Designer Carroll Shelby's year-long claim has been intriguing: He would finish what he started in 1965 and build the last of his elite Cobra sports cars on cobwebbed frames and parts he had hoarded for 27 years.
In recent months, his company has assembled nine of the treasured two-seaters--Cobra 427s descended from race cars that beat Ferrari for the 1964 world manufacturer's championship.
At least four have been sold--asking price: $500,000--as zero-mile, newly completed originals.
But are they?
Despite Shelby's statements of authenticity--widely quoted by automotive magazines and newspapers including The Times--engineers involved in his project say there are few items of original metal or equipment on the reissued 427SCs. The motors and transmissions are 1965 rebuilds; chassis, suspension, body and most other parts are newly manufactured.
And that, say some car specialists, makes these Cobra facsimiles worth little more than a dozen other replicars on the market, the best of which sell for only $65,000.
Other experts say that because the new cars have been touched by the master, they're worth much more--whatever a Shelby devotee is willing to pay. (A mint, 27-year-old 427SC with a documented racing history sold last year for $550,000. At a January auction, a less distinguished but original Cobra 427 street version brought $201,000.)
Regardless, several clouds have settled over Shelby's new cars:
* Forty-three chassis Shelby said had been in storage since 1965 were actually built in 1991 and 1992 by a Torrance company, McCluskey Ltd. A McCluskey engineer says all frames are precise copies of Cobra 427 chassis originally built for Shelby by AC Cars Ltd. of England, with McCluskey workers even duplicating the coarse welds and rough saw cuts of 1965 metal working.
* In February, the California Department of Motor Vehicles, responding to information requested by The Times, said it would examine issuance of duplicate 1965 titles to 43 Cobras, apparently the same cars that were built in 1991 and '92. Shelby claimed in signed applications to the DMV--under penalty of perjury--that he has owned the cars since 1965 and that the original titles had been lost.
Wednesday, a DMV spokesman said the matter is now being investigated by the Los Angeles field office of DMV's Investigations and Occupational Licensing Division.
In a series of recent interviews over three weeks, Shelby, 70, offered several explanations regarding the chassis before admitting they had been built in 1991 and 1992 by McCluskey.
In all interviews, Shelby has claimed he is a victim of a campaign by Brian Angliss, head of AC Cars of England, who is building Cobra replicas--the Autokraft Mk IV. He is feuding with Shelby over design and manufacturing origins of the Cobra.
Shelby says Angliss wants to enhance sales by bad-mouthing Shelby's version. "He knows that if I build cars, they (customers) will buy from me and that will put him out of business," Shelby says.
Angliss, Shelby adds, is in the car business for nothing but personal gain. Shelby, a 1990 recipient of a heart transplant at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, says he has pledged profits from his new cars to the Shelby Heart Fund administered through the center.
He claims that he has made no secret of McCluskey's work in recreating the chassis.
But Csaba Csere, technical director of Car and Driver magazine, recalls Shelby's broad hints that the chassis were left from 1965: "Absolutely, that was definitely the impression. He basically said that in so many words."
Most other writers contacted by The Times agreed. Michael Jordan of Automobile magazine, however, reported last August that McCluskey would "scratch-build Cobra 427 S/C facsimiles." But, Jordan says he didn't question Shelby directly about the chassis' age: "I knew there was no way I was going to get a straight answer."
Shelby, however, continues to maintain that he hasn't misled anyone: "If I said they were 1965 chassis or if I inferred it, it meant that they were built in the '60s and I was using '65 engines which means that they are '65 cars if I so choose to say so."
Those 43 chassis--the steel frame supporting the engine, transmission and body of a car--remain the key to the controversy.
Chassis for all three models of the 1,100 original Cobras--also their bodies, suspension, wheels, seats and interiors--were built by AC Cars in partnership with Shelby American Inc. and Ford Motor Co. between 1962-70. The partially completed vehicles were shipped to Southern California to be fitted with Ford V-8 engines and transmissions.
As part of the certification process for racing the 400-plus horsepower Cobra 427 model, AC and Shelby-American assigned that series a block of 100 numbers.
