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HomeCar Culture‘The last Cobra:’ retired Ford product chief tells of prototype’s creation

‘The last Cobra:’ retired Ford product chief tells of prototype’s creation

The unique Shelby V10 roadster is set for auction at Mecum’s Monterey sale

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( Editor’s note: The Shelby Cobra prototype sold for $2.64 milion, including auction fee, at Mecum during Monterey Car Week.)

Shelby Cobra, one of the most powerful names in the automotive lexicon, reaches far beyond the early 1960s when Carroll Shelby and company managed to shove a Ford V8 into an AC Ace sports car from England. Nearly six decades later, fresh 289 and 427 Cobras are created as the most replicated collector cars in the world.

But for a brief moment in the early part of this century, it appeared that an all-new Shelby Cobra would make a stunning comeback as Ford stylists and engineers – and Carroll Shelby himself – worked to re-create the magic in modern form. 

That result was a terrific Cobra prototype powered by a bespoke V10 engine and wearing a body design that both honored and updated the original style. Fully drivable, the roadster was tested for 150 brutal miles on a race track with Ol’ Shel behind the wheel, smiling broadly.

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Carroll Shelby raising hell and doing donuts in the 605-horsepower Cobra | Photo courtesy Chris Theodore

Alternately known as “the last Cobra” and “Daisy” (its code name while under secret development at Ford), the unique prototype is now owned by one of its developers, Chris Theodore, Ford’s retired vice president of advanced product creation, who purchased the sports car in a charity auction in 2017 after it was parked in storage for more than a decade.

“I mortgaged both houses to purchase the car,” Theodore said in an interview with ClassicCars.com Journal.  “I couldn’t conceive of this car just gathering dust in the corner of some museum.

“It was a dream come true; the car came home.  I got the car running great, titled and licensed for the road.”

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The Cobra is the rare concept car that is fully drivable | Photo courtesy Chris Theodore

An engineer, Theodore oversaw his team’s design of the chassis and suspension for the Cobra prototype, while the styling was done at Ford’s Valencia, California, studio under the direction of the famed J Mayes, the head of design for the Dearborn, Michigan, automaker.

Plans had been to produce the modern-day Shelby Cobra right on the heels of Ford’s masterful GT coupe that channeled the champion GT40 race cars of the mid-1960s, Theodore said. But, alas, the prototype 2004 Shelby Cobra became a one-off as world economic pressures leading to the Great Recession led Ford to shelve the project.

Since he returned the Cobra to running condition, Theodore has shown it to much acclaim in such events as the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida and the 2018 Concours d’Elegance of America in Plymouth, Michigan.

cobra, ‘The last Cobra:’ retired Ford product chief tells of prototype’s creation, ClassicCars.com Journal
Carroll Shelby was an active participant in the creation of Daisy | Ford photo

Theodore will oversee the Cobra’s next transition this month during Monterey Car Week, where Daisy will be offered as one of the stars of the Mecum collector car auction, to be held August 12-14 at the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa’s Del Monte Golf Course.

The 2004 Shelby Cobra prototype’s value is estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million.

“Very seldom do real concept cars go up for sale,” Theodore noted.  “Here you have a concept car, and it’s fully engineered, and on top of that, it was engineered with Shelby, and on top of that, it’s the last Shelby nod.

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The front end tilts forward to reveal the stunning Ford V10 | Ford photo

“I think the car has aged remarkable well.  I show it now and people say, is that coming out tomorrow?  When can I order one? And this is 17 years after we introduced it.”

All of the design work, the styling and the engineering was done entirely in-house at Ford, Theodore pointed out.

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The stylized interior of the Cobra concept | Ford photo

“The entire thing, all the gauges, all the details, were designed and manufactured in-house in Valencia,” he said.  “And we did it in eight months, from sketch to running car, with Carroll driving the car at the Irwindale Speedway doing donuts.”

The original plan at Ford, Theodore said, was to produce a “trilogy” of super sports cars, all of them using common components and all memorable touchstones of Ford/Shelby lore.  First out of the box was the Ford GT, which had a wildly successful run from 2005 to 2006, which was to be followed by the Shelby Cobra and, finally, a car that would update the original Shelby Daytona Coupe – the concept car for the Daytona was called the GR-1.

“We wanted to do a modern Cobra, which is how this concept came about,” he said. “Then I wanted to do an homage to the Daytona coupe, which was what the GR-1 was supposed to be.”

 

cobra, ‘The last Cobra:’ retired Ford product chief tells of prototype’s creation, ClassicCars.com Journal
The V10 engine was designed by Ford researchers to power the Cobra | Ford photo

Part of the impetus to create the Cobra and the Daytona concepts was that the Ford team had designed so many special components for the GT, which could then be applied to the other sports cars.

