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

    Wow. Dream come true. The Cobra article hit my nerves just right! Thanks for sharing this great experience. Now go drive it!

    A few years ago I spotted what looked like well done 427 replica at a vintage sports car race and then spotted the license plate that said “Real One”. I walked up to the owner and said I have waited over 40 years to go for a ride in one. He smiled and said let it cool down a bit and I’ll take you for a ride. Thinking we would do a quick ride through the pits I patiently waited. Finally he said get in. Next thing I know we are leaving the track and when we got to the highway he proceeded to go through the gears. He was like a little kid telling me about his favorite hot wheel collection and I was all of a sudden his buddy. Car guys are the best!

    Beautiful story. Inspirtational! Maybe a new set of rubber before that next interstate entrance blast?

    Rob, great story! Reminds me of the time a friend let me pilot his Cobra replica with the side oiler, and dual carbs. The visceral experience is like non other. Truly a once in a life time experience!

    In the several decades I’ve been instructing at racetracks, I’ve been offered the opportunity to drive some amazing cars. Some are very comfortable with this, and I have one fellow instructor friend who always seems to be driving somebody else’s car. I joke that it should be a reality YouTube series. Here’s a video of my chasing an Audi A8 supercar at Barber Motorsports Park, driven by an instructor. It was a high-paced but very clean and responsible drive:

    https://youtu.be/AQdFhz8vNeM?si=qZSE91-FcCz7dyYV

    I on the other hand am a huge believer in Murphy’s Law (victim?), to which there is far more evidence than the existence of any God. So the top two student cars I declined to drive include a 1988 Slantnose Ruf Turbo (a glorious machine if ever there was one) and an extensively modified 2001 Porsche 911 Turbo — full monoball race suspension, 1200 hp race engine, 160 mph down Road Atlanta’s back straight. While I would love to have driven these vehicles, I was concerned about something happening to them in my car. Coincidentally, I was later offered the opportunity to purchase each of these vehicles and foolishly declined. Having left the money I didn’t spend on the Ruf in the stock market, only to have the internet bubble pop while the Ruf continued to relentlessly appreciate is the best example of the elusiveness of “financial responsibility” I’ve ever been served. Actually, selling MS stock to buy my first home was still worse … $200k here, $2 million there, before you know it, you can never afford to retire! 🙁

    About the investment stuff… don’t beat yourself up too badly. All we can do is make decisions on the basis of the facts at hand at the time.

    Oh, that brings back memories……
    Back in the late 70’s, I was a member of CenLa Region SCCA, and we had an exhibit at the ‘World of Wheels’ car show. Someone has asked around for the best our club had to offer. That turned out to be a Formula Ford, a 300 SL Mercedes ‘Gullwing’….and a 427 Cobra, with virtually no miles on it. I was working the floor, first night, and got to meet the Cobra’s caretaker. According to club lore, he had one example of everything Shelby ev er produced. He was like a God, but finally I had to ask “UH, how do you own such an awesome car, and not DRIVE it?”
    The Doc thought for a moment and spoke “Right after I bought it, I took it to a late afternoon cocktail party. By the time I left, the evening dew had come out. When I punched it, it bounced from one curb to the other until it finally ran out of momentum. I put it in first gear, drove it VERY carefully home, and never drove it again”. I still remember the story after 50 years, and somewhere, in a drawer, is a picture the Doc took of me in the driver’s seat of the Cobra.
    In the booth next to us was the incredible Linda Vaugn. She is every bit as nice as legend has it, and yes, I have that picture, too.

    Such a wonderful story, Rob, thank you for sharing and I certainly enjoy your wonderful writing talents.
    It probably pales in comparison, but I had a similar experience recently when my mechanic friend Tony took me for a test drive on a customers Porsche RS America – I had never been in a car even remotely that powerful and the sensation and sounds of it were absolutely phenomenal.
    That memory will be with me forever.

    Nothing illuminates life more than the proximity of death in an old car with a big motor. What a great story!

    My 1st & only ride in a real Cobra was about March of 1966 when I was on my way home from USMC training in NC with some other USMC buddies on a train. We had a stop & layover in DC where 1 of my buddies lived. His Dad was a big wig in DC & had a year old 289 Cobra. My buddy offered all of us a ride in the Cobra. It was evening so traffic was light & Tom could get on it on the freeways to show us what it would do. Never forget it!

    Rob, you have a helluva lot more restraint than me, but then maybe it’s because the chance to drive my Dream Car – a 308 Ferrari – came a bit earlier in life (my 16th birthday and the day I passed my driving exam) when my maturity level may have been a bit lower than yours.
    A family friend had just bought the Ferrari and he invited us over to see it on the way back from the DMV. Somehow my dad convinced the friend to let me drive it – as a birthday gift I guess – and the friend agreed, apparently feeling that the last six months driving my dad’s ‘69 Judge on my Learner’s Permit satisfied the prerequisites for piloting his brand new Ferrari.
    Unbeknownst to both however, was the fact that for the last year I had surreptitiously been sneaking out with the Judge and street racing it. So when the opportunity came to open up the little V-8, I literally jumped at (on) it.
    Someone earlier mentioned giving a passenger a heart attack and that’s pretty much what I thought I was witnessing as I glanced over at the owner after backing off the throttle and noticed he was a little more pale that when we had started the drive. “Nice car” I said, not being horribly impressed with the Ferrari’s straight-line speed, to which the owner shakily replied “Thanks, maybe we should keep it a little closer to the speed limit on the way back.”
    Today the Goat is gone, replaced by a serial string of X1/9s, a Lancia Scorpion, and, finally, the 308 currently sitting in the garage.
    If anything, the Ferrari is even slower today relative to most other cars on the road than it was back then. And while it will never turn my insides to jelly like the Goat did, I don’t need it to any longer because I think I’ve finally achieved the same level of maturity Rob exhibited when he deferred the opportunity to drive the Cobra. Maybe. 😉

    Rob, I laughed and laughed. Just a wonderful story. Thank you. I am a retired “professional visitor”; aka traveling salesman. I called on a Frenchman in Germany who had a pic of a Cobra on the shelf behind his desk. It was also a real one, which he kept at the family home in Nice. Every year, he goes home for the Monaco Grand Prix and drives the car over. Although, he said, all the requests to buy it become tiresome!

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