The 152mph Cobra that persuaded Carroll Shelby’s customers to buy one. The Blue Demo Flat-out in the Shelby Cobra that parted petrified customers from their cash in Sixties California Originally a famous demo car in LA, this Cobra had a chequered history before a recent rebuild aimed at taking chequered flags. Words Ivan Ostroff. Photography Jonathan Fleetwood.
Shelby Cobra 249 factory demo driven
First gear selected and with around 3000rpm on the clock, I drop the clutch. The rear Avons light up immediately and I’m shoved hard in the back as the Cobra catapults itself forward and hits the magic 60mph in four seconds while still in first gear. I pull the Hurst shifter back into second and the wheels continue spinning as the car crabs sideways. A correcting twist, then she’s straight, but the wheels are still spinning in second and it crabs a bit more. Another correcting flick and now it’s gripping as we streak up the road at an astonishing rate of knots – even for a Cobra. The exhaust note is a crackling staccato roar that sounds like half a dozen motorbikes – three behind each ear.
I’m on a quiet English country lane, but I’m getting some idea of the thrill experienced by potential Cobra customers being taken on a demo drive in California in the mid-Sixties. That’s how this car, chassis number CSX2360, or more colloquially ‘The Blue Demo’, started its working life.
It was shipped from AC Cars of Thames Ditton to the United States on 5 March, 1964. It arrived at Hi-Performance Motors Inc of Los Angeles, the factory outlet for cars produced by Carroll Shelby, after being fitted with a 4.7-litre (289ci) Ford V8 at Shelby’s facility in Venice, LA. This was a well- established arrangement – ex-racer Shelby had proposed fitting an American V8 into AC’s Ace sports car in 1961, and by 1964 was well into the swing of receiving complete trimmed cars from the UK without engines and gearboxes, ready for powertrain installation.
To say that this car has had a fascinating and chequered history would be an understatement – in fact, it’s currently focused on taking chequered flags, with owner Kevin Kivlochan having had it rebuilt to compete in racing. But it’s still road legal – and that’s why I’m on an English country lane, dreaming about those mid-Sixties Californian demo drives. Peter Brock, who worked for Carroll Shelby from 1961 until 1965, took customers out for dozens of demo runs in this very car. Says Brock, ‘It had such incredible performance for the time, going from 0-100mph in 12 seconds or so, that it was always a revelation for people. Customers were often so utterly gobsmacked by the Cobra’s performance that they would come back and simply want to write a cheque immediately.’ Having tasted the car’s performance, that’s no surprise to me. However, I’m having to be a bit more circumspect in using it, because I don’t have the same carte blanche that Brock and his fellow demo drivers were afforded by the local law enforcement.
‘We had a sort of arrangement with the police back then,’ he continues. ‘As long as we didn’t create a problem with the local populace running around the area at absurdly high speed, and stuck to that one area, they didn’t bother us too much. ‘There was a regular route that we would use where we would demonstrate the car for potential customers. Out there within the limited confines of the public roads, we had one long, sweeping fast corner where we could get up to around 100mph in third gear, and there was a long stretch behind our workshop in Venice where I could get the car up to a good speed. There were some other corners on the route back, but then we were getting back into an area with more traffic and had to be a little more restrained.’
Because the car has recently been prepared for circuit racing, the usual windscreen has been removed and a small perspex screen fixed in its place. In a salute to the Dragon Snake, the Cobra that Shelby was running as a dragster in the Sixties, Kivlochan has had artist Neil Melliard paint a ‘saucy lady’ and a chequered flag on the rear bulkhead, in the style of hot rod artist Gil Elvegren. Casting my eyes around the cockpit, I’m impressed by the fact that Cobra racers Allen Grant and Bob Bondurant have signed the glovebox lid. CSX2360 is clearly an important motor car.
