Swinging '60s Supercars

Flick on the radio during the summer of 1964, and there was a good chance you’d hear tunes praising some of the generation’s best machines: the Corvette Sting Ray, Jaguar XK-E and the awesome Cobra. Enthusiasts lusted after them, and the cars quickly become pop-culture icons. Late in 1963, singers Jan & Dean released the album “Drag City” with the help of Beach Boy Brian Wilson; by the summer of 1964, one of the album’s singles, “Dead Man’s Curve,” was a top-10 hit. That same summer, The Rip Chords—their name a play on the device that releases a drag racer’s parachute—had a top-100 hit with their tune “Hey Little Cobra.” Both of these songs focused on the hottest rides of the day. If you had the money, the most bitchin’ car you could own was a Jaguar XK-E, Corvette Sting Ray or Shelby Cobra. These were the supercars of their day, although that day is now almost 40 years ago and the word “supercar” most likely had not even been penned. While Jan & Dean sang, “I was cruisin’ in my Sting Ray late one night, when an XK-E pulled up on the right,” The Rip Chords praised Shelby’s latest beast: “I took my Cobra down to the track, hitched to the back of my Cadillac. Everyone was there just a-waiting for me. There were plenty of Sting Rays and XK-Es.”

Four decades later...

...are these cars still worthy of the praises that were heaped upon them? To find out, we invited three classic combatants for a day of driving on and around historic Virginia International Raceway. On a beautiful summer day, we assembled a 1966 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray roadster, a leaf-spring 1965 289 Cobra and a 1963 Jaguar XK-E coupe. Our mission: To find out which of these cars is most worth singing about.

Chevrolet Corvette: America’s Sports Car

General Motors chief stylist Harley Earl, reportedly impressed by the Jaguars, Ferraris and Alfas he saw at a Watkins Glen sports car race in 1951, decided that Chevrolet needed a small, reasonably priced sporty car. Earl had GM designer Bill McLean develop a fiberglass-bodied concept car using Chevrolet components. The Corvette debuted in January 1953 at the New York Motorama in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The new sports car broke with most Detroit design traditions; in fact, its two-seat configuration and wheelbase were identical to the Jaguar XK120, a favorite car of Earl’s. In its first incarnation, the Corvette incorporated the Chevy Blue Flame six engine and Powerglide transmission, and was priced at $3513. Largely for packaging reasons, three Carter YH-spec carburetors were mounted on a special aluminum intake manifold. Although the styling drew compliments, performance was little better than pleasant and handling was, at best, indifferent.

By the end of 1954, sales were disappointing and the Corvette’s future looked grim. Three developments, however, reversed the car’s fortunes. First, Ford introduced the Thunderbird in 1954, helping to create a marketing niche for the Corvette. Chevy needed a two-seater to fill that spot in its model lineup. Performance was also being improved. The original Corvette wasn’t exactly a screamer, but Chevrolet Division head Ed Cole was able to wake things up by installing the new lighter weight, 265-cubic-inch Chevy small-block V8 under the car’s hood. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a 45-year-old gearhead named Zora Arkus-Duntov of GM Research & Development showed that with only small modifications, the Corvette could be made to perform like a European sports car.

The 1956 Corvette benefited from all these developments. That model featured some deft restyling, a standard three-speed manual transmission, the addition of roll-up windows and a bit more tweaking to the new small-block V8. Chevrolet finally had a winner. The car proved to be a winner on the track as well as in the showroom. With some backdoor help from Arkus-Duntov, a dentist named Richard Thompson took the Sports Car Club of America’s 1956 C Production championship. Sales jumped from 674 in 1955 to 3467 for 1956. During the next five years, General Motors could afford little more than face-lifts for the Vette’s styling, but horsepower could be increased with the standard hotrod techniques of boring and stroking the engine. By 1962, the engine had a howling 327 cubic inches of capacity that, with Rochester fuel injection, could pump out 360 horsepower. In 1963, with Arkus-Duntov firmly in control of the Corvette, Chevrolet introduced the milestone Sting Ray. Available in both roadster and fastback coupe body styles, the basic design was sketched by the same Bill McLean who had designed the 1953 show car. Styling was inspired by Bill Mitchell’s Sting Ray Racer, which had been campaigned briefly in 1959-’60 before touring the show circuit. Although the roadster version is a graceful car with clear relationships to its predecessors, the split-window fastback coupe was the sensation and is now the most collectible body style. Surprisingly, the motoring press hated the model and complained lavishly about seeing that “silly bar” in the rearview mirror. The split window was replaced by a single panel after just one year.

