Not so mellow yellow. The long and colourful journey from Honolulu to Goodwood for the ‘Hairy Canary’ Cobra. Words Julian Balme. Photography Olgun Kordal.
YELLOW PERIL ONTRACK IN A HISTORIC COBRA
THE SNAKE THAT SINGS
Sampling a Hawaiian Cobra that crossed the Atlantic to find fame on British soil
Last year’s Goodwood Revival marked something of a watershed, not only for the meeting turning 20, but also for longtime Cobra enthusiast Bill Bridges: it would be the last time he and his faithful bright-yellow British/American roadster contested the Royal Automobile Club TT Celebration race.
‘All of the modern tweaks, so common when prepping a Cobra for historic racing, were ignored; every detail was fastidiously researched’
“Halfway through qualifying, Desiré Wilson unexpectedly came into the pits and handed me half of the throttle pedal”
Fittingly, Bridges and co-driver Ludovic Lindsay lapped quicker than in any of the car’s 11 previous outings, and at a pace that would have seen the car garner a win when it was first entered in the prestigious race in 2004. On the surface, their finishing position within the top half of the field appeared respectable, but it disguised the fact that numerous entrants had taken each other out or pushed the development envelope one step too far. So, having restored and maintained the ‘Hairy Canary’ primarily by himself during the past 15 years, aided by a small group of experts and chums, Bridges felt that he’d probably gone as far as he could with the Cobra. He’d also found himself in a very different, less comfortable environment from when he had first started out in historic racing.
Like all of the Canary’s previous owners, Bridges had started his racing career with a Cobra – in his case a bright yellow AC MkIV that he campaigned in the Intermarque series. It was replaced by the blue AC 289 formerly owned by Aidan Mills-Thomas, but really he longed for a competition, leaf-sprung, pre-’1965 Cobra.
A right-hand-drive MkII (COB6044) was acquired and subsequently built into a racer, but Bridges hankered after an all-out period racing car. An opportunity finally arose via AC fancier Kevin Kivlochan, who had bought an unrestored race car from Bill Connell in Knoxville, Tennessee. Funds had barely landed in the American’s account before Kivlochan’s head was turned by another project, and as a result Bridges was able to strike a deal, sight unseen, while the Hairy Canary (CSX2151) was still on the water.
By the time it arrived on UK shores it was tired and bore the scars of a competitive life that lasted to its retirement from West Coast club racing in 1983. But in the 20 years that followed it had remained unused, complete and largely original – bar an enlarged later small-block Ford engine courtesy of second owner Gary Hauser. It was under the stewardship of the original keeper, Richard ‘Dick’ J Neil Jnr, that the yellow Cobra’s Hairy Canary nickname began to gain traction – although this snake hadn’t always worn such a brightly coloured skin.
In 1963, Massachusetts-based Neil Jnr was in his 20s and itching to go racing. Alumnus of the Sports Car Club of America’s Connecticut wing race school, he was relocated to Hawaii and had intended to drive his early 260cu in (4.2-litre) Cobra road car – with worm-and-sector steering – to Los Angeles before shipping it to the island. He got only as far as Syracuse in the next state before it broke down. Frustrated, he shipped the car to Shelby’s Venice, California complex, arriving at the end of August later that year.
Carroll Shelby, looking to avoid a potentially damaging situation, managed to turn things around in his inimitable style by taking Neil Jnr’s Cobra (CSX2005), plus cash, in exchange for a “brand-new ’1964 model, boy!” It was no such thing. The Cobra had always been conceived as a competition car and production modifications were made after nearly every race. So its larger 289cu in (4.7-litre) engine was already being used, and the cars had gone to rack-and-pinion steering and 3.77 rear-end ratios. They had also gained side vents to rid the engine bay of heat, but chances are that Neil Jnr’s new ride was the first to get them as standard.
