How a little aero magic made the Daytona Coupe a Ferrari-beater

Photography Credit: Courtesy Ford

Few automotive designs in racing history have had such a controversial negative beginning and successful ending as Carroll Shelby’s World GT Championship-winning Daytona Cobra Coupes. Their improbable two-year dominance over the best from Europe was the result of an extraordinary effort by a small but highly experienced team gathered from every realm of motorsport. 

I was fortunate enough to be part of that crew, and I had the extraordinary opportunity to work with some of the world’s most talented racing car constructors. Our first project for Shelby, in 1962–long before Ford’s heavy financial involvement in late ’64–was to equip a couple of pretty but rather anemic English-built AC roadsters with Ford’s then all-new 289 V8. It turned them into fire-breathing Corvette-killers called Cobras.

Since my primary goal in starting work for Shelby was to drive on his team, I never mentioned that I’d been a designer at GM Styling and had created the form that eventually became the ’63 Corvette Stingray. My fantasy of being a team driver evaporated the morning after our new Cobra’s first appearance in October of ’62 at Riverside against six equally brand-new ’63 Corvette Stingray Coupes. 

With 6:1 odds, the numbers were against us, but our Cobra was obviously superior. We didn’t win that first round because a rear hub failed while our driver, Bill Krause, was in the lead, but the car had been so dominant while running that it convinced everyone our new production racer would be a championship contender in the coming season. 

By the next morning, every top driver in the country had called Shelby offering their services. With the likes of Dan Gurney, Dave MacDonald, Ken Miles and Bob Bondurant available, there was slim chance for an unknown club racer like me to score a ride. But Shelby now had a roster of top talent that would be hard to beat. 

Shelby’s Team Cobras demolished all comers in 1963, winning the three titles comprising SCCA’s first United States Road Racing Championship: the manufacturer, team and driver championships. 

On-track success with our new “snakes” made Shelby even more determined to return to Europe to reprise his 1959 Le Mans win with Aston Martin–but this time with a car of his own manufacture. Shelby had a personal score to settle with Enzo Ferrari and wanted to do it with a Cobra. 

Our only problem was the Cobra’s top speed. Our open roadsters with their tall, rules-mandated windscreens, were aerodynamically limited to about 160 mph, some 20 short of what was needed to compete with Enzo’s sleek 250 GTOs. 

I had a solution in mind that could make it possible, but the concept looked so different from generally accepted forms that I knew it would be tough to convince Shelby of its potential. Had it not been for a minor change in the wording covering the FIA’s international rules for GT cars in ’61, there would have been no way to make it happen.

On America’s short courses, Shelby quickly had a winner with the Cobra Roadster. However, it didn’t have the top speed needed for longer tracks–Le Mans in particular. Despite internal opposition, Peter Brock showed how a reskin could add more legs to the already proven Cobra–note the ring airfoil that never appeared on the Daytona Coupe. Photography Credits: Courtesy Ford (Cobra), Peter Brock Collection (sketch)

Lost German Technology

While working at GM Styling in Detroit during late ’50s, I’d spend my lunch hours in their still uncompleted library. There I discovered an obscure technical paper on automotive aerodynamics written in Germany in 1937. 

I couldn’t decipher the text but could understand the resulting numerical data. It was impressive. Why hadn’t this information ever been developed? 

Years later, I learned there actually had been several attempts by the designers to convince a couple of German manufacturers to produce cars using that data. However, the unusual form, with its flattened, reverse-angled roofline and chopped-off tail, was so strange-looking that all refused to even consider the potential. Later, that test data was lost in the fog of World War II, so even the insights achieved in those early successful tests failed to gain local recognition, much less international acceptance. 

I tried to share the information with my boss, GM’s vice president of Styling, Bill Mitchell, while working on the XP-87 Stingray concept. I felt strongly that the data, if properly adopted, would improve our new Corvette’s top speed. Mitchell set me straight very quickly, letting me know that he led the design teams in Styling and that he hadn’t asked for any advice.

He felt the strange-looking forms I’d suggested were ugly and surprisingly intimated that “aerodynamics limit creativity.” Besides, he said, no one would ever drive a Corvette over 100 mph! 

I put my sketches away, but I couldn’t stop thinking of what two radical visionaries had tested and proved in Germany some 30 years earlier.

I left GM Styling in 1959, returning to California to begin what I believed would be my career as a professional race driver. Still, I never forgot the potential performance hidden in those controversial German aerodynamic forms. 