The Sting Ray’s chassis was just as revolutionary as the body. The Corvette’s frame had been strengthened to create the model, which permitted independent suspension at all four corners. The rear suspension used a single transverse leaf spring to significantly reduce unsprung weight. Minor changes to the basic 327 V8’s camshaft bumped up horsepower, which peaked at 365. The optional fuel injected version of that engine managed 375 horsepower. But the biggest power would come with the introduction of the big-block V8, which became available before the third-generation Corvette arrived for the 1968 model year. The big-block was listed as an option in mid-1965 in 396-cubic-inch form, then appeared in 1966 with 427 cubic inches putting out as much as 425 horsepower. A three-speed manual transmission was available, as was the two-speed Powerglide automatic. The preferred combination, however, was the four-speed stick, which was available with several combinations of gearing and final drive ratios. Four-wheel drum brakes were first used, but four-wheel discs became available on the 1965 models. Although big-block Sting Rays were never a match on the track for the lighter and more lithe Cobras—the Shelby product won the SCCA A Production titles from 1965 through 1968 —the battle for market share would be fought on the streets, and here the Corvette excelled. Production peaked at 27,720 units in 1966, one of them being the car we drove in Virginia. The final year for the Sting Ray was another good one for the dealers, as more than 22,000 were sold in 1967. (GM actually planned on replacing the Sting Ray for the 1966 model year, but initial wind tunnel tests of the new body style were disappointing, so the manufacturer stuck with its proven design.) Since that time, of course, there have been three more generations of the Corvette, and 50 years after the Waldorf unveiling, the model is as popular as ever.

Shelby Cobra: Pure Power Under Sleek Skin

The Ford-powered Cobra, that quintessential icon of brute American performance, actually had its genesis in a small, sleek roadster designed by John Tojeiro, an English race car builder of Portuguese extraction. His design had in turn been inspired by the Ferrari Barchettas of the late ’40s. Tojeiro’s cars were constructed in the best racing traditions, with aluminum panels on tube-frame chassis supported by independent suspension and transverse springs at both front and rear. In the spring of 1953, one of Tojeiro’s customers—his landlord, Vin Davison—showed his car to William and Charles Hurlocks, owners of the AC Company. Although the AC Company had been known since early in the century for its luxury sedans and roadsters, it was in financial difficulty. The Hurlocks were casting about for new models that might build needed sales. Six months later, Davison’s racer was on the AC stand at Earls Court. Now properly trimmed as a street car with chrome wheels and windscreen, and powered by the Light Six AC engine, the new car was introduced as the AC Ace. By mid-1954, the first production version, with a slightly strengthened chassis and AC’s excellent attention to detail, was brought to market.

Weighing only 1685 pounds, the car could easily top 100 mph. It displayed superb handling with its independent suspension. And then there was that purity of line, which the pundits agreed bettered its Ferrari inspiration. Becoming popular in club competition, the car cried out for a better engine, and by 1957 it had been fitted with the BMW-based Bristol two-liter six. In road trim, the AC was good for 120 mph, and in racing tune, with the Bristol producing 150 horsepower, the car could easily make 130 mph. Nevertheless, the Ace had two strategic flaws: First, AC had to rely on Bristol for their engines, and second, the car cost roughly twice as much as an MGA or Austin-Healey. With these limitations, only 723 Aces were sold between 1954 and 1963, 500 of them for export. Unfortunately, Bristol had shifted to Chrysler for its own engines in 1961, and supplies dried up. AC was able to carry on for a little while longer using the 2.6-liter Ford Zephyr engine, tuned for racing by wizard Ken Rudd. This Ruddspeed version was to be only a stopgap measure, however. In the autumn of 1961, looking for a European sports car that he could sell in the U.S., Le Mans winner Carroll Shelby visited the AC works in Thames-Ditton. The Ace looked like a good fit for him, while AC was still receptive to any potential markets for the model’s production.

