The Ford GT40 may have gotten all the glory in 2019’s excellent Ford v Ferrari starring Christian Bale, as the talented driver Ken Miles, and Matt Damon, as racing pioneer Carroll Shelby, but for any true racing fan there was one glaring omission.
I get it; to make a compelling story for the big screen, sometimes sacrifices must be made for simplicity and pacing. And the name of the movie says it all: the story is about Ford Motor Company’s battle to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans against perennial powerhouse, Ferrari. What goes unmentioned however, is the fact that while Ford was deep in development of the GT40 program, Shelby had already developed a Ford powered car to beat Ferrari on the Mulsanne straight: the Pete Brock designed Shelby Daytona Coupe.
Pete Brock was a talented young designer from northern California with a passion for auto racing. While still in art school, he was hired at the age of 19 by General Motors’ GM Styling design department where he penned the lines for the Corvette Stingray concept car (the basis for the second generation Corvette). After he turned 21, Brock left his design job at General Motors to pursue a career as a race driver in California.
Brock was Carroll Shelby’s first paid employee. He first went to work for Shelby in 1961, heading the Carroll Shelby School of High Performance Driving, and ultimately putting his design skills to good use, creating the iconic Cobra logo and much of Shelby American’s early merchandising and advertising. He was also the one who designed the Shelby pieces added to those white Mustang fastbacks that became GT350s.
Around 1963, Carroll Shelby realized he had a problem. Although the Cobra had been dominating tracks in the US, the open cockpit design of the Cobra, along with its gaping mouth of a front end, couldn’t reach the top speeds needed for the European circuit straightaways. The American tracks at the time averaged about 2.5 miles in length, while some European tracks, including Le Mans, had straights alone that were that long, or longer. As a workaround, Shelby American even tried putting hard-shelled fastback roofs on the Cobras for Le Mans in 1962, but this had little effect.
What happened next was all thanks to Ferrari. Brock knew that in 1961, Enzo Ferrari had strongarmed the FIA (theFédération Internationale de l’Automobile, the European racing governing body) to revise the Appendix J homologation rules, which allowed Ferrari to rebody the 250 GT SWB into the Ferrari 250 GTO. Brock then convinced a skeptical Shelby to let him design a new closed cockpit body for the Cobra to take advantage of the revised rules.
Starting with a chassis of a Cobra that was wrecked at Le Mans, Brock and a small team went to work fitting it with a wooden body buck over which aluminum body panels were hand-formed. Brock’s inspiration? Pioneering German aerodymanic studies from the 1930s. Oh, and it just so happens that a part of that small team was a guy you might remember – Shelby’s competition director, Ken Miles. Miles was a huge proponent of the project and design, even though a number of the guys in the Shelby shop thought that it would never work.
In its first shakedown at Riverside with Ken Miles behind the wheel, the Cobra coupe broke the team’s track record by 3.5 seconds. With subsequent tweaking over the next month, the car was reaching speeds exceeding 190 mph.
Throughout its construction, naming the coupe wasn’t a top concern. The team had set a goal to have the car ready to race in the Daytona Continental 2000 in February of 1964; the guys in the shop started referring to it as the Daytona car, and the name stuck. By the time of the Daytona race, the car had won many converts around the shop. Unfortunately, it retired early at Daytona due to a pit fire, but not before it set a new track record; and not only was it faster than the competing Ferrari 250 GTOs, the new design was about 25% more fuel efficient than the original Cobra. Five more Daytona Coupes were built with chassis work being done at Shelby American’s shop in California and with bodywork being completed by Carrozzeria Gransport in Modena, Italy.
The Daytona Coupe’s first win was in the GT class at the 12 Hours of Sebring in March of 1964, where it also broke the track record. At the test day at Le Mans prior to the 1964 race, Jo Schlesser, one of the Ford GT40 test drivers that had wrecked his car the previous day, hopped behind the wheel and broke the lap record. The next weekend at Spa? Phil Hill set a lap record in a Daytona. At Le Mans, a Daytona finished fourth overall and won the GT Class (if it wasn’t for a cracked oil cooler, it is believed by some that it would have won the whole thing, beating Ford Motor Company to the punch by two years).
In the 11 races of 1965, the Daytona won eight, including a consecutive GT class victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. On July 4, 1965, Shelby American was awarded America’s first FIA manufacturers’ road-racing championship, all thanks to the Daytona Coupe. But by then, the Daytona was an afterthought at Shelby American. In large part due to his team’s success with the Daytona Coupe, Shelby had been brought in to take over the GT40 program after Ford Motor Company’s dismal showing at Le Mans in 1964. Ford told Shelby to concentrate on the GT40, which effectively put an end to the development of the Daytona. For the 1965 season, the cars were loaned to the Alan Mann Racing team in the UK, which took over racing operations. The Daytona program was shut down in 1966 and the cars were sold off.
Some eagle-eyed viewers might notice glimpses of Daytona Coupes hiding in the background of some of the Ford v Ferrari’s scenes, including a brief shot of a car with a very familiar looking wooden body buck. But the movie, as a whole, ignored the significant contribution the Daytona Coupes made to the ultimate success of Shelby American’s and Ford Motor Company’s efforts with the GT40. To many enthusiasts, that was disappointing.
Today, the six Daytona Coupes are worth tens of millions of dollars. All survived their racing days and five of them have been restored to their former glory. The remaining unrestored car, the original California car, was at one point owned by infamous record producer Phil Spector, and was then hidden away for decades, ultimately becoming the subject of a multi-million-dollar lawsuit over its ownership. That’s a story for another day.
If you are interested in learning more about the Daytona Coupe and Shelby American’s role in securing Ford’s victory at Le Mans, I recommend the following:
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