Shelby’s determination to somehow race his Cobras in Europe was my chance to prove the validity of the German designs. My coupe concept, which was eventually called the Daytona Cobra, was initially rejected by most on Shelby’s team. All were highly experienced and respected racing technicians, but they were unfamiliar with early European racing history and technology. I wasn’t surprised. Bill Mitchell’s reactions six years earlier had been the same. 

When I made a presentation to the team, it was met with almost complete silence. My concept’s unfamiliar shape, with its radically chopped tail and strange, flattened roofline seemed to flout all accepted aerodynamic dogma. 

Initially there seemed little possibility of getting my design built, as there was no money from Ford to build it or even internal support for the concept. Our chief engineer, Phil Remington, seemed certain it would be a waste of time. 

Earlier, in June of ’63, he and Shelby had gone to Le Mans and seen Eric Broadley’s smooth-looking Mk6 Lola coupe. They learned that Ford had secretly purchased Broadley’s design but, due to Henry Ford’s misunderstanding of the Le Mans rules, planned to adapt this car into a GT-class racer in an attempt to beat the Ferrari 250 GTO–hence why the new Ford was to be called the GT40.

Ford, unaware of the Daytona Coupe’s development, already had its next endurance racer in the works, transforming the mid-engine Lola Mk6 into the GT40. Photography Credits: Courtesy Ford (GT40), Courtesy Lola (insert)

Shelby could see the potential in a modern, mid-engined design and immediately began angling with Ford management to race it. That didn’t happen. The contract had already been assigned to John Wyer at Ford Advanced Vehicles in the U.K. 

Wyer, because of his vast experience, had also been placed in charge of building Ford’s new design as well as developing it for competition. Ford’s top management in Dearborn was so focused on their GT program that they weren’t even aware of me or my design for the Daytona or that I had something even more formidable in mind. Their impression of Shelby at that time was that he simply had a small, successful privateer team with slight financial backing from Ford to embarrass GM’s Corvettes. His Cobras weren’t even considered in management’s plans to challenge Ferrari. 

It was our top development driver, Ken Miles, who convinced Shelby my design had some serious potential to match Ferrari’s best. Being English, he had some knowledge of what the Germans had built and raced in England in the ’30s. 

He knew my concept had merit, but with no chance of financial support from Ford–because of its commitment to its GT40 program–building or even testing my project seemed highly improbable. Still, Miles’ certainty kept Shelby involved, even at the risk of personally alienating Remington, who had advised against it. Remington believed the top-secret, mid-engine GT40 design was light-years ahead of what I was suggesting–but he didn’t fully understand the homologation requirements.

But with seemingly no possibility of returning to Europe with Ford backing in ’64, Shelby had no other options. My coupe would be his answer. The key was in the timing. Miles was certain there was no way Ford could completely reengineer the Broadley design and have 100 copies built by the first race of the season–and that was exactly what the FIA rules stated. 

Miles and I were certain we could design and build a completely new body on Shelby’s Cobra roadster chassis in less than four months.  Because our Cobra roadster had already been homologated in ’62–and thanks to very recent FIA rule changes–there would be no requirement for us to build 100 exact copies. 

Ford, of course, would still have to comply, and that was what baffled Miles and me. Since we weren’t privy to Ford’s plans, we didn’t know what was going on in Dearborn or at Ford Advanced Vehicles in the U.K. How could they not know this critical detail?

Shelby was the western states distributor for Goodyear racing tires. When two of the company’s top execs visited in mid-October of ’63, Shelby took them to lunch, gave them some background on my “lost German speed secret,” and told them whatever else he conjured of the long conversations I’d had with him about how we could easily build a faster, FIA-legal Cobra coupe. 

With the addition of Miles’ confidence in my concept, Shelby somehow convinced Goodyear that we had a serious contender. If my concept was successful as claimed, the execs knew the media value alone of the car’s radical technology would reflect positively on the brand’s image as a leader in the sport.

In a handshake deal, Goodyear agreed to finance the coupe’s construction. We now had less than five months to go from a blank sheet of paper to a competitive car on the grid at Daytona.

As Shelby’s directive to build the coupe went against Remington’s advice, it created some division within our team. A few even refused to work on the “ugly” project. Having just won at the USRRC, they’d become a proud group and wanted no association with what Remington told them would be a “certain loser.” 

So, instead of selecting the top fabricating talent from his favored “California crew,” Remington selected a small group of recently hired “foreigners.” John Ohlsen, a young New Zealander, would serve as crew chief, while Ken Miles and I would build our coupe. Few have ever worked as hard or as many long hours, but somehow we had it built and running in record time. 