But not all 100 cars were built. According to AC's 1965 records, the company shipped only 55 Cobra 427 chassis to the U.S.
That left more than 40 Cobra 427s and their chassis numbers apparently unborn and in limbo.
Angliss, 48, who assumed control of AC in 1986, says he well remembers one 1987 discussion about the Cobra numbers with Shelby, a former Texas race driver and chili millionaire.
He says that Shelby asked him to remanufacture a batch of Cobra chassis and ship them into the United States labeled as "washing machine parts." Angliss says Shelby told him he intended to leave the chassis to rust in the rain "then make a big announcement that he (Shelby) had stored these original and authentic AC Car's chassis since 1965."
Angliss says he declined the order.
Shelby, who has homes and businesses in Los Angeles, Texas and Mexico, denies most of Angliss' claims: "I asked him if he wanted to build the cars, pure and simple, if he wanted to rebuild the pieces I had and to build the cars."
There was no need to have them shipped as washing machine parts, he says, nor leave them outdoors to rust, because "it is perfectly legal for me to build a new car today and register it and sell it as a '65."
Don Landy, president of the Texas-based Shelby American Management, says that he corresponded with Angliss in the late '80s and that the British businessman agreed to help rebuild Cobra 427s. (Angliss said he was only willing to build 25 Special Edition cars for the Cobra's 25th anniversary, and he provided copies of 1987 letters detailing arrangements).
Initial plans were exchanged, Landy recalls, before Angliss said he was too busy for the project. Landy says he later told Angliss that Shelby American would make the cars "and at that point he went totally orbital, and from the point forward there has been nothing but threats."
Angliss believes AC Cars is the Cobra's manufacturer of record, and, as AC has either restored or reclaimed the original Cobra tooling, his replicas must be considered more authentic than a Shelby remake.
Shelby contends that he conceived the Cobra, arranged financing and design with Ford and AC Cars, formed Shelby American Inc. to complete the Cobra, marketed and raced the car and clearly was and is manufacturer of record.
Michael McCluskey, who has restored more than 40 authentic Cobras since 1970, says he met with Shelby in 1989 to discuss building 43 chassis and several complete cars.
The first eight chassis, he says, included pieces of "about 30 old frame rails" supplied by Shelby.
The old frames were numbered, but "in very poor condition . . . not as nice as those made in England," he says. So McCluskey decided to build from scratch.
McCluskey says that Shelby provided the final 13 chassis numbers attached to frame brackets. The brackets and old chassis, he adds, showed no signs of ever having been attached to bodies, engines or suspensions.
McCluskey says he did not respond to misleading articles because "he (Shelby) pretty much said 'I'll handle any questions from the magazines.' If you dealt with Shelby, he makes you want to keep quiet out of respect for who he is."
A former executive with a Shelby company--who requested anonymity--says that the plan was always to sell and register the cars as 1965 vehicles: "He (Shelby) said: 'That (1965 claim) will stimulate sales of the cars . . . and be enough to keep me (Shelby) for the rest of my life.' Also, he couldn't afford to build them as new cars because they would have to comply to 1992 . . . safety laws."
That would mean head rests, passive restraint systems, impact absorbing bumpers and side impact beams that would ruin the original look of the car.
Taylor Vincent, a senior attorney for the U. S. Department of Transportation, says that in the past, some street cars from small volume manufacturers have been granted exemptions from safety regulations.
Vincent says that Shelby has not applied for an exemption, so "if the Cobra is freshly assembled from all new parts, it seems rather clear that it is a brand new car and supposed to meet safety standards."
Shelby and Landy say that they are selling the 427SCs as race cars, which do not have to comply with safety laws. They also insist--based on an opinion of a Washington law firm hired by Shelby--that since the new cars contain rebuilt '65 engines installed by the manufacturer, they can be given that year of origin and be further exempted from federal and state compliance, including emissions controls.
Vincent disagrees, and says the "core issue" is not simply the engine but "whether the Department of Transportation considers them (complete Cobras) new or used."
