How good is it? With the right steering, good enough to earn a place in my £1m fantasy garage.
7 September 2004

My only problem with heaven is I can’t see how just one place can be heavenly to all who earn the right to go there. My mother-in-law’s heaven would be a vegetable patch the size of Saturn, my daughters’ some ghastly pink paradise full of magic castles, fairies and princesses.

My particular heaven would be the Nürburgring’s northern loop, but that still leaves the vexed question of what I’m going to drive when I get there. Staying within the realms of road cars – we’ll run out of magazine if I start debating the relative merits of a Lola T70 Mk3B and a short-tail, 5.0-litre Porsche 917K – I always imagined it would be a Ferrari F40. I’ve driven more than 1000 cars since I first pedalled Ferrari’s greatest road car and still it stands proud of them all. But then I drove a plastic-bodied, pushrod-powered, South African-built replica of a slightly obscure mid-’60s American race car. And now I’m not so sure.

The Superformance Le Mans Coupé, a recreation of the 1964 Cobra Daytona Coupé, is one of the most thrilling things I have ever had the pleasure to drive, and not just because it is astonishingly, absurdly fast. Truth is, it connected with me to a depth I didn’t think modern road cars could reach any more. There are two reasons and the first is my love of ’60s automotive Americana. Muscle cars are a breed apart, as distinct as Italian supercars or the Porsche 911, and until you’ve at least blagged a ride in one, your automotive education is incomplete. I’ve raced a Camaro, coveted Corvettes and come within about 10 minutes of flying to California to buy a Charger.

And then there’s that other ‘C’ car, the Cobra. Back in the ’60s, the powerful and light Cobra had no problem dispatching all comers on American short race tracks. But Carroll Shelby, the Cobra’s creator, wanted more: he wanted to beat the best, which meant taking on Ferrari at an international level. The problem was that, at foreign circuits with long straights like Le Mans, you could have strapped a Redstone rocket to the back of Cobra and the much less powerful Ferrari 250 GTOs would still have come past on the straight. Putting it mildly, aerodynamics were not a Cobra strong point.

Which is why a young designer called Peter Brock was brought in to develop a new body for the Cobra and the Daytona coupé was born. Without using a single extra horsepower, the Daytona raised the Cobra’s top speed by over 30mph. They only failed to win the 1964 GT championship because the last round was at Monza, Italy so Enzo Ferrari had it cancelled. The next year Ferrari withdrew and the Daytonas won all bar two races.

The second reason this recreation of that car crept so far under my skin is that the same team who did the original was reunited to do this one. Peter Brock designed it, Bob Negstad – who’d done the chassis for the 427 Cobra – looked after the suspension and Bob D C Olthoff, nearly 40 years on, was its development driver. The only missing man is Shelby himself, whose sole involvement in the project to date was to impound the first one imported into the US. But, dislike the car as he does, he has not been able to stop it. It’s built by Superformance in Port Elizabeth. The body, made of an advanced glass-reinforced plastic called Vinylester, is slightly bigger than, and has no panels in common with, the original it so closely resembles. It has a spaceframe chassis, and where the Cobra used a leaf spring suspension design that was archaic 40 years ago, the recreation deploys rose-jointed double wishbones at each corner.

Power could only come from Ford unit, but instead of using the modern, four-cam Mustang V8 like the Ford GT, this engine is the real deal, pushrods and all. It’s a 6.6-litre Windsor block put into race specification by Roush Engineering and fed by one colossal four-barrel Holley carb sitting between the Vee. Just as it should be. Power is rated at 501bhp which, with a 1250kg kerbweight, gives it a fulsome 401bhp per tonne. And that’s before you consider the 590lb ft of torque at your disposal.

The interior is a work of art. Every detail is just right, from the black dash and chrome surrounds for every instrument and vent, to the chicane-shaped gearlever with the recess on top for your thumb. There are beautiful Stewart Warner dials everywhere and banks of perfect little aircraft switches to play with.

To start it, you have not only to turn the key but also flick on the fuel pump and press the starter. With barely silenced exhausts, it was unlikely to be quiet but the noise still doubles your heart rate in an instant. You’re listening to the heart of Motor City at its angriest and most inspirational.

The gearbox has six speeds, which is a little disappointing – four would be more fitting – but its slow, mechanical action is just right. All the pedal weights are ridiculously and appropriately heavy and the engine won’t pull below 2000rpm. And so it shouldn’t. Get above this mark and it dispatches raging torrents of power, sufficient to dilate the pupils of the most seasoned road tester. It’s claimed to hit 60mph in 3.9sec and 100mph in 8.2sec, but if the gearchange were not so slow and the gearing such that it would do over 60mph in first and 100mph in second, you’d be looking at times of around 3.5 and 7.5sec. In the gears it feels as fast as any road car I’ve driven this side of a McLaren F1, unequivocally in the Merc SLR/Ford GT bracket, quite possibly beyond. Top speed? Superformance estimates 210mph and apparently one brave tester has logged a genuine 207mph in South Africa. In short, fast enough.

Like its engine, its chassis is to race specification and requires a firm hand to tame. Grip is excellent but there is such a comical quantity of torque that you can slide it at will, anywhere you feel brave enough. The chassis is ultra responsive so it slides very quickly, but its yaw rate is linear, faithful and very easy to catch. Were it not for the steering I’d have done it all day. The steering is the one big disappointment. It’s over-assisted and has almost no feel, and while I guess this too is very American, it’s the one part of its heritage I wish its creators had ignored. Right-hand-drive versions will have less assistance and, I’m told, a rack from either a Ford Fiesta or a Focus. The Ford GT uses Focus steering and it’s fabulous. At the moment, you cannot guide this car through high-speed curves with the confidence that a vehicle of this calibre and performance should inspire.

I still loved it. Before I knew what it cost I’d guessed at something around the £140,000 mark. Its looks, performance, quality and engineering heritage command at least that. But it’s not. A right-hook Le Mans Coupé costs £88,000 and its importer plans to bring in no more than 10 a year.

How good is it? With the right steering, good enough to earn a place in my £1m fantasy garage. I wouldn’t sell the T70, the F40, the 2.8 RSR or the triple black ’68 440R/T Charger to make space for it, but the Ford GT? I just might. Believe me, praise rarely comes higher than that.

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