Finished in Vineland Green with beige interior, the car was treated to American Racing five-spoke wheels, Weber carburettors, competition scattershield (bellhousing) and a roll bar, according to the Shelby American Automobile Club, before being freighted to Honolulu. With the imminent arrival on the island of Shelby heroes Dave McDonald and Ken Miles for the Hawaiian Grand Prix in the October of ’1963, Neil Jnr took the plunge and entered his first race: a novice-only contest on the support bill. He won the preliminary qualifier but failed to start the main. Nevertheless he was hooked, and for two further years he would enter all manner of local SCCA events including scratch races, hillclimbs and gymkhanas with distinction, finishing third in the 1964 Hawaiian GP and winning the same race a year later.
He maintained sponsorship from Hawaiian car polish company Dyna Glaze and at the end of the ’1964 season, prompted by an off-course excursion, had the car repainted an eye-catching yellow – possibly inspired by the Coventry Motors-entered Cobra of Allen Grant, one of the few privateers to get close to the works cars. It soon gained the affectionate and famous moniker of the Hairy Canary.
Neil Jnr moved back to the mainland and continued to race CSX2151 in SCCA events throughout the Pacific Northwest, eventually selling it to Hauser in 1972. Two years later the Canary found a new custodian, Canadian Ray Cooke, who ditched the yellow in favour of white while massaging the car’s wheelarches and adding a full-width roll hoop. He developed and raced the car in historic events for a decade before it eventually found its way to the sympathetic ownership of Bridges, via Knoxville.
“Before doing anything,” Bridges recalls, “I invited marque experts Nick Green and Robin Stainer to come and have a look. Once they were satisfied, the restoration could begin. Provenance was always a big deal for me and I wanted it to be absolutely unquestionable.”
Being from the school of gentleman enthusiasts, Bridges also wanted the Canary to be exactly as it was when it had raced on Hawaii. All of the modern tweaks, so common when prepping a Cobra for historic racing, were ignored. Those hard-to-find items that have since been deemed obsolete by today’s results-driven hotshoes were painstakingly searched for. From major components, such as a genuine five-bolt (bellhousing) hi-po 289 engine, to period Shelby bucket seats, every detail was fastidiously researched and found.
Having been a racer all of its life, and never run on public roads, the car had hardly developed any corrosion, as ‘Big Al’ Smith at Thunder Road found when he stripped the chassis for repainting. Likewise, Lawrence Kett of G&A Fabrications was able to retain all of the original aluminium panelwork when re-fashioning the body back to its 1964 contours. Traces of the canary-yellow paint were found behind the dash, enabling a perfect match to the island livery. The dyed-black passenger seat, with original aircraft-style lapbelt, was retained when discarding would have saved weight and a few tenths.
Bridges was enjoying the fruits of his labours within a year. But, while he had raced later cars without a ’screen and hardtop, to meet FIA and Goodwood TT regulations the Canary would have to wear both. Rather than fit the now-ubiquitous Le Mans fastback hardtop that was only ever used on three cars in period, Bridges found a factory version as used by the drag racers and had it modified to fit the single roll hoop.
Thankfully, by the time I get behind the wheel the hardtop has been taken off, making getting in and out a lot easier. As race cars go, the Cobra is nigh-on perfect. Mechanically it’s not sophisticated, and is obviously a product of the previous century, but this works in its favour where weight – the true enemy of racing – is concerned. There are no frills, no excess comforts. The doors, for instance, are small, with no external handles and with no window-winding mechanisms.
They consequently weigh about the same as an E-type’s ashtray. That windscreen barely has a frame – even an Elan has a thicker glassfibre surround; the dashboard is a minimal flat one-piece and the cockpit lacks creature comforts.
The Cobra is left-hand drive, which leaves the driver’s right foot with nowhere to go but onto the accelerator pedal due to the broad tunnel running fore to aft – which really is all you need to know. These cars are all about standing on the throttle along with momentary use of the brake pedal. With the associated performance, and such a seductive sound emanating from the other side of the firewall, where else would you want to put your feet?
Rather than a single Holley, electric fuel pumps feed four twin-choke 48IDA Weber carburettors, whereby each cylinder effectively has its own venturi. Firing up the ensemble can be tricky, because it’s easy to flood the engine with so much fuel sloshing about. But once it cackles into life everything seems right in the world. The Ford gearlever is semi-buried by the tall transmission tunnel, which acts as a perfect place to casually rest your right arm, particularly with such short throws. The T10 ’box is not the most sophisticated, but the changes are direct and the rare aluminium-cased versions are light.
