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Driving in the Raw: Factory Five Racing MK4 Roadster

The Asphalt Jungle

I remember once seeing this great picture of Henry David Thoreau driving a 427 Cobra. He had this enormous grin on his face and the wind was whipping his bow tie as he sailed through a sharp … no, wait. That’s impossible. Thoreau hated sports cars. No, no. I’m so sorry. It was Harriet Beecher Stowe driving the Cobra. (You can understand my mistake: After a glass or two of Jack Daniel’s, it’s tough to tell HBS and Henry D. apart.) Anyway, so there’s ol’ Harriet: She’s got Carroll Shelby’s monster two-seater all crossed up in a lurid drift (not even Herman Melville could match the woman’s car control), sunlight glinting off the windscreen, dust flying everywhere, and all I could think to myself was, “Man, back then fast roadsters were so … raw.” You know? Simple. Pure. Uncivilized even. Just a volcanic engine, a skeletal chassis, and some rattletrap sheetmetal to wear the racing stripes. “Harriet, my dear,” I said aloud, hoisting my glass in admiration, “you picked the perfect era to be a car crazy.”

It’s partly due to our contemporary world of electronic throttles and radar cruise and lane-departure warnings that those sepia-toned days of unfiltered, unassisted motoring seem so, so long ago. Fortunately, they aren’t gone entirely. For a recent episode of my online show “Epic Drives,” I had a rare opportunity to slip back to that distant, analog past by taking the wheel of a loving re-creation of Shelby’s classic beast: a Factory Five Racing Mk4 Roadster. Yes, it’s one of those Cobra replicas you can build yourself (for about $35,000—including powertrain, wheels and tires, and roughly 250 hours of your time). Not having spent much time with the breed, I was curious: Could a modern home-brewed kit really re-create the rudimentary allure and unadulterated fury of one of ancient history’s most audacious performance cars?

Mind you, I’ve driven a genuine 427 Cobra. And the experience was, oh yes, like tying onto a lighted bundle of TNT, Wile E. Coyote-style. But because that particular Cobra was fully restored, and had even starred in 1976’s “The Gumball Rally,” it was so shockingly valuable I was terrified of so much as missing a shift—lest I be arrested for Disfigurement of a National Historic Cog. In contrast, for the “Epic Drives” shoot, Factory Five president Dave Smith simply handed over his personal Mk4—albeit with a caveat: “I don’t even care if you crash it. Just make sure you have fun.”

In a week, I put nearly 2000 miles on Dave’s car. And because I am a man who respects the wishes of others, I kept Dave’s admonition in mind at all times. That is, I drove his roadster so hard, the tach got nauseated. And, soon, I fell for this contemporary way-back machine. Big time.

Modern automobiles too often isolate us from the world outside—soundproofing, climate control, massaging seats (excuse me while I take a nap). Not so the Mk4. No roof, no radio, no heater, not even windshield wipers. You’re a cowboy in the saddle, partner. When I got caught on Washington state’s Mount Rainier in a 37-degree rainstorm, I froze and nearly drowned. When the temperature soared in Oregon, I had to maintain 100 mph just to breathe. A tube of sunscreen became a life-support device.

But, man, the payoffs. The 302 Ford V-8 crate motor is a small-block, but at 425 hp it’s as potent as the old big-block 427—and considerably lighter. At the throttle I became a 6-year-old with a new Big Wheel. Every acceleration was a giddy bungee jump (the 2250-pound Mk4 can hit 60 mph in 3.5 seconds). The side pipes—inches away—spit and cackled and roared as if the world owed them money. The fat tires sang in the key of g major. The world around me and I were one, mindful of the clouds, cloaked by the same humid dark, lifted by the tang of dirt and grass after a gentle rain.

The Mk4 cockpit includes five-point racing harnesses, but, like the original Cobra from eons ago, nothing else about the car says “You can trust me.” Which, in the homogenized 21st century, is why it’s such a visceral, joyful, unforgettable drive—a thundering rebuke of soft edges and digital ease. Were she around today, Harriet Beecher Stowe would recognize the Mk4 right away. “Love these,” she’d say. “Totally kick ass.”