Vintage Car and Driver Review: 1963 AC Cobra – The Birth Of A Legend, But Will It Be A Commercial Success?

The Cobra is of course iconic and legendary. But that certainly wasn’t the case in 1963 when the first Cobras were built, and not in the way you might expect: the chassis/body was shipped from the UK to a participating American Ford dealer who then installed the modified 260 CID V8 and B/W T-10 transmission. The Cobra was designed almost exclusively to be a highly potent SCCA racer, thanks to its phenomenal power-to-weight ratio and excellent chassis. But would it have any success beyond that? That was very much an open question at the time, one that C/D could only speculate on.

Right from the start, C/D states that the Cobra attained higher performance figures than any other car they had ever tested. And this was with the “street engine”, a 260 hp version of the 260 V8. The hotter 289 and the ultimate 427 were still twinkles in Carrol Shelby’s snake-eyes.

The AC Ace first saw the light of day in 1954, so it wasn’t exactly all that new. But designer John Tojeiro blessed the Ace with a very light frame made up of two large primary tubes with ample cross-bracing and a light tube skeleton for the aluminum skin. Tojeiro designed the body too, obviously with a close eye on Ferraris of the early ’50s. The Ace started life with an ancient long-stroke ohv 2 L six, then in 1956 it got the less-ancient Bristol BMW-derived 2L six. And then in 1961 it got its first Ford engine, the 2.6 Zephyr six.

More on the Ford V8 later. C/D points out that while the Cobra is almost perfectly attuned to the needs of successful SCCA racing, it was inevitably compromised as a street car. The gearing was not ideal for traffic, and a 5-speed with a lower first gear would be an improvement, given that the tuned V8 gave its maximum torque at a very high 4800 rpm. There was a pretty serious issue with the generator not putting out enough current for the car’s needs in traffic, but an alternator would soon fix that. The very limited steering lock made tight turns and parking challenging, and the 1 2/3 turns lock-to-lock made for heavy steering at low speed.  The cockpit was cramped, and the right leg was not always happy in its position. This of course a functionally obsolete early ’50s body, like an MG-A.

We are of course very familiar with the Ford small-block V8, but it was heady new stuff in 1963. Its very compact dimensions and light weight were unparalleled at the time, and made it highly suitable for the task at hand. The engine tested did not have the four Weber carbs as shown above; it had a large four barrel Holley carb, higher 10:1 compression, and a hotter cam. The racing version with the four Webers was rated at 335 hp. Given that it weighed a mere 2,120 lbs, it was obviously going to have superlative performance.

Somewhat unusual for the early ’50s, Tojiero blessed the AC Ace with four wheel independent suspension, and not with swing axles on the rear. Both front and rear had lower wishbones with a transverse leaf spring functioning as both the upper control arm and of course the spring. The rear wheels had an initial 3 degrees of negative camber. The result was a very firm ride at lower speeds, but one that came into its own above 50 mph. Cornering power was about as high as possible for the times, with its race-oriented Goodyear Blue Streak bias-ply tires (6.50-15 front; 6.70-15 rear).  Note: the 427 Cobra had a completely revised/new chassis and suspension.

Handling was of course excellent: “At high speeds, the driver begins to feel like an integral part of the machine.” Unfortunately the driving position was not so ideal.

The four unassisted disc brakes were up to the job, the biggest risk being in applying too much pressure to the unusual AC pedals that were double-hinged.

The question as to how such an overwhelmingly powerful and fast 150 mph machine fits into the scheme of contemporary road use, C/D pointed out that things like utterly effortless passing and merging can be a safety factor.

C/D sums in pointing out that the Cobra is not as sophisticated and well-integrated as others, but its raw performance may well overcome that limitation. The big question was if the Cobra could become a commercial success. No worries on that account. You can still buy a new one today.



No acceleration number were spelled out, but from this very steep chart it looks like 0-60 came in a brisk 4.5 seconds or so.