The Hack and the Cobra

Rob Siegel

First, let me rewind the tape about 15 years. I was driving through Brighton (basically West Boston) with my family in the car on the way to a holiday event at my mother’s. Suddenly one of my kids chirped “DAD! DAD! What is THAT?” Coming at us was a little two-seat roadster with massive tires and flared fenders, a mouth like a bass, and an engine note like a line of howitzers.

“That’s a Cobra replica,” I said, giving a thumbnail of my journeyman’s knowledge of what a Cobra is.

One of the kids asked “How do you know it’s a replica?”

“Because,” I dad-splained, “No one would be driving a car worth as much as our house through Boston at 4:00 on a Friday.”

Now, on to the story…

I have a friend, a genteel guy in his early 80s, who owns a 1965 427 Cobra. I’d seen the car once before, a little over 20 years ago, in his modest garage. At the time, I was too jazzed up to ask detailed questions, but I remember faded paint and a dusty interior, so my assumption is that the car was in original unrestored condition and wasn’t currently running. I shivered when I sat in it and experienced what I’d read about—that the drivetrain in a 427 Cobra is so massive that, to accommodate it, the transmission hump pushes the pedals off-center, so when you’re sitting in the driver’s seat, your legs curve off to the left.

Fast-forward to last month, when I ran into this fellow. He said that he had driven the Cobra for the first time in a couple of years, it ran rough, and then lost power. He described a route that he took where the second part was downhill, then said that the car’s fuel pickup was in the front of the fuel tank, so he hypothesized that, from sitting, water had formed in the tank, and that when he drove downhill, the water went to the front of the tank and got sucked into the carbs, which stalled the car. Miraculously, this happened close enough to his house that he literally coasted it into his driveway. He wanted to know if the water-in-the-fuel theory was plausible (“Does the defense’s theory hold water?”), and if so, what would need to be done to fix it. He said that he wasn’t certain whether or not he’d put fuel stabilizer in the tank before it sat.

I concurred that yes, ethanol in fuel does attract water, which is heavier than fuel and thus does settle at the bottom of the tank (and is also highly corrosive, so, yeah, bad), but with all the bugaboo about the evils of ethanol in fuel, I’d never had a starting or running problem in a car that had been sitting that I could say was caused by ethanol / water, even in cars that sat for six months with no fuel stabilizer. I said that I drain a gas tank only when I open up the filler cap and it smells like varnish, and that two years was kind of a funny window. So could this have happened? Sure. But did it happen and was it the cause of his problem? More of a definite “maybe.”

“What’s involved in draining the tank?” he asked. “I have a couple of oil drain catch pans.” I advised that that’s not a great way to do it, as then to dispose of the gas, you have to lift up the drain pan and funnel it into a gas can, and that’s messy and hard on the back. I said that the better way to do it is to suck the gas out with an electric fuel pump and directly spit it into as many 5-gallon cans as necessary to hold it. I offered that I have a small fuel pump wired with a pair of alligator clips that I use expressly for this purpose, and that, if he supplied the gas cans and a fire extinguisher, I’d be glad to come over and drain it for him. We set it up for 3 p.m. the following Wednesday.

A few days later, with my travel tool kit, the fuel pump, a battery, and some hose in the trunk of my E39 BMW, I drove to the house. I recognized neither it nor the garage, and when my friend rolled up the door, I can’t say that I recognized the Cobra, either, as it was now stunningly attractive. He said that he’d had it painted about 20 years ago—likely shortly after I first saw it—but this is a gentleman who’s unpretentious about these sort of things (in other words, his “painted” could well be someone else’s “restored”).

Hack Mechanic Cobra rear
You really never know what’s behind any garage door.Rob Siegel

I unloaded my tools and he got the gas cans and the fire extinguisher, but before we began draining the tank, I asked him to again run down what happened when the car died. He repeated the story. For some reason, I was hesitant to set in motion a messy smelly task unless I had more indication that it was necessary. “Let me just look at it for a bit,” I said.

I eyeballed the big 427. As you likely know, I’m mainly a vintage BMW guy. The only American V-8s I’ve been around were the small-block Chevys in the parade of Suburbans I owned. The engine in this car was so far outside my wheelhouse that I might as well have been a blind concussed cyclops interpreting data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Still, at the basic level, it was just another engine. I put on my Tyvek suit and got down to it, taking care not to scratch the paint.

Hack Mechanic Cobra 427 engine
Just another engine. Yeah, right.Rob Siegel

I noticed—and you can kind of see it in the photo above—some not-inconsequential residue in the valleys on the top of the intake manifold, which I took as evidence that it had been leaking fuel. When I looked closer, I saw what I believed to be active leakage weeping from the base of the forward carb. That might have accounted for the residue in the forward valley, but not the rear one. I took a wrench and snugged down both carbs.

