The Crofton Cobra
Nov 06, 2014 10:19AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Fifty two years ago, not long after first gaining international fame at the wheel of the winning car in the world famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, a straight talking, hard charging Texan by the name of Carroll Shelby cemented his iconic status in the world of high performance car design and racing. He wedged a modified Ford V-8 engine into a lightweight British sports car built by AC Auto Company. Tweaked and tuned, it was the fastest production vehicle ever built when displayed at the 1962 New York Auto Show. It was a lethal looking, thoroughly American game changer with bulging curves in all the right places, a powerful engine under the hood, and low swept pipes to channel the thunder. It shocked the establishment and changed the sports car world forever. It was stylishly sleek and yet brutally powerful all at the same time. It was the legendary Shelby AC Cobra roadster.
Then, in early 1963 at Southern California’s Riverside International Raceway, the Cobra Roadster entered the pantheon of auto racing lore. There, en route to a major victory, it vanquished an international stable of European thoroughbreds that included the likes of Jaguars, Porches, and Maseratis—not to mention America’s Corvette. By 1964 the Cobra Roadster not only ruled the tracks and turned heads on main street, it had entered American pop culture when a group known as the Rip Chords had a top 5 hit on the Billboard charts titled “Hey, Little Cobra.” And in 2007 it entered the record books yet again when a 1966 model that once belonged to the man himself, Carroll Shelby, sold at auction for a record shattering $5.6 million.
But Carroll Shelby could cheat death only so long because even when you’re a larger than life legend from Texas, you get to push the envelope only so far. It was true; he’d given the grim reaper one hell of a run. Yet when his earthly demise came, it was not in the place or manner that most had expected. No, the man’s ghost did not rise from a smoldering pile of twisted wreckage on the hairpin turn of some winding ribbon of famous asphalt. It silently rose into a western sky when the man’s transplanted heart gave up after a long illness in the quiet of his hospital bed near the place of his birth on the windblown flats of Texas. Carroll Shelby died on May 10, 2012, at the age of 89. And when he did, more than a few wondered what would become of his legendary creation. Or, if you prefer, where would the spirit of Caroll Shelby go and to whom would it whisper? To some believers, it soared high, hovered a bit, and then drifted northeast to a town in Maryland.
Which is where Crofton resident and Goddard aerospace engineer Bob Wingard enters the picture. It takes a big man fortified with true American grit to rescue and then rejuvenate an icon of mythic proportions. It takes a dreamer and a doer who is at once visionary and practical; purposeful yet fun-loving in an adrenaline junkie kind of way. This 6'9'' car enthusiast is such a man and he takes decisive action when it comes to preserving his options. “I don’t know why I did this,” Bob tells me, “I just knew I had to do it and that I’d eventually figure it all out.” The “it” he refers to is the 2009 purchase of many of the CSX 5000 Series I assets in a liquidation sale from their Las Vegas factory. The true tale goes like this: In 2007, Bob and his son rebuilt a 427-cubic-inch Ford V-8 that he’d stored in a barrel of oil for twenty years. They were going to mount it into a classic Shelby Cobra but at the same time needed parts for his Shelby Series I. (One of only 249 originally manufactured.) But getting those parts was a problem, so when he visited the factory in 2009, fate intervened. “For want of a floor mat and a clutch, I ended up buying most of the factory inventory including 77 frames in production,” Bob says, “and then I had it shipped on a fleet of tractor trailer rigs back to Crofton.” In the wake of this startling statement, images of uncontrolled impulsiveness or shrewd prescience leap to mind. “I’m glad I had the opportunity to buy and preserve it,” he says, “it’s my way of keeping history alive. Besides, if I hadn’t done it, no one else would have and I just couldn’t let that happen.”
Indeed, this is a man who much prefers to make, rather than let, things happen. The lively look in his eyes and restless bursts of enthusiasm hint to much more at work here than just one man’s desire to keep history alive. Perhaps principally, it’s about keeping one man’s spirit of adventure alive.
So who is this man? “I grew up in the area and when I first came out of the University of Maryland in 1982 I wanted to build prosthetics,” he says in response to this question. “In fact, I was considering an internship at NIH, but I soon went to work for a space systems contractor at Goddard. Then in 1995 I started my own aerospace consulting firm to provide senior systems engineers for unmanned earth science and deep space missions. We take on assignments lasting anywhere from five days to five years,” he explains. “Systems designs, mission requirements—mostly big picture stuff.” In fact Bob’s firm was primarily responsible for the system engineering and quality assurance of the four instruments on board the September 6, 2013, unmanned mission that launched from Wallop’s Island near Chincoteague. “Yeah, building satellites is my day job,” he says with a rueful smile. “This is my hobby.”
Truth be known, this is what he loves; playing with high performance machines—designing, building, tweaking, and tuning them into rock solid, dialed-in perfection. Which, in the case of his FII Roadsters means perfect 50/50 front to back weight distribution; aluminum heat treated frames to provide lightweight, high torsion strength; 600 to 800 ferocious horsepower to go fast; 13 inch-six piston disk brakes on all four corners to stop fast; gleaming custom painted aluminum or carbon fiber bodies to turn heads; and fine hand crafted leather interiors in which to get comfortable. Even standing still this thing spells Kinetic with a capital K. And more than a little of its allure stems from the haunting question: How can something with the look of a stylishly refined European thoroughbred be so brutishly powerful and sound so thoroughly American all at once? Because, make no mistake about it, light the fuse on one of these cobras and beneath all the seductive curves comes the fearsome echo of raw power cracked open; it’s a wash of adrenaline.
With three cars under contract and the capacity to crank out about six per year, Wingard finds himself on the cusp of taking the necessary next steps. This means that in a limited production world, where costs rise in a step function curve, it will take considerably more men, equipment, and space to push output levels much above this. “We’re a build to order shop and we usually keep three cars in various stages of assembly,” he explains. “By keeping work in process prepped to this level we can deliver a car with the customer’s personalized requests like paint color, wheels and tires, and interior touches in about two months.” In most cases FII Roadsters sells a completed car, less engine and transmission, which is known as a “roller” for between $108,000 and $110,000. Throw in another $30,000 to $40,000 and arrangements are made with local shops to have a hand-built jewel of an engine professionally installed. “Then you can really let out the dogs,” Bob says with a laugh before adding, “I’m having fun. This is my bucket list company.”
So, twin turbo juggernauts from Stuttgart, Germany, and exotic machines with prancing horses on their grills from Milan, Italy, may cost a lot more, but Bob Wingard and the wild boys at FII Roadsters in Crofton, Maryland—yes Crofton, Maryland—have a word of advice for them: “If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay under the porch.”