Project Daisy was the thundering 600-horsepower V10-engined Shelby Cobra Concept intended to succeed the original Ford GT. It never happened. But with a new book about the car just hitting the bookshelves, CGC’s Road Test Editor Howard Walker gets behind the wheel of this forgotten Cobra for an exclusive drive.
You can feel the ghost of Ol’ Shel still swirling around the cockpit. Listen closely and you might just hear his belly laughs at hearing the tortured scream of fricasseeing rubber after his smoky burnouts. Or his “Aw, shucks” at the ground-shaking thunder of the big V10 as he spun the tach needle to the 7,500rpm redline in search of sub-four-second zero to 60s. Welcome to the LAST SHELBY COBRA: DRIVING MISS DAISY!
Back in late 2003 and still feisty at age 80, Carroll Hall Shelby was doing what he loved most; hammering a Cobra around a racetrack, above. But instead of manhandling some big-block 427, here he was piloting a brand new iteration, the Ford-built Shelby Cobra Concept that weeks later would be one of the headliners at the 2004 Detroit Auto Show. This was the car pitched to follow-on from the just-launched Ford GT; a hip-high, 605-horsepower two-seater code-named Daisy, which borrowed many of the GT’s greasy bits to create a modern-day version of one of the most-iconic sports cars ever built.
Sadly, despite universal pleas for Ford to build it, the modern-day Cobra never made it into production. And after its rapturous Detroit Show reveal and a few months of being schlepped around the auto show circuit, the Cobra Concept was mothballed and relegated to some Raiders of the Lost Ark-like storage facility, with only the occasional static show appearance.
Fast-forward to the fall of 2017, and Ford took the weirdly-puzzling decision to auction-off this irreplaceable, last Shelby Cobra ever built; the last Cobra that Ol’ Shel was closely involved with before his passing in 2012. Adding to the head scratching, this one-of-one car was consigned to a little-known auction house in Greensboro, NC, rather than in Monterey or Scottsdale. The reason for the fire sale? Ford wanted to raise cash to help fund the restoration of the historic Ford family’s Fair Lane Estate in Detroit. The auction however was a huge crowd-pleaser in that Chris Theodore, the former VP of product development at Ford, good buddy of Shelby’s, acknowledged father of the 2005-‘06 Ford GT, and the man who spearheaded the creation of the Cobra Concept, grabbed the winning bid.
Since that happy day, Theodore, above left, Jim Padilla, right, retired Ford President & COO during the Ford GT program, with CGC Editor, Marty Schorr at a Sarasota Cafe Racers event, has been slowly bringing the iconic Cobra back to life. And today, we’re outside a nondescript warehouse in Livonia, MI to get an exclusive drive in this, the last Shelby Cobra, and hear from Theodore what prompted him to go into pretty serious debt – we’re talking over $825,000 – to buy the car.
See the Cobra in the fiberglass 16 years on from its debut, and the snake has lost none of its visual exclamation. It’s still all John Cena broad shoulders, Kardashian rear-end, bulldog stance and low, slammed-back windshield. And it’s still instantly recognizable as a modern-day Cobra with its iconic gaping mouth, blistered fenders, and rounded door tops.
Yet even today, you’d never call it a visual masterpiece. It’s much too short and stubby for that. It’s more of a blunt instrument than a sexy, slender Cobra-of-old. The width versus length ratio sees to that. Remember, it’s only as long as a Miata yet as beamy as a Dodge Viper which, incidentally Theodore helped engineer back in the day!
“It’s a car that brings back amazing memories for me,” says Theodore. “Memories of working with Carroll and the fun we had. Memories of seeing him get behind the wheel of this multi-million-dollar concept and doing ferocious burn-outs forwards and backwards, then thrash it around the track.”
One thing’s for sure, the Cobra’s engine alone might be worth Theodore’s winning bid. It’s one of only four that were hand-built by the Ford Advanced Powertrain team; its first application was under the hood of the ‘03 ‘Gangsta’ 427 Concept Sedan. The all-aluminum 90-degree 6.4-liter V10 cranks out 605-horsepower at 6,750 rpm and 501 pound-feet of torque at 5,500rpm. It’s a thing of true beauty.
