When 427 Cobras Fly

by Rick Kopec (8/20/13)

—“The only dumb question is the one you don’t ask.”

Remember hearing that in high school? It was probably in Algebra or chemistry, and the teacher’s point was that if you didn’t understand something, not asking a question would probably guarantee that you never understood it. Fair enough. But things are not always so easily compartmentalized. To those of us who have had our heads screwed into the Cobra world for almost as long as we can remember, the history of these cars is pretty clear to us. Newer enthusiasts always have questions, and it’s easier to ask some graybeard than it is to read a book searching for the specific answer. If the book doesn’t answer it, does that mean it never happened? Perhaps. But maybe that means that you didn’t read the right book.

Asking is the much easier route. But how about on the other end? How does it look from the perspective of the person who is being continually asked all those questions? I know, because at times it seems like I live in a perpetual world of “20 Questions.”

I wasn’t born with knowledge of Cobra history. I really liked these cars when I was in high school and they were brand new. I started reading everything I could about them. I was lucky enough to see them race at tracks like Lime Rock, Bridgehampton, Watkins Glen and Thompson. I remember the excitement of seeing one on the street, or when the new models were brought to the dealerships; first Cobras and then GT350s. Back in the 1960s, the new model introductions were the high point of every car enthusiast’s year. Nothing like that exists today.

The more I read about these cars, the more it made me want to read. I started collecting magazines and books that mentioned them so I could read them again and again. A handful of us early Cobra enthusiasts looked at each other’s pictures, sometimes examining that rare factory public relations photo we happened to find at a swap meet, with a large magnifying glass, soaking up every tiny detail. My knowledge of the cars kept expanding, from Cobras to Shelbys and GT40s.When I became involved with SAAC in the very beginning it was like taking steroids. Suddenly instead of going out and looking for new information on these cars, it was coming to me. I was an information magnet, but this was not without a cost. As an officer in the club and someone who was writing about these cars and their history, I became one of the go-to guys. When someone had a question if they knew who I was, it was usually addressed to me. Most of the time I could answer them. When I couldn’t, I could almost always find someone who could. Their response enabled me to answer the question accurately and I walked away with an expanded knowledge of the subject.

As the drivers and ex-factory personnel began coming to conventions, meets or vintage races, I was able to speak with them, sometimes at length and sometimes as subjects for interviews. This increased my knowledge geometrically, and hearing the details from someone, first person, is a lot different than reading what they said.

Getting questions was bad enough before the Internet. Back then, in the horse-and-buggy days, it took some effort to ask a question. You had to write it on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope and address it, put a stamp on it and drop it into a mail box. A week later the recipient received the letter and if it was replied to that same day, a week later you had your answer. If the response led to another question, the process was repeated. It took two weeks. You could have read a book in that time!

Today’s email is a lot different. Anyone with a computer can send you a question that you receive instantly. You choose how quickly you answer it and that depends on how much time you have and how many other emails are lined up ahead of it. But suffice it to say that a question can get answered fairly quickly. Often one question will lead to another and sometimes this back-and-forth can become a seemingly never-ending on-line conversation. When you are on the receiving end of a number of these questions (often at the same time) it can become tedious. Especially if the questions are all coming from new enthusiasts whose knowledge of the cars is pretty basic. You begin to wish they had read a book on Cobras or Shelbys because that would have eliminated the need to ask most of the questions.

But there is another aspect to it. When you are told that a certain person is one of the leading “experts” on a subject, being able to receive an answer directly from them acquires an increased significance. Sometimes the question almost becomes irrelevant and just getting a response becomes an end in itself. I’m beginning to understand what Carroll Shelby went through, even though he always had a secretary or assistant to handle most of them. He understood, as I do, that it is one of the prices you have to pay when you are deemed an “expert.” It’s a good thing (for him) that he never had an e-mail address. It would have been like having a target on his back.

Thankfully, a lot of potential questions never get to me because of the SAAC Forum. It’s an excellent place to ask a question but sometimes getting an answer isn’t so easy. On any forum, anyone can answer a question. They don’t have to be an expert, even if they act like one. With user-names you may not know exactly who you’re communicating with, and you can often get several conflicting answers to your question. This can lead to long threads of back-and-forth arguments over who is right or wrong and it can leave the original questioner’s head swimming.

As these cars get older, they continue to attract young enthusiasts who, naturally enough, want to know all about them. However, the younger generations are quick to go to the Internet and much less likely to read a thick book about Cobras. There are, quite literally, hundreds of books on Cobras that have been written. If you were starting out and had a thirst for knowledge, where would you start?

