13-14 August 2004
1966 Shelby 427 Cobra Dragonsnake Race Car
Sold for $484,000
505bhp 427 cu. in. overhead valve V8 engine with four-speed manual transmission, four-wheel coil spring independent suspension, rack and pinion steering, and four-wheel disc brakes. Wheelbase: 90"
Surely there can be no more uniquely American form of motorsports than quarter mile drag racing. In the quest for ever-lower elapsed times and higher trap speeds, America’s home-grown automotive engineers have proven to be resourceful, innovative, and highly effective. During the N.H.R.A.’s golden age of the 1960s, technology – and performance – seemed to advance at a dizzying pace.
Meanwhile, Carroll Shelby’s Shelby American Motors had come to dominate road racing with his deadly Cobras. In just three short years, his cars had laid waste to the competition – from Ferrari to Corvette. It seems odd, therefore, that this most American of car companies did not pursue drag racing records with the same zeal they applied to winning sports car races.
The answer, of course, lies in Shelby’s own background. During the fifties, Carroll Shelby was one of the most successful American sports car drivers. During an eight year career, he won three national championships, once winning 19 straight races. In fact, in 1956, he was named “Sports Car Driver of the Year” by Sports Car Illustrated.
All his life he had dreamed of manufacturing his own sports car. When heart problems forced him to give up racing, he took the opportunity to pursue his dream. Shelby had a reputation as a slow talking quick thinking Texan. In 1962 he talked Ford out of a couple of engines for his new sports car; at the same time, he convinced AC to send him a car to install one of his new engines in. The result was automotive magic, and a legend was born.
Americans liked the new Cobra – a little rough around the edges, but brutally quick and dead reliable. As race cars, the new Cobras quickly earned their stripes, winning virtually everywhere they appeared. They won the U.S. Manufacturer’s championship three years running – 1963, 1964, and 1965. Finally, after beating the best the world had to offer, Shelby American Inc. won the 1965 World Manufacturer’s Championship.
Having so thoroughly proven his cars in road racing, Shelby finally turned his attention to drag racing. With typical thoroughness Shelby analyzed the competition and designed a special version of the Cobra for quarter mile competition. Dubbed the “Dragonsnake”, these first 289 cars incorporated some 23 different modifications to enhance performance on the strip. The cars were available in four levels of tune, ranging from 270bhp to 380bhp, and priced from $6,795 to $8,995. Ultimately, just four of these first series 260/289 Dragonsnakes were built.
Although the 289 Cobra was well proven in competition, by the mid sixties, it was becoming clear that something more was needed. Every year, more power was needed to stay competitive, and Ford’s 289 had reached its reliability limit at around 380 or 390hp.
In many respects, the father of the 427 Cobra was racing driver Ken Miles, who had driven many “specials” – one off cars, usually with a big engine. Miles thought the idea of a racing special with an even bigger engine might work with the Cobra. If there was any doubt about the need, it was eliminated when the Shelby team went to Nassau for Speed Week in 1963 where they were confronted with Chevrolet’s new Corvette Grand Sports, which were more than nine seconds a lap faster than the Cobras!
Shelby had been promised a new aluminum block version of Ford’s 390 engine, but internal resistance developed from the NASCAR faction inside Ford, and Shelby was forced to make do with the cast iron 427. Although reliable at 500hp, the engine was so much heavier that a complete redesign of the chassis was required to ensure that the car would handle properly.
The result was a new chassis, five inches wider, with coil springs all around. With the help of Ford’s engineering department, the necessary work was done, and the legendary 427 Cobra was born.
The cars were brutally fast, and driving one was an exhilarating experience. One of the most memorable stories about the 427 Cobra surrounds a test that was arranged for Sports Car Graphic magazine by Ken Miles. A few years earlier Aston Martin had bragged that their racing cars were capable of accelerating from zero to 100mph to zero in less than 30 seconds. Miles had the idea to restage the test using the new 427 Cobra. The result, according to SCG editor Jerry Titus, was an astounding 13.2 seconds!
It was not long before someone realized the 427’s potential at the drag strip. The heavier 427 was not an issue in quarter mile racing, and the car’s enormous horsepower potential made it a clear contender in the N.H.R.A.’s A/SP class.
Building upon the experience gained with the 289 cars, Shelby American decided to offer a Dragonsnake version of the new coil spring 427 car. Acording to a letter from Shelby American offering the new car, a 427 Dragonsnake was equipped with the following 14 special features:
• Heater (apparently for extra cooling)
• Seat Belts
• Drag Headers (located outside front fenders)
• Koni Front Shocks (reworked for uplock action)
• Koni Rear Shocks (reworked for 50/50 downlock action)
• Two Goodyear Drag Slicks
• Three Goodyear Blue Dot tires
• 4.54:1 Rear End Ratio
• Hood Air Scoop
• Two Electric Fuel Pumps
• Battery relocated behind passenger seat
• Heavy duty half shafts equipped with AN nuts and bolts to prevent
shearing and/or loosening under high torque loads.
• N.H.R.A. approved scattershield
• N.H.R.A. approved roll bar
In addition to these changes, a special competition prepared engine was fitted. According to Shelby American, “Every clearance and dimension has been checked and set to minimum specification. Clearances of all bearings in the lower end of the engine have been set for high rpm. All moving parts of the engine assembly have been balanced, including the cam followers, the push rods, the rocker arms, the valves, and spring retaining washers.”