All skepticism vanished on February 1 at Riverside, when the bare, aluminum-bodied coupe rolled off the trailer and Miles promptly drove it to a track record–3.5 seconds faster than his previous best in a Cobra roadster. 

After plenty of doubt, those first tests of the Daytona Coupe finally sold Carroll Shelby on the idea: This car was fast enough to win at Daytona. Photography Credits: Peter Brock Collection

He called Shelby from the track, saying he was certain we’d be competitive against the Ferraris. Shelby immediately went downstairs and stunned the skeptical crew: “I don’t care what any of you previously thought. These are the hard numbers,” he said, waving the times from our Riverside test. “We’re going to go to Daytona with a car of our own and we’re going to win!”

Homologation Papers

Ironically, had it not been for Enzo Ferrari’s successful attempt two years earlier to deceive the FIA’s contest board, we’d never have been able to build our Daytona Coupe. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, with its complex rules governing racing, required every manufacturer to submit a full set of technical documents describing in meticulous detail the specifications of every new production model intended for competition. 

These documents, formally known as homologation papers, must also include a full set of detailed photos. That way, technical inspectors at any FIA-sanctioned event in the world can use them to verify that each car being inspected complies with the submitted documents. Perhaps the most important clause in the FIA rules, prior to 1961, was a requirement that 100 identical models be built before any car could be officially recognized as a GT car.

Changing the homologated Cobra roadster bodies to enclosed coupes would never have been allowed but for Ferrari’s bold attempt in late 1961 to homologate his then secret 250 GTO with an entirely new body. 

Section 254 of the FIA’s Appendix J rules permitted slight “evolution of type” modifications mid-season to cover minor changes to already homologated automobiles. Legally accepted examples of “evolution” might include a slight widening of fenders to accommodate the latest tires, or perhaps small changes in grille openings or vents in the body to permit improved cooling–nothing even close to what Ferrari was trying to sneak by the FIA officials.

Ferrari, the preeminent name in world GT competition, had dominated the FIA’s popular series since 1960. Although Aston Martin and Jaguar had been serious contenders for the FIA’s GT World Championship title, neither had been able to consistently match the Italian marque’s speed and reliability. 

Enzo Ferrari, though, was feeling the pressure. As early as 1960, his trusted technicians had begun testing aerodynamic improvements to the body of the company’s dominant 250 GT. Surprisingly, Ferrari was not an adherent to what he contemptuously referred to as “theoretical aerodynamic improvements” then being recommended by a visionary on his staff, Giotto Bizzarrini. Ferrari instead focused on increasing power to improve speed, as he was reluctant to incur the extra expense of questionable on-track development using aerodynamics. 

By 1961, though, it had become patently obvious that the highly secret, Bizzarrini-engineered coupe–built on a homologated 250 GT chassis and freshly bodied by Ferrari’s personally selected designer, Edmondo Casoli–was indeed faster. The economic reality of having to build another 100 cars just to comply as an entirely new model on what was a proven, existing, homologated chassis was highly distasteful to il Commendatore. 

Ferrari had carefully studied the rules and decided to interpret “evolution of type” in his own fashion to qualify his new car. The FIA’s rules were written in French, so translations could potentially create loopholes. Ferrari’s representative was sent to Paris to submit the latest homologation documents for the coming 1962 season. 

When the papers were examined, officials noted that the description of a body modification, described as an “evolution of type,” did not include the required photograph. Ferrari’s representative casually explained that it was simply a later “evolution of type” of its existing 250 GT, so photos of the change were not necessary. 

The submission was tabled until a photo could verify the modification. Under further pressure, a photo of Ferrari’s body was finally shown. Obviously it was not an evolution of type but an entirely a new body. Ferrari’s papers were formally rejected.

Ferrari Forces a Loophole

In Modena, having received the news by phone, Ferrari was livid.  Instead of flying immediately to Paris to protest in person (which would have indicated a subservient position to the FIA’s contest board), Ferrari got on the phone. 

He called the organizers of every race on the FIA calendar, explaining that the “vague wording” in Section 254 of the rules was being used to unfairly discriminate against approval of his latest “evolution.” He then threatened to withdraw his crowd-pleasing Ferrari race team from each of their events unless they immediately called their nation’s representative in Paris and had them vote to accept his questioned submission. 

