If you've read Hemi In The Barn, you already know, but for the rest... Herbie is the longest original owner of a Cobra other than Carroll Shelby. He bought a 1963 Cobra from a show room.
Printed in Road & Track September 2007
Herbie Hancock, Carroll Shelby and all that Jazz
By Tom Cotter
In spring 1963, two young men on opposite sides of the country were plying their chosen crafts, each eager to become successful in their respective careers. On the west coast, Carroll Shelby was anxious to prove his own brand of sports car-the Cobra-could be a winner both on the racetrack and in the showroom.
On the east coast, a young musician was pounding keyboards and writing songs that he hoped would jump to the top of the jazz charts.
Even though Shelby’s California operation was still in its infancy, his new car’s brilliance was already being realized. In February the Cobra scored its first win at Riverside Raceway, then nearly won at Daytona and Sebring.
Quietly, in New York, pianist and composer Herbie Hancock was celebrating his first success. In t6he mail that April, Hancock received a check for $3000 as a royalty payment for his song, “Watermelon Man” for a 22-year –old in 1963, this was a fortune.
For Hancock, who lived in the Bronx and commuted to rehearsals in Manhattan by subway, his first thought was to spend his windfall on a station wagon. After all, he was a musician, and he could pack fellow musicians and their instruments in the back. But his roommate, jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd convinced him otherwise. Byrd drove a Jaguar that belonged to his girlfriend, and was a sports-car aficionado. He persuaded Hancock to consider a new sports car that was just beginning to get attention on display in Manhattan.
“Donald told me the Cobra was kicking Ferrari’s ass,” says Hancock. The next day he hopped on the “L” train and heade4 to Charles Kreisler Automobiles on Broadway. “I had never bought a car in my life; I had only driven an old Dodge my father bought me for college.”
Instead of feeling excited as he walked into the dealership, Hancock experienced racism that, sadly, was all too common in 1963. Even though the civil rights movement was gaining momentum-Dr Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his famous “I have a Dream” speech just four months later- that didn’t seem to register with the salesman on duty. Noticing the young black man walking into the showroom, the salesman all but ignored Hancock and continued reading his newspaper. “I walked right up to his desk and asked if I see the Cobra, “Hancock says, admitting that he was shabbily dressed. “He never looked up or answered my questions; he just pointed in the direction of the car.”
Hancock attempted to engage the salesman in conversation about the Cobra’s specifications and features, but no luck.
“He pissed me off.” He says.
Hancock walked across the showroom to CSX2006, the sixth-production Cobra ever built. He was instantly smitten. It was Old English White, with red leather interior and silver wire wheels. Under the hood was a high-performance 245-bhp, 260-cu.-in. engine that had originally been developed for the Fairlane. Interestingly, it is the only known Cobra ever equipped with a two-barrel carburetor.
“I walked up to it and kicked the tires, because that’s what I heard you were supposed to do,” he says, upset over the salesman’s attitude.
“I walked back to his desk and said, Okay I want to buy it!”
Hearing that, the salesman suddenly lifted his eyes and asked, “Do you have any idea how much the car costs?”
“Yeah, $6000; I’ll be back tomorrow to pick it up.” says Hancock, who admits that he probably would not have purchased the Cobra if the salesman hadn’t been so rude.
The next day his friend Byrd accompanied him to pick up the new car. This time Hancock was dressed in a suit. Word of the celebrity had apparently spread throughout the dealership because this time he was treated like royalty. He paid $2500 in cash, and financed the balance through the dealership. He was nervous about the performance of his new purchase. “That car could go from zero to a hundred in less than a block,” he says. That acceleration, plus a very stiff clutch pedal, convinced Hancock that his friend Byrd should drive the car back to the Bronx.
“I rented a garage for the car near Donald’s house, but didn’t drive it for two weeks because I was scared,” he says. “But every day I’d sit in the car and press the clutch…and make motor noises with my mouth,” he says with a laugh. Finally, as Hancock became more comfortable with the Cobra, he began taking it out for short drives. One day several weeks after his purchase, Byrd was involved in a minor accident while driving the Cobra. “Herbie, I screwed up your car,’ he said to me on the phone. I said, ‘Hey, man, don’t worry about it; it’s just a car.’
“That fender bender connected me to reality.”
From that time, CSX2006 was no longer a shrine, but a daily driver. As soon as it left the body shop, Hancock began driving it to gigs in Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, and even drove it to California a couple of times. Hancock chalked up more than 70,000 miles on the Cobra before the speedometer cable broke.
Eventually Hancock moved to California and began using the Cobra less and less. He purchased a new Ferrari in 1990, and from that time, CSX2006 has been in storage. “When I bought the Ferrari, I went into the garage and had a long talk with the Cobra,” Hancock says. “I said, ‘This is for your own good; you’re too valuable to drive. Look, I’m replacing you with a Ferrari; at least it’s not a Chevy!”
In April 2007, the 67-year-old Hancock celebrated his 44th year of Cobra ownership, making him the longest original Cobra owner in the world except for Carroll Shelby himself, who still owns prototype CSX2000.
Both Shelby and Hancock went on to become hugely successful; Shelby’s cars won an untold number of races and championships, including Le Mans in 1966 and 1967; Hancock has written scores of hits and chart-busting albums and received a Grammy Award in 1983. But despite these accolades, Hancock remains passionate toward his four-wheeled companion.
I’ll never sell it,” he says. “It represents my first success in life.”