“The cylinder heads are cast aluminum and have lightened competition valves installed. The ports and combustion chambers are not polished to comply with N.H.R.A. rules for Stock Sports class. The cam can be either advanced or retarded to customer specification.”
“The rear and front spring assemblies are modified slightly to create better ground contact on the rear springs and better lift characteristics on the front springs. A hood scoop is also fitted to ensure cool, efficient air intake to the carburetors.”
The cost of the Dragonsnake, equipped as noted, was $10,485. An optional hardtop with aluminum framed windows was available for $368. It is believed and accepted that CSX3198 is the only 427 Dragonsnake built. It was specially ordered by Harr Ford of Worcester, Massachusetts to contest the national title in the A/SP class.
According to the Shelby American Automobile Club Register, CSX3198 was built in grey primer with a black interior and invoiced to Shelby American on November 18, 1965. In February, 1966, Harr Ford placed an order for a Dragonsnake and Shelby American opened a work order to build the drag car using CSX3198. Upon completion, the car was sent out to have a custom hardtop fabricated before being invoiced to Harr Ford on April 7, 1966 for a total of $10,715; however, further receipts show the Dragonsnake total cost at an amazing $11,178 including freight.
Harr had the car painted Candy Apple red, a bright metallic color that was certain to draw attention. Driven by Harr’s service manager, Gus Zuidema, CSX3198 shattered the A Sports records – both elapsed time and trap speed – on its very first outing in May, 1966 at Gt. Meadows, N.J. (11.48 seconds, 125.17mph). In examining the original documentation that accompanies the Dragonsnake it becomes very apparent that Gus Zuidema was not just a great driver with a great car but he was a kind of “Grim Reaper” of the drag strip as nearly all he faced seemed powerless to will themselves or their cars any faster. Zuidema was simply faster, better and definitely more intimidating.
In June of that year, Zuidema broke both his own records at Sanford, Me. with a best run of 11.15 seconds and 126.93 mph. Later, in July of 1966, he did it again, breaking his own elapsed time record with a run of 10.87 at Madison New Jersey, and then beating his own trap speed record with a run of 127.11 at York, Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, all was not well between Harr Ford and Shelby. Extensive documentation reveals a dispute resulting from an engine failure in June, 1966 that Harr felt was Shelby American’s fault – asking for almost $1,400 in parts to rebuild the engine. Shelby felt that the problem was Harr’s, but nonetheless agreed to settle for $1,200 cash paid as appearance money.
Harr continued to campaign the car throughout the season, winning at both the Summer Nationals in Indianapolis and the Winter Nationals in Pomona, California. Finally, at the end of the season, Harr put CSX3198 up for sale with the following ad
placed in December of 1966:
1966 A/SP Cobra Dragon Snake – Factory-made drag car with hardtop and all-aluminum body. Powered by Ford 427, 7000rpm, 505 hp lightweight configuration engine, completely balanced and blueprinted. Aluminum hi-rise intake manifold (2-4bbl setup), RotoFaze magneto, wedge-type engine, two sets M&H 11” slicks, complete rear axle – 4.86 gears (Salisbury differential with Positraction) aluminum alloy mag wheels, 7 coats Candy Apple Red paint job, factory-installed blow shield, For-type 4-speed transmission with reworked linkage for fast shift. Car holds both ends of National Record, E.T. 10.86 seconds, 127mph (A/SP, NHRA), ’66 Winternationals, Pomona, ’66 Summer Nationals (Indy), runner-up for top points street eliminator, Div. 1. Has won A/SP class every time out; won street eliminator 50% of total attempts. Driven only by Gus Zuidema. Won most match races in Div. 1. Is a natural winner! Easy conversion to road racer. Original cost $14,000, will sacrifice. Contact Bill Fisher at Harr Ford.
And so it was that CSX3198 – showing just 498 miles on the odometer – was sold to a Mr. Bernstein in the Boston, Massachusetts area, who continued to campaign the car under the name “Hank’s Bank”. In late 1970 or early 1971, Sam Feinstein bought the car from Bernstein, trading him a 1969 Cadillac and settling an $800 machine shop bill for repairs. Feinstein wanted to drive the car, and consequently had the racing engine replaced by a stock 427 (taken from CSX3160). He apparently drove the car very little, selling it in 1977 to Les Newell of Meriden, Connecticut with less than 2,000 miles showing. In 1980, John Halister, another Connecticu resident, bought the car shortly before moving to Florida. In 1981 he sold CSX3198 to Tom Clark in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Clark sold the car to Jim Kelsey of Key Largo, Florida, who kept it only briefly before selling it to Susan Brown of Hollywood Florida. She owned the car for six years before selling it in March of 1987 to Larry Smith, another Florida resident. Later that year, Smith sold the car to Bruce Daley of Phoenix Arizona.
Today, on approaching CSX3198, one cannot help but be impressed. It is not just the aggressive stance, nor even the obvious performance potential, but rather it is the quality of the car that is most impressive. This is not quality in the sense of an over-restored concours queen, but rather quality in the sense that this is a real car – one that has been raced and proven, and is ready to run again.
As a car, any 427 Cobra is a valuable machine. CSX3198 is much more; it stands on its own record, having earned its place in the history books. There may be other Dragonsnakes, but this is certainly the most important, having broken every record for which it was eligible. The car was so dominant in its class that many of the records broken were the same ones it had set earlier in the year.
There is only one 427 Dragonsnake in existance and its appearance for sale here marks the first time this 427 has ever been offered for sale in 15 years and likely the last time for at least another 15 years.
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