. Cobra Ranch Historical Automotive Blog: Featuring Wally Wyss

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Steampunk Cobra

Rarity: Small Block Cobra with an Eye-talian Body....
Picture Archive W. Wyss

Imagine taking a genuine CSX2000-series small block Cobra that's not that old and pulling off the thin alloy body made in the UK and instead putting a one-off custom car body on it.

Well, sports cars, the car exists. The Exner-designed Mercer Cobra, CSX2451, is named after an extinct pre-war American car company called Mercer (whose most famous car was the “Raceabout”) but this one was created decades after Mercer’s downfall. It  should have been called the “Exner Cobra," for its designer. 

The designer was none other than the man who became known in the Fifties as "the king of the tail-fin" for having started that styling gimmick while at Chrysler. Virgil Exner Sr. was particularly enamored of Italian coachbuilders and out of some 40 plus “dream cars” bodied in Italy for Chrysler,he was responsible for most of them. The only one that reached production looking almost the same as the dream car that preceded it was the Dual Ghia, actually made by a Detroit entrepreneur who bought the design of the Dodge Fire Arrow show car.

After leaving Chrysler Exner Sr., and his son Virgil Exner Jr., opened a design studio in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan right on the famed 8-lane highway known as Woodward Ave. They began designing cars for private clients. Among them was the Copper Development Association who for several years running would have a stock car modified with beautiful copper finished parts to show the beauty ofthe material. This would be shown at industry only events like the SAE convention. In 1963, Exner had made four drawings for Esquire magazine predicting what four classic names in American cars (including Mercer) would look like if they made a new car. All the cars were what you would describe today as “Full on balls-to-the-wall take-no-prisoners Retro.”

Among the cars Exner drew for the magazine was a Mercer. It turned out that George Hartley, the Copper Development Association President, liked that design and approved it as their upcoming show car once Exner submitted it.

A 1964 Cobra was bought from Shelby-American and lengthened and the conversion began.

A small Italian carrozzeria, Sabona-Basano, run by at least one ex-Ghia employee, was awarded the contract to build the car but the Exners went over to Italy to supervise the building as well. As much copper as possible was featured, even to the gauge bezels which look very much like Chrysler gauges of the last few years. The copper bezels were not functional but underneath the original Cobra gauges were kept. 

The car was never planned on being drivable so there was a lot of leeway in making the design wild and not having to worry about hobbling the driving. The various metals were finished in the best texture, some of the metals being bronze, some brass, some copper, in order to show the versatility available in each metal. This was a homage of sorts to the art deco movement in design which in part involved highlighting the natural finish available in metal (see the elevator doors in the Chrysler building in NYC, for instance).

The car had a racing windscreen wrapping around the cockpit. There was no provision for a convertible top. The headlights popped out when needed. The car had dual sidepipes similar to those seen on one or two small block Cobras used in racing. Another feature of the car was scoop-like vents behind the rear wheels similar to those on the Pininfarina designed Ferrari Superfast. The interior is black leather set off with white piping.

In June, 1979, the car was offered for $165,000.That was before Gen.William Lyon, a California home builder, bought it and it was under his ownership that it was displayed on the “dream car lawn” at Pebble Beach.

Though it would easily be worth $300,000 to $500,000 if re-bodied as a small block Cobra, it would be far more interesting if this ever comes on the market again as the Mercer-Cobra!

Ironically, though Exner was responsible for the tail-fins at Chrysler, the Mercer Cobra does not feature them. It’s the ultimate in long hood,short rear deck styling and we hafta say that still looks modern today.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Racing in America

      Almost 115 years after America's first auto race took place in Chicago, The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn is planning to build a $15 million exhibit to celebrate the history and innovation of the fast-paced sport.  Fundraising is continuing for Racing in America, a permanent 22,000-square-foot exhibit, with no set timetable for when it will go on display, said a spokesperson for The Henry Ford.  Co-chairing the museum's efforts to build the exhibit are Edsel Ford II, Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske and Jack Roush, three of those four actively in racing with the ownership of racing teams.  Kids will love it as some of the exhibits will be interactive.
      The theme will be that racing is exemplary of America's 'can-do' spirit , and the creators of the display hope it will ignite and inspire "a new generation of dreamers, risk-takers, entrepreneurs and inventors,” according to a Museum spokesperson.  Every facet of car racing will be included, such as stock car racing, drag racing, road-racing sports cars, Indy cars and even land-speed record cars .
Some highlights : Henry Ford's first race car, Sweepstakes; and Bill Elliott's famous No. 9 car, which set the all-time NASCAR qualifying record at Talladega in 1987.
     Future race broadcasters will have the opportunity to announce a famous race on radio or on camera in the “broadcast booth.”  A special section for children will allow them to design race cars of tomorrow.

Shelby is involved in the planning but right now we don't know to what extent....

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Cobra GR-1 Concept

What is it? The Cobra GR-1 concept
by Wallace Wyss
    Just as the Ford GT was rolling down the assembly line (actually being hand-pushed on dollies at the Saleen plant in Allen Park) Ford took the breath away from Shelby fans by unveiling a sort of modern Daytona coupe interpretation. The Ford Shelby GR-1 was a 2.2 million dollar prototype first seen at the 2005 North American International Auto Show.

     Much of the GR-1 chassis and running gear was based on the previous roadster Shelby Cobra Concept, which had made its debut one year earlier at the 2004 North American International Auto Show. Just as with the Ford Shelby Cobra Concept the GR-1 project was created by Manfred Rumpel and developed by Ford's Advanced Product Creation group.The engine was a 6.4 liter all-aluminum V10 engine using some components from the Ford GT.. The GR-1 was rated up to 605 hp (451 kW) and up to 501 lb·ft (679 N·m) of torque. It uses a 6-speed manual transmission.

Monday, April 4, 2011

RIP David E Davis Jr.


     Of all the people I met in advertising, back in the mid-'60s, when I was a fledgling copywriter on the Chevrolet account, David E. Davis, Jr. was the most impressive. He was rotund even then and looked like a real life model for Mr. Schweppes, a mythical figure in a Vermouth ad, with a Victorian beard and waxed mustache turned up at the ends.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


By Wallace Wyss

Back when I was writing one of my Shelby books,in the '70s,  George Stauffer, a prominent Cobra collector, told me there were six Daytona coupes built but, where the whereabouts of five were known, there was a sixth one that “belonged to a crazy old lady” who won’t sell.

He was talking about CSX2287, the one out of the six that was bodied in the U.S., the first one made.
 It is a very historic car. The first coupe built, the first to win a race, and immortalized by its fire in the pits at Daytona in February,1964.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Origins of the Daytona Cobra coupe styling
by Wallace Wyss

A great deal has been written through the years on how distinctive and original the styling was of the Cobra Daytona coupe. And, having seen several up close, I can agree.  But any serious student of GT racing in the early ‘60s will see in the Daytona's lines other cars that preceded it and which must have influenced it, even if subliminally.