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.