COBRA STRIKES BACK
TAMPA Dennis Abbey wants to sell you a $90,000 car without a stereo system.
He says you’ll never grow tired of hearing the 450 horsepower engine whir, purr and roar.
Abbey is making and selling hand built replicas of the Cobra, the iconic 1966 race car that fused American muscle and British design. He recently completed his first replica; a dazzling blue speedster with twin white stripes sits patiently in an East Tampa garage, waiting to be shipped to its buyer in New Jersey in a few days.
Will Abbey be sad to see his first Cobra go?
“Nah,” he says. “We’ll just build more.”
Abbey, an electrical engineer who used to work for General Motors’ engineering and research division in Flint, Mich., says he expects to build 15 to 20 Cobra replicas a year. In his garage, he builds the cars’ frames, suspensions, mufflers and exhaust systems himself. The fiberglass body is molded here in Tampa. The engine comes from Ford, and the shock absorbers are specially designed. Abbey buys the gauges, switches and mirrors from the companies that made the same parts for the original Cobras.
Abbey moved from Michigan to Florida nine years ago, wanting to leave the cold weather. He had built race cars for himself all his life, so starting his own business to build cars for other people “was kind of a no brainer,” he says.
His company is called Precision Cobras.
Because of 42 years of advancements in automotive technology, Abbey’s Cobra is much more efficient, lighter and offers more legroom than the first Cobra that race car driver and designer Carroll Shelby conceived in the 1960s. Unlike the original race cars, Abbey’s Cobra is designed to be driven on roads and has a locking glove compartment so the owner has a place to stash his or her license and registration.
Still, Cobra buyers shouldn’t expect many frills. Unlike most other new $90,000 cars, a replica Cobra doesn’t include air conditioning, a cigarette lighter, a navigation system, a roof or even a cup holder.
People buy Cobras because they want to stand out from the crowd or possess something they remember fondly from their childhood, Abbey says. They don’t buy them for practical reasons.
“There’s the wow factor,” he says. “We all grew up looking at them, but who could afford them?”
Larry Webster, technical director for Car and Driver Magazine, says it’s impossible to explain why so many people remain fascinated with Cobra’s mystique.
“It’s a phenomenon, and the popularity is uncanny,” he says. “It’s a little bit lost on me.”
Webster thinks a lot of the car’s appeal has to do with its design.
“When you look at it, it looks muscular and it looks fast. It doesn’t look overdone,” he says. “It’s not too out there. It strikes the right balance.”
An entire economic ecosystem has developed for Cobra fans. Webster said do it yourselfers can order Cobra car kits for $20,000 to $30,000. Some of the original cars from the 1960s are still available and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Abbey says car kits often produce an inferior vehicle, and often take longer and cost more money than people anticipate. He thinks a brand new, made to order Cobra replica is a much more sensible solution for those who can afford it.
What about the choppiness in the economy, and the ups and downs on Wall Street? Abbey doesn’t think those factors will deter potential buyers.
“The people with the income for something like this will always have the income,” he says.
Precision Cobra joins a very short list of automobile manufacturers in Florida. The Sunshine State’s most notable carmaker is most likely Mosler Automotive, the modern sports car builder and designer in Riviera Beach, near West Palm Beach.