1962 Shelby Cobra CSX2000 Review: Driving the First Cobra Ever Built

With the Ford Shelby Cobra concept from 2004 headed to auction, we dug up our drive of the first-ever Shelby Cobra, which we originally published on January 24, 2005.

If the Ford Shelby Cobra concept represents the latest chapter in the Cobra’s automotive biblical story, then CSX2000—the very first Shelby Cobra—represents its Genesis. It was built by Shelby and a memorable gang of Southern California hot rodders in Dean Moon’s shop in early 1962, where a new Ford small-block V-8 was lowered into the empty engine bay of an AC Ace roadster. This is where the whole Cobra thing began.

It was Shelby’s development mule, a show car, and a press car; it was on the move all the time in those early days, and was repainted several different colors so people would think there was more than just one Shelby Cobra in existence. Carroll Shelby has owned CSX2000 since its inception. As I circled the racetrack in the latest Shelby Cobra, I could not help but recall the time I drove the first Shelby Cobra. The group of people who’ve driven both is undoubtedly small: me, perhaps one or two others, and, of course, Carroll Shelby.

In the CSX2000 …

CSX2000 is wonderfully worn, but beautiful in every way. Half the gauges don’t work, though the right turn signal does. All the time. No matter which levers I fiddle with. The car’s thin, wood-rimmed, alloy-spoked steering wheel feels like it’s made of Red Vines. There are a few, shaggy tears in the original leather seats. A crack in the blue paint on the top edge of the dainty, alloy passenger door reveals a glimpse of an earlier coat of yellow paint. The engine compartment is a bit shabby—the welds on the hand-made headers not exactly NASA quality. Who knows how old these rock-hard, Goodyear Motorway Special tires are. Some would label CSX2000 as “weathered” or even “thrashed”; others would say it has “patina.” We’ll just say it’s fabulously unmolested, and it deserves to stay this way.

Turn the key and press the starter button. The solid-lifter V-8 snaps to life, settling into a slightly cammy, clackety idle. Wisps of blue smoke trail from the 1.5-inch-diameter dual tailpipes, indicating piston rings that were indeed ridden hard, put away wet, and haven’t seen much action in the last 20 years. But the little 260-cubic-inch engine revs willingly, and once running, transforms the first Cobra from a vaunted, horrifyingly valuable museum piece into—as Shelby calls ’em—”a sport car”. It sounds good. It even smells good. Depress the firm clutch pedal, select first with the stubby gearshift, and we’re away.

The engine—plenty broken-in by now—revs easily, and blats out the expected small-block Ford sounds. Each tall gear seems to pull forever. Redline is 5,750 rpm, though it’s been to 7,000 revs and more, countless times. We dare not take it there, lest one of those original piston rings decides to help an original piston ventilate the original engine block—not something I want to be responsible for. But a crisp 1-2 shift at 5,000 revs brings a bark of old rubber, and suddenly it’s 1962: I’m Sports Car Graphic‘s John Christy, doing the very first article on Shelby’s new creation.

There’s plenty of play in the worm-and-sector steering, but it’s probably caused by the tires. The rubber makes the whole car feel squishy. That said, given that at least two of these shoes were put on the car when Kennedy was still in office, I’m just happy these tires roll and hold air. Better not push the handling thing. No such problem with the brakes, however; the unassisted four-wheel discs—inboard units at the rear—require a firm shove with the right foot, but there’s plenty of stopping power. And little dive or squat, too. No computer-aided electronically managed suspension system here; just transverse leaf springs, and worn-out shocks.

Cobra Kai

Let’s go through the gears again. The tall rear-end ratio lets the Cobra roll at freeway speeds in second, and comfortably so in third. Fourth feels almost like an overdrive; imagine what this combination of flexible V-8 power and lightweight would be able to do with drag strip gears. The engine’s hardly smoking at all now; maybe there are some rings left in there after all. Another 1-2-3-4 run—at near redline this time—amid much whooping and hollering from both myself and my passenger. Though it wouldn’t much impress a Viper RT/10 these days, the Cobra is fast—way fast—when viewed through the eyes of 1962. It’s none-too-shabby today, either; it should still crank out a 0-60 mph time of about 5.0 seconds.

The ride is relaxed, and the feeling from behind the wheel is not unlike that of my own Sunbeam Tiger—no surprise in that it too is a British roadster with a 260-ci Ford V-8, not to mention a brainchild of Carroll Shelby. But the Tiger is luxurious in comparison, although the Cobra offers more legroom feels more athletic from the driver’s seat.

As I drive CSX2000 through the Nevada desert on this hot summer day, I wonder: how many road tests has this car been through? How many burnouts, quarter mile runs, speed shifts, and doughnuts has this poor baby laid down (on its original engine and trans, no less)? How many Corvettes has it hosed the highway with? How many books and magazines has this single little roadster appeared in. How many of my journalistic forbears, movie stars, race drivers, engineers, and other hangers-on, have worked it through the gears “just one more time”?

Hard to say. I’m just damn glad to be one of them.

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