Words and images by Stuart Grant
South Africa has an affinity and a few strong links to the AC Cobra. It goes deeper than the beautiful curvaceous lines of the AC body and the thumping Ford V8 under the hood though. In Stuart Grant’s mind two factors push the legend toward the front of our minds. The first being when Willment and Bobby Olthoff arrived here in 1963 with a full-blown Cobra racer, while the second is Hi-Tech Automotive in Port Elizabeth’s outstanding recreations. While having a go in a genuine example is near impossible, it is now possible to feel like Olthoff for a day and more.
Having made his name locally as top driver and mechanical ace, Bobby Olthoff packed his bags and set off for England in 1961. Employment came from BMC but the focused racer hit the track over weekends in his self-prepared MG A. Success followed, to which BMC sat up and offered him drives in Austin Healey 3000s and Sprites, culminating in a Le Mans 24 Hour drive in 1963. Bob suffered the biggest crash of his career that race, which meant a lengthy recovery time and an unemployed stint. Cash strapped, Olthoff went for an interview at the Willment team and landed the job. In all honesty the interview was a few laps around a track, so it was little wonder he secured the job.
John Willment’s JW Automotive was the
largest Ford dealership in the UK
and put its might behind the Willment Racing team. When Willment got hold of
two Le Mans Cobras and a third prototype unit Olthoff got the job of upgrading
them to race winners. These three cars with Olthoff, Jack Sears, Frank Gardner
and Paul Hawkins at the wheels competed successfully throughout Europe over the years and of course also took to the
South African circuits as part of the Springbok Series.
Memories were made as youngsters watched the Willment AC Cobra squirming on tyres, which would today be classed as skinny, out of the likes of Malmsberry Sweep, Clubhouse Corner or barrelling from Leeukop to the Kyalami Kink. Armfuls of opposite-lock and throttle control were the order of the day and what the crowd that packed the stands wanted to see.
Willment also supplied a Lotus Cortina, the monstrous Holman-Moody prepared 427 Galaxie and a Daytona Cobra for Olthoff to use in South Africa. He won the 1965 South African Saloon Car Championship with Galaxie and made an attempt at the South African Landspeed record with the Daytona Coupé. This record run was staged on Cape Town’s airport runway but when the first pass had to be cut short at 177mph due to not enough runway, the return run required for the record, and hoped for 200mph mark, were aborted. Olthoff did however eventually set a Landspeed record in SA when he drove his McLaren-Elva Ford to 177.972mph on a closed public road in 1967. He scooped numerous local track victories in the McLaren over the years and took the famed Basil Green Gunston Perana to two South African saloon car titles. When he hung up his helmet he was widely regarded as the most successful driver in South African history with 140 wins under his belt.
This unintentional detour in the AC Cobra story started out to simply illustrate that the beauty, performance, pedigree and rarity that make owning a real deal car near impossible, but Olthoff’s background is too good to gloss over. Anyway, back to real Cobras. A quick Google reveals that an average-condition 1963 version with no racing history will set you back around $900 000 while a tidier show car might be closer to $1 050 000 (If you’re lucky enough to find someone wanting to sell one).
Enter Hi-Tech Automotive, which for a lot less money can deliver a brand new recreation, which carries the original look, feel and performance. As the pictures here show, these recreations aren’t over the top with massive chrome pipes, low profile tyres or silly paint jobs. These offerings look the part of a proper narrow 289 AC Cobra in period and are engineered to feel correct.
Hi-Tech, spearheaded by Jimmy Price, is a fascinating low volume car manufacturer housed in a 25 000 square meter building. It was the factory that built the Noble M400 supercar, the now defunct Joule South African electric car, the Zagato-designed Perana Z-One that is now badged as the AC Cars AC 378 GT Zagato, and the plant continues to deliver high-end recreation models of the Shelby Cobra MkII and MkIII, Daytona Coupé, GT40 and Corvette Grand Sport continuation series. The majority of these are exported without engines and sold via fifteen Superformance dealerships in the States.
Our focus here is the MKII FIA Cobra that recreates the glory days of the 289 powered Cobras of the 1960s. The chassis is brand new but the urge to make the ride ‘better’ by fitting a reinforced chassis or unequal length control arms with coil-over shocks is resisted. Instead, only small functional changes were made for safety or practicality purposes and the original AC drawings of the chassis, springs, shocks and body dimensions were used to form the necessary jigs. This means a buyer gets a computer-assisted mig-welded Tojeiro-styled round tube chassis with authentic transverse leaf spring suspension set up for that Olthoff driving experience. Add to this an exclusive agreement with Carroll Shelby that makes the MKII FIA a licensed Shelby product. A Salisbury limited slip differential handles power delivery to the tar and stopping ability comes from a Willwood disc setup at front and rear.
While the original bodies were aluminium, the Hi-Tech MKII employs fibreglass to make the correct silhouette. With the intention to race, a Le Mans-type fuel filler is fitted which feeds into a long-range safety fuel cell. Inside the cockpit Smiths gauges give only the vitals from behind a tasteful 3-spoked leather-rimmed steering wheel. Crank the starter, the V8 bursts to life, combining with the classic look and bringing home the point that this is a thing of purposeful beauty, offering loads of nostalgia and is an attainable dream.