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The utterance of the name Carroll Shelby often conjures up mental images of American motorsports dominance in the 1960s. Perhaps best exemplified by the GT40 racers that took multiple consecutive wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the latter part of the decade – which included a first, second and third place finish in 1966 that filled the top podium spots with Ford drivers – a feat Ford nearly repeated last year in the GTE-Pro Class.

But before GT40’s mid-engined chassis would sprint to victory, there was another far rarer fixed-roof car that Shelby and his team put together to bring the heat to the international stage of racing. Though its development was rushed and the production stint brief, the Shelby Daytona Coupe would see its fair share of racing success, and its breathtaking silhouette would help solidify its place among the iconic models in Ford’s history.

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Although the Cobra roadster was a force to be reckoned with at tracks in the United States, endurance racing circuits in Europe like Le Mans offered opportunities for higher top speeds, where the aerodynamic drag of the Cobra’s roofless design prevented it from competing with the likes of the Ferrari 250 GTO. The solution, as Peter Brock saw it, was to re-body the car as a coupe designed for low drag, while maintaining high-speed stability. (Photo Credit: Historic Vehicle Association)

Cobra Goes Hardtop

I explained to Carroll that the car’s got too much drag to go any faster — we’ve got to either reduce the drag or up the horsepower. — Peter Brock

“Carroll said, ‘I want to go to Europe – how are we going to go faster?” recalled Peter Brock, one the chief engineers behind the Daytona Coupe in an interview with Hagerty Cars. This was a new problem for Shelby, whose Cobra roadster had recently debuted alongside the new second-generation Stingray Corvette and its race focused counterpart, the Z06, and had proven itself to be substantially faster on track than the Bow Tie. But European tracks like the Circuit De La Sarthe featured extensive straights that would allow for the cars to hit much higher top speeds than those reached at stateside road courses, and cars like the Ferrari 250 GTO had reigned supreme in this realm for years, which posed a serious problem for the roofless Cobra.

“The guys were already getting as much horsepower [as they could] out of the 289 engines we were running in the Cobra roadsters,” Peter said. “I explained to Carroll that the car’s got too much drag to go any faster — we’ve got to either reduce the drag or up the horsepower. I said that if you double the speed, the drag goes up by the square, and if you want to overcome that with horsepower, you’re going to have to go up by the cube, and there’s no way we were going to cube the horsepower. So unless we changed the body completely, there was no hope with the roadster.”

Build Your Own

65-coupe-4jpgOdds are you can’t afford to pick up one of the handful of real Daytona Coupes built back in the day. However, if you want to own one that you can actually drive while not fretting about a fender-bender in a multi-million-dollar machine, Factory Five Racing will sell you a kit to let you build your own.

That’s right, Factory Five’s Gen 3 Type 65 Coupe is available as a base or complete kit that you can option out just the way you want it. You can power it with a pushrod small-block or even a modern Coyote 5.0-liter. And, with the base kit starting at $16,900 and the complete kit running $21,990, these coupes are certainly a lot more attainable for the rest of us.

Armed with the lessons learned from his stint at GM helping to design the Stingray Corvette (and its issues with high-speed front end lift), Peter penned some design sketches for the Daytona. “I told [Caroll] that this car was going to be a very different looking automobile,” Brock explained. “Caroll didn’t seem to care much about what the car looked like – all he cared about was whether or not it was going to be faster.”

He also sifted through GM’s document archives for aerodynamic research that had been conducted by a group of Germans in the late 1930s, engineers who’d made significant discoveries in the field before most automakers had even begun to consider the subject.

But with their rushed construction the early Daytona prototypes were relatively crude machines, and Peter had difficulty getting the rest of Shelby’s team to commit serious effort to the project initially. “They’d just won three championships in 1963 with the Cobra roadster and were a pretty proud group – they just didn’t want to spend any time working on something that looked like a losing proposition,” he said.

Brock recalled that most on the Shelby considered the quickly cobbled together Daytona prototype an ugly specimen. It would take some time for the rest of the Shelby team to join in the Daytona Coupe development effort in earnest. Image: Historical Vehicle Association

Peter Brock recalled that most on the Shelby considered the quickly cobbled together Daytona prototype an ugly specimen. It would take some time for the rest of the Shelby team to join in the Daytona Coupe development effort in earnest. (Photo Credit: Historical Vehicle Association)

Right then we knew we could be comparative in speed with the Ferrari. — Peter Brock

But Peter, along with a skeleton crew of engineers and driver Ken Miles, convinced Shelby to move forward with the project. “So basically Ken Miles, John Ohlsen (a British engineer hoping to avoid a return to winter in the UK), and myself were the team that worked on this car to begin with,” he explained.

