A little more than a half-century ago motorsports legend Carroll Shelby decided it’d be a good idea to order up several hundred British roadster chassis, stuff Ford V8s and Borg-Warner four-speeds into them, and sell them for a whole lot more than what just about any already validated sports car was going for.
It didn’t make sense. And it didn’t matter. Today, a genuine Shelby Cobra can fetch more than a million bucks.
But you don’t have a million bucks. And vintage roadsters like Shelby’s were never a commodity, which means the odds of sourcing a 1960s-era Cobra—of which fewer than 1,000 were made—at a blowout price aren’t good.
Superformance knows this. Founded in 1996, the Irvine, California, company specializes in replicating a handful of some of the most special cars the automotive world’s ever known, the most popular of which is its MKIII—a third-generation 427 Shelby Cobra replica available in four variations. Superformance isn’t the only small-run automaker to offer carbon-copy Cobras, but it is the only one licensed to do so by Carroll Shelby Licensing Inc. The iconic automotive designer, race car driver, and entrepreneur was once quoted as saying that the MKIII’s about as close to the real thing as anyone could get.
Close to the real thing doesn’t necessarily mean 1960s technology prevails throughout, either. Instead, modernized, power-assisted and ventilated Wilwood disc brakes are used exclusively and an independent coil-over suspension is standard in lieu of earlier models’ leaf springs. Five decades’ worth of advancements in materials and manufacturing processes also mean all sorts of important things like torsional rigidity and chassis flex have also been improved upon. According to Superformance’s Ashton Stander, the difference between the two is rather straightforward: “Shelby’s flex; ours don’t.”
As it turns out, the differences don’t end there, and the MKIII is better for it. Look closely and the MKIII’s fenders hug its tires more concentrically. And those rivets that seemingly fasten the air scoop into place? They’re just for show. Stander says the MKIII’s air duct and hood were made of a single piece for increased strength and durability.
Federal emissions and safety regulations mean much of Superformance’s inventory is sold without engines or transmissions, but the chassis are far from incomplete. Aside from engine hookups, wiring harnesses are pre-loomed and connected where possible; master cylinders are even topped off and bled. Once purchased, buyers can choose the appropriate powertrain, which in most cases is a 351 Windsor-based Ford engine, although 289, 302, and select big-block powerplants are also compatible. Say the words kit car around the people at Superformance, though, and you’ll be corrected faster than you can say I built it myself.
The MKIII arguably made the brand, but Superformance’s lineup isn’t just one car deep. Today the replica-carmaker offers chassis that emulate 289 Cobras as well as a series of continuation cars, like the Shelby Daytona Coupe, Corvette Grand Sport, and Ford’s storied GT40 that’s forever remembered as the car that served up Ferrari in 1966’s 24 Hours of LeMans. Superformance’s GT40 is so authentic, in fact, that through licensing arrangements with Safir GT40 Spares LLC, it’s able to carry on the legend’s namesake and is precisely why Ford’s own 2005-2006-model-year successor is known simply as the GT. Superformance’s GT40 is as close to the real deal as you can get. The car’s heritage is preserved with a period-correct pressed-steel roof and sheet-metal body that’s fastened to a rigid, steel monocoque chassis. According to the people at Superformance, more than 90 percent of the parts that make up their GT40 are compatible with the original.
It’s that sort of attention to detail that’s led to the niche auto-making outfit’s success. Walk past the lobby and into its showroom and before bumping into one of the world’s quickest Caterhams—a model Superformance recently assumed role as official U.S. dealer for—and nearly 75 specimens of the company’s classically inspired inventory greets you. None of them are built here, however. All of that happens at partner company Hi-Tech Automotive’s 400,000 square-foot facility located in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where genuine Shelby blueprints, for example, were used to initially recreate the legend, culminating into some of the most impressive hand-built chassis ever made by more than 600 craftspeople.
You don’t have a million bucks. And, unlike Carroll Shelby, you won’t be commissioning your own series of purpose-built race cars. You don’t have to, though, and that’s all because of Superformance. The hardest part is figuring out which legacy to carry on, any of which, if you ask the people at Superformance, are almost better than the real thing.
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Words by Aaron Bonk