Joy Ride

Sometime in the mid-sixties a friend of mine inherited what we thought then was an enormous sum of money. And for guys in their early twenties earning four G’s a year, it was. He immediately bought a Lotus Super Seven and a 390 Mustang GT and one day somebody left a trailer in the driveway loaded with a dark green 427 Cobra and an extra set of mags. It was used but not visually abused. It had a black interior, no top and if baffles had once existed in the side pipes, they were gone.

Any Cobra was rare in Canada and 427 Cobras were the top of the tree. George Eaton, heir to the Eaton Department Stores in Canada, raced a white 427 with reasonable success in club races but when we were out on the track with it in our MGBs and Sunbeam Alpines we could see that George was fighting the thing all the way round. Ken Miles, who helped develop it, called it The Turd.

I had seen this car before at the drag strip. It ran in the high Stock Classes and it was quick. But it was just another loud sports car running against a passel of loud Vettes and pony cars. Nobody paid much attention to Stock classes in those days. Once settled in at its new home in the serene and verdant Laurentian Mountains, this thing was Kick-Ass King at the local Texaco station. It was a prodigious imbiber of hi-test fuel and it never strayed far from that Texaco station. It had a lumpy cam and no idle and it was not easy or fun to drive. We knew nothing about how it was set up but it bounced all over the bumpy Laurentian roads and you were always fighting the steering to keep it on the black stuff. It took all of my then 138 pounds pressed hard against the back of the bucket seat to depress the clutch. Because of the rough cam you needed to keep the revs up at low speeds and you had to be very certain of the general direction you favored, before releasing the clutch, or this thing would be sideways and there were no Depends in those days. Both the motor and the cockpit ran about the same temperature and anyone inadvertently touching one of those black sidepipes, climbing out, would share pain and some terribly creative invective with anyone within earshot.

After a little while the beast just sat on its trailer with a tarp over it and except for drunkenly starting it up at ungodly hours, for girls we wanted to impress, it had a pretty quiet life. One day some guy came by and bought it for short money and nobody missed it one little bit. Today, you couldn’t buy four wheels for what he paid for it then.

In the company of Don Carlos Macaya, a Costa Rican motorsports enthusiast, I recently visited Chuck Schwager’s farm in New Hampshire. Chuck loves cars and wooden boats and, unlike many collectors, he uses them. He may be familiar to some readers from his participation and descriptive narratives of the Peking to Paris and The Great South American Challenge Rally. Chuck’s barns house what has to be considered the quintessential 50s and 60s collection of American and European sports cars and a few unbelievable boats. Today’s story is about his Kirkham Cobra.

At rest but ready

I only knew of Kirkham Cobras from positive magazine reviews they engendered when first introduced. The articles told a rather improbable story of a Polish aircraft company that was charged with re-engineering the Cobra, using modern materials, and then building it to aircraft standards. For every good reason, this was a car that Shelby could never have built. Based on my limited experience with The Beast, the magazine reviews were flattering, bordering on unbelievable.

When Chuck offered Carlos and me an opportunity to drive any of his cars to lunch, my mind immediately jumped back to The Beast and the Kirkham reviews and I said… sure. Carlos chose the Aston Martin DB4 and Chuck drove a 300SL. The Kirkham was driven out of the garage for me and it didn’t sound particularly quieter than its grand daddy. But that is where the similarities stop. This car is pure joy. The clutch is comparable to my 308, the steering is actually lighter, and the ride is unexpectedly lovely. The original felt front heavy, and with the cast iron 427 block of the day sitting further up, it is no wonder. The Kirkham feels better balanced. I left the parking brake on for the five mile drive to the restaurant but it never troubled the over 600 horsepower engine a bit. A familiar brake/clutch odor was evident when we stopped and I felt like an idiot but fortunately my pride was hurt more than the car and our host was generously oblivious.

This particular Kirkham is a little different from others. Chuck has a Holman-Moody 427 side-oiler which he was going to have installed in this car at the factory. On the advice of builder David Kirkham, he purchased a Keith Craft 588 cubic inch, 602 HP all aluminum engine based on a 427 Ford block and putting out 640 Lbs of torque and hooked up to a Tremec 5-speed.

Cruising with the DB4

It is not every day that you have this much horsepower and torque underfoot and the temptation to simply put your foot into it and see what happens is urgent. My history kept things in check but there were a few times when there was room for an opportunity and I would briefly let it accelerate. The immediacy of the change from easy cruising power to push you back into the seat and neck snapping acceleration, with the change in wind noise, the exhaust note, and a base level thumping generated by those huge pistons, resonates in your breastbone; overall tension of the machine will unquestionably focus a person. The thought of racing something like this, corner after corner and lap after lap, is daunting and explains why the people who raced these believed them to be like Can-Am cars for the street.

After lunch we drove for a while around Lake Winnipesaukee. It was delightful. The roads must have been designed by a man who owned a sports car. Probably an older Alfa or an E-type. It was great fun and the car was pure sports car joy. Would I drive it across the country? Absolutely not! Is there a better sunny afternoon kick-ass sports car? Absolutely not!

Now if only Ken Miles were around to drive it.

End of the day