|Cooper T61M Shelby King Cobra|
Cooper had kick-started the mid-engined revolution in Formula 1 and also lead the way in sports car racing. Like the F1 racers, the two-seat Cooper 'Monacos' were powered by the Coventry Climax FPF four cylinder engine. In privateer hands, various other engines were tried, including much larger American V8s. To stay ahead of the game, Cooper developed a new version of the Monaco specifically to accommodate larger engines for the 1963 season.
Known as the T61M and still powered by a Climax engine, the revised Cooper was first tested late in 1962 by Bruce McLaren. Like the earlier versions, the new car featured a tubular space-frame chassis but made slightly wider behind the cockpit to suit the bigger V8s. Suspension was by double wishbones and coil springs all around. Two sizeable fuel tanks were mounted on either side of the cockpit. The car featured a lightweight aluminium body that was slightly lower and wider than its predecessor's.
Among Cooper's customers was Carroll Shelby to compete in the lucrative USRRC series. He feared his Cobras would be no match for the purpose built sports racers but also had no time and resources to construct a car of his own, so obtaining two chassis from Cooper was the easiest route. Like all T61Ms, the two cars headed for Shelby's shop in Venice California were only partly finished, and ready to accept the engine and gearbox of the customer's choosing.
Upon arrival, the Coopers were completely stripped and vital chassis and suspension components were re-welded to ensure they were up to the task. Once the cars were put back together, they were fitted with the familiar small-block Ford V8 that also powered Shelby's Cobras. Breathing through four Weber carburettors, it produced around 370 - 390 bhp. The engine was mated to the Colotti five-speed gearbox usually fitted to the Coopers or the more affordable Huffaker four-speed transaxle.
During the first test at Riverside, Dave MacDonald immediately broke the lap record.Still unpainted, the two cars debuted at Kent, Washington. Al Holbert set the fastest lap time before both retired with overheating issues. There were no such issues for MacDonald at the all important Los Angeles Times GP at Riverside. The cars were now known as King Cobras and sported a lovely blue paint-scheme. MacDonald won by a lap from Roger Penske in another Cooper. Holbert's car overheated once again.
MacDonald won again at Laguna Seca after Holbert suffered another mechanical failure, this time caused by an earlier accident. The entire Shelby team had a miserable time at the Nassau season finale with the King Cobras retiring early in their race and the Cobras being thoroughly outclassed. The answer for the latter was already in the works in the form of a brand new Coupe body but this also had an effect on the King Cobra development program for which little resources were available.
Shelby nevertheless ordered four new chassis from Cooper. The first was a customer car for Craig Lang, which was driven by MacDonald for three races. Al Holbert also took to the wheel of the bright orange machine but suffered a fiery crash. Few bits of the car remained and a brand new car was built, fitted with a sleek body penned by Pete Brock. Now known as the Lang Cooper, this very aerodynamic King Cobra was raced well into the 1965 by Ed Leslie.
While the latest Cobras brought Shelby his much desired international success, the domestic USSRC program had more than its fair share of problems. The low point was the untimely death of MacDonald at Indy. Still suffering injuries from his own accident and distraught by the news of MacDonald's passing, Holbert decided to quit racing at the spot. Later in the year, the team bounced back with Parnelli Jones scoring a repeat victory at the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix.
Soon after, Shelby turned all of his attention to Ford's ailing GT program, leaving the King Cobras to collect dust. The King Cobra name was used again several years later for a completely new Can-Am car, which failed to live up to the original's reputation. Raced by the works team for barely a season, the Cooper-based King Cobras have nevertheless earned their place in the late Carroll Shelby's rich legacy.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on August 10, 2012
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