Design Driven: Is the Shelby Cobra Daytona ugly?

Shelby Cobra Daytona

Carroll Shelby asked, “’Is it going to work?’ and I said I think so.” Then Peter Brock shared the sketches with his coworkers. “It was so ugly, they thought, that they didn’t want to have any part of it.” Can you imagine an icon like the Shelby Cobra Daytona being shunned by Shelby’s staff? For being ugly?! It’s what happened.

Fortunately, racer Ken Miles, who was part of Shelby’s outfit, believed in the design, spoke out and helped convince Shelby to try it out. Initially, only a three-man team composed of Brock, Miles and recent arrival John Olson was assigned. But as other guys in the shop saw the Daytona developing, they began helping out too. But before we dive too deep, let’s take a step back and examine how the Shelby developed. The story actually begins in an Italian boardroom.

While Enzo Ferrari was famous for many things — wanton disregard for driver safety among them — in the United States his infamy was won due to business tactics. Racers like Shelby refused to race for his Scuderia because the wages offered were so meager, barely enough to survive on and certainly not enough to support a family. Ferrari wouldn’t be swayed. Driving one of his cars was an honor, and racers were commodities.

His feud with Henry Ford II worsened his reputation in corporate United States (as if il Commendatore cared!). After acquisition talks with Ford unraveled, people wondered whether Ferrari had offered his company simply to draw Fiat’s attention. Ford was left looking and feeling ridiculous, having wasted an enormous amount of time in wooing Ferrari. More importantly, he now lacked the European brand he sought for prestige.

Strangely enough, therein lies the Shelby Cobra Daytona’s roots. For while Ford’s internal slogan had been “beat Chevy,” Henry Ford II now realigned his focus on one of Europe’s most celebrated series (sports car racing) and its greatest race (the 24 Hours of Le Mans). He would show Ferrari who the better man really was: Ford’s new unofficial mantra became “beat Ferrari.”

Ford put Lee Iacocca, then Ford VP and General Manager, and Shelby in charge of a racing development program to assure victory on Europe’s grandest stages. Shelby began with the Cobra, which was wildly successful in the U.S., but had a marked aerodynamic disadvantage on European circuits with higher sustained speeds. Its drag was so great that its maximum speed on the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans was about 30 mph less than Ferrari’s GTO. It was so great a disadvantage, in fact, that it couldn’t be overcome by handling, braking or acceleration improvements.

Which is how Brock became involved.

By this time, Brock had been to Detroit and Italy, and was ready to put his growing design knowledge to the test. As Brock told Hagerty in an interview, Shelby plainly asked, “I want to go to Europe and race, and the car [the Cobra roadster] just isn’t fast enough. You got any ideas how to do it?” Brock certainly had ideas, as he’d been studying German aerodynamicists’ pre-war work, which was ahead of its time.

Brock’s only concern was that the modified Cobra wasn’t going to look like a Cobra when he finished designing it. He brought up the subject with Shelby but “all he wanted to know is… ‘Is it going to be faster?’” Relieved that Shelby didn’t care about the aesthetics, Brock was unsure if he could make it faster, but he put his faith in the scientists’ research and started sketching. Once he was confident in his results he showed the design to Shelby, who remained unconcerned with the appearance. Now, as we know, the rest of the staff didn’t believe in the car.

But that didn’t matter due to Mile’s sway in the shop. The car was completed in 90 days, and after its first test the results were clear: If it was reliable, it was going to beat Ferrari.

It did, many times over. In 1964, the Cobra Daytona won the GT class at the 12 Hours of Sebring, then repeated the feat that June at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The car conquered other famed venues too, such as Daytona and the Nürburgring. The Cobra Daytona also set 25 land speed records at Bonneville. Clearly, it was a winner. But were Brock’s coworkers right: Is the Cobra Daytona ugly?

Pardon the cliché, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. From a purist’s perspective the car is beautiful, because it is functional, the body shaped for speed and efficiency. The proportion is pure GT car with a long hood, short deck and the doors just fore of the rear wheels. Fortunately, the Cobra Daytona was blessed with wonderful genes, and although some of the AC Ace’s specs were modified for the Daytona, the original essence was left very much intact.

If any flaw can be found in the Daytona, it exists within its surfacing. While its surfaces are taut, and the abbreviated Kamm tail is all business, the Cobra Daytona is a bit traditional when considering the styling of its contemporaries: It was sketched and built when the second-generation Corvette was already in production. Given Brock’s time in Italy, it’s easy to see traces of the Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta (a car that was already 10 years old at this point). Bizzarrini’s radical Ferrari “Breadvan” may also have been influential, particularly on the Daytona’s concave hindquarters.

However, nobody designs in a vacuum, and Brock didn’t start with a clean sheet. He started with the Cobra née Ace, a design already over a decade old at that time. So, no, the Daytona isn’t futuristic, but futurism doesn’t equal beauty.

And its stance gives the car an aggressive look even though the bodywork covers the wheels more than might otherwise be normal on a regular car (suitable, considering aerodynamics) due to the suspension setup. As proper on a race car and in stark contrast with virtually every production car, its details are sparse and purely functional, refreshing for a car designed during chrome’s heyday. Air extractors decorate the hood and provide downforce, foglights are functional for round-the-clock endurance racing and the large spoiler (which Brock wanted to make active!) keeps the rear end glued to the track.

Whether or not you or Shelby’s employees like the Cobra Daytona’s shape misses the point. It was a traditionally styled car, even then. But Shelby gave designer Peter Brock one goal: Design a car to whoop Ferrari’s prancing horse. By that measure, the Cobra Daytona and its design are complete successes.

For more, check out our video interview with Mr. Brock, here.