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The Ford vs Ferrari Prelude

Jim Weed

Volume 47 Issue 18

Sep 3, 2022

Before Ford vs Ferrari became the fight of the century, Carroll Shelby created the AC Cobra. It was this car that set into motion historic changes to how Ferrari would win, lose and compete in the future.

    The Ferrari Market Letter library has more than 1,200 books. Thousands of magazines, hundreds of event programs and more.

    As an avid reader, I am working my way through each book. My current selection is The Cobra-Ferrari Wars, 1963-1965, by Michael L. Shoen.

    This book is written through the eyes of Carroll Shelby, the Cobra, Ford’s involvement and the competition fight with Ferrari.

    It is an interesting story of how Shelby wanted to build a world class automobile to compete at the highest level of sports car racing and win the World Constructors Championship.

    Early in 1962 the Cobra was born. Using a Ford V-8 engine mated to a chassis and body made by AC Cars in England, this would ultimately become the weapon for success.

    Interestingly, the 250 GTO was also born about the same time. These two competitors would battle the next few years.

    Racing car development requires testing, testing, and more testing to determine where the weak points are. The Cobra was used and abused until it broke, and those parts were made stronger.



    The Ferraro GTO already had years of testing behind it. The high-revving V-12 engine had been developed through the 250 GT LWB Berlinetta (TdF) and the 250 GT SWB Berlinetta. Further refined with development of the 250 Testa Rossa.

    By the time Ferrari constructed the 250 GTO, the 3-liter V-12 engine was powerful and reliable.

    The Cobra made its racing debut in October 1962 at Riverside, California. It was able to hold its own against the new Corvette with independent rear suspension, but soon broke.

    Modifications were made before the next challenge, Nassau. Here it would face a serious Ferrari challenge. The Cobra was fast and could pass the Ferraris on the straights using the abundant torque, but it did not handle as well as the Ferrari.

    It was promising to see the Cobra do well against the Ferraris. It would not last because it broke down again.

    Meanwhile, Shelby was gearing up the manufacturing and sales of Cobra automobiles through Ford dealers. This would allow the Cobra to be homologated as a GT car. Even though the required 100 examples had not yet been constructed, they were well on the way to that goal.

    This would become important in the near future.

    In 1962 the 250 GTO decimated the opposition in the GT category winning every FIA race it entered. Often beating the prototypes. By the end of 1962 other manufacturers were up in arms over the GTO. Aston Martin, Chevrolet and Jaguar were all tired of being annihilated and were claiming the 250 GTO did not deserve homologation since 100 identical examples had not been built.


    Ferrari argued the 250 GT had been built in numbers greater than 100 and the GTO was an evolution of the model. Aston Martin, Chevrolet and Jaguar also played the same game and built special lightweight models to compete against Ferrari.

    Daytona 1963 was a three-hour race, and the Cobras could keep up with the Ferraris and pass them. Clearly the Cobra was going to be the car to beat. Unfortunately, or fortunately, they couldn’t last through the entire race.

    Pedro Rodriguez in a GTO won that race.

    The Cobra proved it could be fast and that it could make up for its lack of finesse in handling. Clearly Ferrari had found a foe to be reckoned with.

    Sebring and Le Mans followed with Ferrari winning decisively. Le Mans saw the Cobra earn a seventh-place finish behind six Ferrari finishers. Three of which were 250 GTOs and one 330 LMB.

    Ferrari could hear the footsteps coming from behind.

    In early 1963 Ford tried to purchase the Ferrari organization. It recognized what Shelby American had started. He had provided a performance car to Ford dealerships. The ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ mentality had awakened within the Ford organization.

    Ferrari’s refusal to sell, and the way it went down caused Ford to plow even more money and engineering into their racing program. Shelby would benefit greatly.

    1964 would be another year with Ford building momentum. Shelby continued to refine the Cobra and attack the GT category, but now John Wyer had been brought in to Ford Advanced Vehicles to develop the Lola GT into the Ford GT (GT40).

    This new endeavor would pit the Cobra against Ferrari in the GT category and the Ford GT against Ferrari in the prototype category. The attack on Ferrari had begun.

    Ferrari did not rest on its laurels. The GTO was upgraded with new bodywork. More aerodynamic than before, Ferrari hoped this would keep the Cobras at bay.

    Le Mans had proved the Cobra to be quick and fast but from an aerodynamic standpoint it was a brick at higher speeds. The Ferraris were almost twenty miles-per-hour faster on the Mulsanne Straight than the Cobra.

    Shelby wanted something more aerodynamic, and Peter Brock hand drew a sleek closed body to mount onto the Cobra chassis. Testing at Riverside proved this could be a Ferrari beater.

    Daytona 1964 would be the first race of the season for the GT Championship and both Ferrari and Shelby American came to the fight with some very potent weapons.

    Ferrari arrived with six 250 GTOs and one of the new body 250 GTO/64s. In addition, there was also a new Ferrari, a hopefully, soon-to-be GT car, the 250 LM. The LM was a mid-engine design, closer to the previous year’s 250 P (prototype) series cars.

