(CNN) — If this car could talk, it would describe a road to fame with all the twists and turns of a Hollywood plot.
The original of only six models ever built, it was the first American car to beat Ferrari on its own turf, was once engulfed by flames in Daytona, was driven around Los Angeles by a music celebrity, and then sat for 30 years in a storage unit — leading many to believe it had been lost.
The extraordinary vehicle was the brainchild of an American car legend, who used it to win championships and shatter speed records. Once retrieved from its dusty alcove, the car sparked a multi-million dollar legal battle for its ownership.
Today, 50 years after it was built, the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe prototype finally sits in its rightful place — a museum founded by its current owner.
A car with a mission
As the name suggests, the car was created by American automotive entrepreneur, Carroll Shelby, who wanted to beat Italian designer Enzo Ferrari.
He had already done so as a driver with Aston Martin, wining the prestigious FIA World Sportscar Championship in 1959, a series that the “prancing horse” was otherwise dominating.
But in 1963, years after Shelby had hung up his racing gloves, he wanted to win as a constructor — with an American car, at that.
Shelby modeled his dream machine on the basis of a previous racer he had developed, the AC Cobra Roadster.
He hired designer Pete Brock to shape the car for maximum speed — something it would need on the legendary 3-mile Mulsanne straight at Le Mans, the most important race in the championship.
Thus was born the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe prototype, made with modest means compared to today’s standards, in a shop in Venice, California.
At the time, American cars weren’t very competitive, says Fred Simeone, the current owner of the car and founder of the Simeone Museum, where it’s currently displayed.
“If you look at the history of sports car racing, America had contributed very little by then compared to England, Italy, Germany and even France,” he said.
The Daytonas were about to change that. They fared well during their maiden year, 1964, with a standout win in their class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans — “The Superbowl of racing,” Simeone calls it. But although they outclassed Corvettes, Lolas, Porsches, and Alfas, the Daytonas still finished the championship behind the mighty Ferrari GTOs.
In 1965, Shelby finally took first place — the first ever American racing team to do so — taking 9 of 12 events in their class, with crucial wins in yet more legendary races, such as the 24 Hours of Daytona itself, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, and the grueling 1,000 km race at the Nurburgring Nordshcleife, a 14-mile forest road track that legend driver Jackie Stewart would later nickname “The Green Hell.”
Shelby had beaten Ferrari. The legend of the Cobra Daytona Coupe was born.
Enter the “CSX2287”
The car that Shelby had built in Venice remained the only one made in America. Five more were sent as frames to Modena, Italy — right under Ferrari’s nose — where the bodywork was completed expertly and quickly.
That prototype car, chassis number CSX2287, was therefore already special.
It was also lucky, surviving a fire while refueling in Daytona in 1964 — an incident which cost the race, but not the car.
And to many, it was beautiful — complete with Le Mans stripes, two white bands that ran the length of the car over the Viking blue paint, a pattern that has since become iconic and is strongly associated with the Cobras designed by Shelby as production cars for Ford.
Its style had substance to match. After winning the 1965 championship, the car, somewhat retired from racing, had still a lot of speed left in it, and got a chance to prove it.
Speeding on salt
On November 6, 1965, the CSX2287 had not been raced for months, but the opportunity presented itself to haul it to the Bonneville Salt Flats to race against the clock and write history.
Over four days, the car set 23 national and international speed records, reaching a top speed of 187 miles per hour.
That was the last roar of the lion. Shelby then sold the original Daytona — at this point little more than a tired old prototype — to Jim Russell, founder of a toy car company called Russkits, for $4,500.
And that’s where the weirdest part of the story begins.
The wall of (engine) sound
The Daytona soon landed in the hands of eccentric music producer Phil Spector, 26 years old at the time. He scribbled the car’s records with house paint on the doors — ridiculously exaggerating them — and started driving it around Los Angeles.
This wasn’t the first time the car was seen outside a track, as Shelby himself did several test runs in Marina del Rey with a manufacturer’s plate.
But lightning quick as it was, it cost Spector so many tickets that his lawyer eventually suggested he get rid of it. Added to that, it was far from a smooth ride and became hot as hell after just a few miles.
This was no Sunset strip cruiser, but an angry thoroughbred racer, after all.
Spector wanted to fix these issues, but the cost was so high that he was allegedly offered to scrap it for $800 instead. Luckily he knew better, and sold it to his bodyguard, George Brand, for $1,000.
