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Snake charmer

The good news: an AC Cobra is up for sale. The bad news: you can't afford it. By Phil Llewellin
Supercars come and go, but few have delighted the eye, stimulated the adrenal glands and whitened the knuckles quite as much as the tyre- smoking, Anglo-American hybrid, the AC Cobra.

The production run ended in 1969, by which time just over 1,000 of these potent two-seaters had been built. They were destined to inspire more replicas than any other car.

On Monday, a red and gold Cobra, GPG 4C, is expected to reach between pounds 150,000 and pounds 190,000 when auctioned by Brooks at the Natural History Museum. In its heyday the car was raced by the likes of Roy Salvadori and proved fast enough to beat GTO Ferraris and lightweight E-type Jaguars. The original AC Ace was one of the most elegant of all two-seaters. GPG 4C, which has a Shelby-Cobra badge on its nose, is a body-builder-on-steroids version of that sleek, flowing shape.

On the track, Cobras were raced by such heroes as Dan Gurney and Phil Hill. They won 1965's world championship for grand touring cars. According to legend, this triumph was the culmination of a campaign that started when Carroll Shelby, a wily Texan chicken farmer turned racer, was spurned by the most charismatic of all car manufacturers. He vowed to "whup Ferrari's ass" by creating a contender fast and reliable enough to beat the Italian thoroughbreds. He achieved his ambition after convincing AC Cars - now the British motor industry's oldest inhabitant - to bolt a big American Ford V8 engine into a modified version of its elegant Ace.

I was recently invited to drive a Cobra for the first time: the 5.0-litre Gurney-Weslake-Ford V8 in the 1964 model entrusted to me has been tuned for racing, as well as for the road, and is credited with 400bhp.

Fortunately, my brief encounter began on a broad, deserted test track. The car looked fast even when parked, and dared me to get behind the wooden-rimmed steering wheel. Why had I been warned that injudicious pumping of the accelerator might start a fire? Because a Mini could run for a month on the petrol that gushes through the enormous Weber carbs each time you prod the pedal, and the air intakes could be mistaken for missile tubes. No wonder the fuel filler is almost 5in wide.

Barking, spitting and roaring, the engine sounds like an artillery barrage. Depressing the clutch demands strength - at first I thought I was pushing the brake pedal - but it engages so smoothly that I avoided stalling or, at the other end of the scale, spinning the rear wheels.

Although less than ideal for nipping to the shops, the Cobra becomes quite docile when required to trickle through villages. And the steering is a pleasant surprise: high-geared, precise and informative, but does not demand Herculean muscles when parking.

Predictably, the main drawback is that a suspension system tuned for smoothly surfaced race tracks provides a teeth-rattling ride on all but the best public roads.

Motoring's answer to Beauty and the Beast made even this cynical old hack quiver with excitement. I will be bidding with the best of them on Monday... if the National Lottery does its stuff tonight.

Brooks auctioneers: 0171-228 8000.