The remaining pedals inspire plenty of confidence: the brake always feels firm and consistent and the clutch is extremely user friendly once you have suffered the obligatory stall. It’s not temperamental, and a trip to the shops would faze neither car nor driver, but really it is all about the throttle. How quickly you head towards the horizon, how much rubber is left behind or how much more you want the backend to step out is all down to the third pedal.
Folk often refer to Cobras as being muscular, aggressive machines lacking finesse, but in many ways it’s a big-engined Lotus Seven, a high-powered roller skate. After a few circuits it’s easy to appreciate how comfortably Shelby driver John Morton graduated from racing his Seven to a Cobra. The pair are equally rewarding to drive, admittedly in different ways, and you wouldn’t have a pulse if neither planted a smile on your face. But is it fast? Of course. It’s an absolute flying machine, far faster than this driver could safely extract from it. With 450bhp powering a 1912lb shell, it’s no wonder it can scoot around Goodwood in well under 90 seconds.
Shod with Dunlop L-section tyres, the steering is light and direct, despite the weight and proximity of the cast-iron V8 motor to the front axle. Legend has it that these cars need to be wrestled around corners, but this snake has fabulous turn-in and really is a pussycat – in the dry. The same combination in the wet is a different proposition, as I found out at worryingly low speed after a brief shower.
Although he was no stranger to driving Cobras, it was with the Canary that Bridges really learned his craft and formed a long-term relationship. It was kept at home in his Surrey garage, where he would spanner-check and service it between races. His pal Sam Smart often helped out with the the major jobs, such as end-of-season engine removal, but Bridges was essentially one of that near-extinct breed in historic racing: an owner-driver-mechanic.
Soon after the completion of its rebuild, the yellow Cobra and Bridges were teamed with Desiré Wilson for their first assault on the Goodwood Revival. It would be a fraught but character-building baptism. Bridges takes up the story: “Halfway through initial qualifying, Des came into the pits unexpectedly and handed me half of the throttle pedal. I had a good relationship with the boys at Uniclip – the Shepherds and their then-spannermen Steve and Kingsley – and despite also looking after the Bryants’ red-and- gold Cobra[GPG4C], ace welder Kingsley managed to repair the offending pedal in time for second qualifying on the Saturday. This was even less successful, because the Canary started to misfire and lose power halfway through the session. Sam and I inspected the valvetrain, but it was only once we got the heads off at around 11 o’clock in the evening that we found a bit of piston missing. The Uniclip boys had long gone back to West Byfleet with GPG on a trailer, because that too had lunched its engine, but Bill [Shepherd] and Grahame [Bryant] were still up in the motorhome when we reported in to say our race was run. Graham suddenly said, ‘You know, I’ve got another spare engine back at the workshop. You can use that if you want?’ Sam and I arrived at Uniclip just as the boys were tightening the last bolt on GPG: ‘Fancy doing another?’ As the least competent of the crew, I was sent out into the night to find a gallon drum of Red Bull and a ton of Mars bars. We got both Cobras back to the circuit and into the paddock with minutes to spare before the curfew.”
All that hard work was rewarded by a top-10 finish in the car’s first of 12 TTs: “Desiré was terrific, but I’ve been lucky with all of my Revival partners – David Franklin, Brian Redman, Stuart Graham. Hereckoned the Canary was the best car he ever drove at Goodwood. I was lucky enough to share the Canary with Sir Jack Brabham and Sir John Whitmore at the Festival of Speed. They were both disappointed that I didn’t have a title as well, so they made me an honorary Baron for the weekend!”
Countless other races and events followed, both at home and abroad. “We were at the Silverstone Classic one year,” Bridges recounts, “when an American couple, Bill and Donna Sainsbury, approached me asking about the car. Turns out he was a bit useful in his day and had shared the car with second owner Gary Hauser, giving him tuition in the process. He reckoned it was exactly as he remembered it.”
