world. Which shouldn’t be taken as a condemnation of Shelby’s accomplishments. He took an antiquated British AC Cars chassis, crammed a V8 between the frame rails, and beat the Europeans at their own game. It’s an accomplishment many unsuccessfully tried to emulate.

The initial Cobra prototype was built and tested in England using a 221 cu. in. engine, the first iteration of Ford's new lightweight V8. Once the car arrived at Dean Moon’s shop in Santa Fe Springs, California (where Shelby American camped out for four months before taking over Reventlow’s facility in Venice) the engine was replaced with a Ford 260. Seventy-five cars were built using that powerplant (62 street cars and 13 competition versions) prior to upgrading to the Ford 289 for the final 579 small block Cobras built in various street, race, and export configurations.

Legendary Motorcar Co. has a pair of small block Cobras for sales. Our favorite is a red one that retailed for $5746.25 in 1964 —approximately $45,000 today — including $4.20 for an outside rear view mirror and $3.55 for antifreeze. It’s configured the way many street cars were delivered back in the day, with wire wheels, white walls, and wind wings. The hood scoops, paperclip-style roll bars, and side exhaust many subsequent owners felt compelled to add are thankfully absent, making this a clean and original Cobra. 

Corvette Sting Ray

William “Bill” Mitchell lived a charmed life. The son of a Buick dealer, his first job after art school was as an illustrator at Barron Collier Advertising where he met the Collier brothers — Barron Jr., Miles, and Sam — who were instrumental in popularizing sports car racing in the United States as founders of the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) — forerunner of the Sports Car Club of America. Mitchell worked at Collier Advertising by day illustrating ads for MG cars and other clients, and became the official illustrator of ARCA. His drawings attracted the attention of Harley Earl, founder and head of GM’s Art and Colour Section, who recruited Mitchell to join GM’s growing design department. Once racing’s in your blood it rarely leaves, and Mitchell was no exception. He and cohort Zora Arkus-Duntov, known as the Father of the Corvette even though he came to the party after the car was launched, collaborated on the Corvette XP-87 racer. The design is credited to the team of Mitchell, Pete Brock (later of Shelby American), and Larry Shinoda. The prototype, which was built “to test handling ease and performance”, found its way onto the racetrack where, entered and financed by Mitchell, it finished fourth in its first race. In reality, it was the Corvette SS race car that had flopped so spectacularly at the 1957 running of the Sebring 12 Hours re-bodied with a design that, at the time and per GM corporate dictate, hid its Corvette identity. After taking class championships in 1959 and 1960 with Dr. Dick Thompson at the wheel, the car was retired, detuned, and fitted with a full-size windshield and a passenger seat. XP-87 found its way into Mitchell’s garage where it served as his weekend ride escaping his grasp long enough to appear in Elvis Presley’s 1967 film Clambake.

Even though the body design produced  prodigious front end lift (alleviated by large hood vents on the Sting Ray racer, the design inspiration for the 1963-1967 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray, known by enthusiasts as the C2, or second generation Corvette was the XP-87. Duntov fashioned an independent rear suspension that included a differential mounted to the frame with U-jointed half shafts joined together by a transverse leaf spring. The innovative rear suspension reduced unsprung weight, improved tire adhesion, and reduced ride harshness. (A version of the design was used on the 1965-1969 Corvair to eliminate the handling ills of the first generation car’s swing axle design.) Initially the Sting Ray (two words at the time) was powered by any one of four 327 cu. in. engines ranging in power from 250 hp on up to a fuel-injected 360 hp. Later in its production life, the C2 was available with big block 396 and 427 powerplants.

First year C2s featured a controversial split rear window that hampered vision but looked spectacular. In 1964 Chevrolet removed the center bar from the rear window area. Some owners of split window Corvettes modified their cars to accept the improved window design, increasing visibility but hurting resale value down the road.

The C2 Corvette was light years ahead of the Shelby Cobra in sophistication and luxury, but those attributes proved detrimental on the track where reputations are made. A 1,000 pound weight differential meant the Cobra had a power-to-weight ratio of 7.45:1 versus 8.4 lb. per horsepower for the Sting Ray. According to a 1963 comparison test in Road & Track the Cobra ran the standing-start quarter mile in 13.8 seconds at 113 mph, while the Corvette covered the distance a full second slower and didn’t quite reach 100 mph. Acceleration isn’t the only measure of success on a road course, but the Cobra, despite a suspension and chassis designed a full decade earlier, embarrassed Corvettes thanks to superior acceleration, lighter weight, reduced frontal area, and a top speed about 10 mph higher.

A red faced Zora Arkus-Duntov had enough of the upstart from California. He and a group of associates started a sub-rosa effort to usurp the Cobra’s title once and for all. They launched a plan to build 125 Corvettes called Grand Sports that weighed only 1900 lbs.— a 1350 lb. reduction from the street car — and were powered by 377 cu. in. engines. The plan was to debut the cars at Le Mans, where a 125 unit minimum build qualified the Grand Sport as a GT production car under FIA rules. After only 5 Grand Sport Corvettes were built, the gray-haired iconoclasts in GMs upper management got wind of the project and shut it down, ending Arkus-Duntov’s dream of beating the Cobras on the international stage.

The completed cars — two roadsters and three coupes — somehow found their way into private hands. The Grand Sports, now forced to run as prototypes against purpose-built race cars due to the halt in production, finished ahead of the Cobras and behind two prototypes at the year-end bacchanalian blow-out in Nassau in 1963, and won the Nassau Trophy outright the following year in Roger Penske’s hands.

Peter Klute and the folks at Legendary Motorcars have more C2 Corvettes in stock than many authorized Chevy dealers had on their lots back when the cars were new. We’re partial to an unrestored 1963 split window coupe with the 340 hp L76 327 engine. Owned by its original owner for 52 years, it’s resplendent in Sebring Silver paint and saddle brown leather, a non-standard color combo that resulted from a production snafu. Cars are only original once, so we’d keep this time-warp, numbers-matching relic exactly as it is.

And the Winner Is…

As much as I admire the C2 Corvette, the 289 Cobra is the hands down winner. Its rarity and racing pedigree far outweigh the Corvette’s superior dynamics and creature comforts. Had the Grand Sport plan worked it might be a different story, but we can’t award victory based on what might have been. Further proof lies in the fact that Legendary is asking from $69,000-$185,000 for their C2s while the Cobras on its site hover on either side of a million dollars each.

 

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