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John Tojeiro - grandfather of the Cobra

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#1 rvec


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Posted 06 August 2020 - 01:07 PM

The years after WWII ushered in the era of Sports Car racing in America. Imports such as Triumph, Austin Healey, MG, Alfa and to a lesser extent, Jaguar, Mercedes Benz, Aston Martin and Ferrari were popular choices for the enthusiast. Chassis design of the day was rudimentary and in a time free from computers and CAD, only some simple drawing equipment, imagination and a modicum of mechanical ability were needed to create one’s own “Special”, some superior in performance to the production bill of fare.

One such builder of “Specials” was John “Toj” Tojeiro. In fact, one of his first creations became the wildly successful Cobra. Some have accurately called John the “Grandfather of the Cobra”



John Tojeiro was born in Portugal in 1923. His father, a Portuguese banker met his mother while she was on holiday in Portugal. Sadly, John’s father died when John was only 18 months old. Subsequently, John’s mother moved back to her native England along with John and his sister.

John attended three traditional grammar schools as a child but failed to excel in any meaningful way. Instead of continuing a traditional education, John entered an engineering apprentice program with a commercial vehicle manufacturer (Messrs. Shelvoke and Drury, manufacturers of refuse collection vehicles). During this period, he bought and refurbished motorbikes. He left the apprenticeship in 1942 to become a fitter in the Fleet Air Arm. Although some of the aircraft were crude by today’s standards, John developed an eye for structural design.

In 1945 he was discharged from the service and for a time went back to his apprenticeship (although, in the end his apprenticeship would never be completed). Concurrently, he struck out on his own, setting up a business in a small shed in the village of Arrington. As luck would have it the business was located behind the garage of Vin Davidson, who looked after a Cooper-JAP that was raced by Eric Winterbottom.

Interested in motor racing, John purchased a burned out MG TA and fitted the car with a rudimentary aluminum body. The MG handled poorly as a result of its flimsy chassis and simple suspension. John had intended to race the MG but claimed the car scared him.

John thought that he could build a much more suitable unit and race it successfully. His ideal chassis would be easy to construct, strong and ridged and easy to repair The Cooper (in Vin’s garage) was used as a starting point for his own creation. A self-taught welder, John’s first attempt a building a chassis was a disaster. When removed from the jig, the chassis bend like a banana.

His next attempt was more successful. The chassis consisted of two, three inch diameter, metal tubes mounted longitudinally about a foot and a half apart. These were connected in about the middle with a tube of equal diameter. Looking down at the chassis from the top, the main and middle tube yielded an H shape. The front and rear of the chassis were boxed in using what was called a castle arrangement (a simple A shape with the top of the A cut off). The boxed sections provided mounting points for the front and rear suspension. The suspension consisted of a transverse mounted leaf spring and lower, wishbone control arms. The chassis was light and strong, a great starting point for a proper racing machine.

Before, he could complete the chassis; it was purchased by Chris Threlfall who commissioned a hand rolled aluminum body. The car achieved some success in club racing.



John’s next chassis was built in similar fashion for none other than Brian Lister and fitted with a simple cigar shaped aluminum body and cycle fenders. Power was supplied by an 1100 cc JAP motor and Jowett transmission. The car was very quick and was dubbed the “Asteroid”.

In 1953, another racer, Cliff Davis, took notice and asked John to build a similar chassis which would be powered by a Bristol engine. John complied and Cliff had the chassis fitted with a hand rolled aluminum body which was a knockoff of the Ferrari 166 Barchetta. The car weighed only about 1600 pounds and was dubbed the LOY 500. Cliff had great success with the car. In fact, the author of an article in Motor Sport magazine said it was the most photographed car that year.



Cliff, a colorful car dealer, approached John regarding a partnership for a commercial venture as a small production car manufacturer. For whatever reason, John demurred. Perhaps, John had little aptitude as a businessman. Perhaps, the reason was that John, a self-proclaimed loner was more interested in having fun with his one off designs than submitting to the rigors of a commercial operation. Perhaps John just did not have the money and was reluctant to borrow for what might be a failed venture. This theme would follow John throughout his career. John’s projects and subsequent racers would be funded on a shoestring and although promising, never achieved great success.

Not to be deterred, Cliff took another shot at commercialization. He approached the Hurlock brothers, owners of AC, to take a look at John’s creation. AC was struggling at the time. The Hurlocks saw the potential of a sports car but their designs were antiquated dating back to the 30s. They were impressed by John’s design and asked one of AC’s engineers to evaluate the design. After driving the machine, the engineer was also impressed. AC made a deal with John to buy the design for a small lump sum and 5 pounds per car produced up to 100 cars. The naïve John accepted the offer. The car, dubbed the AC Ace was introduced at the London Motor show in 1953. The exhibit included a prototype bodied finished car (originally destined for customer Vin Davidson) alongside a rolling chassis. Power was provided by AC’s “Weller” motor producing a whopping 85 horsepower.



