How the engineer behind the one-off 2004 Shelby Cobra concept resurrected it from the dead

One of one Shelby Cobra concept

Automotive engineer Chris Theodore is either very persuasive or he has excellent timing. During his tenure at Dodge he worked on the gorgeous and brutal Viper, and when he moved to Ford as vice president of product development for North America, he helped develop the stunning Ford GT. On the heels of the GT, Theodore helped bring Carroll Shelby back into the fold at Ford and they, along with a team of Detroit-based engineers and California-based designers, designed and built this Shelby Cobra concept in only five months for the 2004 Detroit auto show.

The car never went into production, but Theodore purchased the concept from Ford in late 2017. He brought it to the Amelia Island Concours earlier this month, where I had a chance to hear how it all went down.

Designed to be the follow-up to the Ford GT, and sharing many of its parts, the Cobra was aimed at the same customer who purchased Corvettes or Vipers, and it would have been more accessible than the supercar-market GT. It uses the same suspension as the GT, still with a transaxle in the rear, this time with the engine mounted up front.

And what an engine it is. When Ford was developing the GT, Theodore pushed for V-10 power. While a DOHC V-10 was still being built based on 4.6-liter V-8 architecture, the supercharged 5.4-liter V-8 used in the F-150 Lightning was available to be used in the GT’s development. By the time the 6.4-liter V-10 was ready and producing its 605 horsepower and 505 lb-ft of torque, the GT team had already engineered around the tall-deck V-8.

Only four of the V-10 engines were built, in varying displacements. One went into a Mustang, one was used in the 427 concept sedan from 2003, and one went into the beautiful GR1 coupe concept that used many of the same chassis components as the Cobra concept shown here, which uses the final V-10.

Unlike most concepts, this was fully engineered to be a driver. Carroll Shelby himself drove it, shredding a set of tires and turning some impressive donuts just outside of Irwindale Speedway when the car was completed. Ford’s lawyers, however, didn’t want the car on the street. After making the rounds at several auto shows, the roadster was put on display until it was time in 2017 to auction it off to benefit the restoration of the historic Ford family’s Fair Lane estate.

“Lawyers made them disable the car. They placed this plaque showing it couldn’t be driven,” Theodore told me as he pointed to the plaque on the aluminum frame rail. To ensure that the concept was clearly sold as an ornament and not a vehicle, Ford welded the splines of the drive shaft inside the Cobra’s torque tube and also welded the coupler to the driveshaft. Then the service plate that accessed the torque tube was welded in place and the bolts that previously could have been used to remove it, had it not been welded, were ground flat. Luckily, the engine was left intact, as Theodore heard that they had planned on filling the cylinder bores with concrete. After significant labor to remove the access plate and repair the torque tube and drive shaft, the car was ready for normal servicing. It required new fluids and—because of Shelby’s enthusiastic donuts—a new clutch. Par for the course.

The car was running and driving at Amelia, and Theodore has plans for it to hit the track. “I might take it to M1 [Concourse],” he told me, referring to the private track in Pontiac, Michigan. But street driving is likely out, even if he did admit that Woodward would be an excellent place to cruise. We are inclined to agree.

Thanks to the rear-mounted transaxle, the compact car is quite roomy inside. “A 6’5” person could easily be comfortable in this.”
Brandan Gillogly
Thanks to the rear-mounted transaxle, the compact car is quite roomy inside. “A 6’5” person could easily be comfortable in this.”
The car uses billet aluminum extensively, including these frame rail, the A-pillars, and the roll hoops behind the seats.
Brandan Gillogly
The car uses billet aluminum extensively, including these frame rail, the A-pillars, and the roll hoops behind the seats.
The body is mostly fiberglass, with some carbon fiber, built with a foam core.
Brandan Gillogly
The body is mostly fiberglass, with some carbon fiber, built with a foam core.
Based on the 4.6-liter four-valve V-8, the V-10 engine is good for 605 horsepower.
Brandan Gillogly
Based on the 4.6-liter four-valve V-8, the V-10 engine is good for 605 horsepower.