“The British Version”

The racing community is tightly-knit, especially in England, so in late 1963, Ford dealer John Willment – then running Ford-engined Formula 1 cars for driver Frank Gardner and racing Cobra CSX2131 – heard that Shelby planned to build a series of Cobra coupes. Since he had co-driven this hardtop roadster to a class win at Le Mans that year, he understood the car’s aerodynamic limitations. Thus Willment also wanted a coupe, but when he tried to order one from Shelby, he was turned down. He decided to build his own, using drawings sent by Shelby American.

Meanwhile, Shelby employee John Ohlsen had returned to England that spring to get married and was working at Willment’s race shop. Since the ex-New Zealand fabricator had been crew chief on Shelby American’s coupe in late 1963 – he had also suffered first-degree burns during the Holbert/MacDonald Daytona Coupe’s (CSX2287) pit fire in February 1964 – he was the obvious choice to build the car. The previous year, Willment had bought a spare Cobra chassis from A.C., either for possible use with CSX2131 or with the intent of building a coupe. He wanted the bare chassis numbered to match that of his roadster – evidently for tax reasons – so it became CS2131 (without the X, denoting “export”).

At Willment’s shop in Chesley, team member Frank Gardner revised Pete Brock’s drawings, lowering the car’s roofline to reduce drag. (Ironically, Brock had originally designed the Shelby American coupe this way, but questions about interpretation of Le Mans window size regulations caused its roof to be raised.) The stock Cobra chassis, having 3-inch main tubes, was strengthened. Based on a wooden body buck made in the shop by Ohlsen and Brian Waite, the coupe was assembled by Willment employees Geoff Gilbert, Ted Richard and Frank Shattock, all ex-Aston Martin. Willment team manager Jeff Uren recalls that it was built in the back of Obey’s Garage in Twickenham.

The lower roof and near-horizontal rear window meant that this coupe’s windshield, doors, roof, rear windows, rear fenders and tail all differ from those of Shelby’s Italian-American versions. Its nose also differs: Only its upper section pivots forward, hinged horizontally across the car.

Given its birthplace, this coupe differs from Shelby’s version in many other ways. Obviously, it is right-hand drive. Under the skin, the car seems almost all British: hardware, electrical gear, instruments and fittings. Lucas, Girling and Smiths parts are everywhere, all designed, fabricated, mounted and connected in British fashion. For instance, the brake and clutch pedals appear to have been shaped by a blacksmith. Comparing this car to a Daytona Coupe is like comparing a British Spitfire fighter to an American P-51 Mustang.

A.C. also built its own coupe – without telling Shelby. Intended for Le Mans in 1964, the car, designated chassis A-98 and designed by A.C.’s Alan Turner, seemed an expression of the company’s British pride. Shelby found out about the car when it appeared at the Le Mans trials in April, but the car lacked testing, so he was unimpressed. A.C. proudly rolled it out for the press in May, and on June 10th the metallic green car was tested by Jack Sears and Peter Bolton on the M1 motorway near London, which then had no speed limit. Starting around 4 a.m., when traffic was practically non-existent, they got the car up to 185 mph! Somehow the press found out, though, and despite Aston Martin having done similar M1 tests, a public outcry ensued.

Work on the Willment Coupe was started by Ohlsen, but Shelby asked him to return to America in April, after the Le Mans trials, so the car was not ready in time for the 24-hour race. Finally finished in late August, it won its first contest, a miserably wet and fog-shortened 3-hour enduro at Snetterton, under the talented Jack Sears. Painted the Willment team colors of red with narrow-broad-narrow white stripes, the car carried the English license number 39PE, similar to the 39PH on the team’s Cobra Roadster. Sears was at the peak of his 15-year rallying and racing career. After winning the 1963 British Saloon Car Championship for Willment in a Ford Galaxie, in 1964 he raced Willment’s Cobra, CSX2131, a.k.a. 39PH. To gain straight-line speed, that roadster had been fitted with a sweptback hardtop; the results may have prompted Willment to build a true coupe.

