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BBC Autos

Richard Hammond’s icons: The Shelby Cobra

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There were only 998 true Cobras ever made, yet you’d struggle to find anyone not familiar with its curves and bulges.

You only have to see it once, in a photograph, in a movie or, less likely but memorable if it happens, in the flesh, and it is sealed forever in your memory vault, together with its name.

At rest, it exudes the same aura of sensuous danger as Lara Croft curled up asleep with a samurai sword. Maybe this is why there have been so many copies made of the Cobra’s shape. How many dedicated dreamers have fettled away in their garage to bolt together a fiberglass Cobra replica based on an old Cortina, only to find that when their creation finally rolled into the sunlight, somehow the aged clatter of a 2.0-litre four-pot doesn’t quite give it the same presence as a 7.0-litre V8? I should know – I’ve driven just about every variety of kit-car replica made. But I’ve never driven an original… until today.

It’s pretty, almost. It’s small too, petite even, but then the AC Ace, the car that became the Cobra, was originally fitted with a far more pedestrian 2.6-litre Ford Zephyr engine until, as the story goes, Carroll Shelby came along and shoehorned a V8 in there – so maybe the kit-car builders needn’t hang their heads in shame over their diminutively engine recreations after all. The only thing is, knowing this one has the real-deal, 7.0-litre V8 up front, I can’t quite shake the idea that it might just leap up and kill me before I’ve even got in. I resisted the temptation to hop straight in over the door, and duly hinged it open to clamber in over the broad sill. Predictably enough, starting it results in a sinister, wet rumble – it’s like revving a T-Rex’s digestive tract.

There are no seatbelts, of course, and the dash is simple, flat slab bearing the basic dials needed to reassure the driver that the bellowing, shivering lump up front isn’t going to explode – well, not until you hit a tree, anyway. And, God, it feels good. This is a car you wear, and you can’t help but parade in it. It could bring on a midlife crisis in a teenager. When asked why the Cobra did so well in competition, Carroll Shelby explained: “There are two theories: build a real stiff chassis and have a brilliant guy do your suspension work, or you can take a flimsy chassis that bends so the wheels stay on the ground anyway. We just kept putting wider tires on it – there was nothing sophisticated about it. If it hadn’t been so flimsy, we’d never have made it work.”

And those words rang in my head as I tried my best to overcome fear and stamp on it. The engine sounded like a Harley mating with a digger. And I was grinning. Carroll Shelby supposedly placed a $100 bill in the glovebox of a 427 – if you could reach forward and grab it under acceleration, you could keep it. It cost him nothing to do this. It’ll hit 60 in 4.2 seconds and feels like it could tow your house while doing it. Top speed is 165mph, and God knows how that chassis writhes and squirms, as you get closer to that. This is a heroic car; it needs a hero to drive it. And to afford it. Rarity and pedigree are everything, so for most, the Cobra 427 will remain a dream, but, for all of us, it’s just good to know they’re out there, prowling, growling and occasionally bellowing like a horny dinosaur. I’d love to steal this one, but suspect the owner would find me in it, up a tree about a hundred yards away. Still smiling, though.

Carroll Shelby supposedly placed a $100 bill in the glovebox of a 427 – if you could reach forward and grab it under acceleration, you could keep it.