How Carroll Shelby's one-off Lonestar 'Cobra III' was restored
Only one prototype was made of the planned replacement for the Cobra, and it's barely been seen since 1975. Now it's been restored – this is its remarkable story
We all know Carroll Shelby’s cars don’t we? The Cobra, the Daytona Coupe, the GT40, the Shelby Mustang, etc.
But what about the Lonestar? Now there’s one you don’t hear of often, and that’s because only one was made, and that car has been tucked away in rather tired condition since the mid-1970s. Cared for and cherished but in need of full restoration.
Now it’s back, finally restored and revealed for the first time at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida. It’s a stunning car, originally created from a mix of Cobra and GT40, with input from both Shelby and John Wyer Automotive Engineering (JWAE) in Slough, England.
So how did it come about? It was meant to be the replacement for the Cobra 427, planned by Shelby American as the ‘Cobra III’ as early as 1965, just as the 427 was going on sale. But Shelby America was already busy with its commission to rework the GT40 into a Le Mans winner, and developing the Mustang race car.
In a neat swap, Shelby turned to JWAE, partners in the GT40 project, for input into its design. It seems that the two companies came at the project from different perspectives, with Shelby American favouring a conventional front-engine, rear-drive layout, with Ford V8 power, as you’d expect of a Cobra successor.
JWAE, schooled in the GT40, itself derived from a Lola design, proposed something very different. Engineer Len Bailey wanted to use the GT40 as the basis for the new car, but making it more civilised for road use.
The general layout of the GT40, with Ford V8 behind the cockpit and transmission behind the engine, rear-hinged engine cover, front-hinged luggage compartment up ahead, was kept. The body would be aluminium, the suspension GT40-derived, but components such as wheels and brakes would come from the Cobra. The engine would be a 289cu in V8 with a ZF five-speed transmission.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Shelby opted for the JWAE proposal. The company developed it further, creating a quarter-scale model by the end of 1966 to test in the wind tunnel. It received approval from Shelby in early 1967 to produce a full-size prototype – the car you see here.
A body was created in aluminium by Maurice Gomm in Woking, England, and a chassis developed that was part Cobra, part GT40, with a wheelbase halfway between the two.
By that point the rights to the Cobra name had been lost, and Ford objected to the references to ‘Cobra III’, so the project was named Lonestar, as a nod to Carroll Shelby’s home state of Texas.
As soon as the car was finished at JWAE, engineer John Horsman drove it to the docks for it to be shipped to Los Angeles. JWAE had painted it red and fitted it with a white interior, but almost as soon as the car arrived at Shelby American, the white interior was changed to black.
The Lonestar was delivered to Ford at Dearborn for evaluation but returned some time later without approval – Ford’s backing was crucial for the project.
Although it’s not known for sure why Ford didn’t take on the Lonestar despite the successes with the Cobra and Mustang, it’s likely that the difficult entry into the cockpit over the wide sills, the high projected price of the car – around double that of the Cobra 427 – and changes to regulations for low-volume models would have put them off.
Of course Ford UK had already built a roadgoing version of the GT40 itself, which had also proved highly impractical and expensive, with just seven produced.
Shelby, exhausted by the workload and with other things to think about, abandoned the Lonestar project, and advertised it in Autoweek/Competition Press with the following ad:
'For Sale: Sex on Wheels!! Carroll Shelby’s Cobra Lone Star – specially designed and built ‘way out.’ Mid-engine, two-passenger, coupe/roadster, one-of-a-kind show car. Seen worldwide in International Auto Shows. Fully roadable with: aluminum body custom-built in England with removable metal top panel and electric windows. 289 high-performance engine, 5-speed all synchro ZF gearbox, tubular exhaust headers, Halibrand mag wheels, comfortable bucket seats. $15,000.'
It sold, and passed through several owners until it was bought by its current owner, Michael Shoen, a Cobra collector, in 1975. By that point the Lonestar was looking rather down-at-heel, with a riveted repair to the bodywork and the front bumper missing.
‘I drove it around LA before I trailered it home to Arizona,’ Michael reports in his book The Cobra-Ferrari Wars 1963-1965. The car was a bit trashed, but gave every evidence of GT40-like performance. It drove right on my 1964 team Cobra competition 289 trailer like it was made for it. Everyone thought I was crazy.’
After many years tucked away in his collection, Michael took the car to Cobra specialist Geoff Howard of Accurate Restorations in Connecticut. Geoff has been working on the Lonestar for more than a decade, incredibly managing to keep over 90% of the original parts, as well as recreating the missing front bumper.