I was curious if the float bowls had anything in them, be it fuel or water, so I asked the owner if I could pull the air cleaners off and verify that the accelerator pumps squirted anything when the linkage was goosed. I worked the linkage and was surprised to see that the front carb’s butterflies opened, but the rear ones didn’t appear to. He explained that this was normal—the linkage was progressive, with the rear carb not being engaged until the front carb was mostly open. I commented that this was like the progressive Weber 32/36s on some of my cars, except they did that between barrels in the same carb, whereas this car progressively engaged an entire carb. I noted that the front carb squirted what looked and smelled like fuel, but the rear one wasn’t squirting anything. Also, the choke setup was unusual, with an owner-installed cable-actuated choke on the front carb, while the rear carb appeared to have the original automatic choke, though it wasn’t closing. Not wanting to break anything, I left that mystery for another day.

Having found the source of one of the two locations of gas residue, I made sure the fire extinguisher was handy and had the owner start the car. It roared to life and began idling as I scrutinized the carbs, fuel hoses, and intake with a flashlight.

Then I saw gas dripping. I barked “SHUT IT OFF!”

The leak was coming from the left corner of the rear float bowl and dripping onto the manifold, almost certainly responsible for the residue in the rear valley. I checked all the screws holding the bowl on. None of them were snug, and the one at the dripping corner was finger-loose. I tightened them all, wiped up all wetness, checked things a second time, and we very carefully tried again.

This time, the engine stayed dry. As it warmed up, the owner blipped the throttle, leaning into it a bit more each time. He smiled.

This,” he said, “is how it’s supposed to sound.”

I said something about how it wasn’t that I didn’t believe his theory on water in the tank, but that sometimes it’s best to try the smaller, easier things first.

“What do you say we drive to the gas station and put a few gallons of fresh high test in it?” he said.

“Sounds like a plan!” I began walking around to the passenger door when I heard him say something completely unexpected:

“Would you like to drive it?”

Wait, what?

To say that I don’t often have the chance to do things like this is a massive understatement. But at the same time, I long ago developed an adult’s balance of the craving for sensation with both risk and my own comfort level. I thanked him profusely, then politely demurred—unfamiliar car, he should be the one to determine whether or not it’s running right, etc. I don’t regret it in the least.

I pulled closed the feather-light door by its leather strap, then latched the meaty seat belt, its buckle the size of a sandwich. I reflexively looked for a shoulder belt. “There isn’t one,” my friend said. “If you need more stability, grab the dash with both hands.”

By this point, it was maybe quarter to four. It was a cool overcast spring day, just the kind of weather that could have convinced you not to go drive a valuable vintage roadster, because if it rains, putting up the top is like setting up Earnest Shackleton’s tent.

In other words, it made me feel breathtakingly alive.

We ambled our way to the gas station, my friend feeling out the car after its two-year sit and troublesome re-emergence.

Then, on a small road somewhere in New England, without warning, he punched it.

I have never experienced anything so raw and visceral in my life. My genteel octogenarian friend’s blue eyes shone like he was 20 years old.

“This is running great,” he calmly said.

We arrived at the gas station, which was at the intersection of a small local road and a local highway, and not far from an interstate. He put a few gallons of gas in the car, then again asked me if I wanted to drive it. By this time, was 4 p.m., and the traffic density had picked up substantially. Again I thanked him, and again I declined.

“Maybe when it’s not close to rush hour,” he said.

“That would be awesome.”

He pulled away from the pump, but rather than turning around to go back the way we’d come, he positioned the car to turn onto the local highway. I saw that there was an immediate right turn on another local road. I pointed to it and asked “You’re going to take that?”

“Nope,” he deadpanned.

When there was an opening in the traffic, he nailed and wailed. The Cobra exploded forward. Raw passion gushed out of both him and the car as this gentleman, intimately familiar with what the car was and what it could do (oh, did I forget to mention that he is the original owner of the car?), deftly jammed a thumb in the eye of everything ordinary. He slotted the gears, the best WAAAAAAAAA-shift-waaaaaaaa ever known, better than any adolescent boy’s dream of what sex or driving would be like. It was a thing of abject beauty.

Then he pulled onto the interstate, taking the entrance ramp with a ferocity that had me grabbing the dashboard with both hands while I laughed my head off. I commented that traffic was lighter than I would’ve expected at this hour, but his Paul Newman–like eyes just remained laser-focused. Then he took the exit ramp at a speed I would not have thought the car was capable of. The car heard my thoughts and said to me “You know nothing, Rob Siegel.” The Automotive Powers That Be were blessing me with something singular.

This is why we love cars.

When we returned to sedate speeds on local roads and were about a mile from his house, an oncoming car flashed its lights to indicate there was a speed trap up ahead. I happened to glance that the car’s inspection sticker and noticed that it said “21.”

“You know that your sticker’s expired?”

“Oh, it’s way expired,” he said. “If I’m stopped, I’ll say that the car was off the road for a few years and I just now drove it to get gas, which is true.” Then he turned and looked at me and said, “You can get away with a lot when you’re my age and tell the truth.” Words to live by. By chance (at least I think it was by chance), the police officer was parked directly across the street from my friend’s house. My friend pulled the Cobra into his driveway and, from there, slowly into his garage. The officer stayed where he was.

That,” I said, “is something I’ll remember my entire life.” I offered that I’d be glad to help him with the car again.

“Sure,” he said. “Come back some other time. Then you can drive it.”