    The 250 LM did not start the race as it had been damaged in an earlier sprint race. But this model will soon factor into the larger championship picture.

    The Cobra closed coupe proved to be on par with the Ferrari GTOs. Reliability issues continued, but whether the Cobra was the open or closed version it had the speed to take on the Ferraris.

    Ferrari took the first four positions with a Cobra finishing fourth. It would prove to be a competitive year for both companies.

    The closed Cobra coupe had shown much potential and was now called the Cobra Daytona. A few more of this version would be built to compete against Ferrari on high-speed tracks where aerodynamics played a larger role.

    Sebring 1964. Shelby brought three roadsters and one Cobra Daytona. Ferrari brought two of the new 250 GTO/64s. Private Cobras outnumbered private GTOs six to three.

    The twelve-hour race did not go well for Ferrari. The Cobra on a short course was quick. The speeds needed at Sebring did not require good aerodynamics, and the Cobra was a blunt object with lots of torque.

    Reliability issues resolved, the Cobra could last the distance; Ferrari’s advantage of finishing was disappearing. Three Cobras finished in front of a 250 GTO/64. It was the first time a Cobra was victorious over a factory work’s GTO.

    Ferrari could still claim a victory; the first three places overall were claimed by two 275 P and one 330 P in the prototype category. Still, it was a crushing blow to be defeated in the GT category. It was the first time since 1953 an American car had won Sebring.

    Carroll Shelby and the Cobra were ahead in the FIA Championship standings for the GT III category. Championship points were based upon the best seven performances in 13 races. Points were awarded for first through sixth places.

        The schedule looked like this:

    Daytona - USA
    Sebring - USA
    Targa Florio - Italy
    Spa - Belgium
    Nürburgring - Germany
    Le Mans - France
    Reims - France
    Freiburg - Germany
    Tourist Trophy - England
    Sierre Montana - Switzerland
    Monza - Italy
    Tour de France - France
    Bridgehampton – USA

    For Shelby American this was the first time it looked like it really could take on Ferrari and win the GT Championship.

    The Cobra roadster on short tracks could point and squirt better than the Ferraris with the abundant torque of the Ford 289 c.i. V-8.

    The Cobra Daytona with its aerodynamic body had the speed necessary to stay with the Ferraris on high-speed courses.



    Ferrari had the 250 GTO with two different bodies. One the classic GTO Series I that won nearly every race in 1962 and again in 1963. And now for 1964, the 250 GTO Series II, with a sleeker even more aerodynamic body.

    The fight for the GT Championship would be long and difficult for both protagonists. But first, Shelby would have to bring the fight to Europe.

    While Shelby American was somewhat backed by Ford, it was a tenuous relationship. Shelby was bringing AC cars in from England and outfitting them with Ford 289 engines. They were then sold through Ford dealerships or ordered directly. Ford sold engines and transmissions in exchange for a “Powered by Ford” emblem on the fenders.

    There was not any serious financial backing through Ford, yet. Remember, this is early 1964 and the GT40 program is still coming together in England under John Wyer, who is converting a Lola GT into the future winning race car.

    With some help from suppliers and a friendly Ford executive, funds were found to mount a shoestring effort to run races in Europe and challenge Ferrari for the GT Championship.

    First up would be testing at Le Mans in April. It was there the Cobra Daytona could be tested on the Mulsanne Straight. Lap times were acceptable although the Ferrari 330 P and the 250 LM were quicker.

    Ferrari was hoping to get the 250 LM homologated as the next generation 250 but that fight with organizers was in the future.

    The 330 P was the one to beat in the prototype category. John Wyer had brought a couple of new GT40s to test. Both were crashed. It would be a trying start to the program that would ultimately pit Ford against Ferrari.

    The next three races were ones Ferrari could count on. The Targa Florio, Spa and Nürburgring were tracks Ferrari had dominated and won on previously.

    The April Targa Florio had Ferrari with a 250 GTO/64 in 5th place and a Cobra in 8th. The May Spa race had Ferrari sweep the top four places and the highest placed Cobra in 9th position.



    The end of May at Nürburgring Ferrari had five 250 GTOs finish ahead of the only Cobra to survive the race. GTOs finished in 2nd, 4th, 7th, 18th and 20th, all ahead of the 23rd position Cobra.

    Ferrari also won 1st overall with a 275 P in the prototype class.

    The next race would be the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

    Ferrari again came out on top. Prototype cars, a 275 P and two 330 Ps occupied the top three slots. A Cobra Daytona finished 4th overall ahead of two Ferrari 250 GTO/64s. A Cobra had finally finished ahead of a Ferrari in the GT class.

    The Ford prototype cars did not finish. The Ford GT40 was still being sorted out, Ferrari still reigned king.

    Reims 12-hour would restore Ferrari’s confidence with the top four spots. Two of the 250 LMs still running as prototypes took the top two spots and 250 GTOs taking the next two spots.

    The two Cobras failed to finish.