All were aware that such action, coupled with the media furor that would result if Ferrari made good on his threat, would have dire financial consequences–possibly even event cancellations.

No other team principal in the world–ever–had the incredible, majestic power of Enzo Ferrari. To threaten and force change within the FIA for personal gain seemed impossible. However, the next morning, the wording in Section 254 was quietly modified to permit an entire body to be changed or replaced on an existing homologated model.

Why didn’t Shelby need to homologate its new car? Ferrari first opened that door, claiming that its new 250 GTO was merely an update to its faithful yet aging 250 GT. Photography Credits: Courtesy Ferrari

At the Paris Motor Show a few weeks later, Ferrari introduced its now iconic Casoli-designed 250 GTO, the GTO short for Gran Turismo Omologato. The FIA was not pleased that it had been forced to change its rules and never forgot Ferrari’s successful deception. 

The change to Section 254 opened the floodgates of innovation. Jaguar soon introduced its beautiful “lightweight,” aerodynamically improved E-type, while Aston Martin debuted its much improved 212 coupe. And soon, Shelby would have his Daytona Coupe. 

Ferrari’s slick political move had stolen a year on the competition, allowing the marque to win the FIA’s GT Championship in ’62 and ’63. But retribution arrived at Daytona in February of ’64. 

The Backstory

Because Shelby’s Cobra roadster had been formally homologated by the FIA in ’62, it had now also become eligible for a completely new body under the rules change forced by Ferrari. Shelby’s initial skepticism, however, remained. Even as we completed the full-size buck on which the alloy panels would be formed, Remington’s sage advice created lingering doubt. 

Still, the incredible possibility of our team actually showing up at Daytona with a completely unexpected “Cobra,” with speed to match Ferrari’s amazing 250 GTOs, seemed to intrigue and encourage the humorously devious part of the Texan’s persona. 

Shelby was unaware of the implications involved in the modified wording of Section 254 until I mentioned the possibilities of building a completely new body on our existing homologated Cobra chassis. Shelby listened, but he was highly skeptical of my idea to use portions of an aerodynamic theory developed in the ’30s. 

He questioned why no one else in the vast world of motorsports had ever picked up on this “supposedly superior” technology. Shelby may have been a great driver, but he wasn’t technically astute. I tried to explain that aero drag goes up by the square as velocity is doubled. 

He countered with the fact AC had put a “fastback” roof on its 1963 Le Mans entry and it had made little difference in top speed. I carefully reiterated how the extreme departure angle on the roof of the AC entry was the problem–that the air flowing over it did not stay “attached,” and the resulting turbulence caused severe drag. He still wasn’t convinced, but with no other option for ’64, he had no other choice. 

More Controversy

Remington remained negative on our coupe project but said nothing. The fact that Shelby had listened to Miles and then sold the whole concept to Goodyear didn’t sit well with him either, but Rem went along feeling his ever-valuable advice would be vindicated when the car was tested. 

It was about then that Shelby brought in a famed aerodynamicist, Benny Howard, to view our semi-finished coupe. Howard was a fellow Texan and long-time friend of Shelby’s. 

With so much controversy over the design, Shelby felt it would be wise to invite a real aero expert to evaluate the coupe’s potential.  When we were introduced, I was impressed. I was familiar with Howard’s history. His designs had been the fastest racing planes of the late ’30s, so if anyone were familiar with the advantages of improved aero, it would be Howard. 

Photography Credits: Peter Brock Collection

Shelby asked me to give Howard a verbal outline of my “German technology” and then explain every detail on the coupe. When I got to the part explaining the aerodynamic advantages of the chopped tail, Howard interrupted. “That’s not possible,” he said. “If that were true and we made airplane wings like that, the plane wouldn’t fly.”

It wasn’t my place, with no formal aerodynamic training, to tell one of the world’s foremost aerodynamicists that he was correct, but also wrong: He’d designed planes to fly; my coupe was designed to stay on the ground.

In fact, I’d already planned ahead and included an integral moveable rear wing that could be driver adjusted to eliminate lift at speed. Unfortunately, the only guy in our shop capable of building it the way I wanted was Phil Remington. 

“Look, Pete, that thing will take me five days to build.” Rem was being totally honest, with no sense of rancor. He didn’t believe the car was going to work, so he felt my “ring airfoil” design was just another time-wasting “gimmick.” 

“Let’s wait until after you test and then make that decision, okay?” After our first successful test at Riverside, there was no way he could refute the results, but there were only days until we had to leave for Daytona, so no time to build the wing.

