McLaren 720S vs AC Cobra on the Apache Trail

The Apache Trail. Two roadsters separated by 50 years. Time for a TG history lesson

Let me talk you through the outfit. I bought the hat in Tortilla Flat, not because it sounds like the opening line of a country & western song, but because a baseball cap just wouldn’t cut it. In the footwell are cowboy boots. The other footwell, because they’re terrifically uncomfortable. I should also be wearing a tasselled jacket with a coyote on the back, but guess what? It’s raining in Arizona, so it’s technical waterproofs and a bodywarmer.

Rain. The most they’ve had in five years. It doesn’t make any difference in the McLaren, whose glass roof glides silently, sleekly up in 11 seconds, even while you’re rattling over dirt track washboard. The Cobra, though? That doesn’t like washboard in the first place. Makes the whole chassis tremble like jelly, and that’s not becoming of a Cobra. This is the original super-roadster after all, the most muscular machine that ever bestrode Route 66. No car looks better parked up next to a saguaro cactus. Not one.

Words: Ollie Marriage // Photography: Mark Riccioni

Not many let in as much water, either. But we’re not here to compare waterproofing – we’re here to have fun on a great road in a couple of (hopefully) like-minded cars to see what lessons the youngster has learned from the old-timer. And perhaps more interestingly, what’s been forgotten. Because there’s a feeling cars have got too serious-minded and boastful, constantly harping on about their power, downforce and top speeds. Maybe that’s forgivable in a hard-top supercar (although ask yourself what people think if you stand next to it and talk about lap times, torsional rigidity and make opposite-lock hands. They’d be making some hand movements of their own). A super-roadster is different. More liberating, more immersive, more involved with its surroundings, the sounds, sights and smells, all about opening up rather than hunkering down, getting away from raw speed and into experience.

Quick point of housekeeping. This is not an original Cobra. The big wheels, 18s rather than 15s, suggest as much, while far out of sight you’ll find a box-section ladder-frame chassis instead of the original 4in round-tube construction. Superformance will build you one of those, and with the correct CSX chassis number, too. They can, as they’re the only firm licensed by Carroll Shelby to build replicas. Wheels and chassis aside, this one is a doozy: 7.0-litre V8 sucking air through a Holley four-barrel carb and blowing power through a 5spd manual to a rear axle containing a limited-slip diff and absolutely nothing electronic to mitigate mistakes. You can have one for about £73,000, when genuine originals are upwards of a million dollars.

Was it created purely for sensory thrills? Of course not. It might look like the anti-McLaren now, but back in the day it was designed for competition. And for 20 years, from 1965 until the Porsche 959 arrived, this was the world’s fastest-accelerating road car. Sixty miles per hour in four seconds, 100mph in, well, it’s all a bit lost in myth and legend, but somewhere in the nine-second range. It had 485bhp. A Ferrari Daytona had more than 100bhp less. Carroll Shelby used to tape a $100 bill to the dash on test drives and tell punters they could have it if they could grab it. But look at it. If ever there was a car to just drape yourself in and rumble about, this is it.

Time has changed our perspective on the Cobra. Advances over the last 54 years have been so massive that we now see this monster as a plaything rather than a speed merchant. I mean, just look at McLaren’s 720S Spider. A super-roadster that contains every piece of technique and technology that the 2019 car industry can deliver: a £7,500 electrochromic roof that varies the amount of light let in at the press of a button, active aerodynamics, a carbon chassis as stiff as the coupe’s for a kerbweight just 49kg more, cross-linked hydraulic suspension, no less than 11 separate decorative carbon options fitted to this one car. Very impressive all this, but a bit… dry? Not very… Cobra?

Dry. Something I’m not right now. We started on the top side of Phoenix, some 60 miles away, at an hour of the morning when a super-roadster driver should be departing the bar, not entering his car. We drove through rain, and I got very wet. Left leg mainly, plus an unpleasantly invigorating, hat-requiring trickle down the back of the neck. Water built up on the inside of the windscreen too, which was problematic. Cheery, dry waves came from inside the 720S. I attempted to return an equally bright expression, but there’s only so much you can do when you have water running down between fearful eyes and dripping from your nose. Five-hundred-and-twenty horsepower and a set of 335-section Nitto Extreme Drag tyres will have that effect.