There was a memorable trip to South Africa in 2007, where Bridges contested the Springbok series of races and finished a rewarding second overall. But top of the list of favourite events came five years later, when he flew the Canary to California for the Cobra anniversary celebrations at Laguna Seca. Unlike most of the competing cars that are delivered to the circuit in huge artics, displayed under massive awnings and fawned over by a team of mechanics in matching shirts, Bridges naïvely had the car delivered to the circuit thinking there would at least be a Le Mans Classic or Goodwood-style tent to shelter the car. When he and wife Caroline, plus Sam and Linzi Smart, arrived at the track, the yellow Cobra was sitting in the middle of the sun-drenched paddock with just two spare wheels and a tool roll. “Caroline started chatting to a guy who was intrigued as to what we were doing,” says Bridges, “and before we knew it, we had the run of his truck, trailer, awning and tools – he even leant us some tyres!
“It was a magical weekend. Everyone was so friendly and the fact we’d come all the way from England – the only ones to do so – made us minor celebrities. Two weeks later we were back at Goodwood.”
The Hairy Canary has now found a new owner who, like those before him, is itching to go racing. The UK’s circuits haven’t seen the last of this charismatic snake.
Thanks to Pendine (07770 762751; pendine.com)
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1963 AC Cobra “The Hairy Canary”
Engine: 4,727cc Ford V8, four-speed Borg Warner T10 transmission, rear-wheel drive
Value: Comfortably in excess of £1.5 million
Max Power: 415bhp @ 5900rpm
Max Torque: 380lb ft @ 3600rpm
Top speed: In excess of 140mph
Acceleration: Standard 289s were capable of 0-60mph in about five seconds and a standing quarter mile in less than 14
Fuel economy: About 15mpg
Clockwise from main: trim windscreen has been added to race; Honolulu Advertiser, ’1964; simplicity is key to cockpit; a chance find enabled colour match. Above left: famous Cobra badge. Left: seats and lapbelt favour the original look over light weight. Main: period engine was sourced and installed. The Canary has sprouted a roll-hoop, so Bridges sourced a factory hardtop and had it shaped to fit. Inset: Neil Jnr racing in the Pacific Northwest post-’1966. Canary draws comparison to a Lotus Seven for Balme – rewarding to drive, with no hint of its agricultural reputation of all power and no finesse. Clockwise from above left: Bridges fixed a previous owner’s cutting of the wheelarches; cabin is without luxury; Halibrands replace original wheels.
OFF-THE-SHELF SHELBY RACERS
If racing one-man-bands such as Bill Bridges find the current era of historic racing intimidating, with highly modified cars at the cutting-edge of technology being run by teams of well-drilled mechanics, then imagine how Dick Neil Jnr and his ilk must have found competing against Shelby and his Ford-sponsored steamroller in the booming sports car scene of the ’60s. The factory produced no fewer than 33 team cars in various guises, including the two 427 prototypes and the six Daytona Coupes, competing not only in the international FIA GT championship, but also at home in both SCCA A production and USRRC races. As a privateer, you were hard pushed to race anywhere in the States without encountering not only the very latest incarnation of Cobra, but also most likely the formidable talents of Ken Miles or Dave McDonald. Even in Hawaii or Nassau there was little respite – duffing up the locals being almost a spot of light relief for the ‘works’.
Such was Shelby’s intent to obliterate the Corvette Stingray from the racing record books that even supposed independents Bob Johnson, Tom Payne and Dan Gerber were actually running factory-backed cars. One of the few who got close was Allen Grant, but he had the help of former Shelby engine builder Ole Olsen, who had been persuaded to join Coventry Motors and no doubt divulged industry secrets in the process. Armed with a fistful of dollars, one could have the factory build ‘one just like ours’ to either European or US racing specification, which at least a dozen racers felt compelled to do. But, according to SAAC authority Rick Kopec in his 1982 book on the cars, only a further 28 buyers bought a road car as a fully fledged private entrant. In total contrast to, say, the Lotus Elite, the factory entries outnumbered true privateers.