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first shelby cobra

Who built the first Cobra, and where?

AK Miller in Cobra
Ak Miller

No question that Carroll Shelby “invented” the Cobra sports car with the idea of installing a V8 Ford engine in an English AC Chassis, but he wasn’t the first to actually do it!  If we forget the name Cobra, which defines this question, we have to acknowledge the first man to put a Ford V8 in an AC chassis to go racing.  Famed California “Hot Rodder” Ak Miller had completed the project with an AC-Bristol sports car (same chassis that would be delivered to Shelby months later) he’d acquired to run on the dry lakes east of Los Angeles well over a year before Shelby put his deal together with Ford and AC to build his cars in limited production.

Ed Hugus
Ed Hugus

What’s even more interesting is that Shelby didn’t actually do the first Ford V8 installation in an AC supplied chassis. At the beginning, Shelby had no facilities or even a talented fabricator/mechanic to do the job. Instead, Shelby made a deal with well experienced eastern foreign car importer Ed Hugus to be his partner in the Cobra project. Shelby offered Hugus the distribution for his cars in the Eastern US (Shelby had not yet “invented the name Cobra”) in exchange for doing the initial installation and sales.

CSX 001, the first Cobra sold by Ed Hugus.

Hugus completed the job on chassis number CSX 001. This chassis was sent to Ed Hugus, purely by chance, as no one was looking at chassis numbers on AC’s first shipment of two cars to America. Hugus had “built” and sold CSX 001, the first “Shelby” weeks before Shelby had received his first chassis, CSX 000, when we moved into Dean Moon’s small shop in California.

Cobra in Dean's shop
CSX 000 in Dean Moon’s shop.

Once Shelby had completed this first car (and come up with the Cobra name) he painted it bright yellow and sent it to the NY auto-show to be displayed on the Ford stand. He got enough orders from that initial showing to take up all of AC’s initial production. At that point there simply “weren’t enough cars to fill Hugus’ orders” so the handshake “partnership” was dissolved and Shelby continued on by himself.

DeTomaso P70

Why wasn’t the Shelby – DeTomaso P70 ever finished?

In my book on this car, I stated I never knew why De Tomaso didn’t finish the 7-litre engine he had promised Shelby for the P70. Wonderfully, someone who read my book sent me the answer. He is absolutely correct and I thought I’d share his GREAT letter with you!

Dear Mr. Brock:

I just read "The Road to Modena." What an incredible book about an incredible car! Thank you for writing it and including all the other biographical and historical information. It now occupies a treasured place on my bookshelf. I do believe that I can unravel a mystery for you.

You refer, several times, as to being mystified at why DeTomaso never completed, or even initiated, the 7 liter version of the 289 Ford. The reason is simple - it can't be done. There's no way to get 427 cubic inches into the 260/289/302 block. There's not room for an overbore (max is 4.030) or the long stroke that would be needed, due to its low deck height of 8.2". Today, there are small-block Fords built at 427 cubic inches, but they are based on (normally) the 351 Windsor block (9.5" deck height) or, less commonly, the 351 Cleveland block (9.2" deck height). Neither of these designs existed in 1964, and that extra inch or more of deck height, and its attendant relocated camshaft, makes all the difference in the world. Those 427s have a 4" bore (stock, all of these are thin wall castings and can't take more) with a 4.125" stroke. That stroke wouldn't even begin to fit in a 289 block; the connecting rods and crank throws would hit the camshaft - and those rods would have to be so short that the pistons would hit the crankshaft counterweights. To this day, even with modern metallurgy, the biggest low-deck (289 block) Ford stroker combination that has been run with any practicality comes out at 363 cubic inches, and this requires very high dollar billet parts of the type that would have been nearly impossible to manufacture in 1964.

Whether DeTomaso knew at the start that he was selling Shelby on an impossible dream, I can't say - but if he didn't, he knew about 10 minutes after taking a 289 apart and doing some rudimentary measurements. Since the entire project was based on the 7 liter engine, your car was doomed from the start, unfortunately. And it's a damn shame, because the car was beautiful and no doubt would have been extremely effective. History shows that the big-block McLarens, Chaparrals, and Lolas didn't take center stage in CanAm until 1966, so had the car been completed, you might have had a good season in 1965 in the USRRC. We'll never know. As you noted, DeTomaso was the better of the two con men.

