The Shelby Cobra – another Venice first!

At the recent Abbot Kinney street fair, my favorite part was the vintage cars on display. And it was there that I came across a true American sports car icon – the Shelby Cobra. And just a few blocks from its original home.

Did you know that the original Shelby Cobras were manufactured here in Venice? From March 1962 to January 1965, Shelby American, under the guidance of Carroll Shelby, a car guy from Texas who had given up racing  as a driver to become a racing car owner and developer, set up shop at 1042 Princeton Drive. There they produced 370 Shelby Cobra Roadsters, powered by a 427 Ford engine.

Like the car at the street fair, the classic Cobra was low and curvaceous. It looked like it’s going 80 just sitting there. And it came in the classic blue body with white racing stripes, in the official international racing colors of America. This car was a killer.

Shelby was also part of the team working with Ford Motors on the Ford GT 40 racing program that was winning at Le Mans back in the mid 60s. With his tie-in with Ford, and with the newly popular Ford Mustang, Shelby concocted a plan to manufacture souped-up Mustangs for the power-hungry masses. But it couldn’t be done at this location, too little room, so Shelby moved his production plant to the south side of LAX and began pumping out the GT350 and GT500 models in September of 1966.

Aha! And you thought this was a first for Venice? Hardly. In 1962, when space was needed with enough room to build his Cobras, Shelby took over the old manufacturing facility on Princeton Drive of the Scarab sports car. Reventlow Automobiles Incorporated was closing down after 3 years of manufacturing and racing the Scarab, and they then rented their facility to Shelby. The Scarab, named after a compost beetle and a deliberate reaction against the exotic and macho names other sports cars were called at the time, was the dream of Lance Reventlow, a true playboy if there ever was one.

The only son of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, Lance grew up having Cary Grant as his step-father. He would later marry actress Jill St. John, and then wed Cheryl Holdridge, who was an original Mouseketeer. He had started racing with the California Sports Car Club when he was 19 years old, and when he turned 21, came into an inheritance of $60 – $70 million.

Founding RAI in August of 1957, Reventlow and the Scarabs were pretty much unbeatable in American sports car racing by the next year. Originally, the shop of Troutman & Barnes in Culver City built his cars in the late 50’s, but he moved into the Venice facility in 1959. With his eye on Formula One racing, Reventlow and his Scarabs became the first American cars ever to run at Monte Carlo, in 1960, spending $1.5 million for the 2 car entry. But success just didn’t come to Reventlow, and his operation folded in 1962.

It was there that Shelby found Phil Remington, who had designed the last Scarab, a rear-engined sports car powered by a small block Chevy engine. “I just came with the building” Remington remembers, “only switching payrolls.” Remington then went on to design and develop the Cobra Daytona coupe, another success story for Shelby American.

Carroll Shelby is still in the sports car business today. This  past August he again partnered up with Ford Motors to develop high-performance sports cars. And he was a technical advisor to the design team on the new Ford GT, coming out this spring.

As for Lance Reventlow, he was killed in a light airplane crash over the Rockies on July 24, 1972.