The Cobra Doctor is in

Aaron Robinson

Mike McCluskey was out on his driveway tinkering with his Sunbeam Alpine one day in 1969 when Carroll Shelby rode up on a Yamaha motorcycle. “He lived three blocks away, in a three-level house with a killer view that he got for 50 grand because it had had a fire in a room on the ground floor,” McCluskey recalled to me. “He said, ‘I like what you’re doing on your Sunbeam. I’ve got four Cobras that I want to go through. You want the job?’”

McCluskey wanted the job, and today he’s known as one of the nation’s preeminent restorers of original Shelby Cobras. His shop at the end of the runway at Torrance Airport in Los Angeles is just a few miles from my house. Occasionally, mechanics from the airport take him tough jobs they can’t do themselves. I once brought him the exhaust manifold off my Cessna because a slip-joint was galled and wouldn’t come apart. McCluskey is 75 and so soft-spoken that you sometimes don’t realize he’s talking until he has finished the best part of a sentence. But he attacked the manifold with a torch and pounded on it like Conan the Barbarian until it separated. Then he quietly went back to making old Cobras perfect.

McCluskey grew up by the beach, in a part of Westchester that was flattened to make way for new runways at LAX. His family then moved to nearby Playa del Rey, near the Hughes Aircraft factory and the private hangar where Howard Hughes for decades hid away the Spruce Goose. He worked at Hughes during his high school summers, sneaking off on Saturdays to run a big-block Chevy at Lions Drag Strip down by the port. Then he worked at a shop that made hydraulic presses. “That’s how I learned machining, from a German foreman who was a hardass. He would say, ‘You’re doing this for the rest of the day until you do it right.’ Very perfectionist guy.”

A fortuitously high draft number kept him out of the army, and his parents had hoped he would make a career at Hughes or nearby North American Aviation, but McCluskey’s heart was in cars. He spent three years working on a contract basis directly for Shelby restoring Cobras out of a four-car garage in Inglewood, reporting occasionally to the head office that Shelby had (once again) stolen for cheap because two brothers had gotten into a deadly gunfight in it. “He knew how to delegate; he would find good people, point them in the right direction, and say, ‘I’ll call you once in a while to yell at you.’” Shelby supplied McCluskey with a 427 automatic beater. “It only got 8 miles to the gallon, but back then, you could buy premium for 30 cents.” Every time he ran to Shelby’s pad to swap cars, “there’d be a new girl living at the house.”

Cobra-Doctor-Mike-McCluskey engine bay
Aaron Robinson

McCluskey worked on and off for Shelby for more than 20 years, being hired to build several Daytona coupes as well as the infamous “completion” cars, a handful of 427 Cobras built 25 years after the originals but stamped with leftover CSX3000-series serial numbers. He watched warily the rise of the Cobra replica, starting with the first fiberglass copies from Steve Arntz in the 1970s. “I remember telling Shelby, ‘If you don’t step on this bug, he’s going to start taking over the market.’ Shelby said, ‘Well, you know what, nobody is going to buy a plastic car.’”

He was wrong, and by the time Shelby decided to hire lawyers and do something about it, “the cat was out of the bag,” said McCluskey, who eventually decided that the thousands of fiberglass replicas had only helped drive up prices of the originals. Today, he only works on copies from select brands. He once owned a pair of real 289s but sold them in the late ’80s when prices of everything were zooming. He watched lots of Cobras get converted into 427, Super Snake, and S/C replicas, then did a decent business restoring them back when the fashions changed and originality became more important.

The late Phil Hill introduced McCluskey to the wonders of high-end self-playing pianos called “reproducers,” and he restored a bunch, along with a huge, 900-pipe theater organ that fills most of a separate hangar at the airport. As if that weren’t enough, he also built a few aerobatic aircraft, imported a number of Russian military jets, and is currently hankering not for a Cobra but a Stanley Steamer. You’ll find him at the shop pretty much every day of the week, showing the rest of us what a full life really looks like.

Cobra-Doctor-Mike-McCluskey in cockpit
Aaron Robinson




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