Birth of a New Machine - Building a Cobra Kit Car
Copyright 1996, Daniel J. Sommers

Part 10: The Real Fun Begins

Deb and I visited Jimmy and boys at Phaze II about once a week to see for ourselves how our new Cobra was coming along. Jimmy was using a catalyzed, yellow-colored primer/filler to eliminate pin-holes and blemishes on the curvy surfaces. He explained that the special-purpose primer/filler was formulated specifically for use on fiberglass and had characteristics that were different from primers used on steel-bodied cars.
After Jimmy personally sprayed each coat of primer, Eddie and Phil block-sanded the body by hand. This spray-sand process was repeated six times over a period of about three months before Jimmy was satisfied that the car was ready to receive its final color/clearcoat finish. "She's smooth as a baby's bottom," he proclaimed with a big grin.

Meanwhile, down in Miami, Mario was putting the finishing touches on the engine. We kept in touch by telephone and Mario seemed pleased with the way things were proceeding. In early February, Mario called to give us the good news: the ol' 427 was ready for delivery. He went on to explain that he had also just completed two additional big-block Ford engines -- a 427 top-oiler and a 428 Cobra Jet -- for other customers. Coincidentally, one of these customers lived in Massachusetts; the other was in Connecticut. Because he had three engines to ship to the same part of the country, Mario decided that he would rent a truck and deliver each engine personally. What service!

It was Presidents' Day -- February 19, 1996 -- when Mario pulled into the driveway with his Ryder rental truck. There were about two feet of snow on the ground and the temperature that afternoon was in the mid-teens. Mario had never been this far North before, and the bitter cold was all he could talk about as he backed the truck toward the door of the Cobra nest.

The engine was bolted to a custom stand that Mario had fabricated, and the stand was attached to two 2x4 pieces of lumber. The truck was not equipped with a liftgate, but it did have a sturdy ramp, so Mario and I decided that we would slide the engine to the back of the truck, down the ramp, and into the barn. Easier said than done, we struggled with the weight of the monster V-8 in the ice-cold truck for a few minutes, then gave up and went into the warm barn to rethink the situation.
We considered rigging a come-along to drag the engine into the barn, but the engine would have to move a total of about 25 feet from the truck, onto the ramp, and into the barn. But my come-along was limited to doing this in three- or four-foot increments. Too tedious, we thought. That's when Deb suggested using our tractor to pull the engine out of the truck. Of course! The bay we had cleared for the Cobra was 36 feet deep, so I had enough room to back the small Kubota diesel tractor into the bay, hook a tow strap to the bucket of the front-end loader, and connect the other end to Mario's engine stand. Using a

combination of low-range reverse motion and some hydraulic finesse, we were able to carefully extract the engine from the truck and lower it onto the floor of the barn in a matter of minutes.

Once the engine was inside, I used the tractor to push it into an adjacent bay. Mario moved his truck, and I drove the tractor out of the barn. Inside the warm house, Mario presented us with a folder of documentation. It included copies of pages from the notebook he had kept during the build process -- with all internal dimensions and clearances -- plus a summary page from the shop that had balanced the engine. Mario explained that the tolerances he achieved were all within factory specifications and that the engine had been electronically "balanced to zero."

We thanked Mario for his excellent work, gave him a check for $4,900, and wished him well. Deb and I spent the remainder of that afternoon out in the barn, getting acquainted with the 427. It didn't take long to bolt on the starter, alternator, motor mounts, PCV system, water-pump pulley, and coolant expansion tank. But the 428 dipstick and tube assembly we had purchased from Tony D. Branda several weeks earlier just didn't seem to fit as it should.

After looking at photos of a 427 engine in my brother's 1967 Cougar shop manual, I noticed that the 427 dipstick tube was bent differently than the one for the 428. Once again, I consulted my favorite automotive reference source, "Hemmings Motor News," to see if I could find a source for a 427 dipstick and tube. Well, right there in the '54 and up Ford Parts section was a small ad for big-block Ford parts -- including specific mention of dipsticks for 427 engines.