“We already spent the investment on the Ford GT and we could reuse a lot of those parts, include the transaxle that we put in the back,” the engineer said. “Basically, we could get three sports cars out of one set of components.

 “I originally wanted a V10 in the Ford GT but we couldn’t get there time wise. The research guys went off and did one on their own, and that’s what we put into the Cobra concept, a naturally aspirated V10 with 605 horsepower.”

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The prototype is seen as a modern-industrial restyling of the original Cobra | Ford photo

The Cobra concept’s styling purposefully deviated from the familiar sleek lines of the original, he said, becoming more modernized while trying to invoke a similar intent. And naturally, they did not want to produce something that would be seen as just another Cobra replica.

“In that period, J had done a lot of great cars under the idea of retro-futurism, but he started to get criticized for doing too much retro,” Theodore explained.  “In this case, this was kind of a reaction to that criticism and they (the design team) took a very industrial-design approach to it. 

“It’s very clean, very simple, trying to reduce everything to its essence. The original Cobra was a very simple design. They didn’t want to copy it.”

cobra, ‘The last Cobra:’ retired Ford product chief tells of prototype’s creation, ClassicCars.com Journal
Carroll Shelby with Chris Theodore during development of the Cobra concept | Photo courtesy Chris Theodore

One of the greatest thrills of the whole endeavor was working with the legendary Carroll Shelby, Theodore said, with whom he had gotten to know a few years earlier while at Chrysler and developing the Viper RT10. Shelby passed away in 2012 at the age of 89.

“He was my childhood idol,” he said.  “I first met him when I was working with the Viper team back at Chrysler. Then when I got to Ford in 1999, the first thing on my agenda was doing a modern GT40 and Shelby GT350s and 500s. 

“Carroll and I, first we worked on the Ford GT, and this car (the Cobra concept) was probably the most fun project we worked on together. After that, we did the GR-1.

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Carroll Shelby strikes a familiar pose 50 years later | Photo courtesy Chris Theodore

“After I retired, Carroll and I became closer and closer friends.  He’s one of these larger-than-life characters, always laughing, always… it’s just so hard to describe.  He’s just such a colorful character.  We used to talk at least once a week, and I’d go out to see him or he’d come to see me as often as we could.”

While Theodore might be sad to part with the Cobra prototype, which holds so many great memories, he realized back when he got it driving again that he was too worried about damaging the unique artifact to really enjoy its performance capabilities.

“I’m not of a means that I can drive a one-of-a-kind irreplaceable car without feeling the pressure of, ‘God, I might damage this thing’,” he said.  “You can’t push it because it’s irreplaceable. It’s a unicorn.”

For more informaiton about Mecum’s Monterey sale, visit the auction website.

Bob Golfen
Bob Golfen is a longtime automotive writer and editor, focusing on new vehicles, collector cars, car culture and the automotive lifestyle. He is the former automotive writer and editor for The Arizona Republic and SPEED.com, the website for the SPEED motorsports channel. He has written free-lance articles for a number of publications, including Autoweek, The New York Times and Barrett-Jackson auction catalogs. A collector car enthusiast with a wide range of knowledge about the old cars that we all love and desire, Bob enjoys tinkering with archaic machinery. His current obsession is a 1962 Porsche 356 Super coupe.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I suspect this car will bring more than the estimate. What a shame it never went into production and with that V10! Why, oh why, did the author not state how much the car sold for when Theodore purchased it? Seems like an important fact that was omitted 🙁

    • If you click in the link in the story at ‘charity auction in 2017,’ you can read the details of the purchase in our story from that time. But if you really need to know, it went for $825,000.

  2. I’m probably in the minority here, but I’m not a fan of this new industrial-stylized Cobra, too boxy and flat in areas. I guess the problem is that the original Cobra roadster body design was just about as perfect as possible, sexy and curvaceous as well as junkyard dog mean to the bone. I really love the original Daytona Coupe’s design as well, at least for a coupe. Oh well, to each their own.

  3. I agree with the last comment about the modernization of the original AC Cobra design. It reminds me of what Ford tried to do the the 55 – 57 T-birds the second time around. It was an anemic attempt and failed again… Same with this one and this coming from a person who owns a custom built 66 AC Cobra that looks much better is is probably more fun and dangerous to drive (which is part of the fun). And this coming from an old 75 year old guy who still thinks he’s 17…
    By the way, I’m guessing most people don’t have a clue what AC means in front of the Cobra. It’s strange and I had to look it up on Wikipedia of all places… Enough smart comments

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