Willment’s team had strong links with Ford, A.C., Shelby and Holman-Moody. Since they had previously taken a Cobra and a 427-powered Ford Galaxie to South Africa for the Springbok Series, it was natural to take the Coupe there for the 1964-1965 races. Jack Sears was teamed with Bob Olthoff for the Kyalami 9 Hours, finishing fifth despite spending 40 laps in the pits. Olthoff, who went on to become South Africa’s winningest sportscar driver, came second at McNeille, Rhodesia, in November and took victories at East London and Killarney in January. He may have also attempted to set a South African land speed record with the Coupe on Cape Town International Airport’s main runway. He reportedly reached about 175 mph, in third gear, but the short run-up and braking zones kept him below the hoped-for 200 mph, and no return run was made. Whether or not this attempt actually happened, the car went back to England.

In summer 1965, Frank Gardner drove the Coupe to 10th overall in the two-heat Tourist Trophy at Oulton Park. At Reims, the Coupe ran out of gas, so Gardner stole some low-octane fuel from a police truck – and holed a piston. Although entered for Le Mans, the Coupe didn’t practice or race there. Having missed both the 1964 and 1965 24-hour classics, and with the GT40 coming on strongly, it had inadvertently become a bit of a misfit. The Coupe’s best 1965 finish came under Willment team driver Jack Sears, who won the Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch. Sears, who retired from racing after driving a Daytona Coupe at Le Mans in 1965, remains the only driver to race all three coupe versions: the Daytona, A.C.’s version, and this one.

The Willment Coupe’s last known race was in September 1966, when Brian Muir drove it to fifth place. The car reportedly entered dozens of events in Europe and South Africa over the years. Although records are sketchy at best, it is said to have entered and won more races than any other Cobra coupe. By 1966, though, the Shelby and Willment Coupes were obsolete, having been out-classed by the built-for-racing GT40, a far more competitive car.

When Willment’s team disbanded in 1967 – its leader joined John Wyer to form JW Automotive – his Coupe was sold off, a simple interior was installed and it became a street car. When it was restored in the late 1970s for banker and vintage racer Amschel Rothschild, its original near-horizontal rear window was replaced by a smaller, lighter but less aerodynamic vertical window. Having passed through the hands of American collectors Frank Gallogly, George Gillett and Rob Dyson, the Coupe has been in the Shelby American Collection since 1999. Although the car has been repainted, repaired, and maintained for vintage racing, it has never needed a full restoration.

According to Willment, construction of a second Coupe was started on a coil-spring chassis, but it was never completed and hung from the ceiling of their shop for years. The bodied but unfinished car later ended up at Holman-Moody.

Text excerpted from “Shelby Cars in Detail, Cars of the Shelby American Collection” by Frank Barrett with photography by Boyd Jaynes. Find out how to obtain your own copy of this magnificent book at www.bullpublishing.com

Vehicle Details

Chassis Number: CSX2131
Horsepower: 385 hp
Displacement: 8-cylinder, 289 ci (4.7 L)
Wheelbase: 90”

Race Details

1963 Race Season

TRACK: 24 Hours of LeMans

PLACE: 7th

DRIVER: Sanderson/Bolton

1964 Race Season

TRACK: Silverstone Autosport

PLACE: 1st

DRIVER: Frank Gardner

TRACK: Siverstone National

PLACE: 1st

DRIVER: Frank Gardner

TRACK: Silverstone International

PLACE: 11th

DRIVER: Bob Olthoff

TRACK: Brands Hatch GP

PLACE: 1st

DRIVER: Jack Sears

TRACK: Oulton Park Tourist Trophy

PLACE: 4th

DRIVER: Jack Sears

1965 Race Season

TRACK: Oulton Park Tourist Trophy

PLACE: 10th

DRIVER: Frank Gardner

TRACK: Reims 12 Hour

PLACE: DNF

DRIVER: Gardner/Ireland