    The Freiburg-Schauinsland hillclimb is a rough seven-mile stretch of public road that zig-zags through 172 turns. This course was made for the Cobra roadster. Point and squirt through the turns and with the massive torque it could plow up the hill quicker than any Ferrari.

    In the end the Cobra was three seconds quicker than the 250 GTO/64 giving needed championship points to the Shelby American team.

    August 1964, Goodwood, Tourist Trophy. Ferrari took the top two spots with prototype cars: a 330 P and a 275 LM. The next three places were all Cobra. The best GTO was sixth place.

    Ferrari’s grip on the GT Championship was slipping.

    There were two hillclimbs on the schedule and the Sierre-Montana would be fiercely contested. Ferrari backed down. A 250 LM was sent to contest the prototype class and there were several privateer 250 GTOs.

    The 250 LM won overall, and a Cobra roadster came in 5th ahead of all the other GTOs.

    The championship was close. Ferrari still led in the standings, but Shelby American was poised to take the GT Championship away from Ferrari.

    Three races remained. Monza, the Tour de France and Bridgehampton. If the Cobra could finish higher than Ferrari in any two, Shelby would win. If Ferrari could win the Tour de France and either one of the other two events, it would win the championship.
Monza and the Tour de France was a good bet Ferrari could win. Bridgehampton was more than likely going to go to Cobra. It was going to be close.

    Ferrari had won the Tour de France every year since 1956 and odds were in his favor to win again. Bridgehampton was a lost cause. It would have to be left to privateers to beat the Cobras and although there were good GTOs already in America the chances would still be slim.

    Monza was the wildcard. The fast track suited the Cobra Daytona, and the last few races proved the Cobra could better the Ferrari and stay together to finish.

    Monza race officials attempted to pressure the FIA to homologate Ferrari’s 250 LM. At that point there were few LMs in existence with no serious plans for Ferrari to build the required 100 examples.

    The 250 GTO had been pushed onto the FIA as a production car and while it had been approved there was a lot of grumbling behind the scenes. To homologate the 250 LM was a bridge too far.

    Without the homologation of the LM, the Monza GT III race was called off. If the LM could not be raced, neither would the Cobra be eligible for points. Ferrari won the day.

    Without the Monza race, if Ferrari won the Tour de France and Shelby won Bridgehampton, the GT Championship would go to Ferrari.

    The top two places for the Tour de France went to Ferrari. A pair of 250 GTOs won. The Cobras could not hold up to the punishing schedule that makes the Tour so difficult.

    Bridgehampton was a fait accompli with the Cobra coming in 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th place behind two Ferrari prototype cars: a 275 P and a 250 LM.

    The end of 1964 saw the Shelby American team very nearly win the GT III Championship from Ferrari. The Cobra race cars proved to be strong and fast and while not very sophisticated could hold their own against the formidable Ferraris.

    1965 would be another fight for Ferrari.

    It was clear the 250 LM was never going to be homologated so Ferrari turned to the new 275 GTB. The 275 GTB was already in series production and well on the way to qualify for homologation with 100 examples built.

    The application listed a racing example under-weight by 20 percent over the production model. The FIA could not accept this discrepancy and refused homologation.

    Ferrari responded with a declaration of abandoning homologation and the GT Championship. Ferrari would concentrate on the prototype sports car class.

    Carroll Shelby created the Cobra, developed its reliability, took the fight to Europe to directly compete with Ferrari: and won. Well, maybe not technically. They didn’t win the championship, but they were able to get Ferrari out of GT racing.

    The 1965 season would pit the Cobra roadster and the Cobra Daytona against aging 250 GTOs. Ferrari was victorious over the Cobra in only two races: Spa and Le Mans.

    Le Mans GT class was won by the newly homologated 275 GTB, still under weight, but allowed to run anyway. This victory was still not enough to change the trajectory of the Cobra onslaught.

    Shelby went on the win the GT III championship for 1965. It would be the end of Cobra domination.

    Ferrari concentrated his resources to sports cars and the 275 P, 330 P and 250 LM would account for many victories during the season.

    The Ford GT40 was still being developed and the only race it won all year was Daytona. Shelby had been tasked along with Holman-Moody to field the GT40. 1965 was preparation for the future fight of Ford versus Ferrari.

    Ferrari won the International Trophy for GT Prototype championship for 1965, and again in 1966 but it would take Ferrari until 1972 before it would once again be on top.

    The Ford GT40 and Shelby became a force against Ferrari for the next several years. Ford would eventually fade from international racing. Shelby would continue to develop the GT40 through the 1967 season.

    Shelby challenged Ferrari, David against Goliath. One small group built and developed a car that caused Ferrari to abandon a class of racing that it had dominated for nearly a decade.

    It also opened the door for a large manufacturer like Ford to come, compete and win against Ferrari. Ferrari ultimately abandoned all factory-backed racing except Formula One.

    It could be said Ford may have won the battle, but in the long run it caused Ferrari to concentrate on Formula One. Today Ferrari is the oldest and most successful Formula One team in history.

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