It was just 90 days between his initial sketches and the car’s first laps on a race track, and the car was pretty rough by Peter’s own admission. But the project slowly began to pick up momentum, especially after the team came back from initial testing at Riverside raceway with a top speed that was already 20 mph higher than the roadster despite identical gearing.

“Right then we knew we could be comparative in speed with the Ferrari – and this was right out of the box,” he said. “The coupe suddenly became the focus of the shop’s attention.”

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Incredibly, it took Peter Brock and a handful of engineers and fabricators just three months to go from sketches to testing a Daytona Coupe prototype on track. (Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company)

Soon after the team headed down to Daytona to do more testing. Realizing how much quicker the car was than the Ferraris it would be competing against, the team tweaked the gearing to put the car on par with the Ferrari’s speed on the speedway’s high banks, and the drop in overall RPM yielded the team 25-percent better fuel efficiency than the Italian team’s car. This in turn meant less pit stops throughout the race, which would give the car a massive advantage in endurance racing.

Competition Proven

While the car would soon prove its worth out on the circuit, its debut at the Daytona Speedway race didn’t go exactly as planned. While leading the race by roughly seven laps, a fire broke out in the pits that forced the team to retire. But the Daytona team would get its chance at redemption at the 1964 12 Hours of Sebring, where the car would win the GT class.

“Ford saw how fast the car was going, and that was the point when Ford Motor Company came in to give us some help,” Peter explained. “They decided to back us for a program to go to Europe.”

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The Daytona Coupe at speed during the 1965 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. (Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company)

At that point the team decided they would build six coupes in total to campaign in FIA racing and elsewhere. But the timing was less than ideal – the Daytona Coupe would head to Le Mans for the first time on the same race weekend the GT40 was scheduled to debut, a vehicle that Ford had spent millions of dollars developing and had a massive amount of publicity behind it.

At this point the GT40 was still a work in progress though, and its aerodynamic instability would cause French driver Jo Schlesser to crash the car during practice. Dejected, Jo came across John Ohlsen at the track, who’d be tasked with babysitting the Daytona Coupe while the rest of the Shelby team finished their work at the Targa Florio race before joining him at Le Mans. Curious about this new hardtop Cobra, Jo asked if he could get some seat time in the Daytona.

The Daytona Coupe helmed by Bob Holbert and Dave MacDonald at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1964. They would finish first in the GT class and fourth overall. Image: Ford Motor Company

The Daytona Coupe helmed by Bob Holbert and Dave MacDonald at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1964. They would finish first in the GT class and fourth overall. (Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company)

After receiving Carroll Shelby’s blessing the following day, Jo set off in the car and promptly set the GT class lap record on the course, running nearly as fast the Prototype class cars.

With both the Ford’s GT40’s out of commission due to crashes during practice sessions, the Daytona was left to serve as Ford’s main entry in the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans. It did not disappoint, winning the GT class with drivers Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant taking turns at the helm. The Daytona Coupe would go on to win more than half a dozen races over the 1964 and 1965 seasons, including a class win at the 24 Hours of Daytona to redeem itself from the previous year’s mishap, and it would also collect 25 land speed records at Bonneville in 1965.

The Legacy

While the Daytona Coupe had more than proven its worth in short succession, its accomplishments were quickly overshadowed by the GT40. By the 1966 race season Ford’s mid-engined racer had been properly dialed in and would go on to dominate Prototype class racing, exemplified by its aforementioned sweep of the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans that year.

Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe chassis #CSX2601. (Photo Credit: Mecum Auctions)

Just six original Shelby Daytona Coupes were built in total, and each would go on to compete in motorsport throughout the 1960s to varying levels of success.

Today these six Daytona Coupes are considered some of the most valuable cars in existence, with chassis # CSX2601 fetching $7.25 million at Mecum’s inaugural Monterey auction on August 15th, 2009, setting the record for the highest price paid for an American car at a public auction despite being sold during the height of one of the largest financial downturns in history.