My friend Jim Maxwell is a serious Cobra enthusiast; on his days off from his medical practice, he scours junkyards throughout the South in search of old Galaxies, Falcons and Fairlanes, then strips them of their obscure battery cables, radiator clamps and dash knobs so that his own two Cobras can be absolutely factory correct.
Jim is a Cobra authority down to the most minute details, especially on factory correct tool kits, which are about as rare as hen’s teeth and highly coveted by Cobra owners. He loves originality but doesn’t demand or really want perfect condition.
His big block 427 Cobra is so original that it still wears the Pearl White paint job that “Kustomizer” George Barris applied when it was new in 1966.
But Jim’s 289 Cobra is a snake of a different color; having owned it since 1987, he has displayed, toured, and aggressively participated in track events with it for almost three decades. And, because his car had been driven hard and put away wet for so long, it has been on jack stands for the past several years undergoing a thorough restoration to the highest standard. It’s finally the Cobra he has always dreamed of, beautiful and correct in every detail. The car wears a gorgeous shade of Princess Blue paint with red leather interior, chrome wire wheels and absolutely correct—and very rare—Goodyear Power Cushion whitewall tires.
So why does Jim want to sell the car?
Because the market is high, and he can cash out with a nice bankroll?
Not at all.
Jim fell in love with Cobras many years before they became fashion icons and as valuable as a very nice house. Jim’s older brother, Ed, bought a Cobra while he was in medical residency. So Jim, then a high school student, was allowed to drive Ed’s car while his brother was studying for his boards.
Jim fell in love with Cobras for the way they drove, not for the way they appreciated in value.
Cobras are actually quite fabulous to drive, especially the 289 model. The small-block is certainly more “sports car” than its 427 big brother.
The cars are basic, basic, basic; no folding top, no crank-up windows, no door panels. And, like aircooled VW Beetles, the heater only operates in the summertime. Corvettes of the era are absolutely luxury cars when compared to the hair-shirt experience the Cobra exhibits.
But rather than sitting on a Concours lawn, small-block Cobras like Jim’s yearn to be driven on twisty roads, especially if elevation can be thrown into the mix. Imagine an Austin Healey 3000, but with all the power you could ever desire. Add to that an exhaust note that is simply intoxicating, and you begin to appreciate the true lore of Cobra ownership that speculators never experience.
So now Jim is stuck with a 289 Concours car, which easily won “Best in Cobra Class” in the “French Lick”, Indiana, Concours d’Elegance last October, beating a Platinum SAAC Concours Cobra by half point. Jim’s car is a museum piece, it’s that nice.
In the car’s transition from mongrel to Concours champion, it lost something; that comfy, squishy feeling that only an old car can transmit. The car became more edgy and mechanical, rather than the organic experience his unrestored Cobra once exhibited. Think of wearing an old pair of Levis as opposed to a stiff, brand-new pair right off the rack, and you’ll understand the difference.
That’s when he called me.
“Tom, believe it or not, I’m thinking of selling my car,” he said after the Concours win.
I was speechless, because I knew how he had sweated every detail of the car’s restoration. Then he elaborated.
“It’s too beautiful for me to drive,” said Jim, who annually organizes 1,000-mile Cobra-only tours for his friends.
“I’d feel guilty about driving a car this nice on a gravel road. Its condition will degrade with every mile I drive.”
Jim is totally in sync with the current preservation vs. restoration movement. Finally America is catching on to what European collectors have known for decades; not everything old needs to look new again.
In Europe, a 200-year-old dining table, if structurally sound, can still look like a 200-year-old table. A typical American, though, would sand that table smooth and straight, replace some wood and hardware, and pour on a thick coat of polyurethane. And it would look like it was just purchased from the local Ethan Allen Furniture store.
Carroll Shelby once told me, “I built cars to be driven, not damn trailer queens,” a theory to which my friend Jim certainly subscribes.
So most likely Jim’s fabulous 289 Cobra will either be for sale or sold by the time you read this.
“I now realize I prefer patina over perfection,” he said.
What will he replace his 289 with? Another 289, of course.
But one with a less pristine interior, maybe a couple of paint chips on the nose, and a touch of grease on the engine. And maybe even the wrong tools.
Jim wants a driver again.