“The secret bubble cars of Detroit” — That’s the popular phrase used to describe the collection of the Detroit Historical Society. Only a fraction of the society’s cars are displayed at their museum at any given time, and the rest are preserved in their own individual inflatable cocoons in a warehouse not open to the public.
But these are not just time capsules waiting to be lost to history. The society loans its collection out to other museums and actively sends out its cars to special events by request. Now, two of most intriguing “bubble” cars are about to be unsealed and go on public display.
Next month as the new car world focuses on Geneva, the classic car buffs will stay closer to home in Florida. The Amelia Island Concours D’Elegance is possibly only second to Pebble Beach in size and stature, and so it is able to attract some very exotic vehicles. This year as they celebrate the anniversary of the Shelby Cobra, two super-sleek concepts will be sent from Detroit to share the lawn space with Carroll’s spartan barnburners.
This coupe may look like a custom Corvette Sting Ray but it is actually a Ford concept car called the Cougar II. Ford built this car in 1963 using a modified Cobra CSX chassis. The Cougar II made the rounds on the show circuit for a few years, and it was even at the 1964 World’s Fair. Like all concept cars, it was eventually was pushed aside and forgotten.
After the Cougar II made its debut, Ford styling boss Eugene Bordinat wanted his own dream car, and the XD Cobra was built. Also known as the Bordinat Cobra, this roadster carried many of the styling cues of the Cougar II. But unlike the coupe, this one was not used much for public relations and was instead rumored to be more for Bordinat’s personal transport.
Both cars are now under the care of the Detroit Historical Society, and we were lucky enough to take one out of the bubble for a sneak peak at what we’ll see in the Florida sunshine next month.
The Ford Cougar II is in good condition for a 49-year-old concept car. The red paint still looks like it is ready to go on the show circuit. While it does have a shiny, toothy grin and wire wheels, the designers seemed very restrained especially for the chrome-happy 1960s. This chrome control helps the stainless steel roof stand out as a unique piece (this is fixed and not a removable targa roof.)
The Cougar II was also a study in the use of plastic body panels. While today we use plastics to help keep total mass down, the fact that the material is about an inch thick in places like the car’s hood means little to no weight savings are realized.
There is still an engine block in the car, so we assume it is the original Cobra 260 V8. Unfortunately, some major components were removed long ago, and so this concept is very much a non-runner.
Inside there are plenty more creature comforts than a Shelby Cobra. The fact that the Cougar II has adjustable side windows and a radio already makes it more of a daily driver than Shelby’s machines. It still keeps minor touches from the donor Cobra such as the steering wheel (with a special Cougar II center cap) and original Smiths gauges.
An interesting feature inside this car is an air pressure relief valve. Ford claimed it developed the Cougar II to go 170 mph (see Ford’s promo video at the end of this post.) So at high speed, the valve would open to relieve the air pressure.
There is the inevitable comparison between the Cougar II and the similar-looking Corvette Sting Ray. This concept coupe was first shown in 1963 just as Chevrolet began production on the C2 Corvette. While the world saw the Cougar II before the Sting Ray, the C2 was based on a styling exercise called the “Q Corvette” that was made in 1959. Peter Brock who had worked on the Q Corvette concept at GM had jumped over to Shelby’s racing shop by the time the Cougar II coupe was built. We won’t pretend that this historical convenience is any hard evidence of why these two cars look alike, but it is fun to speculate on where some of the inspiration may have originated.
But the Corvette is not the only car that comes to mind when looking at the Cougar II. The stainless steel roof on this pointy-nosed concept almost makes it kin to the one-off Ferrari Daytona Coupe that Pininfarina built for the 1969 Paris Motor Show.
We could go on about other our impressions picked up from a dimly lit warehouse, but why bother? After all, we’ll be able to get close to every angle of Cougar II and its roadster brother when they are in the bright sunshine next month at Amelia Island.