When I got home, I looked at the photos I took, and initially was disappointed there weren’t more. Then I realized. Of course. I was living in the moment. It’s burned into my soul. I don’t need no stinking photos.

So, if you witnessed us—a little blue two-seat roadster with massive tires and flared fenders, a mouth like a bass, and an engine note like a line of howitzers, being driven like he stole it by a genteel-looking older man with a glint in his eye and someone who looks like a thin Jerry Garcia in the passenger seat—and if you tell your family “That’s a Cobra replica; no one would be driving a real one through traffic at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday,” don’t be so sure. The universe is full of light, wonder, and unburned hydrocarbons, and if you’re in the right place at the right time, The Cobra Wizard may choose you.

Hack Mechanic Cobra front
It was simply amazing to be in the presence of such passion.Rob Siegel

***

Rob’s latest book, The Best Of The Hack Mechanic™: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem is available on Amazon here. His other seven books are available here on Amazon, or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, www.robsiegel.com.

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Comments

    Fantastic story Rob
    I’m still reading your memoirs and if I remember correctly you at some point said you would not help with anyone else’s cars.
    I guess when it’s a Cobra, that goes out the window?
    I’m glad it did and you had the experience.
    Best

    Michael, thanks. Yes, I repeated, in multiple chapters in Memoirs, why I don’t work on other people’s cars, the theme being regretting it when things go wrong. There are, however, many notable exceptions. I think you’ll permit me this one :^)

    Rob, what a wonderful story, I absorbed every word. Being one of those wide-eyed car kids, upon seeing a Cobra way back then, I promised myself to have one IF I ever grew up. Over the years I missed opportunities to own a real one (a day late and a dollar short) that story, another time. Fast forward to 12 years ago, I found my Cobra. An ERA with all the right “Stuff”. With age and aches creeping up , I sometimes think of selling my ERA. THEN, I take her for a spin and in my head I think…….”NAH”……………..

    Simply brilliant, Rob! There is, as they say, no substitute for cubic inches. And old guys rule! Thanks for this gem: “You can get away with a lot when you’re my age and tell the truth.” Like you, I’ll remember that forever.

    What a great experience…and story. I owned a 1963 Cobra replica built in the 80’s by Lee Holman (Holman Moody Racing). Blue with side pipes to burn your calves getting in and out. Not a well-produced kit but well put together. The original engine – a Chevrolet boat racing engine the original owner already had finally gave out and I replaced it with a crate Fuel Injected 302 GM motor from Summit Racing (409 HP in that light of a car) and the result was unbelievable. Can’t imagine what a real 427 would produce. Unfortunately someone drove it into trees coming out of a gas station and it was hauled away on a flat-bed. I think I cried for two days!

    My parents owned a full service laundromat on La Brea in Los Angels and three stores up from us was a Cobra and Shelby Mustang dealership. Our front door was right at the downshift point when salesmen would downshift when taking prospective customers out for a test drive. I will always have that memory of the sound those cars made! That was in 1963-1965 time.

    I was still in college and couldn’t afford the $6000 for a Cobra that Jerry Titus was trying to get me to it one! Yes, it was the same guy who drove those cars in SCCA. I was a drag racer back then with a 348 tripower 58 Impala, and didn’t know who he was until I got involved in Formula Fords that I met him again!

    In the 70s I worked with a guy who had a 289 Cobra that he raced in SCCA. It wasn’t street registered but a couple of times a year he would put a plate on it and take it to work. It shook the building when he pulled up!

    I have always coveted the Cobra, but the planets never aligned for me. Back when I was just out of trade school a friend told me that he knew of a crashed Cobra for $5,000. Having neither the necessary cash, nor any ability with bodywork, I declined. A regret, but the right choice at the time.

    WOW! What a blessing. A once-in-a-lifetime, bucket list, surprised with joy experience. And you captured your excitement so well that I almost felt it was a shared experience.

    It reminds me why I just love cars — and good writers.

    So happy we got to own a Cobra REPLICA for a short time! To hear it, feel it, and have it scare me! LOVED this article! Mister, you can really write! I could imagine it all…with a grin on my face!

    Thank you, Rob, for another great tale. I too hope you’ll visit your friend again – and get behind the wheel. As stated: “Life is … short.”

    Thanks Rob for the Cobra ride along. Very well described and glad you had the opportunity for such an experience and helped the gentleman with his problem. Although not in a Cobra, my most exciting ride was over 50 years ago in a modified 67 Mustang powered by a 427 with 3 deuces, top loader 4 speed and a Detroit locker on a country road. I can relate to the awesome power, sound and exhilaration that a big block Ford can give. I still remember the details of that ride so long ago. Thanks again for bringing back the 427 memories.

    My T-Bucket has a warmed over 400, tri-power and M21. I boast that I drive it farther and harder than anyone else drives theirs. One day demonstrating just that for a passenger I glanced over to see him having a genuine cardiac event. I don’t do that with passengers anymore, thinking I could actually kill someone without even scratching the car.

    Oh wow, and here I was considering looking you up and asking for a ride in that Bucket…then again, “what a way to go” just leapt into my head.

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