Where is all of this leading? Well, it began with an email from my good pal, Curt Scott. He runs the website called “Cobra Country” [www.cobracountry.com] and is the go-to guy when it comes to Cobra replicas. He probably gets more questions than I do, and without attempting to impugn Cobra replica owners, it’s safe to say that they know less about Cobra history than original Cobra owners. Curt received a question he wanted to share with me. He was pretty sure he knew the answer but wanted to double-check. There’s no need to reveal this individual’s identity, but here is his question:

“I have a question that has puzzled me for quite a while now, and I’m wondering if there is any truth to it. I’ve been told that ALL original Shelby Cobras destined for the street came equipped with three items in the trunk – an aerosol can of silver header paint, an aerosol can of Cobra MP (metal protector) spray and a spray can of Shelby deodorant. Any truth to this? Any idea if any of these cans still exist and any idea as to the value if they are still out there?”

After reading this, several things crossed my mind. This was first time I’ve ever heard about cans of Cobra products being placed in the trunk of a new Cobra, so it could hardly be considered an urban legend. It has no basis in truth but we all know that if B.S. is repeated often enough there are some knuckleheads who will believe it. Once someone tells a story like this, it is impossible to counteract it with the truth every time it gets told.

The second thing I pictured were a handful of Cobra guys sitting around a table drinking beer and trying to out-do each other by coming up with little-known Cobra facts that unknowledgeable, naïve Cobra enthusiasts might believe. “Oh yeah? Well how about this one: three cans of…”

The third was the most obvious: this question was a set-up in preparation for the guy offering to sell one or more of these three items. I don’t think he was expecting to be rushed by Cobra owners looking to buy something that was “original equipment” on their car, but he was fishing.

Curt Scott responded with a short, crisp response describing it as a myth and a day later he got a more detailed follow-up (you knew this was coming…). The guy said, “According to my source, I have a copy from SAAC #36. SAAC should be able to verify this so-called “myth.” Pit Stop was the name given to the deodorant, and VHT supplied the spray paint for the headers, with the Shelby American logo. The Cobra MP (metal protector) was “a WD-40 type” of lubricant in a spray can.”

“I have a copy of a letter from SAAC Director, Richard J. Kopec, dated Nov. 14, 1981, and he states, ‘I have seen ads for Cobra MP in an old issue of Competition Press. I have yet to come across a can. I have a can of Pit Stop and a can of Shelby’s exhaust manifold paint (made by VHT for Shelby American).’ ”

“I also have a copy of a letter from SAAC Director, Richard J. Kopec, dated Dec. 11, 1981 that says he had received a can of Cobra MP, which completed his ‘can collection.’ He estimated in his letter dated Dec. 11, 1981, that can would probably be worth about $30.”

“As you may have deduced by now, I have an unused, full can of Cobra MP spray.”

— Ah HA! —

“I am not at liberty to disclose where I got it, or who had it, or how or where I got the copies of the letters, but they are legal and legit. The letters PROVE that the three items did exist and were placed in the Cobras destined for the street. Nothing dishonest here, I just wanted to see if anyone has any of these, and what would they be worth to an owner of an original Cobra who needs to make his/her Cobra complete.”

“I took the can of Cobra MP spray to Hershey, PA and the Antique Automobile Association [sic] of America Museum, and showed it to the curator while there was a Shelby display going on, and he really wanted me to donate it to the display items. He hadn’t seen one either. He was impressed.”

It always provides me with a warm feeling to see someone using a letter I sent 32 years ago as “proof” of anything. It is as if all knowledge stopped right there and nothing new had ever been discovered since. It is a powerful notion. I’ve probably written 10,000 letters since becoming involved with SAAC in 1975. Bringing up something I wrote in 1981 reminds me of being on the witness stand in court and having a lawyer asking me about something I did over 30 years ago. As if I had total recall.

Nothing in my 1981 letters made any mention of cans of anything being given to every original buyer of a Cobra. Going back to “The Shelby American,” issue #36, page 9 (published March 19, 1982), I found the photo and caption to which the Cobra MP owner referred. It was a picture of four cans of Cobra MP taken by the owner who was a SAAC member. The caption read:

“As if ‘Pit Stop’ wasn’t enough…Carroll Shelby marketed Cobra MP in the 1965-67 period. The MP stands for “metal protector.” SAAC member Al Vanderslice sent us this photo of a couple of cans he has laying around his shop. Seems good old Al bought a few cases (yes, that was CASES) back in the early ‘70s at a swap meet in Los Angeles. The stuff was sort of like WD-40 but was labeled especially for Shelby American, with the same illustration of the 427 Cobras on the can that was used on the 1200° header paint. What happened to all those Cobra MP cans? Al said he used ‘em all up. Well, almost all of ‘em. But he’d kind of like to hang on to the few he has left.”

And that was it. Nothing was said about any cans being put in the trunk of an original Cobra street car. It sounded like another case of painting lacquer without proper ventilation.

I think the biggest problem may be taking stuff like this seriously by providing a serious response. How would you answer the question: “I’ve heard that if a 427 Cobra was driven fast enough and both side doors were opened simultaneously the car would actually fly…”