In any case, this is but a minor nitpick in a tour de force of a wonderful book, documenting a great career and a great car. My compliments as well on the high production qualities. I hope my email wasn't offensive; I have the utmost respect for you. Heck, mine might be the 2,000th email telling you this!”

This is a GREAT letter!  And he is absolutely correct in defining why the P70 was never completed...It simply could not be done!  As he says, DeTomaso probably understood this from the moment he did a thorough analysis of what was possible with the 289 block, but never mentioned it to Shel’ as that would have prevented the money stream from continuing! :0)  Having only the cursory experience of being around the later Windsor blocks and making the assumption that these were still  “small block” Fords rather than an entirely new architecture I missed the obvious. I had experience with both the original 289s and later engines (in replica Cobras with 427 “small blocks) but honestly had never gone “inside” the later engine to look and measure.  This reader really clarified this and I wish I’d had his fine explanation in hand when writing the book.

I agree, the P70 might have had a chance in ’65, but by ’66 and beyond the DeTomaso chassis would have been obsolete. That whole era was changing so fast you had to be able to create “improvements” from race to race….a really fun, innovative era. Many thanks to this reader for taking the time to clue me in!  And if you’d like to read the book yourself, you can get it from us here.

peter brock with clay model

What was the difference between designing cars at GM vs. Shelby?

The main difference was the oversight and the number of people involved. At GM I was working for Bill Mitchell the VP of corporate design with some 27 years of experience in heading several teams of designers in various studios. At Shelby’s, I was completely on my own in designing the Daytona simply because it was my idea to begin with and there was no one else in our small team of fabricators and mechanics who had any experience in design.

Turin Motor Show

As head of design at GM, Mitchell did not actually design cars himself but directed his teams by spotting possible trends and encouraging the expansion of those ideas.  When I designed the XP87 Corvette concept for Mitchell, back in 1957, he had been to the show in Turin, Italy earlier that year and brought back dozens of photos of cars he thought had a theme with possibilities.

Bill Mitchell with clay modelsIn the process of selecting a “direction” for his new Corvette Mitchell chose to work with four designers, including myself, in a special studio called Research B. Our studio was primarily an “Advanced Concepts” studio as opposed to a “production studio” where cars already slated for production are created.  He chose Research B primarily because the Corvette program had already been killed off by top management and he could not take his project “upstairs” to the production Chevrolet Studio where it might be discovered.  Mitchell took a serious chance going against top management’s directive to terminate the Corvette program but was so passionate about continuing to see the Corvette live that he proceeded with us in secret to expand on the theme he’d seen in Turin. He was very definite in his ideas in giving his brief on the “direction” he wanted to see.

Eventually, Mitchell selected my sketches to expand into three dimensions with a scale clay model. Interestingly, designers didn’t get to design three dimensionally when I was at GM. They weren’t even allowed to touch “their” clay model!  The models were sculpted by very skilled union members. The UAW (United Auto Workers) tried to make sure every member who worked in the auto industry belonged to the UAW.  The only group who didn’t belong were the designers. This gives some idea of how independent the designers were!  Fortunately, the sculptors at GM Design were some of the best in the world and it was a pleasure to work with them. They were fast, accurate and had an innate sense of form that accelerated the process.  Once the scale model that I oversaw, working with the sculptors, was approved by Mitchell he initiated its expansion into a full-scale model. If you’re interested to learn more and see pictures from this era I’ve written a book on the subject, titled Corvette Stingray, Genesis of an American Icon.

daytona coupe buckAt Shelby’s, I was the entire design team. I didn’t need to submit sketches for approval. Shelby surprisingly didn’t care what my design for a faster Cobra would look like.  All he wanted to know was, “Is it going to be fast enough to beat the Ferraris!”  The car was so different looking, that most of the team in the shop were initially opposed to its appearance.  There wasn’t time to do a clay model. The first race of the ’64 season, Daytona, was less than four months away. There would be no chance for real development, it had to work right out of the box. In the end, the Daytona Cobra Coupe was built in 90 days and broke the lap record at Riverside Raceway on its first test day. The rest is history.

