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The Ultimate Barn Find: 1964 Shelby 289 Cobra

by Jerry Heasley

(Excerpt from Jerry Heasley's Rare Finds published in 2011)

 

barnfindshelby

Most owners modified 289 Cobra Roadsters with racing modifications. CSX2289 appeared 100 percent stock. The current owner is Tom Armstrong of Seattle, Washington. At this writing, Tom was taking the car to the famous Concours D-Elegance in Pebble Beach, California. His plan was to display the car with all four tires flat, entering the Cobra in the Preservation Class. (Photo Courtesy Don Lee)

A Shelby Cobra roadster is a modern day Duesenberg. “Duesy barn find” is the ultimate prewar American automotive prize. Cobra is the postwar version. Finding either one in a barn or similar structure is the stuff of dreams. Don Lee got to live that dream in 2007.

“I’ve been around Cobras for almost 40 years,” he said. Don is more than an enthusiast of Shelby’s aluminum-bodied sports car. He’s owned “quite a few.” So, when he heard about a Cobra somebody “traded for some pipe” many years ago, he decided to investigate. The car was in his area of central California, in Santa Maria.

Anybody could have pursued this lead. The Shelby American Registry, published by the Shelby American Automobile Club lists every Cobra and Shelby Mustang ever built with a dossier on each car. For CSX2289, the entry begins, “Bright Blue/red interior, invoiced to Shelby American 1/10/64. Shipped to L.A. 1/23 aboard the SS Ablalasserdyk.” The Cobra body and chassis, of course, were made at AC Cars in England and put on a boat for America. Shelby American installed the drivetrain, and painted and assembled the rest of the car in California. Shelby American is the manufacturer and Shelby Cobra is the official name.

The Cobra is a true roadster, meaning no roll-up side windows and a top that lifts off and does not fold into a well. The body is aluminum, pounded out by hand over aluminum body “bucks” in merry old England. The “289 Cobra Roadster,” as Shelby American cataloged the car, is basically a race car on the street. The aluminum body hides a three-inch-diameter tube frame that snakes its way throughout the body. This layout resists body lean on turns, unlike a conventional car of the era with a body rising into the air off a flat frame. The chassis has an independent front and rear suspension featuring transverse “buggy” leaf springs as structural members.

Although the Registry did not list the name of the original owner, the entry records Marshall Munger of Santa Maria, California, as the second owner. The copy also attributes Munger’s acquisition with a trade for roughly $2,500 worth of pipe and his labor to dig a well. This story matches what Don told me.

Munger is not your average last name. Don started researching and made some phone calls. He came up with a hit. Marshall Munger did indeed still have the Bright Blue 289 Cobra, CSX2289, as revealed in the Registry. Rumors had been circulating about this car among the Cobra cognoscenti for literally decades. The Registry’s entry even printed the rumor the car had been parked since 1974 and remained in storage in 1996. In 2007, Marshall still had the 289 Cobra.

tire

That’s an original 6.45 x 15 tire on the original seventy-spoke wire wheel in the trunk. The tags are also vintage. The registration expired in February of 1977. The license plate holder is from Hi-Performance Motors, Shelby American’s car lot in El Segundo, California, (near Los Angeles International Airport) to sell Cobras and Mustangs directly to the public. (Photo Courtesy Don Lee)

Don asked the obvious question. Was the car for sale?

“He said the car’s already promised to somebody else. No sense of talking, really, but he’d take my name.”

Don must have felt his chances of buying CSX2289 were slim to none. Still, he wasn’t giving up. He says he “started a three-year conversation” with Munger. 

“He wasn’t really interested in selling until he decided he had a good use for the money. Then, he decided he was ready. The other guy, he wasn’t ready, so I was.”

Suddenly, Don was in the driver’s seat to buy the Cobra. The odd part of this Rare Find was the owner had built a small garage for the express purpose of storing this particular car. A driving misadventure precipitated the long-term storage.

Don said, “The Cobra was his daily driver. He was driving along one day and a big truck moved over on him on the freeway. And it scared him.”

Basically, Marshall said, “That’s it.”

“I own a 289 Cobra and know the feeling,” Don said. “The cars are very small and weigh slightly over 2,000 pounds with spare tire and a tank of fuel. A truck could literally flatten one of these aluminum-bodied roadsters.” Munger quit driving the Cobra, but he didn’t want to sell. Instead, he actually built this custom garage to store CSX2289.

Don remembers the day he went to pick up the 289 Cobra. Marshall’s kids and grandchildren showed up. Apparently, they all wanted to see the rare Cobra.

The Registry revealed CSX2289 was a “PR” car, meaning a Cobra the factory used for public relations, such as loans to writers and photographers for newspaper and magazine driving reviews. Bright Blue, the new car came with a luggage rack. The wire wheels came painted, not chromed. The interior featured a fairly rare accessory in an AM radio. Otherwise, the car was “pretty basic,” in Don’s words. The original luggage rack was missing. Still, originality was the big plus of this Rare Find.

I noticed in the photo a Shelby factory aftermarket aluminum COBRA intake and Holley dual center pivot float carburetor. Don explained the first owner did some auto crossing. In my experience observing original Cobras at shows over the past twenty-five years, most owners upgraded to a larger flow Holley four-barrel.

interior

Except for obvious dirt and dust, and corrosion on the gauge pods, the interior was complete and in very good condition. The wood wheel was in exceptional condition. The AM radio is a very rare Cobra accessory. The four-speed manual transmission has the correct shifter. (Photo Courtesy Don Lee)

engine

The 289 engine appeared original, just a little worse for the obvious corrosion. Shelby American used the 271-horsepower 289 with solid lifters, lifted directly from Ford’s mid-size Fairlane. Of course, the Cobra came out two years before the Mustang made its debut on April 17, 1964. When Shelby began building the first Mustang GT350 early in calendar year 1965, they increased the horsepower of the 289 High Performance with a few hot rod upgrades. At this time, many 289 Cobra owners went back to Shelby’s parts department and ordered those upgrades for their Cobras. They included a Shelby Cobra aluminum intake manifold and a Holley four-barrel, boosting horsepower from 271 to 306. CSX2289 is one of the few Cobras that remained stock with no hot rod modifications. (Photo Courtesy Don Lee)

 

 


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