Cobra History: "The Chase"
Magazine Second Strike
Publisher Mike Stenhouse
Issue Volume 1 Number 2
Date April 15, 1998
Olthoff about to overhaul
the fearsome Ferrari 250LM
The 2.6 mile track at Zolder is fast - high speed straights and big sweeping bends. It is nestled in the forested rolling hills of Belgium 60 miles outside of Brussels. On July 19th, 1964, it was the setting for what Autosports magazine called "The Chase", another battle in the heated competition between the Ferraris and the Cobras.
The cars were a study in contrasts.
Works driver Lucien Bianchi was driving the new works Ferrari 250 LM (Le Mans), a replacement for the legendary 250 GTO and designed specifically to capture the GT Manufacturer’s Championship.
The Ferrari was more sophisticated than the Cobra, with a more modern suspension design and better aerodynamics. It was a mid-engined coupe powered by a 300 horsepower, 2953 cc (180 cid) single overhead cam V-12. The engine was fed by six dual throat Weber carburetors. Power was transferred by a five speed transmission. The car weighted about 2100 pounds with driver. It was painted red with white circles carrying the number "21".
The English Willment team entered the new Shelby FIA Cobra piloted by the South African champion Bob Olthoff. Although the FIA resembled the 427 S/C with its bulging rear fenders, hood scoop and side vents, it was in fact the ultimate development of the older, smaller, lighter, leaf spring (small block) chassis. The FIA roadster and the Daytona coupe were designed specifically wrest the GT Manufacturer’s Championship away from Ferrari.
The FIA CSX2130 was delivered directly from AC to Willment where Bob developed it into a Le Mans prototype. The FIA Cobra was of course a front engined roadster. The engine, though less sophisticated than the Ferrari, was a larger and more powerful 375 horsepower 289 cid pushrod V-8. The engine was fed by four dual throat Weber carburetors. The transmission was a four speed. The car weighted about 2200 pounds with driver. It was painted the Willment team colors, white with the red triple narrow-broad-narrow Willment stripe and red circles carrying the number "1".
The stage was set in practice on Friday. Both cars were well suited to the fast Zolder circuit. Olthoff set the pace at 1 minute 46 seconds while Bianchi set a time of 1 minute 46.5 seconds, the two fastest practice times.
Dawn broke to a hot clear July Saturday with temperatures climbing toward 100 degrees. The drivers took a pre-race dip in a nearby lake to cool down before the big event. At the start, Bianchi jumped into the lead pursued closely by Olthoff. Olthoff pushed Bianchi around the track for 20 laps and on the 21st lap Olthoff powered past Bianchi. Now unimpeded by the Ferrari, Olthoff set a blistering pace and quickly built up a 10 second lead. In the process, he posted a fastest lap of 1 minute 43.3 seconds (145.812 kph, 90.6 mph).
Certain victory was snatched away by a failed distributor. A temporary repair put the Cobra back in the race, but 9 laps down. Bianchi went on to win.
There was a victory, however, for the Cobra forces. The Cobra demonstrated that it was more than a match for Ferrari’s best. The 1 minute 43.3 second lap set by Bob Olthoff was the fastest lap of the day and still stands to this day, 34 years later, as the fastest lap ever set on the Zolder circuit. Later changes to Zolder virtually insure that it will stand for all time.
1963 AC COBRA LE MANS COMPETITION ROADSTER
'63 LE MANS CLASS WINNER, 1964 TT 2ND GT
Back in England and recovering from the Le Mans crash, the now unemployed and hungry Bob Olthoff successfully “interviewed” with the Willment team. The interview consisted of some hot laps around the track with the fastest driver getting the job. John Willment’s JW Automotive was the largest Ford dealership in England and sponsored the Willment racing team. The Willment team acquired the two Le Mans Cobras and a third car, the “Le Mans Prototype” developed by AC at the same time but not run at Le Mans. Bob set about upgrading them to full fledged racing cars. The three cars had long and successful racing careers in Europe and South Africa, primarily in the hands of Bob Olthoff, Jack Sears, Frank Gardner, and Paul Hawkins.