‘It was the most complicated restoration I’ve ever done’, says Geoff. He shows us around the car, pointing out the bits that were especially difficult.
‘The nearside fender had been repaired with a flat steel panel. Someone had pushed it into the shape of the wing, cut bits out, pop-riveted it in place and filled it with bondo.’
During the repairs Geoff also took a lot of time to make the body easier to remove, because it had originally been riveted in one piece onto the structure. ‘Now it’s all removable,’ he says.
‘I made a new front bumper on an English wheel from six pieces of steel, welded together. Every time I put a bit of heat on, it would straighten out, but it had to be perfect. When I took it for chroming, we noticed a tiny pinhole. I said “There’s no way I’m welding it again!”, but they showed me to use a microtorch and 25% silver solder for that last little bit.
‘I made the Plexiglass headlight covers by making steel patterns first, then putting the Plexiglass in the oven, and forming it over the steel when it was hot.
‘The sidelights [under the Plexiglass covers] were missing, and of course I didn’t know what they were. I kept going through all the boxes again and again and again, and I found a metal bezel. I thoughts “I know what that is!” It was from the sidelight used on the Lotus Elan and the Triumph TR250 – so I bought a pair from Moss Motors.’
It turned out that the rear side marker lights were from a Healey 100/4, and the fronts from an MGA. But the rear lights were more difficult initially, and one was missing, the other badly damaged.
‘There’s a guy in Brewster, New York, called Custom Spares. He has 40,000 square feet of foreign car parts, and he does repro headlights, brake parts, everything. He recognised the rear light, says he’s got one out back – and it turns out to be from a GT40!
‘Thing is, I still needed another one, and all the replica and the real GT40 guys are buying them up. I tried ERA, who make replica GT40s, and they said they’ve got four cars to finish and only seven lights. Eventually I found this little guy in Cyprus with one he wanted to sell.’
Then it was onto the interior, which Geoff had initially assumed wouldn’t be salvageable. There were a few factory shots showing it, but little else to guide him.
‘I’d put the interior away in bags when I started, I didn’t think we’d be able to use it again. The stitching had ripped out of the Naugahyde centres but I worked out where the stitching lines were, and we replaced the centres – we managed to keep everything else!
‘I found all the bits of carpet, it’s all original. The driver’s side had worn through but we’d bought heel pad rubber for a Cobra years ago, $500 for two pieces, and we had a little bit left, so I used that to replace the damaged section of carpet.
‘All the wiring, the cables, everything, was buried under the vinyl covering of the sill. They’d covered the sills in foam, cut channels for the wiring, then covered it in vinyl.’
Geoff didn’t know if he’d get the electrics finished in time. The loom had clearly been adapted from another car, there were a lot of cut-off wires, and a lot of unidentified relays. Worse, the only way to access the loom was to remove the top of the dashboard, but that could only be done by taking out the unique windscreen – which was a story in itself.
‘I knew I had to get a spare windshield made, and someone said “I know this guy who can do it”. He made them for Chris-Craft boats, things like that. So I gave it to him. Years and years went by, it was always “Oh yeah, I’m working on it”. Then he closed the business but he said he’d put me onto another contact.
‘The way they do them is to make a wire frame, take the glass, put it over the frame and melt it. That’s the first layer, but then there are two more layers, then a third. It’s just the two top layers and the laminate that are used. So eventually three were made.’
‘Still, I knew that if I took a screen out again, it would probably break. So I made an extra frame to hold the glass, which lifts out. Now I can get to the wiring if there’s a problem – but I’ve replaced all the wiring in dedicated sections so it will be easier to repair.’
Meanwhile, Geoff had been rebuilding the engine and transmission.
‘I did a Gulf GT40 transmission a few years back,’ he recalls, ‘and I taught myself how to build the ZF gearbox. I spent ten hours reading the ZF manuals to get it right.
‘Everything you see in the engine bay is how it would have been except the radiator cap, the air cleaner, the Fran fuel filter, that electronic regulator down there and the breather filter there [tucked up high out of the way].
‘The Metalastic suspension bushes were gone, so I replaced those with rod ends and radial bearings – you can’t get the bushes any more. It was the same with the original Armstrong dampers – Koni made us a one-off set especially for this car.’
With just days to go before the car’s debut at Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, Geoff managed to complete the Lonestar.
While we were talking with Geoff, and owners Michael and Christa Shoen (above), one of the event officials came over to tell them the car was up for an award, which turned out to be the coveted Chairman's Choice Award, ‘for the car found most appealing by the chairman’. Job done – the Lonestar returns!
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