Cars We Remember column: Shelby Cobra and Corvette Grand Sport: One you could buy and one you couldn’t

Greg Zyla
More Content Now
It's pretty clear Ford never followed the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) "no racing agreement" as back in 1965, it advertised its 427 Ford Cobra with a top speed of 175 mph and acceleration to 60 mph in 4.2-seconds. Any person with $5,995 could walk into a Ford dealer and buy one. Today, these 427 Cobras bring millions at the major car auctions.

Q: Greg, I enjoyed your article about the car manufacturers agreeing to stay out of racing back in the late 1950s even though many still raced. I’m wondering how the Corvette Grand Sports, built to race against the Ford Cobra, survived as General Motors did stop its corporate racing program in early 1963. Carroll Shelby introduced his first batch of Cobras with full Ford support in 1962, but can you tell readers what really went on and where the Grand Sports are today?

- Bill H., Portsmouth, New Hampshire

A: Bill, thanks for your comments and let’s start with the Ford Cobra, as it is the sole reason the Corvette Grand Sport was born. Then we’ll finish with the Corvette Grand Sport and where they are today.

Carroll Shelby’s main goal for Ford was to build an ultimate “street” car that would beat the Zora Arkus-Duntov built Corvettes as the Thunderbird fell short of expectations and Ford didn’t really have a sports car. He made a deal with AC Cars in England to secure bodies for his soon to be born Ford AC Cobra. Known here in the states as an AC Bristol, it was an underpowered six-cylinder European sports car that looked good but was slow. When Shelby received the AC Bistols, they were bare bones with no power trains and he readied them ready for some serious Ford performance engineering.

Shelby’s initial Cobra came to life in 1962, where he dominated road racing by trouncing the “always winning” A/Production Corvettes in road racing events everywhere. Under the hood of Shelby’s production-ready Cobras were a choice of two small block Fords in 260- or 289-cubic inch trim with up to 306 horses or, hold on to you britches, the thundering 427 side-oiler V8, listed at 425 horses but probably closer to 475.

Overall, only 654 small blocks and 350 or so big block Ford Cobras were ever built in seven years of availability. Today, if you see a real Shelby AC Cobra cross the auction block at Mecum or Barrett-Jackson, you’re talking big, big money.

In 1962, and to better answer your question, the Godfather of the Corvette, Zora Arkus-Duntov started to build his lightweight ’63 Corvettes all in response to the Shelby Cobra with Chevy’s blessing. Duntov had hoped to build over 125 of the Grand Sports to satisfy “official recognition” production quota rules so it could compete in International Grand Touring (GT) races like the 24-Hours of Lemans.

However, and as you note in your question, the GM executives who were enforcing its AMA “no racing” edicts, knew about Duntov’s lightweight Corvette program and moved quickly to squash (literally) the lightweight program. With just five Grand Sports built, executives wanted them destroyed immediately but thankfully all five found “new owners” just as quick and were moved from the GM grounds in warp speed fashion. Thankfully all five survive to this day in the safe hands of private collectors although the original 377-inch engines were confiscated by GM before the Grand Sports went out the door. They would race with different small and big blocks along the way.

The cars were raced by some of the biggest names, including Roger Penske, A.J. Foyt, Jim Hall, and Dick Guldstrand among others. Dick Thompson won a race in the Grand Sport against Maserati, Cooper, Porsche, Ferrari and other manufacturer backed entries in the 1963 SCCA championship race at Watkins Glen on Aug. 24 driving Grand Sport chassis No. 004.

As for ownership, here’s the best I came up with:

Chassis #001 is owned by former banker and car collector Harry Yeaggy of Cincinnati, Ohio. It was purchased for $4.2 million in 2002.

Chassis #002 is a part of the permanent collection at the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia. It is the only Grand Sport body that is original and unrestored. Also on display are a replica body and a spare 377-cubic inch engine, which were commissioned by the car’s previous owner, Jim Jaeger, for participation in vintage racing without damaging the original components. I personally saw this Grand Sport display when I visited the Simeone Museum about four years ago. (Highly recommended by the way).

Chassis #003 is owned by noted collector Larry Bowman. It was bought in 2004 for an undisclosed sum.

Chassis #004 is part of the Miles Collier Collection on display at The Revs Institute in Naples, Florida.

Chassis #005 is in the private collection of Bill Tower of Plant City, Florida. He was a former Corvette development engineer. Penske and Jim Hall drove this car to a class win at Sebring in 1964 and beat the Cobras.

There you have it Bill, the Cobra and the Grand Sport … one you could buy and one you couldn’t.

Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and Gannett Co. Inc. Contact him at greg@gregzyla.com or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840.

The 1963 Grand Sport roadster weighed in at 2,000 pounds versus a normal Corvette's 3,000-pound curb weight. Unfortunately, General Motors adhered to AMA edicts and pulled out of racing in 1963. Just five of the "Cobra killer" Zora Arkus-Duntov 1963 Corvette Grand Sports were ever built and all five are in safe hands today. This No. 12 roadster is owned by the Simeone Museum in Philadelphia and is valued at $10 million.