Thursday, February 11, 2010

History: A Special Breed

Last year something special rolled across the auction block at Mecum's inaugural Monterey Auction in August. A 1965 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe. Accompanied by the it's designer, Peter Brock and the man who piloted the car to an FIA World Sportscar Championship, Bob Bondurant, this special piece of motoring history fetched $7.25 million USD, a new record for an American car sold at public auction. That is a massive amount of money for just on car, so one must ascertain what makes such a car so special to garner such attention.

Much like the birth of Fords GT40, the Daytona Coupe was a product built out of spite for Enzo Ferrari, and their domination of closed top GT racing. The 250 GTO won the World Manufacturer's Championship in 1962, 1963, and 1964. In order to compete with the GTO, Shelby would not only have to build a tin top, but also homologate it, requiring at least 100 examples be built. To get around the homologation issue the Coupe would be built on the original Cobra roadster chassis, which already had its papers and as such was temporarily designate the Shelby Cobra Coupe. Shelby brought in a young designer named Peter Brock to pen the lines of the Coupe, while Bob Negstad was enlisted to design the car's suspension.

It's said that Brock designed the cars silhouette by taking pictures of fellow engineer Ken Miles sitting in a roadster to get dimensions. Brock took these photo's and designed a roof line that would that would support Miles height and foot reach, and when the first copy went to the wind tunnel, the aerodynamics were considered perfect by the team. The problem was getting the car built. The creation of the body had taken so much time due to the exotic shape of the car, there was not enough skilled labour around to build the additional cars needed. Ironically, Italy is full of highly skilled coach builders that could start pumping cars out for the upcoming 1964 racing season. So with that, the original American built Coupe was sent to to Daytona to compete in its first ever race, while five other chassis' were shipped, even more ironically, to Modena, Italy where Carrozzeria Grand Sport would go on to build the rest of the six Coupes. Ironic since the remaining Daytona's were built a mere 17 km from the Ferrari headquarters, the heart of all Italia.

Meanwhile, back in Daytona, the Shelby Cobra Coupe had just won the GT class in its first ever race prompting Carroll Shelby to name the car the Daytona, and ever since the car has affectionately been know as such. The Daytona would go on to win the 1964 24h of Le Mans and 12h of Sebring, narrowly missing the overall championship won by the hated Ferrari GTO due to a cancelled race. This prompting Shelby to famously declare, “Next year, Ferrari’s ass is mine!”

1965 would see Team Shelby commit an all-out attack on the championship, now armed with four examples of the Daytona. The season was shaping up to be a great war of rivals, however the Ferrari factory decided to limited involvement in the GT category, choosing to concentrate on the more prestigious prototype category. Without the full backing from the Ferrari factory the Daytona would go on to win nearly every race to take a commanding championship win over the GTO. It is this conquering of the most feared force in sportscar racing which gives the Daytona its prestige, even if time has forgotten a few poignant details.

However, the story of the Daytona does not end here. 1965 was also a year that Goodyear was hoping to break several landspeed records with their tires. They had Bonneville scheduled in September but did not have a car, while Firestone was waiting in the wings to also take some records for themselves. A call to Shelby procured the original American built Coupe for use in the task, but with the car fitted with tires ready on the salt flats, a driver was still needed. Craig Breedlove just happened to be hanging around the area after making some speed record attempts in a jet powered car, and was enlisted to drive the Daytona last minute. After mechanics showed Breedlove how to shift the car and some minor tweaking, he went out and set 23 new records for both the tires and the Daytona.

After 1965, the Daytona was obsolete as a top level racing car, and the Shelby team's attention was shifted to improving the GT40 with a MkII variant. So with that, the Daytonas were sold off to collectors, while the lone American built car went to music producer Phil Spector. Spector was known in LA well for always racing his Daytona Coupe through the streets, collecting several speeding tickets along the way. He had so many that his lawyer demanded that he sell the car or risk loosing his license. So, he sold it to his body guard, who would later give it to his daughter Donna O'Hara as part of a divorce settlement. Well, Donna would go on to become a recluse and with the Daytona, disappeared from the public in the mid-70's. For thirty years collectors and historians feared the car lost forever when Donna's body was found, apparently deceased as a result of suicide. The lost Daytona was then discovered in a rental storage unit in California and after a long legal battle, sold to a collector in Pennsylvania.

The Daytona's life was lived hard and fast, it was hand-built, with an illustrious history full of fierce rivalry, irony, great victories and defeats, while creating great stories of survival. It is these attributes that make such a car so special while such small numbers make it the dream car of even the richest of collectors. An icon so attractive, that it forced one man to part with $7.25 million USD.

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