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Herbie Hancock’s 60-Year Love Affair with His Shelby Cobra

Herbie Hancock Has Rocked an Original Cobra Longer Than Anyone

In the world of jazz, few names are as iconic as Herbie Hancock. Yet, beyond his musical genius, Hancock boasts another unique distinction: he is the longest-continuous owner of a Shelby Cobra, a car he bought in 1963 with his first big royalty check. This car, the sixth Cobra ever built, is unlike any other in the world and has been part of Hancock’s life for over 60 years. This fascinating story intertwines the realms of music and automotive passion, showcasing a remarkable relationship between a man and his machine.

Herbie Hancock has rocked an original Cobra longer than anyone Hagerty Media

The Beginning of a Legendary Relationship

In 1963, a young jazz musician named Herbie Hancock was just starting his career. He had received his first royalty check for the hit song “Watermelon Man,” which had climbed the pop charts and brought him considerable success.

  • Herbie Hancock was 22 years old when he purchased this 1963 AC Shelby Cobra for $6,000. Photo Credit - CNBC / Jay Leno

Flush with $6,000, a substantial sum equivalent to about $50,000 today, Hancock considered his options for a new car. His initial thought was practical: a station wagon to haul his band around. However, a friend’s suggestion dramatically changed his plans.

A close friend and fellow musician told Hancock that an AC Cobra would be a much cooler choice than the station wagon he had in mind. Intrigued, Hancock decided to check out this exciting alternative. Little did he know, this decision would lead him to a lifelong bond with one of the most iconic sports cars in automotive history.

A Unique Cobra Purchase

Hancock’s decision to buy the Cobra was impulsive and partly fueled by a negative experience with a car salesman. The salesman, seeing a shabby-looking Black man, didn’t take Hancock seriously as a customer. This rude treatment only strengthened Hancock’s resolve to buy the car. He purchased the 260-cubic-inch Cobra out of spite, but it quickly became much more than a statement. It became a beloved part of his life.

This Cobra, one of the first ever built, became Hancock’s daily driver for many years. For perspective, Carroll Shelby, the legendary designer behind the Cobra, owned the first one himself. Hancock’s Cobra wasn’t just a vehicle; it was a symbol of his success and a constant companion on his journey.

The Night Herbie Hancock Raced Miles Davis

One night, long ago, Hancock’s Cobra faced off against a Maserati driven by none other than jazz legend Miles Davis. This impromptu drag race took place on the streets of Chicago. Hancock’s Cobra, with its powerful engine and lightweight frame, easily outpaced Davis’s Maserati. This victory not only highlighted the Cobra’s impressive performance but also became a legendary story in the jazz community.

From Daily Driver to Cherished Classic

In 1990, Hancock made the difficult decision to store his beloved Cobra. He had bought a new Ferrari, acknowledging that the Cobra had become too valuable to drive regularly. Hancock even went to his garage, sat down with the Cobra, and explained his decision, adding humorously, “At least it’s not a Chevy!”

Despite adding the Ferrari to his collection, Hancock never lost his affection for the Cobra. He remains the longest original owner of any Cobra, having owned it for 61 years. This incredible milestone speaks to his deep connection with the car and his appreciation for its history and value.

Herbie Hancock’s Cobra in the Spotlight

The May/June 2023 issue of Hagerty Drivers Club magazine celebrated the deep connections between music and cars, dedicating an entire feature to this unique relationship. Hancock’s Cobra took center stage, showcasing the intersection of his musical career and automotive passion. The magazine explored how cars and music have influenced each other, with Hancock’s story serving as a prime example of this cultural crossover.

The Influence of Music on Hancock’s Car Choice

In 1963, Herbie Hancock was just 23 years old and had recently joined Miles Davis’s band, one of the most prestigious gigs in the jazz world. With a lucrative royalty check in hand, Hancock wanted to buy himself a gift to celebrate his early success. He considered his options carefully, recalling his father’s advice about being cautious with big purchases.

Hancock had never owned a car before, having only driven an old Dodge during his college years. His practical side led him to consider a station wagon, but his roommate, trumpeter Donald Byrd, had other ideas. Byrd drove a Jaguar and convinced Hancock to check out the Cobra, boasting about Carroll Shelby’s victories over Ferrari. Intrigued by Byrd’s enthusiasm, Hancock decided to visit a dealership.

