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Driving CSX2000: The first ever Shelby Cobra

Is there any sports car more revered than the Shelby Cobra? There had to be a first one. Now Winston Goodfellow drives it for Octane, before it's sold at the Monterey auctions

The subject of history’s most important cars is a weighty one, no matter how you slice the topic – especially when desirability is thrown into the equation. For instance, Ford’s Model T was rightly voted ‘Car of the Century’ nearly two decades ago, but more than 14,000,000 were produced and that historical significance isn’t enough to make them valuable. 
What, then, differentiates the landmark cars from the rest, and the great marques from the merely good in terms of collectability? Authenticity is an excellent starting point, for the truly legendary machines seem to be created by osmosis, in which everything just comes together, and one of the best examples of that process is the Cobra seen here. It’s the starting point of everything Shelby – and so much more.
Although it’s unquestionably the crown jewel of the Shelby legend, I’ve long thought CSX2000 was a car that couldn’t be bought. Imagine my surprise when I heard it would be offered at RM’s Monterey auction. Not only that, but I could drive it – and CSX2000 has long been a dream drive. 
Not so much for the dynamic experience – let’s just say that keeping cars in top condition wasn’t Carroll’s highest priority – but because of what it represents. 
Some of the historic shockwaves are apparent, others not, so we’ll start with the obvious: without CSX2000, the 260 and 289 Cobras, and Daytona Coupes wouldn’t exist. Neither would their competition record: multiple SCCA and USRRC championships, an FIA World Championship, and records in both NHRA and AHRA drag racing. 
And there’s this: in the early 1960s ‘there was no respect for sports cars at all’, remembered Pete Brock, the designer of the Cobra Daytona Coupe. For many, ‘racing meant going to Indianapolis. It wasn’t until the USRRC series came along in ’63 when we competed against GM and [the Corvette]… that people realised this is a pretty important thing’.
So not only did CSX2000’s birth and what followed change a mentality in America, the formation of Shelby American also led to the Shelby-Ford alliance that turned the GT40 into a Le Mans winner. Ford Advanced Vehicles’ supposedly all-conquering GT40 didn’t finish a single race in 1964 but within eight weeks, after Shelby American received two, it won at Daytona, then at Sebring. 
In 1966 and ’67, Shelby GT40s were victorious at Le Mans and elsewhere. The only race-winning GT40s while Ford competed came from Shelby. Plus, earlier in 1964, Ford approached Carroll to make its newly released Mustang into a sports car. ‘I don’t think you can make a mule outrun a racehorse,’ was his reply to Lee Iacocca. ‘I didn’t ask you what you thought,’ Ford’s VP said, and within a matter of months the GT350 was born. 
Like the Cobra, it won SCCA crowns but Mustang development didn’t stop there. Shelby Mustangs also won the first two Trans Am championships – of which the first led to Chevrolet creating the Z28 Camaro. And let’s not forget Shelby’s GT500 Mustang, the involvement with Sunbeam’s Tiger, and creating the 1960s’ fastest accelerating road car: the 427 Cobra.
Fast-forward to the modern era, and if CSX2000 hadn’t happened in 1962 there would have been no Dodge Viper, no Shelby Mustangs of the past decade – including the all-new GT350 and Shelby GT – and more.

CSX2000 interior

Why is the Carroll Shelby Trust selling CSX2000?