There are pros and cons to both approaches. The Stingray Corvette took six years before it went into production. Fortunately, Bill Mitchell made sure the design I’d sketched to win his approval in November of ’57 looked almost identical to the “split window” coupe that finally appeared in ‘63.

The important thing to me is that I love designing automobiles and however a car is built, and by who is of small consequence provided there are a minimum of compromises. The satisfaction of seeing one’s creation break lap records, win races and even championships is just as satisfying as seeing a production cars break sales records.

interpart poster with woman

The BRE Parts Business

The history of BRE’s Datsun parts business during and after the TransAm championships seems totally undocumented.


1. How important was the parts business to the viability of BRE?

One of the main tenants of my contract with Mr. Katayama (Mr. K), the President of the western half of Datsun USA, was that we’d make all the race development information and speed equipment we designed for the BRE race cars available to anyone who seriously wanted to race Datsuns. The BRE parts business was implemented first as a program that could provide well-proven equipment to privateers. We could provide any special part whether it was a camshaft or a complete race car ready to run.

2. What was the relationship between BRE, Datsun Competition Parts and Interpart, and what was the genesis of Interpart?

In time, the parts business grew to the point where I created Interpart, a standalone company. Interpart attracted outside investors who bought the company and operated it independently from BRE. This was the Interpart era. After BRE stopped racing, Datsun management elected to run their own separate program that became Datsun Competition Parts.

Datsun-of-a-gun Article

3. Was the Brock Buster a marketing piece to promote the parts business?

The “Brock Buster” 510 was a scale model (as it was identified on the box) of my bright yellow street 510.  The car was never called by the Brock Buster name on the street… it was always called the “Screamin’ Yellow Zonker!” but that name was tied up with a snack company for their packaged glazed popcorn so the name was unavailable for commercial use (e.g. as the name for a model of the car). The Screamin’ Yellow Zonker was built primarily to showcase all the parts available to those who dreamed of having a fast and reliable 510.revell zonker box


screamin' yellow zonker popcorn

4. How long did the parts business remain viable and provide income?

Today BRE still builds and sells many exterior parts for 510s and 240Zs like spoilers, Spooks (air dams) wheels and mirrors.

Here's an extra piece of history. Click on this article reprint from Hot Rod Magazine '71-'72, to read more about the history of the BRE parts business.

Ken Miles

Who was the person you worked with the most closely at Shelby’s and how did he contribute to your success?

Ken Miles made all the difference in the world in my success at Shelby’s.  First, when I started for Carroll and ran his driving school, I only had less than a dozen races under my belt. I hadn’t been back from GM Styling in Michigan too long before I hooked up with Carroll and he asked if I’d run his school. I wasn’t about to question my driving experience and turn down this amazing opportunity.

Shortly after I started, Ken Miles joined Shelby’s to do development and testing on the Cobras. All this was done at Riverside Raceway. Ken took me under his wing, teaching me the best race lines, corner control, etc. I succeeded as a teacher at the school thanks to Ken’s mentorship.  Then at the end of the ’63 season, Carroll asked how we could make the Cobra roadsters competitive against the Ferraris in Europe. Until that time he wasn’t aware of my design experience at GM. I was the youngest member on a team of very experienced racers, who knew nothing of my background.  I shared with Carroll my ideas of a radically shaped Coupe with a chopped off tail. These ideas were based on some arcane testing that had been done in Germany in the late ‘30s, but completely unknown in America.  Hardly anyone on the team wanted any part of my “crazy idea” because no one in America had done any serious proven aerodynamic study…at least on automobiles. The team thought my design for the Daytona Coupe was ugly beyond compare!  No one that is except Ken. He went to Carroll and supported the idea, saying he thought the “kid” was on to something.

Ken had raced in Europe and had seen some of the German experimental designs and shapes and understood my thinking. As we all know now, the Daytona Cobra Coupe decimated the once “unbeatable” Ferraris (as well as the Aston Martins, Jaguars and even the first iteration of Ford’s GT40s). It easily won the FIA GT World Championship in 1965. It never would have happened without Ken.