What do a WWII Lancaster bomber plane, a Massey Ferguson tractor and a Volkswagen Beetle have in common? Believe it or not, their parts have found their way into some of the most iconic racing cars of all time.
In the 1960s, Carroll Shelby left an indelible mark on motorsport history, his cars winning the FIA World Sportscar Championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. for an American manufacturer for the first time. But their engineering prowess relied on ingenuity as well as skill. The Ford GT40 featured an oil cap from a tractor and an aircraft identification light, and the Shelby Cobra’s indicator switch came from a humble German family car, according to the replica maker of Jimmy Price cars. So when it comes to recreating these rare vehicles and others, he has his work cut out for him.
The 76-year-old South African has spent decades scouring archives for blueprints and sketches behind the wheel, and is known to travel halfway around the world in search of a part or a original mould. Sourcing components can take years, but he usually gets what he wants. That’s why the replica cars made by his company Hi-Tech Automotive are some of the most coveted in the world – and their stories all begin on the African continent.
A former civil engineer and lifelong car enthusiast, Price began building replicas of the Shelby Cobra in the mid-1980s (“the most replicated car, then and now,” he says) and burst onto the American market in the mid-1990s. via the American distributor Superformance, which he created.
“There was nobody making a complete car,” Price recalled. Finding parts for a car that was last made in the 1960s involved a lot of reading, as well as visits to British manufacturer Cobra AC Cars and suppliers that had long since ceased production. It tells stories of a series of wild goose hunts and coincidences that ultimately lead to all the components coming together.
In 1995, the company shipped 35 Cobras. By 2000, it was shipping 450 units a year, with a workforce growing from 20 to 650. The global recession of the late 2000s severely affected Hi-Tech’s business, with orders dropping dramatically and forcing layoffs. Today, its workforce is up to around 300, the owner says, making Cobras, GT40s, Shelby Daytona coupes and 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sports.
Price explains that Hi-Tech doesn’t technically build cars. Instead, it creates bodies and chassis for bespoke classics that have the OEM stamp of approval. They’re nicknamed “roller” or “turnkey minus”: everything you’d expect from a car, minus the engine and transmission. In the United States, Hi-Tech’s largest market, a car without these constitutes an “assembly of parts” in the eyes of the law, making importing easier. Once imported and sold by dealers, customers have the engine and transmission installed by third parties or themselves.
What Hi-Tech builds in its 200,000 square foot workshop in Gqeberha (formerly known as Port Elizabeth) is authenticity with a modern twist. Unlike their racing ancestors, the replicas come with air conditioning and more comfortable seats. Hi-Tech also addresses practicalities that race cars could have done without, such as making sure door seals work, Price says.
Donald Osborne, classic car historian, automotive appraiser and CEO of automotive experience provider Audrain Group, describes Hi-Tech’s production as “extremely good” and built in a manner “considered to be in the tradition of craftsmanship”.
“Hi-Tech is also respectful of the design and proportions of the original, which many replica car manufacturers cannot say,” he adds.
Some of the cars that Hi-Tech supplies as rolls to Superformance and Shelby Legendary Cars are virtually impossible to own as originals. A little bit less 1000 cobras were ever built, only 105 GT40 with the original chassis, and just six Shelby Daytona coupes and five 1963 Corvette Grand Sport. Then there are the one-offs he recreates, like an exact copy of GT40 #1075, a double winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans (Price was given special access to the car, then housed in the safe at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles).
Due to licensing agreements with Shelby, General Motors and the owner of the GT40 marque, many replicas made by Hi-Tech are considered “continuation cars” – an extension of the manufacturer’s original production.
As a result, they are not cheap. Lance Stander, who bought Superformance from Price in 2004, says the most expensive models he offers are the aluminum Cobra and Daytona, priced around $500,000, followed by the replica GT40 1075, which ranges between $400,000 and $450,000.
Stander says Superformance has customers worldwide and a national distributor South Africa sold across the African continent. Many buyers view them as investments, he adds. “If you bought a Cobra from me 10 years ago, you would buy the same 10-year-old Cobra for double what it originally sold,” he says.
This is partly due to demand. Business was boosted by the high-profile appearance of the high-tech GT40s, Cobras and Daytona Coupes in the 2019 film “Ford vs Ferrari,” which told the story of Carroll Shelby and driver Ken Miles’ triumph at Le Mans in 1966. .
Orders have also increased due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Price says. “Right now we’re full for a year here,” he said. “This is the first time (this has happened) in the last 15 years.”
Now, after a long and successful run, a much-discussed law is set to revolutionize the industry – and what was once old is about to be new again.
In the United States, the Low Volume Vehicle Manufacturing (LVM) Act came into effect in March, allowing replica car makers to produce up to 325 complete cars per year. Hi-Tech will still export rollers, but Superformance can now install engines and transmissions and sell ready-to-run cars through traditional dealerships.
Under the LVM, cars must meet certain emission standards, which is perhaps why Superformance plans to create electric versions of all its cars. Some Superformance owners have gone down this route before, including an electric Cobra MKIII R (“the fastest car I’ve ever driven 0-100 [kmph]says Stander).
Osborne warns that while electrification makes sense for some classic cars with a smooth ride – a Rolls-Royce, for example – for others to remove the engine and with it its sound, smell and vibration, “nie much of the fun to be found in them and the reason they were built in the first place.
For his next line, Price has his eyes on Ford Shelby GR-1, a concept supercar from 2005 and a personal “obsession” that was never produced. Superformance has already reached an agreement with Ford and financing is the main obstacle, he says.
However, the latest chapter in Hi-Tech’s story may soon feature less of its founder. Price’s sons now run the day-to-day of the shop, and though he says he “can never stay home,” after nearly 30 years, Price plans to return to his duties.
“Jim is the modern day Carroll Shelby,” says Stander, noting that Hi-Tech has made more than 6,500 Cobras, far exceeding the number Carroll Shelby has ever made.
“(Price) is a remarkable and incredible man,” adds Stander. “People are only going to realize this even more in the future.”