With the Ford Shelby Cobra concept from 2004 headed to auction, we dug up our drive of Ford’s awesome ode to Carroll Shelby’s original Cobra, which we originally published on January 24, 2005.
Our March 2004 cover story peeled the skin off the Ford Shelby Cobra concept car that made its public debut at the 2004 Detroit Auto Show. Most people loved it, some loathed it, but everyone was excited about three things it represented:
- Ford’s renewed relationship with Carroll Shelby.
- Future production potential for the Ford GT’s chassis, suspension, and gearbox.
- The fact Ford is serious about developing a high-performance V-10 engine.
As part of that story, Shelby his-own-self took me for laps in the Cobra around Irwindale Speedway’s immaculate half-mile oval. This memorable experience took place about two months before the car’s Detroit reveal—none of which kept him from revving the experimental V-10 to redline, drifting the hand-built show toy through the corners like a sprint car, or laying down foot-wide patches of black rubber. At the conclusion of that unforgettable ride both Shelby and Ford global design chief J Mays promised: “Next time, you drive.”
Exactly a year later, the scene was much the same: Irwindale Speedway, Shelby Cobra concept, Carroll Shelby, Mays, and me. Good to their —and Ford’s—promise, I was at the wheel. As Austin Powers would say: “Grrrrrr—yeah baby … “
Getting a V-10 to sound right, given its naturally offset firing order, is tough; the Viper pipe-benders have struggled with it for years. The Cobra’s starter sounds like a meat grinder, but once the one-off, all-aluminum, twin-cam, 600-hp 6.4-liter V-10 lights up, it’s magic. The exhaust burbles like an expensive speedboat at idle, and rises to a considerable whoop as the revs come up. The closest noise analogy I can come up with is a Lamborghini Gallardo, with the mid-range cranked up to 11. Or a turbine-powered industrial vacuum cleaner. The pipes exit out the rear, which probably helps balance the exhaust note, but one has to wonder: what would it sound like with side pipes, à la Cobra 427 S/C?
Ford has continued to develop this concept car (although “engineering prototype” is probably a more accurate term) over the last twelve months, though it’s still fundamentally the same. The cool-looking, but difficult to tune and modulate, slide-valve fuel injection system has given way to new intake manifolds with individual throttle butterflies. The chassis settings and alignment have been fiddled about, as has the shift linkage for the six-speed, rear-mounted Ricardo transaxle.
The magic word here is torque. This, combined with a relatively light 3,200-pound weight, makes an enviable power-to-weight ratio. Revs are electronically limited to 6,000 rpm in first gear, but it’s all that’s necessary for a hard launch and a tire-barking shift to second. It takes a careful launch to avoid hazing the 13.0-inch-wide rear tires, but once the rubber hooks, there’s plenty of traction. We were not able to run numbers on Irwindale’s short straights, but 0-60 mph is surely in the sub-four-second range. Even at that, Ford development engineer Manfred Rumple wants more torque. “Why not 7.0 liters?” he wonders aloud. Indeed—why not?
We expected the transaxle’s remote linkage to be stubborn, as they’re often wont to be, but not this one. It’s slick and direct; in fact, a little more resistance would be welcome. Otherwise, the shifter is accurate and direct with minimal slop, though you wouldn’t confuse it with the super-short throws of a Lotus Elise, Mazda MX-5 Miata, or Acura NSX. With the gear ratios on board this day, the Cobra concept could drive all the way around Irwindale in third, with brief downshifts to second for maximum thrust (and exhaust burble) coming out of the corners. We take second-gear up to about seven grand, and the Cobra’s big V-10 is all too happy to go there.
Handle With Care
Handling is best described as neutral up to about eight-tenths, with the appearance of some investment-protecting understeer coming in near the limit. If understeer isn’t your thing, there’s plenty of oversteer available with a good kick of your right foot. A power steering pump malfunction meant we had to strong-arm the wheel without the aid of any hydraulics, so we can’t tell you much about steering feel or response. But considering the system is much the same as the one you’ll find on a GT, it probably works as well as the rest of the car. In our original story, we griped about the gauges not looking macho enough for a car like this; to that, add the fact that these pieces are unreadable in the sunlight. If Ford produces this car, it would need a serious rethink in the instrumentation department.
What all this typical road test type talk can’t convey is the “I’m-a-lucky-car-fool” feeling of it all, not just from a wind-in-the-hair kind of way, but from a historic standpoint. Most turntable dream machines don’t run under their own power, much less powerslide around a racetrack. But a lot of production-intent-style engineering has gone into this car; work Ford didn’t need to do if all it required was feedback on a styling buck.
Said and done, this concept feels and sounds like a Cobra (loud and hairy-chested and big-boned), yet, it possesses the potential for a level of sophistication you’d expect of a modern sports car. We suspect Carroll Shelby himself would vote for using a V-8 instead of this V-10, as good as it would probably be. Not a problem, as the GT’s 550-hp supercharged 5.4-liter V-8 is already certified and in production. This concept also represents the possibility of a real live Ford-powered Shelby Cobra for the 21st century, although our inside info hints the scrumdiddlyumptious Shelby GR-1 coupe is likely to get a production go-ahead before this rough-and-ready roadster.
The sun has hit the horizon as we crank off our last few laps; the Cobra ticks and clicks as it cools down in the pit area. A group of Ford engineers and product development types gather round, asking the usual “How was it?” All I can think of is “Memorable—and worth waiting a year for.”
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