Although rebuilt as a racer, this cockpit is not very different from a regular road-going Cobra. Below the gauge cluster is an aluminium panel of toggle switches. The starter and ignition switch is to the left – up once for ignition, up two places for start. An extra instrument panel on the tunnel houses a clock, an on/off stop/ start electric button and a switch activating the fire extinguisher system, the bottle for which sits reassuringly by the passenger’s feet. In my own footwell, my legs are well over to the left but the pedals feel perfectly spaced. To heel-and-toe, I can simply roll my right foot over so the side just kisses the accelerator, while maintaining full pressure on the centre pedal. Just perfect. The clutch is not nearly as heavily sprung as I had expected and rather more user-friendly than that of any other Cobra I’ve driven. Although the steering is a little heavy during low-speed manoeuvres, once at normal road pace it lightens up and is no real problem. The brakes feel surprisingly good from cold, which is reassuring, and once warm the gearbox becomes pleasant to navigate. Even though this is a car intended for track use, it immediately becomes apparent that this engine is so flexible it feels happy at any speed in any gear.
A standard 289 Cobra was said to accelerate from 0-60mph in 5.5sec and had a reported top speed of 138mph. Not this one – CSX2360 is geared for 152mph and Kivlochan has already seen a genuine 144mph when racing. The 0-100mph time has not been captured, but will be much quicker than the standard car’s claimed 10.8sec. Delivering 438bhp at 6800rpm sounds breathtaking enough, but it’s the power to weight that really boggles the mind – in a car weighing 957kg (2109lb) this equates to blisteringly quick straight-line performance. The engine has an astonishing power delivery – completely smooth yet utterly instant. The slightest prod of the throttle and the Cobra rockets out of the box. But it’s the 380lb ft of torque that impresses me most. No matter what gear the car is in, the way the engine pulls as the revs spool up is amazing. Yet it remains tractable in all the Borg Warner T10 Top Loader gearbox’s four forward ratios. It will pull away from 25mph in top gear completely smoothly and so quickly that you reach the legal limit alarmingly soon. There’s no need to get impatient trying to overtake one car at a time. You just bide your time, wait for the right moment, drop a cog and pick off the whole line of cars in one fell swoop; Kivlochan’s racing results so far suggest that applies on the track too. Although changes will never be as quick as in a small-engined screamer, once you’re accustomed to the gearbox it’s quite easy to snick the gearlever up and down the ’box remarkably quickly. I prefer to heel-and-toe when braking and changing down in this type of car, but I have to admit that the synchromesh is pretty much unbeatable and the ratios seem a perfect match for the performance.
Kivlochan warned me that the car tends to suffer from understeer on long, fast, sweeping corners. His trick is to feather the throttle in order to encourage the tail out and then lift, because staying on the power will just increase the understeer. So, approaching a corner, I brake late, turn in, sense the steering weighting up, wait a moment while as the chassis settles itself – then, just as I sense the beginning of understeer, I feather the throttle. The tail lightens as it starts to come out and when the angle is just right, I floor it and straighten up as it storms out of the bend. In a straight line under power the car is wonderfully stable, and as I brake hard before a rather tight bend the all-round disc brakes are strong with plenty of feel as they haul off speed – but I do have to take care because they’re also easy to lock up.
Ford’s thin-wall block 289ci V8 engine used in the Cobra was surprisingly light for its power output but was still 7kg heavier than the 2.0-litre Bristol engine that the AC Ace’s chassis had previously accommodated. As a result, going into the corner, the rack and pinion steering requires rather more effort than at normal road speeds thanks to that V8 up front. Basically if you want to get through corners quickly, you have to be ready to manhandle the car. The Cobra is capable of much greater speed than an Ace and, of course, the faster you’re cornering the more understeer you’ll have to fight.
Being a track-prepared car, I expected the suspension set-up on CSX2360 to be rather firm – and indeed it is, exacerbated by the meagre padding of the driver’s seat. With transverse leaf springs front and rear, the Cobra feels quite different from something like an E-type or a Ferrari 250. You don’t just blast the tail out and plant the throttle – the Cobra is a brute and very physical to drive hard. It’s no good being timid with it – you have to take charge. But get it wrong and you’ll feel how deep its fangs can bite…
After regular use as the company demonstrator, CSX2360 was sold to Michael Graham of Stamford, Connecticut following a thorough reconditioning in May 1965. One day in the Seventies, Graham left the car at the local Ford dealer in Stamford for a service. Unfortunately, a fire broke out, destroying several vehicles and causing damage to the mid-section of the Cobra. It was removed along with other damaged vehicles to Capizello Brothers of Bridgeport. However, when owner Graham went along to claim the car, he was not allowed anywhere near it.
