Ford Powers Shelby's Cobra Daytona Coupes To America's Only World Championship In1965.
Whether he was behind the wheel driving the wheels off whatever race car he was piloting or designing some of the fastest cars ever made by human hands, Shelby had one goal and one goal only -- win.
That trait was never more evident in 1963. After retiring from a driving career that saw him named Sports Illustrated’s Driver of the Year in 1956 and ’57, and win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959, Shelby turned his attention to building cars.
From a racing standpoint, he wanted to do something that had never been done before and that was to become the first American racing program to win the world sports car championship. The task was a daunting one considering Shelby would be competing against the likes of Ferrari, but that didn’t intimidate him in the least. In fact, it served as motivation.
Shelby had already begun building his Cobra enterprise, but when it came time to literally set the wheels in motion for a world championship run, he knew they needed considerably more speed to be competitive on the long straights of Europe’s circuits.
“Pete Brock was a young guy working for us that had been to the art center and I said, ‘Pete, sit down and sketch out something that you think would work,’” recalled Shelby. “He sketched out the Daytona Coupe, which is a beautiful, beautiful car. The Daytona Coupe was a surprise to me. It was sort of an eye-opener about aerodynamics. It was probably 300 pounds heavier than the roadster, and that means it was gonna be slower. Well, it really wasn’t slower. It was upwards of 20, almost 30 miles an hour faster.”
Brock said the car was over three seconds a lap faster right out of the box before they even touched the car, so hopes were high going into the 7-race season in 1964. Even more impressive is that the Daytona Coupe went from something that was just a concept to running on a race track in only 90 days.
The initial results were promising as the car appeared to be cruising toward victory in its debut in the 1964 Daytona Continental. Driver Dave MacDonald posted the fastest lap of the race, but the car caught fire in the pits after 202 laps and was forced to retire.
A month later, MacDonald and teammate Bob Holbert won their class in the 12 Hours of Sebring, but the Daytona Coupe really made a name for itself three months later when Shelby’s upstart program dominated the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant were leading the race with less than 10 hours to go, but a broken hose forced them to back off and save the car in order to finish the race. Despite running the car for about five hours at over 300 degrees, the Daytona Coupe still managed to win its class and finish fourth overall.
That led to a highly anticipated showdown in the season-finale in Monza, Italy with Ferrari holding a two-point lead over Shelby for the world championship.
“We had six of those Daytona Coupes all lined up. We had refreshed them and we were looking forward to Ferrari. We would have probably run at least 1-2-3-4,” said Shelby. “(Enzo) Ferrari, being politically savvy in Italy, cancelled the race.”
The controversy over that decision only served to motivate Shelby even more to win the championship the following year, and win they did. The Shelby coupes began the season by finishing 1-2-3 in-class at the 1965 Daytona Continental race and from then on, they were known as the Daytona Coupes. They continued in dominating fashion at the 12 Hours of Sebring with another 1-2-3 sweep.
The personal attention Shelby could devote, however, was severely curtailed because he had been charged by Henry Ford II to oversee Ford’s priority of winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As a result, Shelby opted to hand the reins of the Daytona Coupe program to Alan Mann, whose British team operation had recently become a Ford factory-supported effort.
Mann’s first race with the Daytona Coupes went just as well as Shelby’s entrants at Daytona and Sebring. Bondurant and Allen Grant took their Daytona to victory with Jack Sears and Sir John Whitmore taking second. The next race at Spa was one of the few “low points” of the season with one car finishing 2nd and the other failing to finish.
The team returned to form at the Nurburgring event, however. Bondurant and Frenchman Jo Schlesser took their Daytona Coupe to yet another victory with the team’s other car coming home second with Sears and Frank Gardner at the wheel. Rounding out the podium finishers in third place was the bright white Daytona coupe entered by Ford of France.
Next up was the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the longest and most important race of the year. Five Daytona Coupes were entered by a combination of Shelby American, AC Cars, Ford of France and the Italian squad, Scuderia Filipinetti, but only one of the aerodynamic coupes finished the race as the other four suffered a variety of mechanical failures.
The program, however, got retribution in a big way at the following round, the Reims 12 Hours as Bondurant and Schlesser teamed up again for a dominating victory at the French circuit. This victory, which ironically came on the Fourth of July, was the most special of all though because it clinched the World GT Championship for Shelby, becoming the first and only American program to win a World Championship.
Bondurant took yet another victory at the championship’s final round at Coppa di Enna, capping a season that Shelby basically dominated. The team won 6-of-8 races with a Daytona Coupe finishing on the podium at every round.
As such, the Cobra Daytona Coupe will likely go down in history as one of America’s most successful and important race cars of all-time. You don’t believe it? Well, in the summer of 2009, the car that Bondurant and Schlesser used to clinch the World Championship in 1965 (Chassis # CSX-2601) went up for sale at the Mecum Auto Auction in Monterrey, CA, and sold for $7.25 million, the highest price ever paid for an American car at auction.
“You’ll never have the enthusiasm that we had in the sixties with the hot-rodders that went out and won the world championship and beat the so-called best in the world,” said Shelby. “The enthusiasm was something that I wake up at night and I’m still amazed.”