1962-1968 AC Cobra Buying Guide

Nearly six decades after it was launched, Carroll Shelby’s performance icon remains instantly recognisable. Here’s how to buy perhaps the most replicated car of all time…

How much to pay

• Project £400,000 • Good £500,000-700,000 • Concours £750,000-1,500,000 •

Practicality ★★
Running costs ★★
Spares ★★★★
DIY friendly ★★★
Investment ★★★★★
Desirability ★★★★★

It’s become a byword for performance – and a particular type of performance at that. There is nothing subtle about a Cobra. Not in the way it looks, the way it sounds, or the way it goes. To drive one even at moderate road speeds is to find a fresh appreciation for the skill and stamina of those who raced them in period.

The recipe for its success was neither new nor sophisticated, but rarely has it been done quite so effectively: take one powerful American engine (Ford, in this case) and drop it into a traditional British sports car (the AC Ace). It is the ultimate hybrid, a no-nonsense dose of rock ’n’ roll among the otherwise symphonic grids of contemporary GT racers.

The brainchild of former racer Carroll Shelby, it bloodied the nose of Ferrari, Aston Martin and Jaguar, and its staggering acceleration figures lodged in the minds of enthusiasts everywhere – Ken Miles once achieved 0-100mph-0 in 13.2 seconds at the wheel of a 427.

It may not have been produced by one of the aforementioned ‘grandee’ marques, but there’s nothing blue-collar about current Cobra values. Buying one is now an immense investment, so you need to have your wits about you…

Your AutoClassics AC Cobra inspection checklist

Engine

The Cobra featured three variants of Ford V8 over the course of its life. Although the prototype – CSX2000 – used the then-new 221ci Windsor engine when it was first tested in the UK, by the time production got under way that had been replaced by an upgraded 260 unit from the same family.

After about 75 cars, the 260 was replaced with the 289 – it’s believed that chassis CSX2073, which was completed in January 1963, was the first to be fitted with the enlarged Windsor. Many 260 Cobras were retro fitted in period with the 289. Later, of course, came the monstrous 427ci FE ‘side oiler’, a big-block lump that was developed for competition use.

These engines are bulletproof, and thanks to their use in all sorts of other classic Fords – Mustangs, Falcons and Galaxies – there is a strong support network of specialists for them, particularly in the US.

Gearbox

The 260 and 289 Cobras used Borg-Warner’s enduring T10 four-speed manual. The 427 switched to a Ford ‘Top Loader’, and some 289s have subsequently been fitted with the later ’box. Believe it or not, a smattering of cars were fitted with an automatic gearbox, but most have long since been converted to manual.

All drove through a Salisbury 4HU final drive, as also seen in the Jaguar MkX and E-type. This replaced the AC Ace’s ENV differential because it was better able to cope with the increased power. A tiny propshaft – only about 10in long – was used.

Gearboxes tend not to give many problems, but parts such as layshafts, bearings and different ratios are available from America.

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Suspension and brakes

The early Cobras employed a pretty basic suspension set-up. Transverse leaf springs were used front and rear, with lower wishbones and telescopic dampers. There was worm-and-sector steering, too.

From spring 1963 – chassis CSX2126 onwards – rack-and-pinion steering was fitted and the front suspension geometry was tweaked. From CSX2160, the wheels were increased in width from 5.5 x 15in wires to 6in. The wheelarches were flared slightly more to accommodate the change.

When the 427 was introduced with its new chassis, double wishbones and coil springs were fitted all round, plus trailing arms at the rear. Anti-roll bars were used on competition cars and are now a popular upgrade on road cars, as is adjustable suspension. The big-block Cobra also wore Halibrand magnesium wheels or the Peter Brock-designed 10-spoke Sunburst alloys.

Braking is by discs all round. The prototype initially retained E-type-esque inboard rear brakes, but these were soon moved outboard – something that carried over to the production cars. The size remained constant throughout (296mm front, 273mm rear), even when the 427 was introduced.

Bodywork

The Cobra’s aluminium bodywork was hand-built by AC and then riveted to the main structure, which comprised a system of round and square-section tubes. The 289 shared much of the Ace’s graceful outline – among the few changes were the flared arches to accommodate the Cobra’s wider track. From CSX2160 onwards, a vent was added to each front wing.

The 289 and 427 share only their doors, bonnet and bootlid – the later car is five inches wider and features a very different Jim Benavides-designed chassis with thicker tubes set further apart. It also uses a thicker gauge of aluminium for the panels.

The thinner 289 chassis can bow; the sill tubes, outriggers and frontal tubes can get damaged and corrode. Check the bodywork just in front of the rear wheels on the sills, which is where it tends to flex and crack.

The handbuilt, labour-intensive nature of Cobra bodywork means that the costs of a restoration will be huge – particularly if you want to retain the original body rather than create a new one.

Interior

There were few changes to the Cobra’s interior during production, although the dials changed from Smiths to Stewart Warner from CSX2201 onwards. At the same time, electrics switched from being Lucas to Ford.

Weather equipment is sparse, consisting of a hood and clip-on sidescreens. Carpet is used on the floors and door cards, while the seats are trimmed in leather.

Dated period components, such as gauges, are becoming increasingly difficult to find, although there are plenty of replica parts available. Standard equipment includes speedo, rev counter, clock, water, oil temperature, fuel and oil pressure gauges and an ammeter.

History

  • 1962: Cobra introduced at the New York Auto Show in April with Ford’s 260ci V8.
  • 1963: Mk2 gains 289ci engine and, from CSX2126 onwards, rack-and-pinion steering.
  • 1965: 427 launched with new chassis and coil-spring suspension.
  • 1967: Shelby ends US production.
  • 1968: AC ends production.

AutoClassics says…

It’s vital to know exactly what you’re looking at when buying a Cobra – provenance is all, so take the time to thoroughly establish a car’s history. Do your homework and speak to more than one expert, including the likes of Steve Gray at Brooklands Motor Company, Rod Leach and the AC Owners Club.

A CSX chassis number is for left-hand-drive American-market cars, a COB prefix denotes a right-hand-drive British-market car, and COX was used on left-hand-drive Cobras that were for export to countries other than the US. All Shelby leaf-sprung cars followed the prefix with a four-digit number that began with a 2.

Right-hand-drive cars are firmly in the minority – only 47 leaf-sprung examples were built. Then there are the 27 right-hookers that AC produced at Thames Ditton using the later coil-sprung chassis but the 289 engine.

The 427 is a completely different beast to the 289, and even a rack-and-pinion 289 will drive very differently to a worm-and-sector Cobra. Some of the production changes were retro fitted by owners in period, so be sure to establish exact the spec. Particularly significant cars, including those with notable race history, will command far more than the prices quoted.

It’s inevitable that people will assume your Cobra is a replica. That’s part and parcel of ownership. But frankly, who cares? If ever you feel that life has become a little staid, a little boring, this is the classic for you. It is a genuine legend among performance cars.

Specifications

AC Cobra 260
  Power 260bhp
  Top speed 135mph
  0-60mph 5.7sec
  Economy 15mpg

AC Cobra 289
  Power 271bhp
  Top speed 135mpg
  0-60mph 5.6sec
  Economy 15mpg

AC Cobra 427
  Power 390bhp
  Top speed 165mpg
  0-60mph 4.2sec
  Economy 9-12mpg

Picture courtesy of MagicCarPics

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