Originally printed in the September 2007 edition of Road & Track:“The Watermelon Man and The Cobra: Herbie Hancock, Carroll Shelby and all that Jazz”
By Tom Cotter
In spring 1963, two young men on opposite sides of the country were plying their chosen crafts, each eager to become successful in their respective careers. On the west coast, Carroll Shelby was anxious to prove his own brand of sports car-the Cobra-could be a winner both on the racetrack and in the showroom.
|original owner after 53 years!|
Even though Shelby’s California operation was still in its infancy, his new car’s brilliance was already being realized. In February the Cobra scored its first win at Riverside Raceway, then nearly won at Daytona and Sebring.
|Herbie Hancock in 1963|
For Hancock, who lived in the Bronx and commuted to rehearsals in Manhattan by subway, his first thought was to spend his windfall on a station wagon. After all, he was a musician, and he could pack fellow musicians and their instruments in the back. But his roommate, jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd convinced him otherwise. Byrd drove a Jaguar that belonged to his girlfriend, and was a sports-car aficionado. He persuaded Hancock to consider a new sports car that was just beginning to get attention on display in Manhattan.
“Donald told me the Cobra was kicking Ferrari’s ass,” says Hancock. The next day he hopped on the “L” train and heade4 to Charles Kreisler Automobiles on Broadway. “I had never bought a car in my life; I had only driven an old Dodge my father bought me for college.”
|Donald Byrd (l) and Herbie Hancock|
Hancock attempted to engage the salesman in conversation about the Cobra’s specifications and features, but no luck. “He pissed me off.” He says.
Hancock walked across the showroom to CSX2006, the sixth-production Cobra ever built. He was instantly smitten. It was Old English White, with red leather interior and silver wire wheels. Under the hood was a high-performance 245-bhp, 260-cu.-in. engine that had originally been developed for the Fairlane. Interestingly, it is the only known Cobra ever equipped with a two-barrel carburetor. “I walked up to it and kicked the tires, because that’s what I heard you were supposed to do,” he says, upset over the salesman’s attitude. “I walked back to his desk and said, Okay I want to buy it!” Hearing that, the salesman suddenly lifted his eyes and asked, “Do you have any idea how much the car costs?” “Yeah, $6000; I’ll be back tomorrow to pick it up.” says Hancock, who admits that he probably would not have purchased the Cobra if the salesman hadn’t been so rude.
The next day his friend Byrd accompanied him to pick up the new car. This time Hancock was dressed in a suit. Word of the celebrity had apparently spread throughout the dealership because this time he was treated like royalty. He paid $2500 in cash, and financed the balance through the dealership. He was nervous about the performance of his new purchase. “That car could go from zero to a hundred in less than a block,” he says. That acceleration, plus a very stiff clutch pedal, convinced Hancock that his friend Byrd should drive the car back to the Bronx.
“I rented a garage for the car near Donald’s house, but didn’t drive it for two weeks because I was scared,” he says. “But every day I’d sit in the car and press the clutch…and make motor noises with my mouth,” he says with a laugh. Finally, as Hancock became more comfortable with the Cobra, he began taking it out for short drives. One day several weeks after his purchase, Byrd was involved in a minor accident while driving the Cobra. "Herbie, I screwed up your car," he said to me on the phone. I said, ‘Hey, man, don’t worry about it; it’s just a car.’ “That fender bender connected me to reality.”
Eventually Hancock moved to California and began using the Cobra less and less. He purchased a new Ferrari in 1990, and from that time, CSX2006 has been in storage. “When I bought the Ferrari, I went into the garage and had a long talk with the Cobra,” Hancock says. “I said, ‘This is for your own good; you’re too valuable to drive. Look, I’m replacing you with a Ferrari; at least it’s not a Chevy!”
In April 2007, the 67-year-old Hancock celebrated his 44th year of Cobra ownership, making him the longest original Cobra owner in the world except for Carroll Shelby himself, who still owned prototype CSX2000.
Both Shelby and Hancock went on to become hugely successful; Shelby’s cars won an untold number of races and championships, including Le Mans in 1966 and 1967; Hancock has written scores of hits and chart-busting albums and received a Grammy Award in 1983. But despite these accolades, Hancock remains passionate toward his four-wheeled companion.
I’ll never sell it,” he says. “It represents my first success in life.”