That decision, he adds, would only be reached after a federal examination of the entire car and all its parts to determine "what is fresh, what is of original manufacture, what is remanufactured."
Shelby has not applied for such a study, nor has DOT initiated one, Vincent says.
The completed cars and bare chassis in the series have all been issued California DMV titles. The first 10, according to a DMV spokesman, have been registered in Shelby's name, allowing them to be driven on public streets.
Obtaining duplicate DMV titles that re-established the new cars and bare chassis as complete, vintage Cobras came easily.
Shelby's guide through the DMV paperwork was Jeffrey Puentes of Sacramento Registration Service in Studio City.
Puentes, a licensed vehicle verifier, says he examined some completed cars and a stack of chassis. He noted numbers and transferred them, plus the model year and make, to state verification forms.
The signature, Carroll Shelby, appears on critical documents accompanying the 43 applications.
For Cobra CSX3099, for example, that signature is on a questionnaire stating Shelby has owned the car since 1965 and that it was last registered in 1967. In fact, only a chassis exists, and it was built by McCluskey in 1992.
On another document, a Statement of Facts, the Shelby signature certifies under penalty of perjury that: "I have owned this vehicle since 1965 . . . I have moved several times and have lost the title . . . the vehicle has been in storage."
Shown a DMV document with his signature, Shelby claimed that, in 1965, he had 43 completely assembled and titled Cobra 427SC cars. "At one time or other in the '60s I did have complete cars for all of these (DMV forms). I sold pieces and parts for 30 years and I trade pieces and parts today."
Shelby says he obtained original titles on all 100 Cobra 427s in 1965, but lost the 43 in question. (A DMV spokesman says California has no vehicle records for 1965. They were destroyed in a space-saving purge several years ago.)
Over a 10-month period ending in April, 1992--after Puentes' verifications--the DMV issued duplicate titles baptizing all chassis as 1965 vehicles.
A DMV spokesman said investigators planned to talk with Puentes. Their concern, he said, likely will center on Puentes' verification of chassis as complete cars.
Says Shelby: "All I did was hire Mr. Puentes to handle the registration. I said I wanted it done in a legal manner and that is what I did . . . The way he did it, I don't recall."
Puentes says Shelby wrote and provided the Statement of Facts and that he had no reason to doubt its accuracy: "But I'm not a Cobra expert. I'm not giving any authenticity to a chassis, just a number."
Shelby says he began building "reproductions" of his Cobra 427SC to stake a new claim and show Angliss there is only one Cobra and only one manufacturer.
Some say that at 70, Shelby is trying to bolster the cars' value and enlarge his contribution to the Cedars-Sinai heart fund, which he says is the most important thing in his life. Others believe an ego bruised by a hundred Cobra imitators, some building fiberglass replicas with Volkswagen engines, has brought an old tiger out fighting one last time.
Richard Kopec, national director of the Shelby American Automobile Club in Sharon, Conn. says it is a case of Shelby being Shelby and "selling a little bit of truth, a little bit of snake oil, and some things best left unsaid."
Purists believe Shelby's new Cobras will never attain the value of his original cars. To them, purchasing a Cobra without a British-built chassis and body is close to buying a Stradivarius violin built from box wood.
The less devoted say new Cobras will always command top dollar. For a Shelby Cobra is an American icon.
Indeed, building parts manufacturer Robert Pecel of Studio City says he paid very close to $500,000 for one of the new Cobra 427s in November.
Although he says that he was never told by Shelby that the chassis or any portion of the car were of 1965 manufacture, Pecel says he had "no doubts" its chassis was a British-built original and that "65% to 75% of the car is a 1965 car. I made that assumption from what I saw (at McCluskey Ltd.) and what I had read."
Pecel drives his Cobra on the street, but has not applied for California plates. He says he intends to register the car in Arizona, where he has a second residence.
He says he is "a little disappointed . . . but not angry." After all, his car, however old--or new--was built by Shelby. Pecel plans no legal action, nor will he ask for a refund: "I might feel different if I had bought the car for investment purchases.
"But I bought it for me and I think I got a better car than my buddy's original. I bought it to drive and I love it and that hasn't changed."