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The jazzman and the Shelby Cobra: A 50-year winning partnership

Hank Williams’ MkII Cobra has been on champion form since he bought it in 1965 – and there’s plenty of life in both of them

This year marks half a century since Shelby American first fitted a Ford V8 to the AC Ace, spawning one of the century's most iconic sports cars. From humble beginnings, the two-seat bruiser's perfect pairing of lightweight, British-built chassis and tarmac-pounding, American muscle has prompted so many replicas it's rare to find a real one. Rarer still are the genuine cars still owned by the original buyer.

Single-owner Cobras attract substantial offers, but few of their owners are willing to give them up. Including 73-year-old Hank Williams of Fontana, California. The former jazz musician and racing driver first collected the keys to CSX2227, a lightly modified 289 cubic-inch MkII, in 1965. It was the start of a partnership that has made this one of the biggest trophy winners in the world, triumphing in 419 races, shows and rallies. And it's never been fully restored. "I wouldn't sell it. Not as now," he explains. But he's had his fair share of wannabes. "I had an offer last year from a man in Harlem who had been trying to buy it for 10 years. He made an offer of a million and a half dollars for the car. He calls me every two years; I've never met the man."

It's not only the single owner that makes this unusual. Hank is listed as one of only two African Americans to own a Cobra from new. The other still belongs to jazz musician Herbie Hancock, who bought it at a dealership in New York out of his first music-industry pay cheque.

That long-term relationship has attracted some noteworthy fans. A list which includes Carroll Shelby himself, a fellow original Cobra owner, whose autograph appears on the glovebox door of CSX2227. He's so fond of this car that Hank was invited to bring it along to open the National Hot Rod Association museum in Las Vegas in 1998.

For Shelby, it's a moment in his history. When this car left the factory, Shelby American was far from a household name. Built at the facility in Venice, California, it has the added historic appeal of being worked on by the founder of the now-iconic company. Performance cars have always been a part of Hank's fibre. He was born in Louisiana, and it was the local California Raceway that brought him to Fontana, where he's lived ever since. In 1964 he was an aspiring racer rapidly reaching the limits of his Austin Healey MkIII 3000 and looking to upgrade. It was at a local race meeting that he first saw a Cobra in action, and within a year he was handing over $6,390.23 ($45,000 in today's money) for his own at a local Ford dealer.

But the relationship got off to a rocky start. The car, on loan from another dealership, was being used to tempt prospective Mustang buyers into the showroom. Unaware of what he was selling, the salesman struck a deal with Hank and signed the paperwork. But when Hank returned the next day to collect the car, it had been hidden under a canvas in the workshop. From there it was moved to a dealership in Pomona, 20 miles away. When he got there, he was directed back to the dealership in Crenshaw. The salesman had, apparently, been fired.

Convinced the episode was was racially motivated, Hank remembers threatening to sue the dealership before the car turned up again two weeks after he'd bought it. But that first drive made it all worthwhile. "I drove the car to Pomona, and it was such a great pleasure it seemed like I was in heaven," he muses. "The sound of the car, and those solid lifters rapping and all, I couldn't believe what was happening."

Even then, the diminutive Cobras provided plenty of opportunities to show up mainstream American muscle cars. Ford supplied engines to Shelby because they wanted a car that could beat the Corvette, and Hank says "wiping out 'Vettes'" was a regular perk of Cobra ownership.

But they didn't only perform well on the road, and Hank's car soon became a regular at Sports Car Club of America events, collecting 35 trophies in a 10-year racing career. Among these was a plaque commemorating his drive around Indianapolis Speedway, the first time any African American had done so. So good was Shelby's factory setup that Hank raced the car in almost original spec, adding only a handful of tuning parts which he bought direct from Shelby and fitted himself. The deafening race exhaust, roll cage and smaller windscreen have since been retired, but by keeping almost all the original parts Hank has accumulated some immensely valuable spares. Not least among these is a well-worn hammer stored in the boot and branded Thor. Used to fit the knock-on wheel centres, it's part of a full, original tool kit and something he feels very protective about.

He explains: "People would kill for those tools because they're rare. Extremely rare. Someone came over from Michigan, close to 3,000 miles, to photograph these tools because he was going to try and copy them." Even the genuine hard top (Hank bought his to keep his future wife warm) is an elusive part. When Hank was invited to the launch of the 4000 series Cobras in 1989 Carroll Shelby was so impressed that he still had the hard top, he told Hank to leave it on for the event. It's not been removed since.

The personalised number plate was bought as the Cobra became a popular kit car; it's a way to let enthusiasts know his is the real deal and to stop people asking what it is, Hank says. CSX2227 retired from daily use in the early 1970s, but it's far from being just a show car. Hank still drives, or trailers, it to events all over America, often collecting awards for the furthest distance travelled. After nearly five decades, Hank's partnership with the Cobra has outlasted plenty of marriages – and it's still going strong. The match is as much of a perfect pairing as the original concept.