It’s still dark as we set tyre on Apache Trail. Originally a route across the mountains for the Apache tribe, at the turn of the last century Phoenix needed water and a spot on Salt River in the heart of the Superstition Mountains was identified as a damn good, sorry, good dam location. Access was needed, so the Apache’s trail was pounded flat at a cost of over half a million dollars. US President Theodore Roosevelt came here and commented, “The Apache Trail combines the grandeur of the Alps, the glory of the Rockies, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and then adds an indefinable something that none of the others have. To me it’s the most awe-inspiring and beautiful panorama nature has ever created.” Admittedly he was opening the road at the time.

But it is amazing. Really, truly, genuinely the equal of anything you’ll find in the Alps. The first section, after the sweeps past Lost Dutchman State Park, wriggles and fidgets endlessly. We’re on it in the dark, Cobra trailing the 720S’s LED taillights. I can hear the McLaren hiss and fizz, but over these short snaps between corners it’s taking half a straight for the turbos to wake up. The Cobra’s anytime torque has it covered. It just bursts along. The rest of it takes work, though. A couple of finger clicks and a lean on the brakes have the McLaren into a corner. More planning is required in the Cobra: it likes a heel ’n’ toe to smooth the downchanges, and so do you, because it’s a legit excuse to brrraaapp the throttle another time. You do it on upshifts too. And when you pass under bridges, next to walls, in the vicinity of anything that might bounce the sound around. Or just anything.

Dark air blusters about; there’s not another thing on the road – all I see is the McLaren and the twin snakes of the yellow lines. It’s so absorbing that it’s only after about ten miles that I realise the throbbing in my legs and shoulders isn’t transmitted from the engine, but finds its correlation elsewhere: no servo on the brakes, no assistance on the steering, no small amount of force required for the clutch.

I swap cars, dropping deep into the McLaren’s seat with a sigh. This is easier. Much. The roof stows silently, the sky is light enough to appreciate the extra rear visibility you get from the transparent buttresses, and when I get moving, someone has turned the road to velvet. You know how we bang on about how cars don’t need to be so stiff, how we suspect that old cars used to do it better? Wrong. The balance we now have between body strength, chassis control and absorbency is astonishing. And the McLaren is so accurate, does such an amazing job of filtering the signals you need from the ones you don’t. It smooths your passage, calms your brain, gives you time, makes speed easy. On this section the McLaren is an arrow, the Cobra more of a tomahawk. But we suspected this. There’s not been much to interact with outside the cars yet.

And then we arrive in Tortilla Flat, an ex-stagecoach outpost named for the shape of the rocky outcrop above. Some artistic licence was had. It’s early, but there’s a crew here, dropping tyre pressures in their lifted Cherokees before heading off for a family day out. Bonnets are opened; motors compared. It’s the McLaren that captivates the kids – the rotating dash, roof, sleek lines – the Cobra that has their olds acting like kids. You can see the engine here, in all its bechromed glory, relish the detailing: the goose-neck lap belt, the little door catches, the haphazardly sited Smiths dials you just wanna tap, the tiny toggles, the smallness of it all. And having carefully posted yourself through the catflap of a door, giving the fat exhaust a wide berth and fallen into the cupped seat, you insert the thumbnail-sized key in the ignition and give it a twist…

…and unleash your wildest dreams. Everything you thought, read or heard about a 7.0-litre Cobra is true. It’s like Wreck-it-Ralph is punching each cylinder up and down. Like riding a jack-hammer. Like a deranged Barry White is chuckling manically in your ears. And you sit there among the mayhem, grinning inanely and feeling like this is all you’ve ever wanted and electric cars can just sod off.

It’s such a raw emotional response. I’m blaming the unburned hydrocarbons. Follow the McLaren, and all you smell is light, soapy chemicals; when I stick my nose over the edge of the Cobra, my eyes water. The road gains height after Tortilla Flat, rising up to meet the scenery. We’d scouted it two days earlier, when everything was dry and orange, but water has changed the colour palette. Lichens have bloomed, rock faces are now tinged green, cacti are swollen and bloated, life has sprung. As viewing, smelling and listening platforms go, the 720S is decent. The deep windscreen means the road seems to flit back under your feet, the wind ruffles the cockpit, but it’s all rather enclosed. You sit low, hemmed in by high sides, windscreen and buttresses. Safe, in other words. And on a road with regular rockfalls on one side and thousand-foot drops the other, there’s something to be said for that.