AC made few changes to the design for its production version. Heavier gauge steel was used for the tubes and boxes, the kingpins were made sturdier but, all in all AC simply used John’s chassis design. Since AC thought that the US would be the primary market, a few changes to the body were in order. The headlights were raised to meet US standards and the front was refashioned a bit shorter with the grill angled backward from its top to bottom. The rear fenders were swept up a bit and made for more trunk space in the rear. The changes dramatically improved looks and gave the car its own distinct personality rather than appearing as just a Ferrari 166 knockoff. The first production models were delivered in May of 1954. Below is an image of a “Weller” motor powered AC Ace



Photo by Mr.choppers - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wiki...?curid=30499696

The production Ace looked great. It was light, strong, easy to fix. The car handled quite well and won its share of SCCA championships over its production life. On the downside, since it was a low production car it could not really compete on price with major offerings of the time. AC’s initial price point was 1,439 pounds. This compared with 1,064 pounds for Austin Healey 100-4 (having a similar top speed) and 1,616 pounds for a much quicker Jaguar XK120. In addition, the Ace was quite Spartan and might not appeal to the luxury sports car enthusiast.

AC produced in the neighborhood of 700 Aces and 350 Acecas (the coupe version from 1954 – 1964). These cars made little or no profit for the company. The company was able to survive with aero industry parts and other non-automotive endeavors.

Initially the drivetrain Ace drivetrain included ACs “Weller” motor (see specs below) in 85 HP trim coupled with a 4-speed Moss gearbox. Dry weight of the first production cars was 1,685 pounds.



Beginning in 1956 AC began the transition to the Bristol Motor and Bristol 4 speed close ration transmission.



In 1961 Bristol announced it would no longer produce the Bristol motor. AC had enough motors/parts in stock to continue to produce Bristol powered ACs although in small quantities. For its final act, AC selected a 6 cylinder Ford Zephyr power plant. Horsepower was pegged at 155.

After a short but successful career as a race driver culminating with a win at LeMans in an Aston Martin, Carroll Shelby was forced to quit racing in 1960 due to a serious heart condition. Not one to let any grass grow under his feet, Shelby hatched an idea for his next endeavor. He wanted to couple a lightweight European chassis with a lightweight V-8 American made motor. Shelby heard through the grapevine that Ford was developing such a motor to install in its Fairlane. Initially, the displacement was pegged at 221 cubic inches which quickly grew to 260 cubic inches and finally to 289 cubic inches. Shelby was also aware of AC’s problems as the Bristol motor was slated to end its production run.

Shelby met with Lee Iacocca and talked Ford into supplying Shelby with a several free lightweight small block motors. He then told AC that he and Ford were going to build a great sports car using the AC chassis. AC listened to his pitch and agreed to provide a free chassis. Shelby sent one of Ford’s free motors coupled with a Ford Borg Warner 4 speed transmission to AC to be fitted to the Ace chassis. The combination was only about 15 pounds heavier than the Bristol unit and transmission.

The motor and transmission fit nicely into the existing engine bay. The basic design was retained with heavier gauge three inch tubes. Disk brakes were installed on all four wheels. An additional cross member was added for strength. Rear suspension mounts were reinforced as well as other bracing plates along with upgraded hubs and kingpins. A new exhaust system was fabricated. The changes were, overall quite minor. The prototype ran beautifully. The car was shown to the press on 4/10/62 and then painted a bright yellow and shown at the New York Auto Show on 4/21/62

The Cobra first competed in its first race at the Riverside Times Grand Prix in October of 1962 (see image below). The car powered by a 260 cubic inch Ford motor and driven by Billy Krause was leading handily, thrashing the more powerful but heavier 327 cubic inch Corvette. Unfortunately a rear hub failed on the Cobra handing the win to the Corvette. The handwriting was on the wall. Racing improves the breed and many small but significant changes were made to the engine and chassis for the balance of 1962.



1963 was a banner year for the Cobra. Shelby entered multiple factory cars and the Cobras won nearly every event entered. It won the USRRC in 1963. Cobra ascended to the throne of iconic brands racking up wins at major events for years to come. In fact, in 1965 the Cobra (in Coupe form) won the World Championship for Makes. What an accomplishment for a car born of such humble beginnings, built in John Tojeiro’s shed.
John went on to build chassis for several other innovative cars. The car shown below dubbed the Ace LeMans finished eighth overall in 1958. It featured a space frame with double tubular wishbones in front and a Bristol engine.



Arguably one of the first mid-engine closed car prototypes was the was the Tojeiro Climax GTs. The car; built and run on a shoestring competed at LeMans in 1962 but dropped out due to a failed gearbox. The car originally was fitted with a 2.5 liter Climax engine and later fitted with an aluminum motor and then fitted with a 215 cubic inch all alloy Buick motor.



I believe John Tojeiro never became a household name for several reasons. The first and maybe most important was that he admitted that he wasn’t that interested in money but more interested in just having fun. His first major business transaction was transferring all rights to what became the AC Ace then the Cobra yielded little in terms of cash. Yet the Cobra became an icon and will forever be associated with the Shelby not the Tojeiro name.


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