The story of Carroll Shelby’s Cobra has been told many times, how he shoved a small-block Ford into an underpowered British roadster, and went onto beat Ferrari and win the World Manufacturer’s Championship. What’s not as well known is how he actually wanted to use a small-block Chevy, but was turned down by GM executives. His preference likely stems from a previous project involving a Corvette and an Italian coachbuilder.
This high-end sports car might have stemmed from a desire to rise above his roots as a chicken rancher, but he also always had a thing for those European road course race cars. Especially when he could beat them at their own game—which he did with remarkable facility, while irreverently dressed like a cowpoke in a pair of bib overalls, and a nitroglycerin pill tucked under his tongue to stave off a heart attack.
When health reasons eventually forced Shelby to pull his racing cars into the pits for good, this Texan, known for his no-holds-barred volcanic temper, stomped the poultry manure off his cowboy boots and built a car to take on the Europeans. On the surface, it was a Euro/exotic “sport car” (Shelby’s term, which he preferred over “sports car”). Underneath that sensuous Italian skin, however, beat the heart of America’s sports car, the first-generation Corvette.
Called the Scaglietti Corvette (the “g” is silent), only three were ever made, making doubly rarer—albeit less successful—than the 1963 Grand Sport Corvette. How this exotic bird took flight and was later shot down from two different directions is an intriguing tale of woe.
The project started out with two fellow Texans, Jim Hall and Gary Laughlin, who both owned Chevy dealerships. Shelby and his lone star cohorts leaned on their connections with the GM brass to acquire a trio of 1959 Corvettes, but without the fiberglass bodywork.
These were then sent to the car’s namesake coachbuilder, Carrozzeria Scaglietti, in Modena, Italy. By the Fall of 1960, the first one was fitted with custom-tailored Italian attire, as form-fitting and stylish as an Armani suit, but made of aluminum. The shape was inspired by the Ferrari Tour de France, since Scaglietti was already a coachbuilder for Ferrari, and having fashioned the GTO and the pontoon-fender Testa Rossa. That connection would ultimately contribute to the car’s downfall, however.
The result was a striking exotic—one that wowed the likes of GM vice president Harley Earl, chief engineer Ed Cole, and Zora Arkus-Duntov (key figures in the development of early Corvettes). Yet their superiors were not so enamored, largely because of a corporate dictum prohibiting racing sponsorship. Enzo Ferrari reportedly pressured Scaglietti to abandon the project as well (no surprise, then, that a few years later, Shelby would utter that memorable line after losing to Ferrari in the 1964 racing season, “Next year, Ferrari’s ass his mine!”)
Shelby bitterly recalled how the axe fell: “I was living in Italy at the time, and the cars at Scaglietti were just about done. Ed Cole (general manager of Chevrolet) woke me up with a phone call at two in the morning, and told me to forget the whole thing. He got his ass chewed out by GM management, and was told to drop the project” (evidently Ferrari’s hind-end would have to wait.)
What a pity, as the stillborn design would have looked utterly at home on the road courses of Europe and the swanky boulevards and country clubs of America. Undeterred, Shelby eventually got even by partnering up with Ford to produce the winning and legendary Cobra. Yet Shelby probably still longed for that lovely Italian coachwork, often griping about the uneven, misaligned aluminum Cobra bodies from AC Cars, stating that, “They looked like they were made by a bunch of winos under a bridge with old beer cans.”
The world of sports cars’ loss is the collector’s gain, as these three ultra-rare Scaglietti Corvettes are highly valued by automotive aficionados as the exotics that could’ve been. No surprise that Hall’s car, after stopping wine-sipping spectators in their tracks at such upscale concours events as Pebble Beach, Santa Barbara and Newport Beach, California, sold at auction in 1990 for nearly a half-million bucks. This sum was a world record at the time for a Corvette crossing the block (even though it didn’t even remotely look like one).
