Photo courtesy Charles Rosenblum.
[Editor’s note: This “Reminiscing” story, edited by Richard Lentinello, comes to us from Hemmings Classic Car reader Charles Rosenblum.]
As a teenager in a small Ohio town, I had plenty of enthusiasm for cars, but not much exposure to exciting ones. In the early 1980s, long before the internet, information came from a steady intake of magazines and the occasional mail order book. Though hot rodding an old Dart or Chevelle was not uncommon in my town, I fancied myself an MG kind of guy. But I was saving money for college, more likely to read than wrench. I would not own a sports car for a few more years, so just spotting the occasional Porsche 911 was an exciting event.
One summer Saturday, my brother and I were driving around in our mother’s Ford Fiesta, when we spotted what looked like a Shelby 427 Cobra in the Kmart parking lot. Even then, I knew that the British roadster stuffed with an oversized Ford V-8 was a true rarity. As we pulled into the parking lot and approached the owner, I figured it was a replica. “It’s real,” he said. “Lift the hood.” I paused, timidly. He didn’t seem to mind our enthusiasm. It was more our hesitation that seemed to perplex him.
Dana Beall was an affable but rumpled man in his late 30s with tousled brown hair and the really large glasses that we all had to one degree or another. A Navy veteran and a pipefitter by trade, he had driven Sprint cars regionally until the wreck in which one of them went end over end several times, he told us. On this day, he thundered out of the parking lot and down the road, but not without saying words even less believable than the car itself. “I will let you drive it sometime.”
A nervous phone call later, I visited him. His house was tidy split-level where he lived with his wife and three little kids. It seemed like the country, but it was just a few miles from where I lived in town.
His garage was another story. A few hundred yards away on an easily missed turn-off, it was at the top of a rough and winding driveway with a couple carcasses of once-promising, now-engineless muscle cars. The metal building itself was full of equipment from his pipe-fitting business, and additional partially-conceived automotive projects. Still resting on a jig was the unmistakable core of a Lotus 7 chassis. Somewhere in there was the frame of a Top Fuel car. And there were two disassembled Mustang Fastbacks. I found myself in that garage on more than a few afternoons, where the cleanest, least obstructed spot was reserved for the Cobra.
The real day could just as easily never have arrived. The clutch needed adjustment, and the brakes were not great. Also, Dana seemed to be ever weighing competing instincts of exuberance and maturity. At my age now, knowing what I know now about the explosive power of these cars, I’m not even sure that I would want to drive one today, or even ride in it. But this was a cloudless day in August of 1984. Dana decided to fire up the Cobra.
Exhausts emerged in front of the rear wheels, without sidepipes. Even at idle, they emitted a jet-like wind that caused my pants leg to flap around. The doors, meanwhile, were a single, flimsy sheet of aluminum, latched to the rest of the body with a piece of hardware more suitable to a kitchen cabinet. For such a muscular and curvaceous automobile, the passenger cabin seemed very tight, and strangely high up.
We drove back and forth on some of the country roads, not remotely accessing the car’s potential. At one point, it was my turn to drive. I celebrated the occasion by accidentally starting in third gear, saved from stalling or even hesitation by the car’s monstrous torque – too powerful to stall, even at idle. In fairness, the shift lever angles oddly forward and toward the steering wheel. My nervousness and self-preservation had taken hold, and even a couple tepid stabs at the throttle were not enough to unleash any real power.
That would be Dana’s job. He retook the driver’s seat, and we burbled back to more remote stretches of road. “We really need to be going straight for this,” he cautioned. In most cars, acceleration seems to come from a gradual building up of force. In this car, it was like an impact, slamming us forward brutally. We had been in second-gear when he really hit the throttle. He took it to pretty high revs in that gear and then a healthy way up into Third. “That was probably close to 120 MPH,” he allowed as we slowed down. Turbulence around the flat windshield was like a tropical storm, but only caution actually limited us. “I could drive this car down the road in Fourth and spin the wheels if I hit the gas hard enough,” Dana said. It was an amazing experience: amazing in its capacities beyond any automotive experience I would ever know, amazing that we made it back to the garage in one piece.
I continued to visit Dana periodically after I went to college, but he broke the news in a phone conversation. “You know, I had to sell the Cobra.” It had been coming for a while. That car needed a complete restoration that he couldn’t afford. And the buyer wanted to pay a price already in the early stratosphere of rising Cobra values. It was becoming too expensive to drive.
Thirty years later, driving a real 427 Cobra is less likely than ever, with its status as a priceless museum piece outweighing the always-considerable safety hazards.
The real tragedy is that Dana passed away in 2014, long before his time at age 64. In hindsight, the idea that a generous, if eccentric, owner was willing to share such an experience with an earnest but unknown teenager was at least as remarkable as the car itself.