A hand-scrawled, cardboard sign in the windshield reads, “Yes, its [sic] a real Cobra.” The car, a real Shelby Cobra apparently, basks at a Southern California cars and coffee. Yet the number of Cobras seen at car shows and cruise nights makes it easy to overlook that Carroll Shelby’s operation built just over 1,000 originals from 1962-67. Most of the many thousands of other Cobras running around are replicas built from kits; others are authorized “continuation cars” built by Shelby American.
Only one Cobra replica, however, came factory-built as a finished car that met U.S. DOT safety and EPA emissions standards – and it came from Canada in the 1980s. Aurora Cars Limited of Ontario called its car the GRX, offering it through select Canadian and American Ford dealers. Aurora built about 170 cars before collapsing in bankruptcy.
In the late 1970s, Wayne Stevenson, an engineer and pilot, and Erik Campbell-Smith, a construction company owner, joined the growing Cobra replica industry with a goal of combining vintage roadster appeal with updated drivability, safety and handling.
At a time when some Cobra kits cost as much as $15,000 U.S. – without a powertrain and before assembly – Aurora bet that well-heeled enthusiasts would spend another $20,000 for turnkey alternative with warranty coverage. Bucking another trend, Aurora replicated the original “slab side” Cobra, which was powered by Ford’s small-block V-8, rather than the wider, brutish 427 model that many kit makers emulated.
Aurora designed its own tube-frame chassis, using a coil-spring suspension rather than the original Cobra’s leaf springs. The rear suspension was based on the Jaguar E-Type setup, including inboard disc brakes.
Using molds taken from an early Cobra, Aurora created a very close copy of the body, which a Canadian yacht builder, C&C, rendered in high-quality fiberglass. Aurora installed side-intrusion door beams, along with chrome bumpers that met the period’s 5-mph impact standard. Large taillights and side marker lights were other clues to the car’s replica status. The interior followed the original Cobra theme, but with more refined fit and finish, including leather upholstery and Wilton carpets.
Ford’s emissions-certified 302-ci “high-output” V-8 with a four-barrel carburetor, better known as the 5.0 engine in the Mustang, was a direct descendant of the carmaker's 260- and 289-ci V-8s used in the original Cobra. It was rated at 175 net horsepower in the 1984 Mustang GT. The Aurora also used the Mustang’s Borg-Warner five-speed manual transmission.
The Aurora weighed a half-ton less than the 3,200-pound Mustang, so performance was brisk. Motor Trend’s 14.9-second quarter-mile run was, however, understandably slower the 13.8-second pace the magazine had measured 20 years prior with the original.
Robert Austin, a veteran of both Volvo’s and Rolls-Royce’s North American public relations operations, wanted an authentic roadster feel when he bought a 1984 Aurora from a northern New Jersey Mazda dealership in 1987. Austin appreciates the ease of maintaining the Ford powertrain, but said finding other parts can be challenging. Many, originally sourced from other carmakers, are listed as no longer in service.
“You need to either have things rebuilt or use generic equivalents,” he said.
That includes the rear brake calipers Austin recently replaced, which originally came from a late version of Ford’s European Capri.
Tom Wallerich, a retired graphic designer in central Colorado, discovered the joy of parts hunting when he bought his Aurora 12 years ago. When he couldn’t find sufficient information on the car, he began his own research and connected with other Aurora owners. He started a website, Auroracobra.com, as a resource.
Wallerich said many owners have upgraded their Auroras for safety, reliability and performance.
“I don’t think it’s a classic in the sense of a car worth preserving in its original state,” he said.
His car now has a custom-built 347-ci long-stroke version of the Ford 5.0. Through his website, Wallerich has collected information from owners in several countries. He keeps his own Aurora at a second home in New Zealand.
Austin purchased his car when it was three years old for about $30,000. “At that time a real 289 Cobra was about $90,000,” he wrote in an email. “Clearly, purchasing a real Cobra would have been a much better investment. I was not worried about an investment, I wanted a car I could enjoy and not worry about – so I opted for the Aurora. I do not regret it.”