Now that the Hayden-COBRA production is back in full swing, we thought it good to explore the origins of Hayden Cobra.
We sat down with the founder and industry leader, Les Hayden, and asked him to take us through the origins and explain how we came to the current design and challenges he faced along the way.
Much water has traveled under the bridge since Les Hayden introduced his South African Cobra replica to the country, while a partner in a marine engineering business in the early ‘eighties, and started production of the cars in early 1984.
It was sold as the Shamrock Cobra, named after the business Shamrock Marine which had been started by his business partner at the time, Pat O’Connor. Before long Les licensed a Johannesburg kit car company to produce copies of his design and the car soon took off and became popular with car enthusiasts country-wide.
The attraction, apart from its timeless classic looks, was its impressive performance. As a genuine high performance sports car, it was remarkably good value for money and offered the chance to take on and beat much more expensive imported exotic sports cars from the traffic lights, something many owners found very satisfying!
The macho image and sound of that big American V8 engine thundering away under the bonnet added to the enjoyment, and proved to be irresistible to many. Shamrock sold many hundreds of these cars over the next few years, during which Pat left to pursue his interests in boat building and became a supplier of Cobra components, including stainless steel fuel tanks. Les eventually sold the business and took a break from car manufacture, and Shamrock Marine carried on for a few more years under new ownership, but sadly died after a partnership squabble that led to litigation and eventual closure.
Les then started producing his re-designed version of the GSM Dart sports racing cars, and decided to also completely re-design his Cobra, naming his new version the Hayden Cobra in order to avoid confusion with his earlier design. He started by asking existing Cobra owners what they did not like about their cars, and recorded every point of criticism, determined to do something about each one. He started with the chassis, as he had come to realize that a simple ladder frame design could not offer the torsional stiffness required at speed when the loads on the structure increased and started flexing and bending it out of alignment.
After speaking to two very experienced racing drivers, Bobby Olthoff who raced Cobras for the Willment Team and ex F1 driver Jochen Mass who had owned an original 427 Cobra, he learnt that the original Cobras were not very stable at high speeds. Both drivers described their Cobras as “pigs” to drive at speed. Bobby remarked that the big Ford Galaxy that he also drove for Willment was easier to race than the Cobra. Les realized that much of this was due to chassis flex which led to the suspension not following its proper design geometry, and that this problem had to be tackled first.
How he did this will be covered in the next chapter of this story....