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

Part 2: How To Select a Kit Manufacturer

With a Cobra kit car solidly in first place on my automotive wish list, it was time to start gathering information. I knew we were getting into a multi-thousand dollar project, and it would be very important to minimize mistakes. With cars, mistakes cost money and inevitably lead to disappointment.
Kit Book Thumbing through my trusty Hemmings Motor News again, a small ad in the "Replica and Kit Cars for Sale" category caught my eye. The ad promised a collection of information, including a book called "Complete Guide to Cobra Replicas" and a sample issue of "Kit Car Magazine." It sounded like a good deal for only $19.95 (including shipping and handling), so I called the non-toll-free number given in the ad and recited my credit card number for the first time in a Cobra-related transaction.

While I waited for my Cobra kit-car information to arrive, Debbie thought it might be a good idea to learn a little more about the original Cobra -- the one Carroll Shelby built and sold way back in the 1960s. We visited local libraries, browsed book stores, and surfed the Internet gathering information. The more we learned, the more excited we became about building a Cobra replica.

After what seemed an eternity, the $19.95 package of Cobra replica information arrived in our mailbox. Wow! It was like discovering a new world. Here was an automotive subculture I knew nothing about -- teeming with hundreds of kit-car manufacturers, accessory vendors, and service providers, including promises peppered with words like "easy," "authentic," and "quality."

There was also a prominent article about the biggest mistakes first-time Cobra-kit buyers make. If you're thinking about building a kit car -- any kit car -- get your hands on this article; it is mandatory reading. There are some real horror stories out there. Caveat emptor: potential pitfalls are huge!

Kit car magazine

After studying the kit-car industry in general, it was time to get more specific and decide which manufacturer was best for us to work with. The kit makers know that the world is filled with wishful-thinking literature collectors, so many of them charge a small fee for their product information kits. Plan to spend about $10 to get specifications, product reviews, color photos, and a price list from each manufacturer that interests you.

Deb and I sent for half-a-dozen info kits, choosing potential kit-car partners based on the articles and ads we studied, popularity in "Hemmings," and proximity to our home in the Boston area. Most of the kits arrived promptly, and that helped these companies make a good first impression. But two manufacturers took several weeks to deliver information. We felt that sluggish response to a prepaid request indicated either the company was too busy to deal with us or had a too-casual attitude toward conducting business. Remember, buyer beware!

Loaded with more information than I ever imagined possible, Debbie and I started seeking out Cobra replicas on display at local car shows and cruise nights. Debbie's stunning '57 T-Bird gave us the advantage of being a participant at these events and branded us as "car people." At one of the regular Sunday-night classic car get-togethers in our area, we found a black, small-block Cobra replica proudly displayed by its owner. There was always a small crowd gathered around the car as the owner proudly explained what it was and how it came to be to the curious spectators.

Patiently, Deb and I waited for a break in the action and introduced ourselves to Ed, the owner. He instantly befriended us as soon as we explained that we were in the process of planning to build a Cobra replica. Ed told us that he built his kit about 10 years ago (it didn't look that old) and has enjoyed driving it all over New England. He even uses it to commute to work when weather allows!

Ed's kit was manufactured by a Connecticut-based company called Era Replica Automobiles -- coincidentally one of the companies that promptly responded to our recent request for information. A true car-guy, Ed assembled the kit car himself and continues to maintain it and keep it in like-new condition. The attention to detail was outstanding. It looked just like the pictures of real Cobras we had seen in books and magazines.

And Ed couldn't say enough good things about his experience with Era Replica Automobiles (ERA). From ordering the kit, through assembly, to the occasional spare-part order, Ed raved about the service and support he received from the people at ERA. He urged us to visit ERA in Connecticut before making a decision about which manufacturer to work with and gave us the name of one of ERA's owners. I scribbled the information on a scrap of paper and put it in the T-Bird's glove compartment.

I can't remember how we got distracted (probably something to do with keeping our careers on track), but winter came and went before I pulled that slip of paper out of the T-Bird. It was in April, 1995, that I called ERA to make an appointment with Peter to tour their facilities. Patriot's Day is a legal Massachusetts holiday (i.e., a day off with pay if you live here), so on April 17, we visited ERA for the first time.

It took about an hour and a half to drive from our home to ERA's main entrance. Once inside, Peter greeted us and offered coffee as we got acquainted in his small, but orderly, office. Right away, I could tell that this was not going to be a high-pressure sales pitch. After Peter reviewed the company's history, we got right down to questions and answers, most of which started with with the words, "what if ..." Peter addressed all our questions professionally and honestly. We felt very comfortable with this guy.

Next, Peter took us on a tour of his operation. We started in the shop that manufactures frames, walked through the area where old Jaguar rear ends were being restored to better-than-new condition, and ended up in the room where wire harnesses are assembled. At each step, Peter explained how the quality of ERA materials and workmanship is among the best in the business. He even suggested that we visit a couple of other Cobra replica manufacturers to prove to ourselves that ERA's commitment to quality was unmatched.

Back in Peter's office, I asked if we could purchase a complete set of assembly documentation. I wanted to thoroughly check the completeness and understandability of the ERA assembly manual and find out more about exactly what goes into a Cobra kit. Peter's price for the documentation was $30. He explained that he would give us a $30 credit if we decided to purchase a kit from ERA, so I handed Peter the cash and got a hefty assembly manual and some wiring diagrams in return.

After thanking Peter for his time and the tour, Deb and I headed home. I couldn't wait to start reading the assembly manual. It had lots of answers -- answers to questions that I never would have thought to ask in the first place. I read that assembly manual from cover to cover, going back to review favorite sections over and over.

While I read, I tried to visualize the entire experience. Like carefully lowering a 427 side-oiler into the engine compartment; patiently wiring the instrument panel and testing all the gauges; and aligning the doors and trunk lid so they close effortlessly with a satisfying "thunk."

In my mind's eye, I could see it all happening. The dream was one step closer to reality.

Next Week: Planning the Project