After the 1963 European season, Bob Olthoff and Frank Gardner went to South Africa to contest the Springbok Series. They brought quite an arsenal - a Willment Cobra roadster, a Lotus Cortina, and a great thundering Holman-Moody prepared 427 Galaxie to contest the sedan series. The South Africans, already infected with V8 fever were now infected with Cobra fever. To date, no cure has been found.
Returning to Europe for the 1964 season, Bob raced roadsters at Nurburgring, Zolder, Portugal, and all the British circuits.
He gained points for the World Manufacturer’s Championship in a Cobra roadster at the British Tourist Trophy.
In 1964 the Willment team decided to build their own version of the Daytona Coupe. Willment had approached Shelby about a Daytona Coupe but was turned down flat. John Olsen, who had been badly burned in the first Coupe’s outing at Daytona, had returned to England and as luck would have it was working at Willment.
A set of Daytona Coupe plans was sent to England and with John Ohlsen’s first hand experience a new body buck was constructed. Frank Gardner did the re- engineering of the new version, which had slightly less frontal area, the result of a “chopped top”. Geoff Gilbert and Frank Shattock built the car. Their car was visually similar to the Daytona Coupe, the primary difference being a nearly horizontal rear window, which resulted in a larger truncation at the rear end. The Willment Coupe was not ready in time for Le Mans, but it eventually went on to a long and successful career.
At the end of the 1964 European season, the Willment team again returned to South Africa to run the Springbok Series, this time with a Cobra roadster, the Willment Coupe, a Lotus Cortina, and the Holman-Moody prepared 427 Galaxie. The performances of Bob Olthoff and Jack Sears with this stable remain a part of South African racing lore.
Olthoff’s 1963 Le Mans Sprite also took substantial advantage of the Appendix J rules.
39 PH with Le Mans hardtop and Willment team colors
The Willment 427 Galaxie leads a Mustang Coupe at Kyalami in South Africa.
The Willment Coupe at Wembley Stadium in South Africa. The chopped top, nearly horizontal rear window, and larger rear truncation can be clearly seen in this profile. In the 1970’s, the large rear window was replaced with a smaller, lighter, but less aerodynamic vertical rear window.
After returning to South Africa, Bob drove a Weber carburated Capri V8 to two South African championships. The Capri / 302 conversion was developed and marketed by Basil Green (standing) and Ron Rosen.
While in South Africa, Bob attempted a South African Land Speed Record with the Willment Coupe. He secured the permission of the manager of Cape Town International Airport to use the main runway. The length of the runway constrained them to a 2 kilometers run up, the required 1 kilometer time trap, and 2 kilometers to stop. The Willment Coupe rocketed to 177 mph in the short run up. It had more to give, but there just was not enough room. Short of the hoped for 200 mph, no return run was made, even though 177 may have been good enough for the record. It is probably just as well. The resulting publicity might have had the supportive airport manager reassigned to latrine duty.
The Willment team returned to Europe and Bob stayed on in South Africa. He continued to race for many years and expanded his venues to include both off road and airplane racing. In 1967, Bob did set the Land Speed Record at 177.972 on a closed public road in a McLaren-Elva Ford. By the time he retired, he was the winningest racer in South African history with 140 wins and 230 top three finishes.
The Willment Coupe that Bob drove so well was the winningest of all the Cobra coupes. The Daytona Coupes were limited to running the World Manufacturer’s Championship, averaging just over 6 events each in their two-year racing careers. In contrast, the Willment Coupe ran a large number of local, national, and international events in Europe and South Africa over several years. It entered more races and won more races than any other Cobra coupe. The Willment Coupe is currently in a private museum in Bolder, Colorado.
A second Willment Coupe was started but not completed. The bare body and chassis wound up at Holman-Moody in Charlotte, where it collected dust for a number of years. In the mid 1980’s, Lee Holman finished the car for a customer, complete with a Holman-Moody 427 as the motive force.