Motor racing in the 1960s produced, without doubt, some of the most colourful characters and some of the most iconic racing cars. With the subject of my next book being on the racing AC Cobras, I have chronicled below some of the joys and challenges of photographing Cobras.
Once motor racing had got under way in the 1950s after the low of the previous decade, the years of inactivity in the sport produced a plethora of interesting creations. By the time that the 1960s dawned, there was real growth in this industry and the search was on for the fastest car, the most powerful engine, the sleekest design, and the best drivers to pilot these race cars. As a result, the sport grew at a rapid pace and not only did the motor sport industry blossom, but the spectators were treated to a feast as well.
As much as on-track rivalry dictated the pace of the sport, so too did international rivalry grow, as British race teams wanted to beat the Continental teams, and before long the American manufacturers sought to get in on the action too. Although the American domestic racing scene was strong and healthy, teams and drivers from abroad always brought with them the latest and best racing machinery, and so the trans-Atlantic racing scene was born. In researching the history of one of the most iconic race cars from that period, I uncovered some of the intense rivalry that existed between not only the race teams, but also a bit of intercontinental needle on a more personal level.
For reasons we won’t go into here for lack of space, the British motor industry was the undisputed sports car capital of the world at that time. Great Britain in the 1960s produced more sports and race cars than any other country, and so when Carroll Shelby looked around for a chassis on which to base his plans for racing success, he naturally looked to Britain. One company that caught his attention was AC Cars in Surrey, a relatively small manufacturer of hand-built, lightweight sports cars, and following some discussions and negotiations which involved Ford of America, the idea that became the Cobra was born.
If there is one car name that invokes thoughts of small beginnings, brute power, and a success story by which the big names were regularly humbled, then that name must surely be Cobra. Against all the odds, the Cobra bucked and kicked its way into the lives of many racing enthusiasts, and is today the most copied sports car shape in the history of the motor industry.
But the story behind the story is an interesting one, in that a book project of this nature always brings the writer into contact with interesting, inspired and sometimes controversial characters. Happily this project has to date resulted in interviews with enthusiastic folk who are only too happy to share their passion for what is one of the most powerful and iconic race cars of its period.
In February, I embarked on a grand tour of southern England that took in three stops in three days. Due in part to the fact that we live in West Wales, any research trip needs to be maximised and so will typically take in as many stop overs as can be fitted into a single journey. On this occasion, the first stop was the Haynes Motor Museum, Somerset, who are also, conveniently, the publishers of this book. Arrangements had been made with all parties concerned and upon arrival, the Haynes Cobra was just being wheeled out of the front doors of the Museum, ready for a morning of shooting. The weather wasn’t great in that it was very dull and grey, but it was better photographically than brilliant sunshine, as one can get too much reflection off shiny bright work.
Not all the cars in the Haynes Motor Museum are put on display with batteries fitted, and in this respect the Cobra was no exception, and so some manpower was required to push the car around to the small track at the back of the Museum. It was freezing but some friendly faces and cups of piping hot coffee helped and I was soon done with that car and off to the next location. This one necessitated an overnight stay with friends in Berkshire so that I could hit the workshop down in Hampshire bright and early the next morning. The subject this time was a race car with period competition history that, between racing events, today resides with the company that maintains the car. Being in and around these cars is such a privilege when one considers that Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles would have personally overseen the finishing of these actual cars back in the day.
The day was spent shooting details from as many different angles as possible before the car was wheeled outside for a few full body shots. I thought that getting the Cobra out of the workshop would require moving about half the workshop, but in the end it required just two cars to be pushed out onto the forecourt. First to be wheeled out was a Maserati 250F followed by a Cooper Monaco, after which the Cobra was threaded through a maze of exotica, manoeuvring it carefully past a Lotus Cortina, a Lola T70 and then the number one (!!) Bizzarrini. What a day! I was like a small boy in a toy shop, but as I have learned from other similar adventures, the folk working on such cars day in and day out, tend not to see them in quite the way an outsider would.
The end of the day came all too quickly and my next stop was up in Buckinghamshire, to meet the owner of not one but three Cobras…lucky fellow. At first he apologised that his racing Cobra was in a state of complete disassembly, to which I responded with an emphatic ‘YES!’ as this gave me the opportunity of photographing a naked Cobra in all its glory. That night was spent with family in the area and the following morning I was treated to a real feast. Fortunately all the car’s components such as, suspension arms, fuel tank, gearbox, and many more, were available for individual photographing and the day passed all too quickly. Before I knew it, the clock was showing 17h30, and faced with a 4-5 hour drive home to West Wales (depending on traffic) I simply had to tear myself away.
All in all, this was one of the most valuable grand tours I have been on and it remains now for me to turn this lot into words. I was exposed to some truly awesome cars up real close, and I met some really great folk. This makes all the difference when pulling together a book on such an iconic racer.
If you are after one of these iconic cars to grace your driveway or garage, then you are going to have a bit of a problem because there were only 996 of them made in period. Of course the Cobra is the most copied car in the world, and the replica market is awash with companies that will offer you one at a fraction of the cost of a genuine car. But should both of these options be out of your reach, whether it be for financial or space reasons, then there is another option, the Revell Shelby Cobra 427 S/C 1:24 plastic model kit. With Revell’s experience in the scale model market, this fantastically well detailed kit is an excellent option and well worth exploring. You will find most good toy and model retailers stock Revell’s model kits, and their Twitter and Facebook pages are also full of useful and interesting content.
Written by: Glen Smale