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This Virtually Priceless 1964 Shelby Cobra is Still a Driver


By Richard Prince, HOT ROD


Bill Gise bought this Cobra half a century ago, and his enthusiasm for it hasn't diminished in the intervening years

If Bill Gise had a dollar for every time he said, "no, it's a real one" when asked whether his Cobra was a replica, Jeff Bezos would be the second richest person in the world. The authenticity question is understandable given that Shelby American manufactured a grand total of 998 Cobras between 1962 and '67, while various companies have produced countless thousands replicas in the years since the originals first set the automotive world on fire.


The Cobra story began in September 1961 when racer, designer, and entrepreneur Carroll Shelby wrote a letter to AC Cars asking if they were willing to make an AC Ace for him that would accept an American V8 engine. The small British manufacturer was floundering following the announcement that Bristol, which supplied six-cylinder engines for the Ace, was ceasing production, so they had both the time and inclination to accommodate Shelby's request. With AC Cars on board, Shelby knocked on Chevrolet's door to ask for a small block V8 but was summarily rejected because Chevy brass reportedly didn't see any point in helping the ambitious Texan create a competitor for Corvette. Ford was, however, more than happy to get on board and provided Shelby with two of its new lightweight V8s. In February 1962 a legend was born at 1042 Princeton Drive in Venice, California when AC Cars' modified Ace and Ford's new 260 cid V8 were married in Shelby's shop.

While Dean Moon's chief mechanic Roy Gammell, Gammell's son Doyle, Larry Maldanado, John Christy, Fred Larson, and a few others toiled away at Shelby American on that very first Cobra, Bill Gise was working on his own cool cars 137 miles to the south. "My passion for cars was well established before I turned 16 and could drive," he recalls. "My first build was a 1930 Model A pickup. By the early '60s I'd turned to drag racing and was campaigning a 1961 Valiant with a Super Stock 426 Max Wedge engine."


Bill's interest in competition soon expanded to include off road and sports car racing. "I got very active with sports car racing in the San Diego area and served as the Chief Technical Inspector for the San Diego Region of the SCCA. I also competed in off road racing for more than a decade, including the second Baja 1000 and the very first Baja 500."

Not surprisingly, in 1967, Bill turned his passion for cars and racing into a business, opening a foreign car repair shop in Chula Vista, California called Autosport. He continued to own and operate Autosport until 1971 when he solt it and went to work for Bilstein Corporation of America in 1972. There, he played a key role in developing new shocks for both racing and street cars. Two years before he joined Bilstein, clients of Autosport offered to sell Bill their Cobra. "Even then, I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime," he recalls, "so I didn't hesitate to buy it. I got to know quite a lot about Cobras prior to that when a friend bought one and began competing with it. I helped him with the car and quickly realized just how special they are. The power-to-weight ratio made it a pretty wild little machine. When my customers mentioned they were going to sell their car, which I knew quite well because I had been servicing it, I went to their house quick like a bunny rabbit and wrote them a check!"


The car, bearing serial number CSX 2278, was originally built for George Bartell, a well-known illustrator hired by Shelby American to create advertising artwork before any of the Cobras were ready to be photographed. It was Peter Brock who brought Bartell to Shelby's attention, after he got to know Bartell when both were students at Art Center College of Design. Between 1963 and '67 Bartell created stunning oil paintings and water colors of various Cobras that were extensively reproduced in ads, posters, race programs, and other promotional materials.

After buying CSX 2278, Bartell made a few changes to it, in some instances by trading his creative services for chits that he subsequently redeemed for Shelby parts. Notable among these were a Weber intake manifold and Weber carburetors, an oil cooler, and large-valve cylinder heads. After thoroughly enjoying it for several years, Bartell sold the Cobra to Point Loma, California resident Dr. Wheeler in the late 1960s. The doctor and his son street drove their Cobra, and after adding fender flares and wider wheels and tires, the son successfully competed with it in time trials, hill climbs, and slaloms. In 1970, after the younger Wheeler gave up competing and went to work for Dan Gurney's Trans-Am team, the elder Wheeler then sold the car to Bill.

Bill continued competing with the Cobra, though not very often, because most of his attention was devoted to off road racing at the time. He also street drove it just about every day and did whatever was needed to keep it running and looking good. Though originally Wimbledon White, the Wheelers had the Cobra refinished in silver, presumably when the fender flares were installed. In 1974, by which time the silver paint began looking a little tawdry, Bill painted it blue, doing the prep work and applying the new hue himself in his driveway.


Bill is something of a hyperactive Renaissance man, with a wide array of interests and several major projects going on at any given time. After his tenure with Bilstein, he began a thirty-year career as Fleet Supervisor for the City of Coronado. In between working, off-road racing, competing with and driving his Cobra, and restoring a long list of cars and trucks, he formed a corporation to design, construct, and install automobile turntables for high end homes. Then in 1978, in the midst of everything else, he secured a mortgage on his house so he could buy a 65-foot English motor sailer made from teakwood.

"That motor sailer was absolutely magnificent," he recalls with an ear-to-ear grin, "so I couldn't resist. It was made by the same company that built the Mayflower and had quite a history before I acquired it, including being pressed into service to aid in the evacuation of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk. I ended up owning it for nearly 40 years, and it was a big part of my life. I really loved it!"

Thinking he was stretched a little bit too thin, Bill decided to sell the Cobra to pay off the loan for the boat. "It seemed like a sensible idea at the time," he explains. "This was in 1979, and the blue paint, which I'd done in '74, was a little beat up, so I painted it 'resale red' thinking I'd probably get more for the car as a result. Like when it went to blue, I painted it myself in the driveway, and it looked really good. In fact, it looked so good with new paint, and I really did love the car, that when it was finished, I changed my mind and kept it!"


By 2015 the Cobra's racing days were behind it, and time had taken a toll on its appearance, just at a time when the car's value had climbed to a place where a high-quality restoration was justified. Bill and his wife Martha decided to entrust most of the car's restoration work to noted Cobra expert Drew Serb. Serb stripped the body down to bare aluminum and carefully removed the flares it had been wearing since the late 1960s. The body was restored to its original configuration with the exception of the hood bulge that George Bartell hand-formed when the car was nearly new to provide clearance for the Weber carburetor stacks.

Serb took the car's original 289 engine out and Bill's long-time friend Butch Engelbrecht, who happens to be a renowned builder of, and parts supplier for, rare and exotic Ford engines, rebuilt it. "I was going to rebuild it myself," remembers Bill, "but Butch, who I've known for more than fifty years, was there at Drew's place and he grabbed it as soon as it came out. Butch really specializes in cammers, but he's a great friend and wanted to rebuild my engine, which, of course, I appreciate."

In 2017, after two years of careful work by Serb, Engelbrecht, and others, CSX 2278 was completely restored and ready for the road once again. Bill is retired now, but remains as busy as ever, with extensive involvement in the community affairs of the City of Coronado, a very long list of car projects, including the restoration of his 1966 Shelby GT350 and the completion of an Offy-powered 1927 T, and of course, the continued enjoyment of his beloved Cobra. Their first half century together was an unmitigated delight, and given Bill's energy, drive, and zest for life, there's no doubt the fun will continue into the indefinite future.

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