Through a contact at Ford, Shelby had one of the new, thin-wall 260-cubic-inch Ford Fairlane V8s shipped to England, and during the winter, Davison and AC designer Alan Turner fitted it to a modified chassis. Although the engine actually weighed less than the Ford Zephyr six, the designers recognized the implications of its vastly greater power. They strengthened the main chassis using three-inch, 12-gauge tubes positioned 17 inches apart, while adding extra bracing and a stronger Salisbury differential. The sleek 2.6 body was left largely unchanged, except for slightly flared wheel openings to accommodate fatter wheels and a wider track. The transverse-leaf-spring independent suspension was retained. Performance put the new Cobra—the name supposedly came to Shelby in a dream—in a class by itself. That’s not surprising, since the complete car weighed in at 2020 pounds, only 180 more than the AC Bristol. Zero to 60 was achieved in 4.4 seconds, and the car could clear the century mark in less than 12 seconds. Although the first 75 Cobras were assembled with the 260-cubic-inch engine, the MkII was soon introduced using Ford’s 289-cubic-inch engine. Customers were unhappy with AC’s Bishop Cam steering box, and after approximately 50 chassis had been built, at CSX 2125, all Cobras were built with a Cam Gears rack-and-pinion system similar to that on the MGB. AC built 592 leaf-spring chassis, carrying chassis numbers with CSX prefixes, under contract for Carroll Shelby. Another group of chassis was built by AC for its own conversions. Specialists generally agree that in total AC built 655 leaf-spring chassis. After the positive reaction to the MkII Cobras, and with the availability of the Ford 427 engine, Shelby worked with AC to design a stronger chassis incorporating heavier tubes, a wider track and coil-over suspension at all four wheels. Thus the Cobra 427 was born. Just over 1000 Cobras were built from 1961 until 1967. But the true heritage of this classic design is marked by the fact that several times that number have been made since in the form of replicas, kits and outright forgeries. Today, even Shelby American is making its own versions of both the 289 and 427.

Jaguar XK-E: From a Thoroughbred Line

As with even the most revolutionary of cars, the Jaguar E-Type did not spring fully developed from the head of a designer. Rather, it was a logical evolution of previous developments. The direct predecessor was the Jaguar D-type, built to maintain the supremacy at Le Mans that Jaguar had attained with its C-types. The C-types themselves had been racing vehicles designed to use the powertrain from the XK120. Jaguar referred to the new model as the “E-Type” to mark it as the direct descendent of those Le Mans stars. However, Jaguar North America thought that U.S. customers would be more familiar with the XK120, -140 and -150 series, so in U.S. marketing literature the car was called the XK-E. At the risk of offending Jaguar purists, we’ll follow the lead set by our two surf bands and stick with the XK-E model designation. The XK-E was yet another manifestation of the strategy of Sir William Lyons to provide the motoring enthusiast with the greatest amount of performance and style at the lowest possible cost. This strategy had served him well in the decades before his company was renamed “Jaguar,” and had been the thinking behind the XK120 that revolutionized the concept of sports cars in 1948.

Certainly, when the XK-E was first introduced at Geneva in March 1961 in the fixed-head coupe version, its seductive curves enchanted the motoring press. The press also liked the circumstances: The show car was actually driven to Geneva from Coventry in a high-speed overnight dash, arriving just in time to be washed behind the building before being pushed onto the show stage. The first model was powered by the 3.8-liter version of the dual-overhead-cam engine that had been introduced with the XK120. It was the same three-carburetor version that had powered the XK150 “S,” and company literature indicated 265 horsepower at 5500 rpm along with 260 lb.-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm. A four-speed manual transmission was standard. The Series I XK-E 3.8 we tested is identical in specification to the car originally introduced at Geneva in 1961. Although the media doubted the claimed 150 mph top speed, 130 to 140 was achieved on press fleet cars. Thanks to good torque for quick acceleration and great flexibility, the car could make zero to 60 in less than seven seconds. In addition to the monocoque chassis of the D-type, the XK-E carried over the superb four-wheel-disc brakes of the race car. On the XK-E, the brakes were mounted inboard at the rear to accommodate the independent rear suspension. Torsion bars were used on the front, controlled by telescoping shocks. Twin coil springs on each side, each enclosing a telescoping shock absorber, were used at the rear. The XK-E was available from the start in both two-seat coupe and roadster body styles. The “fixed-head coupe” offered the convenience of a rear door in the fastback top for access to a capacious luggage area. The “open two-seat,” with its convertible top and rear end reminiscent of the D-type, was the more sporty of the two. Sales were excellent, as Jaguar sold more than 15,000 3.8-liter XK-E cars, with production split almost evenly between the coupes and roadsters. In 1964, the engine was expanded to 4.2 liters, and a better four-speed gearbox was fitted. Although external styling wasn’t changed, the interior was redesigned, and the lovely, but uncomfortable, seat backs were replaced. Two years later, Jaguar introduced a two-plus-two version of the coupe, adding nine additional inches to the wheelbase.

