Historic Muscle: Ian Ross’ 427 Shelby Cobra

Words: Craig Metros Photography: Luke Ray

I always look forward to the FUEL Coffee and Classics gatherings held in Port Melbourne. I most enjoy seeing the unexpected and unusual collection of vehicles that turn up. In the past, everything from ex-military vehicles, LA inspired low riders, to concours level restored classics have made an appearance. Just when you think every corner of motoring culture has been represented, something different appears and reminds us why we bothered to wake up early on a Saturday morning.

That was exactly the case at last March’s Coffee and Classics. It was mid-morning and a spectrum of vehicles had already arrived when a deep sounding V8 with an obvious un-restricted exhaust note roared into the middle of the gathering. It was a 427 Shelby Cobra finished in classic Shelby Guardsman metallic blue with white stripes and dark grey Halibrand knock-off wheels.

As the car slowed down, it was quickly signalled to parallel park in front of the FUEL stand. As the driver pulled himself out of the low slung cockpit, he quickly acknowledged the handful of people that were immediately drawn to the car. “It’s real” exclaimed the owner as a few more curious enthusiasts moved in for a closer look. After a brief appearance, the owner made his way back to the car where I was still admiring the lovely brutal machine. “Any chance you would be interested in FUEL doing a feature on your car?” I quickly asked as he was darting back to the drivers seat. “Yeah” he quipped. I wrote down his name and number before he departed as quickly as he arrived.

The owner, Ian Ross, knows his stuff about Carroll Shelby and the history regarding the legendary cars that Shelby produced. Ian is an avid collector and racer of historic performance cars. His collection includes a ’66 Shelby Mustang, the ex Jim Richards/Drew Marget ’68 Mustang and a Group C XD Falcon, all raced by Ian and his son.

After my first conversation with Ian, I realised how little I knew about such an  iconic car. Like most people, I have gotten used to the fact that a majority of Cobras I see, and even had the occasional joy ride in, are replicas of the original. Most motoring enthusiasts are familiar with Shelby’s initial formula of combining a light-weight sophisticated European sports car chassis with the power of an American V8 engine. It’s a formula that can be easily replicated and with a fibreglass body and a crate motor, it won’t break the bank.

In the early ‘60s, Shelby approached the British automotive manufacturer AC Cars, previously known as Auto Carrier Ltd, regarding his concept. Shelby was interested in developing a car that could compete with the Chevrolet Corvette in US sports car racing. He admired the AC Ace two seat roadster for its lightweight and modest size.

At the same time, the Ford Motor Company desired a car to compete with the Corvette and had just finished developing a brand new lightweight, thin-wall cast iron small block V8. In early 1962, AC air-freighted a complete chassis and aluminium body, chassis number CSX-2000 from the UK to Los Angeles. Shelby and his team equipped the British roadster with the new 260 cubic in small block V8 supplied by Ford and completed the work in Dean Moon’s speed shop.

The bare aluminium body received a metallic gold paint job by the California custom painter Dean Jeffries for its international debut at the 1962 New York Auto Show. The Cobra was displayed on the Ford stand with great success for Shelby and Ford. It was the start of an enthusiastic and what would become a legendary relationship. Production of the Mark l Cobra roadsters started soon after and like the prototype, the first 75 cars were fitted with the 260 cubic in (4.3L) V8. The remaining 51 Mark I models were fitted with a larger version of the Windsor Ford engine, the 289 cubic in (4.7 L) V8. In late 1962, AC's engineers updated the front end to accommodate rack and pinion steering. The new car entered production in early 1963 and was designated Mark II. About 528 Mark II Cobras were produced up to the summer of 1965.

Cobras were outperforming Corvettes. However by the end of the 1964 racing season, they were being outclassed in sports car racing by Ferrari. Shelby decided he needed a bigger engine in the Cobra and installed a big block Ford 390 V8. The result was too much power for the existing chassis. With the help of Ford and AC engineers, the tube chassis was beefed up with the addition of huge cross-braced shock towers, coil springs all around and pronounced wheel flares to accept wider tires. The power choice was Ford’s famed 427 FE NASCAR ‘Side-Oiler’ V8; a power-house engine developing 425 bhp (317 kw) in its mildest street version.

The updated chassis and power-plant made the new AC Cobra MK III an absolutely unbeatable 2,200 lb (1,000 kg) race car. Unfortunately, the car missed homologation for the 1965 season and was not raced by the Shelby team. However, it was raced successfully by many privateers and went on to win races all the way into the 1970s. The AC 427 Shelby Cobra has become one of the most sought-after and replicated automobiles ever.

From the late 1980s onwards, Carroll Shelby (Shelby American Inc.) has built what are known by the industry as Continuation Cars, continuations of the original AC-Shelby built Cobra series. Produced at the Shelby American facilities in Las Vegas, Nevada, these cars retain the style, appearance, and materials of their original 1960s ancestors, but are fitted with a few modern amenities and improved craftsmanship. Initially the car most enthusiasts wanted as a continuation was a 427 S/C model which was represented in the CSX4000 series. This was meant to continue where the last 427 S/C production left off, at the approximate serial number CSX3560 in the 1960s.

Ian’s Cobra is a CXS-4000 series continuation car built in the ‘90s. It was originally owned by an airline pilot based in Florida. The car was sold, turned into to a drag car and eventually ended up in New York. “The car was in bits and missing the 427 motor and gearbox when I purchased it,” explained Ian. “Cobras never had matching engine numbers to the chassis anyway,” Ian points out. “Shelby was a parts bin guy and just grabbed what he could.”

The acquired project was shipped to Melbourne in 2005 and the hunt for the proper 427 engine and gearbox was on. Ian found the same exact spec power plant he was looking for in an Australian ad. A genuine 1966 427 medium riser Side-Oiler, the same spec engine Shelby used in his Mark III Cobras had made its way from an American speed shop and was sitting in Queensland. Needless to say, it had Ian’s name on it. The engine was completely rebuilt, mated to the correct bullnose top loader gearbox and like the rest of the car is completely built for purpose.

Though Ian’s car looks more race ready than concours contender, it could easily participate in both. The metallic blue finish over the timeless voluptuous body looks so deep in the Melbourne afternoon light during the photoshoot. After spending a bit of time with the car, I walked away with a renewed appreciation for the Cobras uncompromising purity. I then turned to Ian and asked what he appreciates most about the Cobra, “The look! Just as it’s sitting there,” Ian quickly responds. “It doesn’t drive as good as it looks, but it is frightening fast,” adds Ian. Isn’t that the way Shelby intended it? We hope to see Ian and his stunning 427 Shelby Cobra at our next Coffee and Classics.

“It’s a massive motor in a tiny, lightweight car.” - Carroll Shelby.

This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 17.