Herbie Hancock has rocked an original Cobra longer than anyone

Joseph Puhy

We dedicated the May/June 2023 issue of Hagerty Drivers Club magazine to the deep connections between music and cars, including several fun lists featuring your favorite car songs. Come back often or click the Music & Cars tag to stay up to date on these stories as they roll out online. You can also jam with our custom Music & Cars playlist on Spotify, available here.

The year 1963 was a good one for jazz phenom Herbie Hancock. At 23, he had just joined the biggest band on earth, led by star Miles Davis on the Blue Note label. Plus, he had received a fat royalty check for the song “Watermelon Man,” which crossed over to crack the top 100 on the pop charts. Hancock found himself flush, pocketing six grand, the equivalent of about $50K in today’s dollars. That was a lot of money for a guy who grew up middle class in Chicago.

Of course, Hancock has been rewarded many more times since, winning 14 Grammys and an Academy Award for the soundtrack to the film Round Midnight in 1986, as well as earning six honorary doctorates. But that was all still to come. On that day in 1963, Hancock wanted to buy himself a gift to celebrate his early success.

“I had never purchased a car before,” Hancock told us. “The only car I ever drove was an old Dodge.” That car was Hancock’s ride at Grinnell College in Iowa, where he graduated with degrees in music and engineering. So when it came to buying a new car, Hancock recalled his dad’s advice about being wary. Probably for that reason, he planned to play it safe and just get a station wagon, “so I could haul my band around.” But Hancock’s roommate, trumpeter Donald Byrd, drove a Jaguar and talked Hancock into checking out a Cobra. “This guy Carroll Shelby is kicking Ferrari’s ass!” Byrd told Hancock.

A rude New York City car salesman had no clue who the fresh-faced Hancock was when he strolled into the dealership, ogling the gleaming white swoosh of aluminum with its red leather cockpit. “The salesman saw a shabby-looking Black guy. He didn’t treat me like a customer.” Hancock admits he bought the 260-cubic-inch Cobra out of spite. “If he hadn’t pissed me off, I probably wouldn’t have bought it!”

That impulse buy 60 years ago has appreciated considerably; the car could be worth $2 million or more today, and Hancock is now the longest continuous owner of any Cobra.

Herbie Hancock AC Cobra portrait closeup black white
Jazz virtuoso Herbie Hancock was looking to buy a sensible car after receiving his first big royalty check. But after some convincing from his roommate, Hancock ended up in a Cobra. Joseph Puhy




Tom Cotter: You said the Cobra scared you at first? 

Herbie Hancock: My roommate Donald drove the car home. I was afraid because it was so powerful. Before I ever drove it, I’d go into the garage I rented and practice shifting it through the gears.

Eventually you got used to driving it—even cross-country, right?

I lived in New York City, so I mostly rode the subway, but if I needed a car, I drove the Cobra. I spent a lot of time commuting over the Triborough Bridge and on roads like the West Side Highway. The clutch was so hard to push down that I had to anchor myself against the back of the seat to push it. In 1964, when I was playing with Miles, I drove it to Chicago for a gig. It was summer, and the car ran really hot, so I brought along a mechanic friend in case I had any problems. We had to stop a few times to let it cool down, but we drove straight through from New York City to Chicago with no issues. I’d drive it to gigs in Philly and Boston all the time.

A Black man in an exotic sports car—were you ever harassed?

I lived on 93rd Street in Upper Manhattan. Once, I entered the West Side Highway and floored it to merge into heavy traffic. Man, I was going so fast! A police officer chased me down and gave me a ticket. I could tell he had a bad attitude because he didn’t believe it was my car. I did my best to avoid conflicts like that.

Herbie Hancock AC Cobra hand on wheel detail black white
Joseph Puhy

You didn’t baby the Cobra. How come?

An accident changed my perspective. A few weeks after I bought it, I gave Donald the keys. He was waiting at a traffic light in Manhattan when two cars crashed going through the intersection and slid into the Cobra, smashing the left front fender. Thankfully Donald didn’t get hurt, but he called me and said, “Herbie, I screwed up your car,” but it wasn’t his fault. I found a shop on Long Island that knew how to work on aluminum, because I didn’t want any Bondo. They had to repaint it entirely. From then on, it was just a car to me.

What did Miles Davis think of your Cobra?

He was always driving Ferraris and Maseratis, right? He had a new one every three or four years. Just before I joined Miles’ band, I was playing a gig with trumpeter Clark Terry at the Village Gate in New York, and Miles was in the audience. At the end, he came to my dressing room and asked if I wanted a ride uptown in his Maserati. I said, “I’d love to, but I bought a car a couple of weeks ago.”

Miles said, “But it’s not a Maserati.”

I said, “No. It’s a Cobra, and it’s right outside the door.”

When he saw it, he said, “Oh, cute.”

This was about 4 in the morning, so we both lined up our cars at the traffic light and waited for it to turn green. I floored it and left him in the dust. Before we got to the next red light, I had already taken out a cigarette and lit it.

“What the f*ck was that?” he asked.

“I told you, it’s a Cobra.”

“Well, get rid of it. It’s dangerous!”

You wrote a song about your car for your album, My Point of View, in 1963.

I had a song, but I still didn’t have a title. Then I got it! It came to me: “King Cobra.” Not having a title’s pretty common. In 1965, I wrote another song without a name. Then I played it for my sister’s friend, and she said, “It reminds me of the water.” That clicked. Then she said, “It feels like a voyage,” and I almost peed my pants. Blue Note liked it so much, Maiden Voyage became the album name.

