“Hi Brett, it’s been awhile but I wanted to call and see how your day is going?” The voice of my 99-year-old grandmother on the line sounded as bright and golden as ever, if a bit more frail than the last time we spoke.
We don’t get to chat often, but every time we do, she’s quick with some encouragement, as she’s always been. When I started my first job in the automotive sector, she insisted it was a job I was born to do, even if it meant moving further away from the family homestead. That distance has made our semi-monthly lunch dates far less frequent, so I was happy to hear from her today.
Her surprise phone call was perfectly timed. When she asked what I was doing today, I relished telling her that I was about to drive a real-life version of the model car my dad and I built when I was six, knowing she’d remember that little yellow roadster I paraded around the living room whenever anyone special – grandmas are the most special, you know – came for a visit. She ended the conversation too soon, but not before leaving her darling, demure Utah accent ringing through my ears as the garage door opened to reveal a pair of Superformance roadsters: “Oh, what a fun day that will be!”
Rewriting History For The Future
Before we go further, let’s get something straight. I didn’t have a 1:24-scale Superformance on my shelf as a kid, but an AC Cobra 427. However, the MkIII is as close as one can get to a genuine Shelby-fied roadster without spending a prince’s ransom on an original. That’s because the automaker builds its rolling chassis using many of the same techniques that old Carroll did, allowing Superformance to be recognized as a manufacturer of officially licensed “continuation cars” by Shelby American itself. The customer buys the chassis, complete with body, interior, brakes, and suspension, then finishes it with the powertrain of their choice.
Though still only a prototype, the MkIII-E will hopefully go on sale sometime next year.
In the case of today’s 2001-built MkIII, that would be a 351 Windsor engine, paired to a five-speed manual transmission and limited-slip rear differential. Meanwhile, our other toy had something altogether different under the hood. As its name might suggest, the MkIII-E touted an all-electric powertrain, with a rear axle motor sourced from Tesla and twelve 16-cell LG batteries cleverly arranged under the hood to take up about the same space as a traditional V8 engine. Though still only a prototype, the MkIII-E will hopefully go on sale sometime next year, though how Superformance will market them remains to be seen.
Notably absent from the MkIII-E are the Cobra’s signature side pipes, reflecting its complete lack of exhaust emissions – how virtuous! But if a gas-powered Cobra is indeed a sinner, at least it compensates with a truly righteous engine note. And in jettisoning the side pipes, the MkIII-E also loses out on the associated sonic emissions. Of course, as Director of Video Clint Simone and I would soon find out, the Cobra EV is still one heck of a thrill, even without the noise.
Meeting Your Heroes
First, we set off in the traditional MkIII, immediately intoxicated by the sound and smell of fossil fuels exploding just a few feet ahead of us. The five-speed transmission in this well-maintained example is mechanical and notchy and perfectly matched to the Cobra’s 1960s styling and attitude. Ditto the throaty side-pipe exhaust, which lopes like a Harley-Davidson at idle before turning into a Gatling gun under throttle. With about 400 horsepower, 400 pound-feet, and an estimated weight of about 2,450 pounds, the Cobra is fast, but thanks to four-wheel disc brakes (with four-piston calipers up front) it can also be very slow as well.
It’s still a largely unassisted experience driving the MkIII: Stability and traction controls, ABS, and even cruise control are notable in their absence. The narrow pedal box is unkind to wide feet and skewed so far to the left that your foot finds the throttle when it’s looking for the clutch. And driving the Superformance MkIII quickly demands much more skill than any modern sports car – bungle a downshift and the prodigious torque will conspire to wrench the independently sprung rear end from side to side.
I didn’t achieve expert level in three hours behind the wheel, but even so, the gas-powered Cobra is as hilarious as my six-year-old mind thought it would be. “Don’t meet your heroes” doesn’t apply here, because charming this 351-cubic-inch snake proved to be addictive. Yes, it has some faults – the engine produces crazy heat, the side pipes want to burn you every chance they get, and the cabin is tight for anyone with long arms and legs. You’re intimately aware of how unkind and brutal and uncomfortable the Cobra is, but you don’t care, because all you want to do is wind that engine out and see who screams louder, the car or your passenger.
So the MkIII-E has a pretty high “fun” bar to clear, then. Superformance recognizes the blasphemy that a silent, zero-emissions Cobra represents to old-school American car fanatics. Hiding the charge port under the old-fashioned gas cap adds insult to injury too – speaking of, Superformance isn’t ready to divulge charging times or range estimates for the prototype EV, but we figure it’s good for at least 100 miles between jolts.
Sensing my skepticism, company rep Doug Campbell assured me, “You won’t get it until you get in it.” Keen to show me the truth of those words, Clint took me for a spin and introduced me to the estimated 650 horsepower and 1,500 pound-feet that Superformance was able to coax out of the electric motor. In fact, gossip suggests there’s even more torque on hand and that the company limited it to only 1,500 to help preserve the driveline.
“You won’t get the Mk III-E until you get in it.”
Clint pins the accelerator and I immediately believe those rumors. The incredible thrust pushes the Cobra up to triple-digit speeds substantially faster than its V8-powered sibling. And with no eardrum-rattling exhaust note to hide behind, the old-fashioned suspension’s creaks and groans are a bit more alarming in the EV than in the gasser. Nevertheless, the MkIII-E is just as confident and capable through corners, with plenty of grip and an abundance of braking ability coming from both friction and electric regeneration. The steering, via a beautiful wood-rimmed wheel, is as feelsome and heavy as it is in the V8 too.
There are a few slight concessions to modernity. With no need for a transmission or clutch pedal, there’s a bit more space in the pedal box for your left leg, and a touchscreen on the dash handles forward and reverse “gear” selection. Underneath the retro-style fuel filler is actually a charging port, and a Lexan panel in the trunk puts the axle-mounted traction motor on full display.
But otherwise, the MkIII-E leans heavily on its vintage roots, with a similar construction method as the regular MkIII and many of the same suspension and braking bits. So in spite of its nearly silent acceleration – all you get is an alien-sounding electric whir – the EV offers tons of retro charm. I’m still not completely convinced that the outrageous acceleration is worth the exhaust-note tradeoff, as the MkIII’s ridiculous side-pipe bellow painted a smile on my face that still returns every time I remember that glorious red roadster.
But as Clint said, it’s nice that we can still enjoy the allure of the past even if our future is indeed electric. As quick and performance-oriented as today’s EVs are – the Porsche Taycan GTS immediately jumps to mind – they’re also perhaps a bit too flawless and lacking in retro appeal. The Superformance MkIII-E does what other EVs can’t, delivering a massive dose of whirring electric acceleration along with the clattering, unassisted charm of an old roadster. And for hot rod enthusiasts who are open-minded to something a bit unconventional, the Cobra EV delivers a pretty wonderful driving experience.
As for my grandma, she’d probably prefer the quiet car in the first place. It would certainly make hearing her voice much easier the next time I take her to lunch.
|2001 Superformance MkIII Roadster||2021 Superformance MkIII-E Roadster Prototype|
|Output:||400 Horsepower / 400 Pound-Feet (est.)||650 Horsepower / 1,500 Pound-Feet|
|Motor:||N/A||Single Induction Motor|
|Transmission:||Five-Speed Manual||Single-Speed Automatic|
|Drivetrain:||Rear-Wheel Drive||Rear-Wheel Drive|
|Weight:||2,450 Pounds||2,350 Pounds|
|0-60 MPH:||4.5 Seconds (est.)||3.0 Seconds (est.)|