Brand gave the car to his daughter, Donna O’Hara, who then did the unthinkable — she hid it away in a California storage unit.
Precisely as to why O’Hara made the conscious decision to just store the Daytona, dutifully paying the rent every month for 30 years, nobody knows.
Over the years, interest mounted around the car and she received several offers for it, but always refused. “She would rebuff anybody who presented themselves as interested in the car,” said Simeone.
“Carroll Shelby himself went to visit her to see the car, and she wouldn’t even open her screen door to talk to him. It was widely known she had it, but it was also widely known that you couldn’t communicate with her… people had given up going for it.”
“A very realistic offer”
As a result, the CSX2287 remained untouched from 1971 to 2001.
With the help of a lawyer and car dealer, Martin Eyears, a retired neurosurgeon, and collector, Frederick Simeone, finally managed to convince Donna O’Hara to sell him the car for an amount he’d rather not disclose, but believed to be around $4 million.
“It was persistence and timing, the right place at the right time that produced the sale, and a very realistic offer,” he says.
In 2008, he founded the Simeone Automotive Museum in his native Philadelphia, where the car now sits among 65 other classic racers.
“My criteria for collection are a significant history, original condition, American origin whenever possible, and beauty. At the time of purchase, in 2001, the only car that I didn’t have that fit all those criteria was the Cobra Daytona Coupe, so I really wanted it very badly,” he says.
What happened next is the darkest part of the story — “I hate to tell it, this is a happy story and the bottom of it is a downer. She [O’Hara] willed the proceeds of the sale to her mother and then set herself on fire. That was after the deal had been done.”
A difficult aftermath
The owner’s shocking demise sparked a legal battle around the car that lasted for months. “The aftermath of the sale was was more difficult than the sale itself, because when word got out among the motoring community that the car was discovered and was being purchased by a private party, a lot of people desperately tried to buy it, and asked a judge to put it up for public sale,” says Simeone.
Even Phil Spector, through his lawyer Robert Shapiro — famous for having been one of O.J. Simpson’s defendants — claimed ownership by saying he never actually sold the car to his bodyguard, but only gave it to him for safekeeping.
“Everybody was gonna wanna have a story,” says Simeone, “But the judge concluded rightfully that it had already been sold legitimately.”
It’s difficult to say how much the car is worth today, 14 years after that sale.
The other five Daytonas — those produced in Italy — are all in the hands of private collectors, with one sold at auction in 2009 for $7.5 million. It’s safe to assume that the CSX2287 would fetch significantly more, since it’s the first prototype, it’s the last Daytona to have been in competition, and — unlike the others — it’s still in its original state, with no parts replaced and no repainting done.
“The car was in excellent condition out of storage, all of the original bits were there, no missing parts,” says Simeone.
“Only the front end was banged in, so we had to hammer that out because it was simply too ugly. The rest of the paint was dull but intact and all we had to do was get rid of the oxidation, and it came out very decent. The only things that we had to replace ended up being brake lines and a few bits of wiring.”
Phil Spector’s five years of ownership did not mess it up too much either. “He just had upholstery put in, that’s all, and he put some writing on the side of the car, with house paint, but we were able to get that off,” says Simeone.
The cars runs well, even on its original tires, and has been driven many times for shows and demonstrations, even though it’s no longer raced.
“We get into a little trouble with some people who think it should, but it’s pointless and we’d risk damaging it. We want to preserve it for future generations,” added Simeone.
A place in history
The CSX2287 was the very first car — and one of only seven so far — to be included in the National Historic Vehicle Register, putting it in the same class as American icons like the Statue of Liberty and the Space Shuttle.
It was also named Car of the Year in 2014 at the International Historic Motoring Awards, the Oscars of classic automobiles — the first ever American car to even get nominated for the award.
“It was constructed on a shop floor and designed on a sheet of butcher paper, right at the end of an era when something could be built so simply and win on an international level,” said Mark Gessler, president of the Historic Vehicle Association.
Strikingly designed and with a history that reads like a Hollywood script, this car is the stuff of legend.
“The iconic forerunner of a winning breed,” as Simeone defines it, which kick-started America’s short but glorious dominance in road racing.
The CSX2287 Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe is on display at the Simeone Automotive Museum, in Philadelphia.
By Jacopo Prisco