Six weeks later, our new Coupe had set the lap record at Daytona. After the race, I went back to Phil and asked again if he’d build my “ring spoiler” for the car. 

“It doesn’t need the wing, Pete; it easily broke the lap record.”  

I explained that the only reason we hadn’t experienced lift at high speed was because the car was on the banking; the higher g-forces kept it stable. I insisted it was going to be necessary when we got to Europe, but Phil ran the race shop, made the important decisions and he wasn’t going to change his mind. Daytona had given the car its name and it stuck. Even the press was now calling it “Shelby’s Daytona.”

Five weeks later, Dave MacDonald set the lap record at Sebring and then he and Bob Holbert went on to win the toughest 12 hours in racing. In the following months, Daytona Coupes set lap records at Le Mans and Reims in France, Spa in Belgium, and the Tourist Trophy in England. Most importantly for Ford and Shelby was the Daytona’s GT victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1964 with drivers Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant. 

Photography Credit: Peter Brock Collection

Even more important to Henry Ford II was the growing credibility of our team’s capabilities. Prior to the Daytona’s success at Sebring’s 12 Hours, Shelby’s team hadn’t been officially recognized as a true partner in Ford’s plans for international motorsport.  All attention internally in Dearborn was on the slow, sometimes frustrating development of Ford’s own jealously guarded GT40 program.     

By the end of the 1964 racing season, a total of six Daytonas had been completed. The design’s indisputable speed, with victories on every major European circuit, convinced a demoralized Enzo Ferrari there was little chance his once invincible 250 GTOs could compete against Shelby’s Daytonas in 1965. Ferrari formally announced his factory’s retirement from GT competition at the end of the ’64 season to concentrate on racing against Henry Ford’s GT40s in the faster Prototype class. 

As Ken Miles had predicted a year earlier, Ford hadn’t been able to build the 100 cars necessary to qualify in the GT category for which it had been designed and named. Forced to run as a Prototype, it was obsolete before it ever turned a wheel against the faster more powerful Ferrari P3 and P4s. Not one Ford GT40 finished any race in 1964. (Had Roy Lunn, who worked with Wyer, simply updated Broadley’s design, the GT40 would have been an instant winner. Its 289 engine was ideal for the GT class, but it was woefully underpowered for the Prototype class in which it was forced to run.)

Ford’s GT40 didn’t finish any races in 1964, while the Shelby Daytona Coupe–built by a bunch of California hotrodders–earned class honors at Le Mans while taking the checker fourth overall. Photography Credit: Peter Brock Collection

It was the Shelby team’s shining performance with the Daytonas during 1964 that finally convinced Henry Ford II to contract Shelby American to help develop and race his struggling team of Ford GT40 Prototypes starting in 1965. Amazingly, part of that contract was a clause eliminating the Daytona Cobra’s development! 

Ford management wanted Shelby American’s total focus on their GT40s. Thus began Shelby’s inclusion in the famed “Ford-Ferrari Wars” recently celebrated with the release of the Hollywood blockbuster.

Incredibly, Shelby’s six Daytonas were almost scrapped at the completion of the ’64 season. They were apparently of no use to Ford’s motorsport program. Then, at the last moment, the six cars were “loaned” to the U.K.’s Alan Mann Racing team with the goal of winning the FIA’s GT World Championship, while Ford concentrated on the Prototype class with its GT40s. 

Alan Mann Racing won the World’s GT Championship in 1965 with his “barrowed” Daytonas. The now legendary Ford versus Ferrari “war” continued to escalate through the mid ’60s with the Ford’s U.S. subsidiary Kar Kraft redesigning the 427-powered MK II GT40s that were prepared and raced by Shelby American, finally taking four consecutive wins over Ferrari at Le Mans from 1966 through 1969.

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ralphtyrone New Reader
6/2/23 7:26 p.m.

And now we know ,'as you know who famaously said "and now you know the rest of the story.

Forget , Shelby, Miles, and Ford.  It was you Mr. Brock who was really responsible for Ford to force Ferrari out of th GT class after the 1964 season. The movie should have been about this story, not the GT40 story. Now that , thats said, I am curious of the name of that German engineer.

Respectfully yours Ralph S. 

RadBarchetta New Reader
6/3/23 8:55 a.m.

So weird to think that some people thought of the Daytona Coupe as "ugly".

BillKeksz New Reader
6/7/23 5:09 a.m.

I assume the German engineer was Wunibald Kamm, who discovered you didn't really need that much tail.

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