Time to drive. But to quickly add an addendum to this, our test route will be limited to the length of Autry Street, in front of the car’s storage facility in Livonia. Daisy can’t officially be registered for the road so I won’t be carving on-ramps on nearby I-96 in the LAST SHELBY COBRA: DRIVING MISS DAISY!
Pop the door, sink down into the cut-down Ford GT Sparco carbon fiber seat, and get a grip of the chunky, leather and brushed aluminum wheel. The blue-leather-lined cockpit feels wide and accommodating – Theodore says there’s more front legroom than in a Crown Victoria – and offers great sight lines for the driver through the low-cut screen.
At first sight, the chunky aluminum shift lever looks like it’s broken off, and flopped limply over to the left. But it’s still attached and, in fact, perfectly positioned for an easy reach. Ignition on, hit the start button and the starter motor rattles like a ball bearing in a blender before the big V10 detonates into life. The throaty rumble at idle mimics Schwarzenegger gargling with roofing nails, while a stab of the throttle pedal sends the revs soaring with a spine-tingling snarl. For a V10 it sounds glorious, urgent and muscley – and a far cry from the original Viper V10 with its side-exiting pipes providing the exotic melody of a UPS truck with a blown muffler!
We’ll do a couple of runs to get the feel of this big-biceped, 3,200-pound projectile before we light the fuse. So into first, come off the light, nicely-progressive clutch pedal and the Cobra rumbles away with the ease of a modern-day Mustang. Now squeeze the throttle and instantly all 501 pound-feet of testosterone-enriched torque lunges the car forward as if it’s been released from some invisible catapult. In true Cobra-fashion, this is one torque monster.
It keeps on giving too, pinning you back in the seat, 13-inch-wide rear wheels struggling to contain the instant-on torque, squirreling nicely under the V10’s immense grunt. No wonder Shelby grinned so much during his drives. And what a noise. From a deep-throat burble at low revs, to a full-on racecar snarl, this Cobra has more voices than that gal in The Exorcist. But there’s no lumpy V8 raggedness here; those extra two cylinders add real smoothness to the soundtrack.
For a transaxle car with a long remote linkage, the Cobra’s shifter slices easily through its well-defined gate. It may not have the surgical precision or short-throws of a Miata’s stick, but it’s surprisingly good. A little more enthusiasm off the line shows the Cobra’s potential. We roll away to preserve Theodore’s newly-replaced clutch, then hard on the throttle. The projected 0-to-60 time was in the sub-4-second range, and it definitely feels doable. The car just lunges forward, stealing your breath away. Thankfully, big vented Brembos from the Ford GT immediately shed speed when Autry Street comes to an abrupt end.
There’s no curvy back road in this Livonia industrial estate, so assessing the Cobra’s true handling traits isn’t going to happen. But the GT-sourced hydraulic rack offers plenty of feedback and has just the right amount of precision and heft. And over some of the lumpier bits of blacktop, the GT suspension componentry does a fine job of soaking-up bumps.
All the time during this all-too-short sampling, we have to keep reminding ourselves that this isn’t some near-to-production development prototype, but a one-off showcar. With some fine tuning, and modern-day equipment – airbags and a roof would be nice – the Cobra would have made a terrific low-volume $100-grand rolling tribute to the late, great Carroll Shelby.
“It really is a dream come true to think that I actually own it. It’s one of the last cars I worked on at Ford, the car that brought Carroll back to working with Ford, the car that I had the most fun helping to create. If only we could have gotten it into production,” adds Theodore.
Theodore has put all those memories down on paper in his new book, The Last Shelby Cobra: My Times with Carroll Shelby (Veloce Publishing $60) that is just hitting the bookshelves. It’s an amazing story that any car lover would get a kick out of reading.
For more information about the LAST SHELBY COBRA: DRIVING MISS DAISY!, check out Chris Theordore’s excellent book https://www.amazon.com/Last-Shelby-Cobra-times-Carroll/dp/1787114503