So why is the Holy Grail of everything Shelby being sold? After conversations with Neil Cummings (co-CEO of Shelby American and long-time Carroll advisor) and others, I was able to piece together an answer.
The long and short of it is that, in 1983, Carroll set up the Carroll Shelby Trust, and
put his trademarks and properties in it, of which one asset was CSX2000. The ultimate beneficiary of the Trust is the Carroll Shelby Foundation, which assists the Children’s Organ Transplant Association, the Eli Home for Abused Children, the Carroll Shelby School of Automotive Technology, and the Shelby Auto Museum in Gardena.
Under California law, a trust’s trustees have a fiduciary responsibility not only to manage the assets for the ultimate beneficiary (ie the Foundation), but income beneficiaries as well. With the vast appreciation in collector car prices over the past several years, the income beneficiary requesting additional income, and the uncertainty of financial markets going forward, the trustees decided the time was right to put CSX2000 and CSX3178 (Carroll’s personal 427 Cobra) up for sale. 
Years before his death, Carroll promised Rob Myers of RM Auctions that, should that day ever come, RM would oversee CSX2000’s sale – which is why I’m at Shelby American. A tour of the Las Vegas facility shows that Carroll’s legacy is alive and well, with production of Shelby GTs, Super Snakes and Terlingua Mustangs humming. The skunkworks reveals some very cool upcoming performance goodies, including some for Ford’s Shelby GT350 and R. 
Later that day, CSX2000 is transported to the Speed Vegas Raceway. Once it’s offloaded, we pop the bonnet and stare through decades of grit at cool things like the original welds on the headers. The interior is another story, for the door pockets are so far-gone they have cracked and split down the centre, and the driver’s seat looks like a family of mice have resided in it for years. No-one is sure when the blue paint was applied, but it certainly wasn’t there when everyone’s mind was first blown in 1962. 

Driving CSX2000

Driving impressions of CSX2000

Soon it’s my turn to drive. Even though the pilot’s seat is in tatters, it fits me like a glove and is surprisingly supportive. The three-spoke steering wheel is too close to my chest, my arms falling to my sides to handle it, but the pedals are perfectly placed, and there is a reasonable amount of legroom, considering how intimate the interior feels. 
I look out over that historic bonnet before giving the key a turn, and pressing the starter button. CSX2000 hiccoughs and pops into life, blue smoke billowing from the tailpipes. Feather the throttle to keep the rough idle alive, and she holds. The steering is arthritic on turn-in, and feels quite vague. The suspension is likely just as untouched, but surprisingly gives a fairly compliant ride over the billiard-table smooth racetrack. 
The brake pedal requires a good shove to do anything, the feedback as informative as standing on a brick. The speedo, tacho and water temp gauge don’t work, but thankfully the Shelby functions without incident in the 90º-plus weather.
The potentially potent V8’s solid-lifter valvetrain is music to behold, especially in concert with the car’s homemade headers. The latter’s raspy metallic din is like shaking several whisks in a metal tumbler, the tappets’ soft melody the perfect tenor complement.
The four-speed gearbox is tight, with a longish throw and precise slotting when you shift both up and down the ’box. While some may laud CSX2000’s long-untouched condition, in a way it’s tragic as that dilapidation keeps the car’s real spirit tethered up. As I control the car’s speed for photography in second gear, throttle steady, I sense how this Cobra so wants to run, so wants me to drop the hammer and clean the plugs out. 
The surging sensation of holding a thoroughbred racehorse back is overwhelming, and I mention it later to Shelby test driver and VP of operations Gary Patterson, to make sure it’s not just carbon build-up or my imagination. ‘It’s definitely there,’ he replies. ‘I’ve noticed it too.’
years ago, former GT constructor Piero Rivolta related a long-running debate his employees at Iso had on whether cars had souls. ‘The same workers used the same parts to make the same models on the same assembly line,’ he noted. ‘Yet certain cars were much more lively, that much faster and more responsive than others. Many felt that was the car’s soul.’
The way this Shelby constantly tugged against the bridle of neglect, that observation rings true. ‘Carroll lived his life with 100% of his chips on the table, all the time,’ Patterson notes, and that energy is what exists in this car. This, the mother of all Cobras and everything Shelby, doesn’t like to be held back, and I hope the next owner respects and nurtures CSX2000 so she can run the way she hasn’t for too many years. Flat out.  
Read the full story of CSX 2000 in the September 2016 issue of Octane magazine.

Words: Winston Goodfellow
// Photography: Pawel Litwinski and Darin Schnabel

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