Classic: Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe

By Ronan Glon

August 01, 2014

The A/C-based Shelby Cobra made its racing debut at the 1962 Three Hour Invitational Endurance Race organized by the Los Angeles Times, the same event that Chevrolet chose to introduce the then-new Corvette Z06.  The Cobra went on to become a successful race car in the United States but it largely failed to make a name for itself on the other side of the pond.
Although the V8-powered Cobra was quick, it was not aerodynamic enough to keep up with less powerful rivals like the Ferrari 250 GTO on high-speed European tracks like Le Mans.  Mechanical upgrades couldn’t overcome the drag caused by the open-top body, and adding a hardtop helped but it was not enough to turn the Cobra into a world-class Ferrari killer. 
Eager to beat Ferrari on its home turf, Carroll Shelby asked engineer Peter Brock to design a fixed-roof version of the Cobra in 1963.  Brock penned an aerodynamic fastback-like body with a rounded front end, a low hood and a truncated Kamm-style rear end.
Engineer Ken Miles helped Brock develop the coupe by lowering the driving position to clear up space for a raked windshield and by making several modifications to the chassis in order to improve high-speed handling.  Built in ninety days in January of 1964, the first Cobra Coupe prototype was tested on the Riverside track that was located near the company’s former headquarters in Venice, California.
The Cobra Coupe was powered by a Ford-sourced 289-cubic inch V8 engine that made about 390 horsepower at 6,750 rpms and 341 lb-ft. of torque.  Power was transferred to the rear wheels via a four-speed manual transmission, and the 2,300-pound coupe could reach a top speed of over 180 mph.  
The Shelby Cobra Coupe (as it was initially known) made its racing debut at the 1964 edition of the Daytona 2,000 Kilometer race.  It performed admirably but the entire Shelby team was forced to pull out of the event after a fire started in the pits.  Although Shelby was understandably disappointed with the outcome of the race, the company renamed the car Cobra Daytona Coupe in honor of its stunning performance.
The coupe competed again at the Sebring 12 Hours race that took place about a month later.  It finished first in the GT class and managed to take fourth place overall, a result that raised eyebrows among spectators and rival teams.
Shelby couldn’t build additional examples of the Daytona Coupe in-house because its factory was running at full capacity so it outsourced production to a body shop named Carrozzeria Gransport located stone’s throw from Ferrari’s headquarters in Modena, Italy.  All of Shelby’s Cobra Daytona Coupes were crafted out of aluminum but the cars built in Italy differed slightly from the original example that Brock and his team had assembled in California.  
The coupes participated in several European races in 1964 and one example even took first in its class in that year’s edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  That was no small feat for Shelby, especially since the Daytona Coupe was running against at least three Ferrari 250 GTOs.  Shelby ended up losing the 1964 championship to Ferrari by a handful of points, though many observers attributed the loss to the fact that the 1964 Monza Grand Prix was canceled at the last minute.
Shortly before the 1965 season started, Ferrari announced it would no longer compete in GT racing because the FIA had refused to homologate the 250 LM as a GT car.  With its main rival out of the picture, Shelby was ready to start the season on a high note.
In 1965, the Daytona Coupe won eight out of the eleven races it participated in including both the French and the German Grand Prix.  An example owned by a privateer took second place in the 24 Hours of Le Mans’ GT class, finishing behind a Ferrari 275 GT that had been prepared by the factory at the last minute, but Shelby managed to take home the 1965 Manufacturer’s Title.  This marked the first time an American company won an international race series. 
Back in the United States, the Daytona Coupe set no less than 23 national and international land speed records on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.
Solicited by Ford, Shelby agreed to join the GT40 program in 1965 and it reluctantly agreed to retire the Daytona Coupe.  The firm tried to sell the remaining coupes to privateer racers but there was much less demand than the company had anticipated and it took several years for the cars to find buyers.  Some of them were partially dismantled by the time they were sold because the company used them for parts when needed.
Today, five of the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupes have been restored and another one was found about ten years ago after being hidden away in a storage unit by an enigmatic, reclusive woman for decades.  The example that was squired away is the first Daytona Coupe ever built and the only one that was assembled in the United States.   It was sold to a Philadelphia-based collector after a lengthy and complicated legal battle.
Three of the six Daytona Coupes remain in the United States while the rest reside in Japan, Switzerland and Argentina, respectively. 
Earlier this year, the Daytona Coupe that Shelby built in-house became the first car named to the National Historic Vehicle Register, meaning that all documents related to the car will be added to the permanent archives of the Library of Congress.
(A special thanks goes out to Peter Brock for his insight and assistance in getting our facts straight about the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe.)