The joy of owning an original Shelby Cobra may be in tearing down a B-road in it, but tearing up its dashboard to install a modern sound system? Big nope. Using a rare $2 million car as intended is one thing, but even a modest modification could diminish its value to the tune of a split-level ranch in Hackensack.
These days, the prevailing attitude among car collectors is that all cars, even the priciest, are to be well-enjoyed. The only caveat being the highest-value models, now mostly small-batch sports cars from the 1960s, should remain unmolested as much for posterity as to retain their seven-figure-plus valuations.
Of course, you might also think the vicious basso profundo of a Cobra’s 427-cubic-inch side oiler V8 is music enough. But let’s be real. If you drove one regularly, and it happened to have a kickass stereo (that, by the way, could be removed without a trace inside of an hour), wouldn’t you change the ambiance from time to time with a soothing track from, say, Motörhead’s “No Sleep ’til Hammersmith”? I think you would.
Good news, then, that new options exist for do-no-harm modifications. With a smart application of cash and modern tech, the choice between a stock collectable and high-fidelity sound is a false one. Several manufacturers sell MP3- and Bluetooth-ready decks that mimic the look of a stock radio for most mass-produced classics and can be installed without modifying the dashboard. Other companies will claim to convert any existing OEM radio to a digital-capable system. Even automakers are getting in on the act; Earlier this year, Porsche rolled out a head unit replacement for some of its classic models that included modern tech like Apple CarPlay (on a 3.5-inch touchscreen), Bluetooth and an integrated amplifier.
But for the rarest, hand-built birds like that Cobra, only a custom solution will do. With digital design and rapid prototyping techniques, paired with miniaturized speakers and amplifiers that provide power in small spaces—along with streaming music and app-based audio controllers—it’s possible to create a cutting-edge system that not only matches a car’s period interior but easily disappears when the time (or desire) comes to revert to stock.
“These are tech-savvy buyers in their 30s and 40s who want solutions that don’t touch the originality of the car, but they’re huge users of their cars,” says Matt Figliola of Ai Design, a shop outside NYC that, among other projects, designs and develops custom audio systems for classic Bentleys, rare Porsche models and at least one Shelby Cobra. “They’re concerned about provenance but are also passionate about driving.”
Traditionally, Ai Design’s builds favor tech-forward modifications of late model vehicles. For example, a pair of Cadillac Escalades done up as audiophile-quality listening-rooms-on-wheels for a tech billionaire and a similar Escalade with a roof-mounted FLIR thermal camera controlled by a helicopter joystick for an outdoor enthusiast.
But responding to new demand from some classic-car owners, the shop is taking on more projects to update collectibles with custom fits of high-tech gear. It’s a relatively new development in the car world, and with prices upward of $20,000 for a bespoke system, not a cheap one.
Why so pricey? Figliola says it’s not unlike having Bose design a sound system around the quirks of a single, handmade sports car. Instead of amortizing the development cost by selling a million units, as a massive company like Bose might do, a single client pays for all of the design, prototyping and production for one unit. As indulgent as that sounds, iterative prototyping methods using CAD, 3D printing, and CNC machining have put such projects within reach of more buyers.
Ai Design assigns such projects to three categories: major modifications made with an eye toward preserving as much of the original vehicle as they can while integrating new components; semi-permanent changes, where original parts are removed and replaced with new parts that look period-correct, but contain new audio components (the original parts are stored in a custom-built container); and zero permanent changes, where the system looks like it was standard equipment but is removable.
This 1967 Cobra was a zero-changes build. The owner, who has amassed a well-used collection of rare cars, with a few daily drivers in the bunch, wanted a sound system powerful enough to hear over the big-block V8 with no permanent alterations. After all, according to Hagerty, the value of an original 427 Cobra spans from $925,000 in fair condition to $1.9 million for a concours-quality model. This one is closer to the latter category: Fourth from last of the 348 427 Cobras Shelby built, and one of only six 427s that were never modified from their as-delivered spec. A full restoration in 2009 brought the body, mechanicals, instruments, seats, carpets and switchgear back to factory-fresh condition, while the upholstery on the dashboard, doors, rear interior and side panels are totally original.
No doubt a darling of the auction block. Now just wait ’till they see this sick double-DIN Pioneer deck.
Kidding, obviously. Figliola’s team looked over the Cobra’s dashboard and console areas, taking in the roadster’s spartan interior design, before deciding where each of the system’s components would be placed. A full 3D scan provided a digital framework from which to build the two-part system, comprising an amplifier, two speakers, and requisite controllers up front—built into a custom enclosure that would be pressure-fitted under the dash, just ahead of the Cobra’s signature “backward” gear stick. At the rear would be a subwoofer with its own amplifier. The lot of it would be connected by Bluetooth and controlled with an iPhone.
Those with finely tuned ears might balk at calling any digital system that streams over a wireless connection “audiophile quality.” Then again, the cockpit of a Cobra 427 isn’t in an ideal listening environment; if picking out the rhythm guitar line in the right-hand channel of Steely Dan’s “Jack Of Speed” is your thing, a wired system in a classic Bentley might be a better choice. Figliola laments the lack of “robustness, definition, and nuance” but looks forward to wider adoption of high-definition Bluetooth, which will deliver a better signal, for future projects.
To get a visual read on how the audio enclosures would look inside the 53-year-old sports car’s cockpit, the team created paperboard mockups before turning to 3D modeling for fine tuning around a chosen set of electronics, including an Audiotec Fischer Match mini amplifier (the size of two packs of cigarettes), small Morel Hybrid speakers able to handle hundreds of watts of power, Morel crossovers, a JL Audio remote level controller and a JL Weatherproof Bluetooth receiver. (For the rear, an Alpine compact powered subwoofer fit neatly into the Cobra’s storage pocket behind the passenger’s seat.) As configured, the system produces 360 watts of amplification in total: 120 watts each for the right and left speakers and 120 watts for the subwoofer.
After designers finalized each component in digital form, they 3D printed the parts in ABS plastic. With raw prototypes made, the team test-fitted the enclosure, then tweaked the design, made revisions to the digital files—assuring all of the electronic internals fit as intended—and then cut another round of prototypes for more tweaks.
Once perfected, a final run of parts were cut for finishing, then sanded and painted matte black. For the speaker grille, Figliola chose a fabric used in restoring vintage guitar amplifiers and finished the look with OEM-spec aluminum knobs from Bentley, a dead-on match for the Cobra’s chrome gauge bezels.
The unit, which looks like something turned out by a modern electronics factory, connects to the car’s electrical system by a pair of plugs. With a push, it secures under the Cobra’s dash, a temporary system that looks permanent, with an outward design that reads as period-correct to the ’67 Cobra as an IBM Selectric typewriter from one of the office scenes in mad men.
Figliola says a “bunch of interesting tech” that will improve the sound quality of such systems is on the way, including super-high-resolution Bluetooth and 5G. That, along with better voice command systems and physical user interfaces. “There is definitely demand and [a more widespread] understanding of the differences in high-def music playback,” he says. And of course,”[Car owners] want [still] want to keep 20th century cars alive” as EVs proliferate.