A Rude Encounter and an Impulsive Purchase

Hancock’s first visit to the dealership was far from welcoming. The car salesman didn’t recognize the young musician and treated him poorly. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Hancock’s interest in the Cobra only grew. Determined to prove the salesman wrong, he decided to purchase the gleaming white Cobra with its striking red leather interior.

This decision was both impulsive and transformative. The Cobra quickly became Hancock’s primary mode of transportation, a symbol of his newfound success and a cherished possession. Over the years, it accompanied him on many journeys, both personal and professional.

Cross-Country Adventures in the Cobra

Hancock didn’t just keep the Cobra as a showpiece; he drove it extensively. Living in New York City, he often relied on the subway for daily transportation, but when he needed a car, the Cobra was his go-to vehicle. He commuted over the Triborough Bridge and navigated the busy streets of Manhattan, getting used to the car’s powerful performance and unique challenges.

In 1964, while playing with Miles Davis, Hancock decided to drive the Cobra to Chicago for a gig. The journey was not without its difficulties. The car ran hot in the summer, requiring several stops to cool down. Despite these challenges, Hancock completed the trip without any major issues, showcasing the Cobra’s reliability and endurance.

The Challenges of Owning an Exotic Car

As a Black man driving an exotic sports car in the 1960s, Hancock faced unique challenges. He recalls an incident on the West Side Highway where a police officer pulled him over, not believing that the Cobra belonged to him. Such experiences were unfortunately common, but Hancock remained undeterred, continuing to enjoy and drive his beloved car.

Hancock didn’t baby the Cobra, either. An accident shortly after purchasing the car changed his perspective. A traffic light crash damaged the car’s front fender, but Hancock found a shop that could repair the aluminum body without using Bondo. From that point on, he treated the Cobra as a functional vehicle rather than a fragile collector’s item.

Miles Davis and the Cobra: A Legendary Encounter

One of the most memorable stories involving Hancock’s Cobra is his drag race with Miles Davis. Davis, known for his love of Ferraris and Maseratis, was skeptical of Hancock’s choice. After a gig, Davis offered Hancock a ride in his Maserati, but Hancock proudly showed off his new Cobra instead.

The two lined up their cars at a traffic light at 4 AM, ready for a friendly race. When the light turned green, Hancock floored the Cobra and left Davis in the dust. By the next light, Hancock had already lit a cigarette, a testament to the Cobra’s speed and performance. Davis’s reaction was one of shock and amusement, highlighting the Cobra’s superiority.

The Legacy of Herbie Hancock’s Cobra

Hancock’s Cobra has inspired more than just admiration; it has also influenced his music. In 1963, he wrote a song for his album “My Point of View” and titled it “King Cobra” in honor of his beloved car. This connection between his music and the car reflects the deep bond he shares with the vehicle.

Even when Hancock bought a Ferrari in 1990, he never lost his affection for the Cobra. He recalls apologizing to the Cobra, explaining that the purchase was for its own good. The Ferrari, unfortunately, turned out to be a lemon, reinforcing Hancock’s appreciation for the Cobra’s reliability and performance.

The Future of the Cobra

Hancock has no plans to sell his Cobra. He intends to pass it on to his daughter and eventually to his grandson, ensuring that the car remains a cherished family heirloom. Over the years, he has received numerous offers to buy the car, but he has always refused. The Cobra is more than just a car; it is a symbol of his journey, success, and passion.


Herbie Hancock’s story is a testament to the deep connections between music and cars. His Cobra, a symbol of his early success, has remained a constant companion for over six decades. This unique bond highlights the enduring appeal of classic cars and the personal stories that make them so special.

As a car enthusiast, I find Hancock’s journey with the Cobra incredibly inspiring. It reminds us that cars are more than just machines; they are an extension of our identity, a reflection of our passions, and a source of countless memories. Hancock’s Cobra is a shining example of this, a car that has stood the test of time and continues to captivate and inspire.

The story of Herbie Hancock and his Cobra is not just about a car; it is about a life lived fully, with passion and purpose. It is a reminder that our cars, much like our music, can be an integral part of who we are, shaping our experiences and enriching our lives. Photo Credit – CNBC / Jay Leno