California Classic: The First Truly California Sports Car

Born in Venice Beach, the Shelby Cobra was built to rival Ferrari and Aston Martin

Photography by DARIN SCHNABEL


Shown here is the CSX2000, the first Cobra assembled in 1962. Previously owned and driven by Shelby—and widely considered the most valuable American-made car—it is now on display at the Shelby American Museum in Boulder, Colorado.


If what you want doesn’t exist, create it. That’s what American race car driver and automobile designer Carroll Shelby did after retiring from the sport in 1960. Three years after winning the 1959 24 Hour Le Mans in France, he opened Shelby American, a high-performance vehicle manufacturer and customization company in Venice, California. The veteran driver knew the U.S. was lacking an “all-American” sports or touring car to rival the Aston Martin or Ferrari, so he endeavored to make one. The result—with its modified chassis from AC Cars factory in England and a Ford V8 engine and four-speed transmission—was marketed as the Shelby Cobra when production began in 1962. Winning several GT class awards in 1964 and the International Championship for GT Manufacturers the following year, his labor of love was a success that led to the design and production of another series of four-wheeled Ford legends. In 2014, a subsidiary company introduced a limited-edition version for the car’s 50th anniversary. But for collectors, nothing beats the original.


Cobra Vintage Stats 

● The modified two-seater sports car chassis was built by British automotive manufacturer AC Cars at Carroll Shelby’s request in 1961 and based on the UK maker’s existing AC Ace design. Because production on its BMW-designed Bristol 6-cylinder engine had ceased, the new body needed to fit a small-block V8—a 2.553-litre inline 6 Ford Zephyr engine.

● When the first chassis arrived in Los Angeles from the UK, it took Shelby’s team less than eight hours to marry it with the Ford engine and transmission.

● Original modifications included reworking the AC Ace’s front end to accommodate rack and pinion steering, as well as a stronger rear differential that could handle a more powerful engine. Later body changes came in 1965 with the newly designated Cobra 427 Mark III, which included wider fenders and a larger opening for the radiator.

● The AC Cobra MK-III models were produced between 1965 and 1967, with Shelby offering three packages: the Dragon Snake for drag racing, the Slalom Snake for auto-cross events, and the Super Snake, which added a muffler, a bumper, and a windshield to the original racing model. In 2007, a 1966 Super Snake was auctioned for $5.5 million, setting a record at the time for an American-made car. are a turquoise color that corresponds to the native cholla cactus. Alternately, the exterior-facing curtains, in bright yellow, connect to winter-blooming California brittlebush flowers.



This story originally appeared in the Men’s Spring 2023 issue of C Magazine.

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