Laughlin’s went to a large collection in Japan. The third one shown here, referred to as the “Shelby Car,” is generally considered the most attractive of the three, as it didn’t have the Corvette’s chrome “teeth” in the grille that Laughlin insisted on for the first car in order to pander to GM management. Since Shelby was a race-car driver and not a well-heeled car dealer, he bailed on the purchase (“I was so tight, I could squeeze the crap out of a Buffalo nickel,” he once admitted to me, when I was under his employ). The car passed through the hands of several wealthy owners before ending up at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Since founder Bob Petersen and Shelby were longtime friends, it’s a fitting place of honor for the car.
As mentioned at the outset, underneath that glorious shape are sturdy C1 Corvette mechanicals. After all, during the late Fifties, the Chevy V8-powered Scarabs were thrashing Monzas and the newest Ferraris on the racing circuits. No high-strung, 12-cylinder tuning nightmare here. Right from the get-go, the Chevy V8 was cheap and easy to build. It featured remarkable innovations for the era, with a thin-wall iron block, interchangeable (left to right) iron heads, and an intake manifold that acted as a valley cover, and with stamped rocker arms on pressed-in ball studs. The water pump did double-duty as a front motor mount.
Seeing its obvious advantages, race teams replaced the Jaguar’s twin-cam six in Listers and the D-Jaguar with the new SBC. In Ferrari’s and Maserati’s, it replaced fours, sixes, eights, and even 12s. It was Shelby’s first choice for the Cobra, as noted above, but when the Chevy wasn’t available, he settled for the Ford instead.
Rather than being fitted with finicky Weber or Dellorto carbs, the 283-ci Chevy V-8 was topped by prized (and problematic) Rochester fuel injection system, and pumped out 315 hp. Its exhaust has that ample American note, loud and proud as you blip the throttle through a four-speed Borg-Warner T-10 transmission, gears stirred by a Hurst shifter. Actually, the second and third cars initially had a pair of four-barrel carbs, but were later fitted with fuel injection, and the Powerglide automatic transmissions replaced with the four-speed setup.
For safety’s sake, the stock fuel tank was replaced with a comp-grade fuel cell. The rest of the chassis used a stock setup, drum brakes and a live-axle rearend. While not sophisticated by today’s standards, the aluminum body shaved off 400 pounds, requiring some spring adjustments but giving it a significant power/weight advantage. The mechanical fuel injection was a 1961 version, a more refined system, all pretty advanced stuff back in the day. As was that curvaceous custom body.
Scaglietti was known for doing short production runs of hand-fabricated bodies, rather than the volume production of better-known coachbuilders such as Bertone, Pininfarina and Zagato. His shop employed the old-school technique of hammers and dollies, shaping and sculpting the bodies purely by eye and touch. Italian artisans painstakingly pounded out the panels by hand from flat sheets, using wooden mallets and sandbags or wooden forms as molding surfaces. This shop never had the aroma of styrene from fiberglass resin.
While certain design elements, such as the side louvers, echo those seen on Ferrari’s tour de France sports racer, not all of the form was fashioned for aesthetic reasons. The fastback shape and recessed rear panel have a functional aspect, directing airflow with a minimum of turbulence (somewhat similar in concept to the inset Kammback tail of the 1964 Cobra Daytona Coupe).
Laughlin, Hall, and Shelby had to decide just what form the Corvette-based car would take inside. All three were tall Texans, standing six-foot-plus, and for them the Corvette was cramped and uncomfortable, with a large steering wheel placed too close to the driver, non-supportive seats, and a bulky center console. Their approach was a mélange of the virtues of a Ferrari GT with the practicality of Corvette.
As a result, the interior was a spaghetti western of sorts, combining familiar American components such as Stewart Warner gauges, a T-handle parking brake, and a Corvette shift knob with classic Italian touches such as a crackle-finish dash, Nardi wooden steering wheel, bolstered, camel-colored leather seats and high-zoot door hardware. Exterior touches also manifest a distinctively Euro flair, such as a pair of Ansa exhausts and Borrani cross-laced wire wheels. Fittingly, the car’s logo combines Scaglietti’s rectangular logo and the Corvette crossed-flags, literally emblematic of the car’s brief yet romantic Italian/American marriage.