The 4.2-liter Series I cars are the most desirable of the XK-E line, especially in roadster form. The two-seat coupes are less valued, while the 2+2 coupes are on the bottom rung of Jaguar valuations. By late 1967, tightened U.S. emissions and safety regulations had begun to take their toll on the XK-E. In the U.S., headlights had to be changed, and the triple-SU carb setup was replaced by two Zenith-Strombergs. Additional changes were made in late 1968 with the formally named “Series II” version. Though the styling suffered, the Series II is actually the most practical of the XK-E range, sporting improved cooling, better brakes and factory-fitted air conditioning as an option. As U.S. emission regulations continued to tighten, Jaguar introduced the 5.7-liter V12 engine for the 1971 model year to regain some of the car’s sporting performance. The longer wheelbase chassis of the 2+2 was adapted to the roadster, and the short-coupled two-seat coupe was discontinued. The V12 XK-E was produced from 1971 through 1974. While the new car was characterized as a marvelous grand touring machine, Jaguar’s days of offering a true two-seat sports car were over.

All Three: Still Cool and Relevant

What surprised us most is how all of these cars are still cool and relevant. All three of the cars’ owners drive them a lot. There were no garage queens in the group. As Jan & Dean and The Rip Chords made clear, these are all really fun cars to drive and to drive hard. The XK-E is the only one that really feels like the classic interpretation of the word “supercar.” The Corvette and the Cobra feel more like zero-to-60, point-and-squirt kinds of roadsters.

Our XK-E owner, Jim Cole, says that he has had the car up past 150 mph. We believe him. The XK-E, at least in the coupe form that we tested, would be the only one of these cars that would be comfortable at anything approaching this type of speed. The Jaguar has the jewel-like precision quality and engineering to potentially offer confidence at this type of speed.

Certainly the words jewel-like have rarely been used to describe a mid-’60s Corvette. Quite the contrary, as the Corvette is a heavy, brash, bad-ass beast. This is not necessarily all bad, as the Corvette, despite its heavy feel, was a lot of fun. We would make room in our garage for one of these roadsters in a heartbeat. The Cobra really does combine elements of both the English Jaguar and the American Corvette. Cobra owner and test participant Tom Cotter perhaps summed it up best: “The Corvette is a hairy-chested bear. The steering wandered, and the car has immense power. “The Corvette is heavy, muscular, loud and aggressive, whereas the Jaguar is svelte,” Cotter says. “The Jaguar has feminine looks, touch and demeanor and is the moodiest of the three. The Cobra, on the other hand, seems to be a combination of both, with its English style and brutish American V8.” So which would we pick? Well, first, for most of us, price does matter. We clearly liked the Cobra best. The only thing we didn’t like about it is all the time we would have to spend defending its authenticity. Corvette owner Denny Cole believes all the replicas have ruined the panache of the Cobra. Nobody ever asks, “Is that a real Jaguar XK-E?” or “Is that a real Corvette Sting Ray?”

That said, the Cobra is an amazing car worthy of the legend. It combines the brawn of the Corvette, the sophistication of the XK-E, and blends them together into one amazing sports car. But the Cobra is priced somewhere near five times what the Corvette or XK-E roadster would cost, yet a Cobra certainly is not five times the car. In our view, its attributes might justify a 30 to 40 percent premium compared to the other two. Supply and demand are not always fair, however, and there just weren’t enough Cobras built. So once we took all the factors into consideration and despite its aforementioned faults, the Corvette comes in at number one. Had we tested a drop-top version of the XK-E, though, that opinion might quickly change. Our final piece of advice: Stay away from Dead Man’s Curve and don’t drag race a Cobra. Either way, you’ll lose.

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TR8owner HalfDork
3/20/11 6:18 p.m.

For me its a case of either/or although I'll admit a secret lust for an E type convertible.

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