AUTOLUST | 1963 Cobra Le Mans CSX 2156

Though he passed away in 2012, Carroll Shelby‘s long shadow still falls over the world of speed. He’s an automotive industry legend who dedicated his life to maximum power and performance whether on the track in the hands of a professional racer or along the quarter miles of the USA with a gearhead amateur running the gears.

While the work of his later life focused on Ford and tuning special edition Mustangs, his most unique gift to the classic sports car and racing world would have to be the Cobra – the marriage of sophisticated British aesthetics and raw American horsepower.

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Already well established as a successful racer and automotive designer by the early 60s, Shelby was approached by Auto Carriers, Ltd. (the company known as AC Cars to this very day) to marry a small block V8 engine to the light chassis of a car known in the UK as the Ace. That Ace was a classic roadster that would fit in aesthetically alongside an MG or Austin-Healey. But, AC wanted a roadster that would blow anything of similar size in the UK off the road.

In fact, what they ended up with was a car that was so fast it’s credited with changing the laws of the UK highway system.

With a body weighing around just a single ton and a 300+ horsepower V8 under its hood throughout its various incarnations, Shelby’s AC Cobra was immediately the fastest little sports car in England and anywhere else around the world.

In a moment of madness, Shelby would eventually brush off that small block nonsense and employ a big block Ford V8. Whether on the track or along Britain’s country roads, the results were mind altering for the era. The car performed at speeds so high and with so much torque that the car was un-drivable by anyone not paid to race for a living. 

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After working out the bugs and settling on a stronger chassis, the AC Cobra’s small production batches sold well in the U.S. and the UK. Legend has it test drivers were caught running an AC Cobra just south of 200 mph on English public roads. When consumers started losing their heads (…in some cases, literally…) driving their Cobra coupes, UK lawmakers moved to establish a new standard 70 mph speed limit on the nation’s byways.

On the race track, the Cobra was aimed squarely at beating out the Chevrolet Corvette. The Mustang was still a couple years off, and the Vette was dominating the circuits. Once AC brought the Shelby Cobra to the tracks in mid-60s, the car would rapidly become a favorite to win any race in entered — remaining a threat for more than a decade.

During 1963, AC built only eight editions of the racing spec 1963 Cobra Le Mans CSX 2156. Never intended as a street car, the Le Mans version of the front engine, rear wheel drive racer used a 4,736 cc, 289 cubic inch V8 capable of putting out 330 horsepower.

According to AC and Shelby records, The Shelby American shop in Venice, Calif., completed and prepped six of the eight directly. The first two working cars ran at Le Mans in June with fastback hardtops attached for improved driver safety.

Three more were painted black and raced by Shelby American in United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC) and the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Races in summer and fall, 1963. The last of the cars of were sold to racing enthusiast customers of means and run privately. The 2156 seen in these photos captured at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca was one of the last to come off the line, destined to be sold to privateers.

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This edition was bought by George Constantine and delivered to George Butler at Nassau Speed Weeks in November, 1963. Butler finished won the GT Governor’s Trophy Race that year. He would also go on to finish 7th at the Daytona Continental of February, 1964. Butler would race the car across American yearly from New England and the Mid-Atlantic, to Central and Midwest Regions from 1964 to 1971.

The red, #10 1963 Cobra Le Mans CSX 2156 was invited to American Road Race of Champions (ARRC) in 1971 and 1972 while owned and raced by Gordon Meffert.

Finally, since 1980, the car passed between different owners and continues to race in vintage events while making appearances at car shows and festivals.

In the years following the introduction and eventual fade out of the classic AC Cobra, Shelby would controversially sell the Cobra name to Ford. The American automaker would assign the designation to all only its maximum performance vehicles such as the GT40 super car and annual editions of top of the line, track spec Mustangs.

Still, to the true gearhead and the purists of the auto racing fans, the Cobra tag will always fit best on the exclusive editions of the AC roadster.