Herbie Hancock AC Cobra behind the wheel black white
Hancock and his Cobra have been making memories for 60 years. Once, he smoked a Maserati driven by Miles Davis in a stoplight drag race. Joseph Puhy

Apparently, your Ferrari never inspired a song title?

It was a lemon. When I turned 50, I bought a 348. But I didn’t buy a red one, because a Black guy in a red Ferrari is just looking for trouble. I joined the Ferrari Club and once attended a fancy car show in Beverly Hills. The press wanted to interview me. They asked, “Do you own a Ferrari?” I said, “Yes, a 348.” They asked, “Can we see it?” I said, “Well, no. It wouldn’t start this morning, so I drove my Cobra instead.” But when I bought the Ferrari, I walked out into the carport and apologized to the Cobra. I said: “This is for your own good. You’re too valuable. Look, it’s a Ferrari. At least it’s not a Corvette!”

Would you ever sell your Cobra? Who gets the car when you’re gone?

I’ll pass it on to my daughter. Maybe my little grandson will inherit the Cobra eventually. A classic car dealer offered to buy it in the 1970s. He offered me $10,000. He started to take stacks of hundreds from his briefcase, placing them on the table. He said, “All you need to do is sign over the title and all this money will be yours.” So I looked at the money, then I looked at the title. Then I looked at the money, and I looked at the title. Finally, I said, “Sorry, but I can’t sell it. This car is my buddy.” As the man was leaving, he shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, “You did the right thing. You should never sell that car.”




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    Agreed! What a refreshing story: a guy who just loves his car enough to keep it despite offers of ridiculous cash to sell it. AND – he DRIVES it! 👍👍👍
    Plus, in addition to being a great musician, Herbie sure sounds like a cool dude.

    Trust a youngest brother of a guy who went to Grinnell with him. He is THE coolest.

    Great article on a truly great guy and car! I met Herbie one time at JFK Airport where I worked for JAL. He was heading to Tokyo for a gig…a Total gentlemen!
    What can I say Great cars deserve great owners!

    John Leaver
    La Conner, WA

    Shelby got maybe 100 of the HP-260 very high performance (for the time) 260s.
    But the engine in the Hancock Cobra is a 2bbl carb version of maybe 100hp Less!
    That makes it a double classic. I have no idea how many were made with that particular
    engine. Within a few years, Ford was onto the 289 which was Iconic and used in many Ford
    cars for maybe a decade or more.

    Sorry to hear he pass away. Wish he would have told the story years ago. I loved it. Heard Bill Cosby had one as well.

    Herbie’s very much alive, still playing great, and has told the story of his Cobra many times over the years!

    That’s what I heard too. He talked about it one one of his albums. He said he told the delivery guy to give it to George Wallace. That, of course, wasn’t really the case.

    Cosby had one of the two ever built “King Snakes” for lack of a better actual name for them. Shelby had the other one. 427 with twin Paxton blowers, C-6 AUTOMATIC trans.
    Shelby’s car was just recently (last 2-3 years) sold but Cosby’s was sold many years ago to a gent in Mexico, who rolled it into a ball on a mountain road, totaled car & himself in one fell swoop.
    Low performance drivers should NOT have high performance cars !

    Please tell Herbie that his Grinnell pal Nancy Smith (Ball) ‘60 still follows him and his music and shares
    his passion for cars. Just joined boyfriend Bill Emerson in taking a ‘99 Miata on the way to the junkyard
    into a show quality vehicle. such fun!

    Hi Nancy! When he played at Darby Gym for the GC sesquicentennial, he did the Q&A afterwards and I said said “I’m Bob Taylor’s little brother Paul” he pointed at me and made his hands form a shape and said said,”I remember when you were born!” After about the 8th question about the car, Bob told me to stop and get back to the musical questions. 🙄

    I named my white dog Shelby after Carroll. I always had the desire to put two blue stripes on her back.

    What a great story. The second person in the music industry to buy a brand new Cobra, and overcame the handicap of one being black and the other a young woman who wasn’t 18yrs old yet.
    Anyone know who the gal was…and what the car gave her?

    Another great story!! Just love a good one like that.. I almost saw Herbie across the table telling it!!

    For the above Article, The Editor let this one get by in the Introductory Teaser: “…..Wood you believe it?…”. Spellings CAN change–this one, however, is a new one for me! If the Article were about a “Woody” Vehicle–I could understand it. Did I miss something?

    You are so right, Jason! I GOOFED! Maybe I could learn to read more carefully. Thanks, Guy!

    jaysalservw : “Spellings CAN change–this one, however, is a new one for me! If the Article were about a “Woody” Vehicle–I could understand it. Did I miss something?”? I must have missed something because I don’t understand your comment or question ??????

    I’ve always liked Herbie and his music. The fact that he’s not only a car guy, but one who actually drives them like they’re supposed to be driven – just makes me like him even more.

    Thanks for the great story, Tom. Great musician, great guy, great car, great story. We all are better for it.

    Have been a huge fan from as long as I can remember. If I could ask Mr. Hancock a question……
    “Wonder what was a greater challenge, The Cobra or the rude New York City car salesman et al ?

    Great story! I bet Herbie and Miles had good times with their cars as well as enjoying making music together!!

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