It’s some time before 8 AM on a Sunday in Indio, California. I roll over on the couch of my Airbnb to fight off the morning sun slapping me in the face. Factor in the dry desert air and a friend’s wedding the night before and it’s a miracle my headed isn’t splitting open. After a while I collect myself — breakfast is in order. This quiet little neighborhood would prefer I not do this, but I need a chorizo and eggs Benedict from Sloan’s diner and the 7.0-liter V8 in the Superformance MKIII Shelby Cobra I’m driving needs warming. Half wincing, half smiling, I turn the key — saying “sorry” in my head to the neighborhood — and pump the throttle, trying to coax the engine to life with the starter. There’s a throaty bark and then a steady drum solo from under the hood. A car alarm sounds off from inside a closed garage down the street. Adrenaline and dopamine are fending off any hint of a headache. This car is that good just idling, sitting in a driveway.
Two words come to mind when Superformance crops up in conversation: sacrilege and caveat. There are countless ways to get your hands on a car that looks like an original Shelby Cobra MKIII. Do a quick search, and you’ll find professionally-assembled replicas and home-built kit cars litter classifieds across the internet. They may come with the same curvaceous mid-century styling and familiar soundtrack but rumble up to a Vintage Sports Car Club of America gathering, and you’ll be scoffed at or, worse yet, met with outspoken condescension: “Oh, it’s not a real Shelby MKIII?” According to these folks, if your Cobra wasn’t built at the original shop on Princeton Avenue in Venice Beach or Shelby American’s Hanger near Los Angeles International airport, it’s a false idol and sacrilegious. The caveat? Superformance is the only outfit building Cobras and Daytonas with an official license from Shelby American and official approval from the legendary, late Carroll Shelby himself — think of Superformance cars as new ’65 models. Nonetheless, continuation cars like those Superformance builds are incredibly polarizing.
The original AC Cobras were born out of the hot-rodding spirit sweeping the US in the ’50s and ’60s. The British manufacturer AC Cars was bolting straight-sixes in the front of its factory coupes, but Carroll Shelby approached them asking to drop in a V8 so he could go racing. AC agreed to the job; Shelby just had to source his own engines. He asked Chevrolet, but in fear of competition for the Corvette, GM turned him down. Naturally, he went down the road to Dearborn next, where Ford obliged and gave Shelby a new small-block Windsor V8. The cars weighed next to nothing, put down more power than drivers knew what to do with and took turns like they were on trolley tracks. You can absolutely see why outfits like Superformance, Factory Five or any of the companies selling build-it-yourself kits never want this car to disappear from the road.
Late in the day before my friend’s wedding, when a friend picks me up at LAX, we make our way to Hillbank Motor Corporation, a Superformance distributor in Irvine, California. It’s dark by the time we get there. The massive aluminum warehouse doors might as well be pearly gates — they open to a warehouse full of GT40s, Cobra coupes and Daytonas parked fender to fender, glistening in blinding fluorescent light. The shopkeeper walks us over to an all black MKIII — black gloss body, black wheels, dual side-exit matte black four-into-one exhausts, and a matte black roll hoop. He does a walk around, fires it up to warm up the engine, and I’m already thinking about making a run for the border with it. I’m also already nervous and intimidated.
As with the original Shelby Cobras, the Superformance MKIII has neither ABS nor power steering and dishes out 427 horsepower and 480 lb-ft of push for my feet to play with. It’s already desert night-cold, and it’ll be pitch black by the time we get to the mountains. The headlights only have two settings – off or high beam – there’s no roof and the heater doesn’t work. There’s just a single driver’s side mirror no bigger than the bottom of a pint glass, plus a rear-view mirror no wider than a letterbox opening which vibrates enough to provide me a mini laser-light show in the reflection… and not much else. None of that bothers me. Thanks to my experience riding a motorcycle, I can handle the cold and the raucous ambiance of the highway, even being eye-level with the underside of an 18-wheeler. I’ve been dreaming of driving a 427 Cobra – replica or real-deal – since my automotive obsession sparked to life.
I never believed one should never meet your heroes. As long as you know what you’re going into and keep your expectations realistic, it should all pan out fine, right? Pulling away in a high-performance “vintage” car, I expected the clutch to be heavy and fight back with every shift — but it’s Miata-light. I assumed the steering would be heavy, for it to take two hands to wrestle — but it’s effortless. With a direct cable connection to the throttle, the pedal is a little heavy, but nothing is lost in translation when power is demanded. Gearing in the five-speed transmission is long and sublime for long highway drives and perfect for keeping all that torque on a leash. Just a couple of traffic lights from the garage and we hit our first on-ramp, the first taste of violent acceleration.
The way this machine gathers speed is an absolute assault on the senses. There’s no electronic drive-by-wire throttle or luxurious sound insulation to numb the experience. Open the taps full bore and there’s no doubt thousands of explosions are going off three feet in front of your chest. The note firing out of the exhaust, just an arm’s length away, tickles your brain and strains your eardrums while the bucket seat bolted to the floor shoves you forward into it all. If you could combine the front-row seats of a rock concert and a roller coaster, you’d have something close. It’s an intoxicating and addictive sensation.
Sunday after the wedding, I promised to drive my buddy from Indio back to his place in Brentwood on the other side of LA. Afterward, I’d snag some photos and capture some video in the mountains on the way back to Indio, drop the car off in Irvine the next morning and catch a flight. How bad will it be? On the way to Brentwood I started doing the math: to make my flight I’d have to leave Indio before 5 AM. And I completely underestimated LA traffic, the distance and how much sooner the sun sets and the temperature drops in the mountains. My itinerary quickly devolved into a long loop from Indio to Brentwood, Brentwood to Indio via the San Bernadino National Forest (for video), back to Irvine to drop off the car and then back to Brentwood to crash at my friend’s place. Nearly 430 miles all said and done.
Riverside. The sun is dipping and the temperatures are dropping. My only regret is underestimating nighttime desert temperatures and wearing only a t-shirt in a car with no roof and a worthless heater. Making my way up route 243, Idyllwild can’t come soon enough — it’s pitch black and freezing and there are massive dropoffs a few feet from the road shoulder. I think about pulling over and using the engine or exhaust to warm myself. I push on through and make it to town, where I buy a coffee, a flannel and down jacket.
Nearly four hours after I leave Brentwood, I make it back to Indio. Dehydrated, hungry, a dry mouth, cracked lips — I feel more hungover from the drive than I did the wedding. I take a breather, take some heat from my friends for planning this out like an idiot, grab a 3×3 at In-and-Out and dread the drive back to Irvine. I pack my bags, graciously accept a wool hat from my friend and set off on the two-hour drive. Once I’m back on the highway, I start to feel like new. It might be the extra layers of down and wool or the mess of burger patties and Animal Sauce in my stomach, but I think it’s the car. A little hair of the dog mainlined through the throttle and exhaust pipe.
Some people are fine paying $1.5 million for the experience. But if you’re not hellbent on a genuine 1965 427 Cobra, Superformance will deliver to you a Carroll Shelby-approved 2018 MKIII for around $60,000. If you love cars and driving, it being an original Shelby shouldn’t matter. A car like this transcends period-correctness, numbers-matching parts, superficial nitpicking. The raw involvement with this car; the way each gear change is partnered with a solid thud; the direct, unfiltered connection with both the stopping power, thrust, and the accompanying orchestral sound is a mental and physical workout. It’s exhausting and so damn rewarding.