In the Cobra, all that’ll save me is my new hat. I pat it down a bit further, and resolve to sit up straighter, slow down further and just cast my eyes past the skinny-framed windscreen with its surprisingly effective tacked-on deflectors, out over the voluptuous bonnet and just soak in the remarkable vistas of this canyon landscape. And it’s glorious, just woofling about, shuttling the ridiculous gearlever up and down, keeping an ear out for the crunkle of falling rocks. Travelling faster had been hard work. Corners required a full-body swing in, communication from steering and axles isn’t what I hoped it might be. But slowing down and soaking it all in is plain epic.

There’s more delicacy and finesse in the 720S. Hadn’t expected that, but this is one deft machine. I keep the dampers soft, the engine response hard, and just enjoy the act of steering and pressing pedals, letting the car surge and coast. So neat and accurate is it that I find myself falling into the McLaren’s rhythm and picking up speed, focusing in on the road. I have to remind myself to concentrate not on the car, but the world around me.

And then, abruptly and completely, the road runs out. Bit excessive, as speed-reducing road calming goes, but undeniably effective. The McLaren, long of nose, low of splitter, feels very tentative now; the Cobra, more robust, bullish, up for the challenge. We employ the McLaren’s nose-lift and press on. For about 50 metres. And then we hit the first washboard corrugations. In the 720S, the scuttle shake and rattle is deeply unpleasant. Meanwhile the 427 appears to be attempting to violently disassemble itself, every component jarring against every other. We stop immediately, then resume at the pace of a snail through superglue. Why not just turn back? Because rock-crawling in supercars is an adventure, and from what we’ve heard, the scenery is unmissable. In places, the rain has dug gullies across the road, but not once do we ground out or lose traction. Instead we slowly, carefully, pick our way down into the astonishing Fish River Canyon, the red Cobra and blue McLaren feeling insignificant beneath the towering cliffs, noise seeming to constrict in their exhausts. Ultimately all speed bleeds away so we stop and leave the cars behind, just to get out and tread softly, silently for a while. To imagine Apache stood on cliffs, to drink in the views. And yeah, to be a little bit nervous of treading on a rattler.

It’s far enough. So we turn back, rising out of the canyon, the cars growing in confidence as they gain altitude. Turns out we’d driven quite a few miles off-road, captivated, encouraged onwards by the hypnotic Arizona scenery, enthralled by how mad these cars looked against that cinematic backdrop, how bonkers it was for our view out to be either past a skinny wooden rim or over the rotating dash of a 212mph, £250,000 roadster. It’s with tremendous relief we regain tarmac. Frayed nerves reconnect and we set off back towards Tortilla Flat. And then the Cobra burps, hiccups, stops.

It’s out of fuel. Of course it is: the Shelby Cobra started life as a gorgeous but flaky Sixties British sports car, the AC Ace. Should have known not to trust the “I’ve still got a quarter tank” fuel gauge. I dash for a can of fuel, but it’s now tourist o’clock in the afternoon so the traffic snake moves down the Apache Trail at about 20mph. They’re dawdlers. How can they possibly drive this slowly? Oh. Oh yeah, that was me a few miles back. And I was loving it. So I dawdle along, roof down in the McLaren, give myself a bit of space so I’m not staring at the back bumper of a Honda CR-V and try not to stress. It would be easier in the Cobra, I’d have more to occupy myself, but I can tolerate it. Later – much later – we’re parked on a slipway at Canyon Lake. And we’re waiting. Waiting for the perfect moment. The moment when traffic has died away, but there’s still enough light to enjoy the run back along the Apache Trail. Sunset. We don’t get one, but we do get the road and these two cars. And that, I’ve got to tell you, feels very special. Two speed freaks, separated by half a century, and yet fundamentally nothing has changed: good time cars, that relish a roadtrip. I tip my hat to them both.  

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