Cobra Anniversary I – Luck Favors The Prepared

Restoration Shop Fully Engaged

Close to Home

My brother has the bones of a 289 AC Cobra (a real one) that was raced in England. It’s a COB-Chassis (Cobra of Britain – right hand drive) car whose sheet metal is only good for hanging on a wall as art, following some race prep butchery and a bad crash.

In the world of collector cars, that’s what you might call a minor inconvenience. As long as the chassis number plate is intact, and as long as you can front the money for the rebuild, the potential is there to recoup all expenses and make a profit if you sell. 

Southern California is the Birthplace of the Cobra, so as you might expect, we have a cottage industry for people like my brother. Most of his car is in Washington, near Puget Sound where he lives on his yacht Good Thunder, but he’s farming out some of the more specialized work down here. I picked him up at LAX the other day and we went to deliver 48.5 pounds (just under the Alaska Airlines 50 pound limit) of suspension parts for reconditioning and assembly.

Cobra Differential

Every part of the cars gets individual hand assembly by expert specialists. This is the rear differential and mounts for someone’s Cobra.

The Stampede

I had been to the shop before, but I was unprepared for the array of shapely aluminum in various stages of preparation, restoration, and detailing. There must have been a dozen.

Stacked Cobras Awaiting Attention

So many Cobra owners are anxious to get their cars ready for the Silver Celebration, that it seems they are stacked clear to the ceiling.

That’s because the first Cobras saw the light of day in 1962, and various events are gearing up to celebrate the silver anniversary of the marque this year. If you own a Cobra, this is your year to show it off, so the few shops around the country specializing in the type are loaded with cars, feverishly working toward deadlines that may include a class at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in August.

The Range

Cobra Chassis

Whether an original CSX or COB Cobra, a Kirkham recreation, or a scratch-built car, every Cobra that leaves this shop shares these bones – stout welded chassis tubes to handle the torque of a powerful race-tuned V8 and the cornering forces generated by fat racing tires.

There are Cobras, and there are Cobras, and sometimes it’s hard to discern what’s real and what’s a wannabe. I leave the legal stuff to the lawyers, but it seems to me that if Carroll Shelby himself signs a dashboard, that’s a pretty convincing argument for authenticity.

That’s what I thought when I saw a dazzling polished aluminum roadster in the process of having its drive train rebuilt after a clutch disaster. That’s how much I know. The chassis plate shows that this was one of the cars the magazines wrote about, a Kirkham Cobra, manufactured in a former aircraft plant in Poland – polished Polish!

Polished Kirkham with Insets 2

Polished Kirkham with Insets 2

The first car to smack our eyes on entering the shop was this dazzling 289 roadster in polished aluminum. The signature on the dash would lead you to believe that it’s a real original, but the chassis plate shows it’s a Kirkham Cobra, KMP241, made in Poland.

Then there are the coupes. Only six of these cars were built. One of these, Chassis number CSX2601, driven by Jo Schlesser and Bob Bondurant, won the GT class at Reims on the 4th of July, 1965, (You couldn’t make this stuff up!) defeating Ferrari and winning Shelby the World Manufacturer’s Championship for GT Cars.

In 2009, that same car sold at Auction in Monterey for a reported $7.25 million (including sellers fees). This kind of money sets the stage for imitators. There are numerous manufactures out there who will build you a copy, including “turnkey minus” (with just enough assembly unfinished to make them “kit cars” and circumvent safety and emissions regulations) cars from people like Superformance based in South Africa. But to get street cred (and acceptance in the Cobra fraternity) you need a real Shelby chassis with a CSX, COX (European Export Cobras – very rare and desirable) or COB chassis number. My brother at one time contemplated that scenario for his chassis, but relented.

I don’t know which kind it was I saw at this same shop last year, where I heard it fired up. It’s an unforgettable experience in close quarters, with open pipes and a race-tuned Cobra-spec Ford V8. This time there were three or four of one kind or another, in bare metal or primer, awaiting further assembly and finishing.

Continuation Cobra in Primer

“Continuation” Cobra – using a registered Shelby chassis number not previously built? Or is it one built on a real CSX or COB chassis? I don’t know, but if you see one you likely won’t either. The way this shop builds them, only a Shelby expert could tell the difference.

Cobras in 3 stages of completion

Three Cobra Roadsters in different stages of completion.

The Real McCoy

The Daytonas and Kirkhams are the minority in this shop, though. There were plenty of original Cobras being worked on and awaiting parts or spray booth time. The real gems are the historic cars, and there were a couple that were just spectacular in both execution and history.

CSX2003 awaiting reassembly

CSX2003, as you might guess from the number, is the third Cobra built. As such it was used for training drivers and mechanics, accounting for the “T” rather than a racing number. It’s about to move into the main shop where assembly will continue.


My sources say Shelby built only 25 427 “Comp” or “Competition” Cobras, fitted with the “side-oiler” (oil delivered to the crank first and then to the valve train) 485 horsepower 427 cubic inch V8. Many more were built using a more “domesticated” 428 engine. However many there were, this is CSX3005, the fifth Comp built as indicated by the chassis plate. Door and trunk panels for CSX2003 hang on the wall awaiting installation.

It’s a fascinating experience, seeing a bare chassis next to a completed car, contemplating the innumerable steps and patient, painstaking skilled work it will take to turn the former into the latter. To look forward to this summer when we may see hundereds of them, polished and pampered on the grass at some concours, I can hardly wait!


About carmacarcounselor

I'm one of those people that friends call "that car guy," except I've made it into a profession. Since 1988 when a friend found my help in choosing, finding, and negotiating for a new car was worth a fee, I've helped countless people, listening to their car questions and challenges, and helping with their car purchases, insulating them from the adversarial process that is the new car retail model today. Their word of mouth is my only publicity. My newsletter CARMA won the description "The clear crystal ring of truth" from award-winning automotive journalist Denise McCluggage. Now I'm going global!
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