The next day, I called the Colorado number and spoke with a man who claimed to have the only source of NOS (new old stock) 427 dipstick-and-tube assemblies. The price? $125 plus $5 for shipping. Whoa! A buck and a quarter for a dipstick? Yes, that was the price. Take it or leave it. I took it. And it fit perfectly -- just like the one in the picture.

The next thing Deb and I did was to mate the transmission with the engine. Mario had provided a scattershield-type bellhousing with the engine, so the first thing we did was to make certain that the scattershield's transmission-mounting surface was absolutely parallel to the face of the flywheel. Following the procedure outlined in the 1967 Cougar service manual, we added a couple of .003-inch shims between the scattershield and the engine block at the two upper-most bolts. That did the trick -- the scattershield and flywheel were perfectly parallel.
After coating the spline of the input shaft of the transmission with a dab of multi-purpose grease, it was easy to slide it into place and torque-down the four big grade-eight bolts that locked it to the scattershield. The folks at ERA had already mounted and aligned the Hurst shifter on the transmission, so we didn't have to touch that. The last thing we did to the engine-transmission assembly was to plug the tailshaft with the appropriate stopper and fill the transmission with gear lube.

Several weeks passed before Jimmy called with the good news: the Cobra was ready to come home -- complete with its flawless, show-quality Vineyard Green finish. It was a crisp, late-winter Saturday morning when the Phaze II flatbed truck backed up to the barn to unload the car. Sparkling in the mid-March sunlight, it was an awesome sight as Jimmy carefully lowered the precious cargo to the ground.

Jimmy and I gently pushed the car into the barn, then closed the door to keep the cold out and the heat in. Under the bright fluorescent lights, it was easy to see that the hours of priming and sanding had paid off. As hard as I tried, I couldn't find the slightest ripple, wave, speck of dust, "orange peel," or "fisheye" anywhere. Jimmy and the boys had outdone themselves.
Deb and I thanked Jimmy for his efforts and asked him how much we owed him for the superb results. He went out to his truck and returned with a clipboard which held a summary of the time and materials that Jimmy had invested in the project. He had totaled everything in advance and included his customary good-customer-with-a-fun-project discount. The bottom line was $5,000. Given the hours that were spent on the car -- and the spectacular finished product -- Deb and I felt it was a fair price, so we promised Jimmy that we would stop by his shop within the next few days to settle up.

After Jimmy left, Deb and I decided to roll-up our sleeves and attempt to install the engine and transmission into the freshly painted car. We removed the hood and covered the front fenders with old (but clean) blankets. Then we followed the suggestion in the ERA assembly manual and wrapped the front frame members with thick towels, using duct tape to keep things in place. This was done to protect the glossy-black Imron paint ERA had applied to the frame.

With the car ready to accept the engine and transmission, we bolted an adjustable sling to the front and rear of the cylinder heads. Hanging from the shop crane, this contraption allowed us to tilt the engine-transmission unit to about a 45-degree angle, then slowly level the whole unit as we simultaneously moved the shop crane to bring the engine into its proper fore-aft position.
It took several attempts to dial-in the initial angle of attack, but within half an hour, the big 427 was sitting securely on its mounts. "Like it lived there," as they say.

After we disconnected the shop crane and removed the adjustable sling from the engine, I jacked-up the front of the car and slid a couple of sturdy stands under the frame. Sliding under the car on a creeper, I confirmed that the engine was sitting level from left to right, and that the transmission mount was aligned with the frame crossmember. Everything was perfect; another tribute to ERA's top-quality design and manufacturing processes.

I stayed under the car and Deb handed me the hardware and tools I needed to bolt-down the engine and transmission. As I worked, I couldn't help thinking about how great it was to use brand-new parts -- no rust, no dirt, no grease, and no undoing mistakes that someone else made many years ago. Yup, I was really enjoying this kit-car-building experience.

Next week: Connect the Dots