After dominating Corvettes in the 1963 domestic series, Carroll Shelby set his sights on Ferrari and winning the World Manufacturers’ Championship. This was easier said than done. Shelby’s Cobra roadsters excelled on the road courses in North America, but weren’t aerodynamic enough for the long straights and sweeping curves of the European circuits. A coupe version of the Cobra was needed to compete with the sleek World Champion Ferrari 250 GTOs.
Of all the projects undertaken at Shelby American, the creation of the Cobra Coupe was one of the most challenging. Starting in October 1963, the company had 90 days to design, engineer, build, and test the coupe prior to Daytona in February 1964.
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Peter Brock, one of Shelby’s first employees, led the project. He accomplished many things at Shelby American, but his crowning achievement was the design—from scratch—of the Cobra Coupe, working with Ken Miles, who reengineered the suspension. Testing proved Brock’s design, as the Coupe was almost 20 mph faster than the Cobra roadsters, plus it got 25 percent better fuel economy.
Shelby American: The First and Last American World Champion
The Cobra Coupe made a sensational debut at Daytona, and henceforth was known as the Cobra Daytona Coupe. Driven by Dave MacDonald and Bob Holbert, the car led the race and set numerous lap records until a freak pit fire sidelined it. A month later, the Cobra Daytona Coupe placed first in the GT Class and fourth overall at the Sebring 12 Hours of Endurance.
The Daytona Coupe was the class of the GT field.
After Sebring, the Daytona Coupe and roadsters were shipped to Europe to compete with Ferrari. At Spa, the rear end of the Daytona Coupe lifted at high speeds, so Phil Remington designed and fabricated a rear spoiler, the first ever for an American race car.
At the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Bob Bondurant/Dan Gurney Daytona Coupe finished first in class and fourth overall behind three prototypes. The Cobra was timed at an incredible 199 mph down the Mulsanne Straight.
In the World Championship events in Europe, the Shelby American team was primed to win the World Championship when Enzo Ferrari pulled a fast one by having the last race of the year at Monza, in his backyard, canceled. Without the race, Ferrari won the GT World Championship by a couple of points. When asked how he felt about the cancellation, Carroll Shelby remarked, “Next year, Ferrari’s ass is mine!”
The year 1965 would prove the year of total victory for the Cobras. The string began at the first race at Daytona, where the Daytona Coupe finished second overall and first in GT. At Sebring, the results were the same as the Daytona Coupe won the GT class and finished fourth overall.
In Europe, the Cobras wrapped up the World Manufacturers Championship on July 4, 1965. Shelby American became the first and last American manufacturer to win the World Championship.
The Ford GT Program: Shelby Takes on Ferrari, Again
The Ford GT Program was conceived after Ford Motor Company’s offer to buy Ferrari was rebuffed by Enzo Ferrari. Henry Ford II said, “If we can’t buy Ferrari, we will beat them.” That was no easy task, as Ferrari had years of international competition experience and always built the finest race cars.
In 1964, Ford gave the assignment of building and campaigning Ford GTs to Ford Advanced Vehicles in Great Britain. The cars did not win or even finish a race all year. With its corporate image on the line, Ford turned to Shelby American.
The two well-worn Ford GTs arrived at Shelby American in mid-December 1964, less than eight weeks before the start of the 1965 racing season at Daytona. With the arrival of the GTs, the face of Shelby American changed forever. Here was the pride of Ford Motor Company’s international racing effort, one that needed a complete rebirth. Already overloaded with race and production programs, the Venice facility bulged at the seams. “Adapt, improvise, and overcome” was the motto.
The Shelby crew totally reengineered the cars. Team manager Carroll Smith summed up the situation: “We were not afraid to cut, hack, and experiment. The English were.”
After an exhaustive two months of rebuilding, modifying, and testing, the cars were ready for Daytona. The finicky English overhead-cam engines had been replaced by competition-proven Ford 289s. The engine and brake cooling and the suspension were improved and updated to handle the new power. The cars were race-worthy, but the Daytona Continental would be the ultimate test. Sporting new Guardsman Blue paint with white racing stripes, both Ford GTs qualified well and the Ken Miles/Lloyd Ruby car won the race. In its first outing, Shelby American had developed the cars from losers into winners.
After winning the prototype class at Sebring, the Ford GTs went to Europe, where, after several races, it was decided that an additional 40-50 hp, a five-speed gearbox, and a lighter car were needed to be competitive with the Ferrari 330 P2. The result was the new Mark II, powered by a 427-cubic-inch Ford engine. With 485 hp, it was the most powerful engine ever run at Le Mans. Although the race results were less than satisfactory, Phil Hill reached a top speed of 213 mph, easily the fastest car ever seen on the circuit.
Ford GTs Go 1-2-3 At Le Mans in 1966
By February 1966, the Ford Mark II was a well-tested, very fast, and reliable race car. During the Daytona 24-hour race, the Fords reached 196 mph on the banking. The Ken Miles/Lloyd Ruby entry led the entire race, enabling the duo to win the event for the second year in a row. In March, the Miles/Ruby Mark II roadster won its second straight race on the brutally rough Sebring course. The next stop would be France and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Shelby American built five new Mark II prototypes for the assault on Le Mans. In addition to Shelby American, Fords were entered by Holman-Moody, Ford of France, Alan Mann, and Scuderia Filipinetti. But the main competition would come from the Ferrari 330 P3. Ford won the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans with the famously controversial 1-2-3 finish. The first two Mark IIs were Shelby American entries of Bruce McLaren/Chris Amon, with the Ken Miles/Denis Hulme car second. The Holman-Moody Mark II driven by Dick Hutcherson/Ronnie Bucknum was third. It was a supreme moment for the U.S. In just three years, Ford Motor Company, led by Shelby American, had won the world’s most prestigious endurance race in a convincing manner.
For the 1967 season, the Ford GTs were updated with more horsepower, plus aero and suspension modifications. For the second year in a row, Ford and Shelby American won Le Mans. This time, Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt drove their red Mark IV to victory, setting records for overall speed and distance traveled during the 24-hour race.
Once Shelby American took control of the Ford GT program, it was the only company to win races for Ford. Carroll Shelby had taken a major corporate embarrassment and turned it into a world-class racing effort.
Carroll Shelby, In His Own Words
“You will never see another program [like the one Ford created to win Le Mans]. Henry got us together in 1965: Ray Geddes, Leo Beebe, Don Frey, and I. Henry had put together name tags that said, ‘Ford Wins Le Mans in 1966.’ Well, you saw four people with dysentery from that.
“To win Le Mans was not that easy. I remember the Ford chief financial officer called me about three months into the program and said, ‘Carroll, we’ve spent $200 million on this program so far. I’m afraid it’s going to bankrupt the company.’ I said, ‘You better talk to Mr. Ford about that. He told us to win Le Mans.’ “
“I went racing 35 years ago, and won a world championship. We won national championships around 25 times. Driving, I won a national championship and Le Mans.