Unable to make any progress reclaiming his car, Graham became frustrated with the situation and sold the title of the Cobra to Carter Gette of Millbrook, New York State. When Gette went to see his purchase, he too was prevented from getting within eyesight of it. So he went off for his paperwork and returned along with the police.
When he was eventually shown his car, he discovered the reason that the storage facility had not wanted him to see it. To his horror, it had been run over by an excavator, causing further substantial damage to the bodywork and the chassis.
In September 1975, a despondent Mr Gette sold the wrecked Cobra to Gordon Gimbel of Cobra Performance in Sacramento, California.
Eventually, in December 1975, the car was shipped back to the UK, where it was bought for £790 by Donald Johnson of Staines in Middlesex, who had the car restored and converted to right- hand drive. After the restoration, Johnson enjoyed using the car regularly over for the next 25 years. In 2000, Johnson sold it to Roger Learmonth who kept it for the next 18 years. When current owner Kivlochan bought the car last October he noticed that Learmonth had only done 300 miles in it. Says Kivlochan, T asked Roger why he had driven it so little and he said his wife felt that it was just too juicy on fuel!’
To preserve the original 289ci 90-degree HiPo Ford V8 that was in the car, it was removed during the rebuild to be stored for safekeeping, with a similar 289 V8 fitted in its place. It’s been built to full competition specification by Knight Racing Services with steel connecting rods, forged pistons, gas flowed and ported cylinder heads and flowed Holley 650 carburettor.
It seems that CSX2360 also took to the track in its early years as the Blue Demo car in California. Says Brock, ‘If a customer had signed up for a car and was serious about a really high-speed demo, we’d invite them out to Riverside Raceway at Willow Springs for a thrash around the track.’ More than 50 years later, the car’s new career as a racer had an impressive start. In June 2019, Kevin Kivlochan entered the car in two HSCC races at Snetterton – and won both comfortably. Even well into its sixth decade, this Shelby Cobra is still an awesomely fast and fearsomely competitive beast.
Considering the car’s past experiences, an extinguisher system is a reassuring addition. Peter Brock remembers the law turning a blind eye to his Cobra antics – unfortunately Ivan isn’t afforded the same treatment in the UK. Kivlochan shook it down at Snetterton in June 2019, taking wins and fastest laps in both races he entered. This Cobra can be driven to the track, raced, then driven back on the road. Blue Demo Cobra was originally used to scare potential customers into parting with a $4800 cheque. Rebuilt for racing, the car’s glass ‘screen was replaced by a Perspex item. Hot rod art evokes the Cobra’s California days.
1964 Shelby Cobra ‘Blue Demo’
Engine Peter Knight-built 4727cc (289ci) 90-degree Ford HiPo V8, ohv, blueprinted and flowed Holley 650 carburettor
Max power 438bhp @ 6800rpm
Max torque 380 lb ft @ 5250rpm
Transmission Borg-Warner four-speed manual, Salisbury Powerlock differential
Suspension Independent, transverse leaf spring and wishbones, telescopic dampers all round
Steering Rack and pinion
Brakes Discs all round
Weight 957kg (2109lb)
Top speed: 152mph
Cost new Approx $6000
CC Price Guide £425,000-£825,000
OWNING THE BLUE DEMO’ COBRA
Owner Kevin Kivlochan says, ‘Having owned and raced one a few years ago, I was experiencing Cobra withdrawal symptoms. Then I heard that this car was for sale, so I looked into its history. When I heard it was the very car Shelby’s dealer used to take out potential Cobra customers in California all those years ago, I became rather intrigued. When I bought it last year, it was just a beautiful standard road car in BRG with tan leather interior and it was so docile to drive.’
However, Kevin wanted a racer and entrusted the car to Richard Walbyoff at RW Racing Services to be converted back to left-hand drive – as it was when it left the factory – and rebuilt so that it would be eligible for racing.
‘All the main mechanical components were removed to be rebuilt. At that stage, we decided not to risk race damage to the original engine and fitted a Knight Racing Ford 289ci V8. The body was stripped to bare aluminium, then went to Laurence Ketts at GA Fabrications for some minor body and chassis repairs. The car has been finished as it would have been if it had raced in America in period.’