It was, and still is, regarded by many as the best production replicar ever built on the legacy of the Shelby Cobra.
You know, the Cobra — the small, iconic, over-muscled roadster that in the 1960s won races and hearts everywhere it went, and which just might be the most imitated car ever.
The made-in-Canada Aurora GRX was no slap-dash “kit car.” It indeed offered the Cobra the most sincere sort of flattery.
At the same time, this modernized, high-quality reproduction of the original 289 two-seater—hand-built on a unique tubular chassis—qualified as a new car according to our government regulators.
As the only Canadian automobile to ever be included in the late Canada-U.S. Auto Pact of the 1960s, the Aurora is as much a business story of Canadian significance as a tale for auto enthusiasts and connoisseurs of exotic cars.
Canada’s snake: 101
The concensus seems to be that the Aurora outshone the original Cobra in almost every measurable respect. That sports car was a British roadster with American power, introduced to North America by racing driver, entrepreneur and affable raconteur, the late Carroll Shelby. Only in straight-line acceleration, where it was a tick slower than the 289 Cobra, did the Aurora take a back seat to the original.
It was so good, Ford Motor Company provided parts, agreed to display and sell it in its dealerships, and backed it with a 12-month warranty.
Yet, despite demand from well-heeled buyers across North America and even Europe, the Aurora was the victim of fast-changing technologies; the company ran out of time and money before it could adapt its cars to hard new realities concerning emissions and crashworthiness and make it into a true convertible as opposed to an open-top roadster.
There’s even a conspiracy theory that suggests the company’s demise was the result of corporate subterfuge…
Chronicling Canada’s Cobra
Ontario entrepreneurs Wayne Stevenson and Erik Campbell-Smith founded Aurora Cars in 1976, with a view to building a meticulously crafted replica of the original 289 Cobra that would appeal to collectors and driving enthusiasts alike.
After several years of planning and development, production began in May 1980 in a 7,500-square-foot plant in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
Stevenson was an automotive and aeronautical engineer and an Air Canada pilot; Campbell-Smith was the president of a construction company. Both men were huge fans of the original Cobra and believed they were the ones to resurrect its allure and mystique.
Stevenson designed the car’s tubular chassis, along with Brad Francis, a local racecar engineer; he also worked out the required certification for safety and emissions standards.
Larry Jemmett, who started with the company doing basic assembly and then advanced to parts sourcing and later to management, recalls the founders wanted to do a production roadster based on the Cobra “that would be a thoroughbred sports car with superior handling and performance, while also having the reliability and serviceability of a domestic automobile at a [somewhat] affordable price.”
Ford Motor Co. was at first skeptical of the project. But Jemmett, now 68 and living in Beeton, Ontario, says once introduced to the so-called ‘GRX’ prototype and significant testing, “Ford agreed to give its full cooperation.”
In addition to supplying some of the necessary parts, including the V8 engine, it gave Aurora support in the emissions and crash-test certifications, he recounted.
The Aurora’s star shone brightly for 11 years of continuous-if-sporadic production, winning accolades and praise from virtually every automotive writer who drove it and every enthusiast who tested it.
You don’t have to be crazy to build handmade automobiles, “but it sure helps,” Jemmett said, recalling the many inconsistencies and frustrations that came from sourcing parts from around the world. Add to that the modifications needed to bring everything up-to-date with then-current North American vehicle standards, “and the funny farm is only steps away from the front door.”
GRX stood for Grove Ridge Experimental — those contacted for this article were at a loss to explain why.
How hand-built was it?
During those years, 181 Auroras were built in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto: 175 GRX and Mark II models, followed by six improved-and-refined Aurora 302 SC convertible models. The latter wore a true folding convertible top (unlike the original Cobra) and that meant extensive (and expensive) changes to the chassis, larger doors and even door handles to accommodate new power windows.
At its peak, Aurora Cars employed as many as 20 production employees, plus six to eight office, sales and management staff in its tightly packed plant.
Where the Aurora GRX looked externally so much like the original 289 Cobra—badging aside, only die-hard aficionados could tell the difference—the similarities pretty much ended there.
“Our car was based on the exterior design of the Cobra, yes,” says former vice-president Jim Payton, in Toronto. “But it was a ground-up, fully-fledged hand-built and certified automobile with a unique chassis and unique body-mounting system.”
Except for the engine and some other sourced parts, said Jamie Ford, “every chassis was built in the shop from the ground up. We cut, bent and welded the tubes and bent the tube rails for the seats.” The fibre-glass bodies “arrived as resin in barrels,” and even the Connelly leather-covered seats were hand-fitted and stitched in the Richmond Hill shop.
It was, Payton adds, “a limited manufacture car with the quality of construction that Canadians could be proud of.”
What did the pundits think?
In a 1982 review for Motor Trend magazine, noted U.S. auto writer Tony Swan wrote that Aurora chose to preserve “the more classical lines” of the original 260/289 series Cobras, eschewing the bulges and brawn of the later 427s.
He wrote of how the car’s four-wheel independent racing-style suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and Ford 302 compared favourably against the old small-blocks, and how it “was absolutely top quality throughout.”
Before the 302s were bolted in, Swan said, they were sent to American tuners Holman and Moody in North Carolina—for years, Ford’s official performance and racing tuner—“to have a little extra grunt breathed on ’em.”
They returned good for 260 horsepower, “enough to allow the driver to do a good bit of the steering with his right foot,” said Swan. Buyers were also known to rework the engines further.
Quick, but quirky
Jemmett recalls that it was by an ‘Order in Council’ from the federal government led by Pierre Trudeau that Aurora Cars became the only Canadian-owned car company to be included in the now defunct Canada-U.S. Auto Pact. It was also rated as the fastest production car manufactured in North America, “which did not sit well with General Motors.”
Selling the cars for $55,000 to $65,000 CDN (roughly $100,000 today) was never a problem, recalls sales director Jamie Ford, who joined the company in 1989, 18 months before it declared bankruptcy. At any given time, he said, Aurora Cars had upwards of 60 orders on tap, each representing a $10,000 down payment by their buyers, money held in escrow and which could not be used to fund ongoing production of the two-seat, handmade sports cars.
Ford said the company’s goal was to win one percent of the North American exotic car market, which itself was then less than one percent of the overall auto market.
Buyers at this level, he said, would not likely have bought an Aurora GRX as their first collector car; most would already have owned “several cars at least,” including the likes of Ferraris, Porsches, Lamborghinis and other exotic collectibles.
Modded to death?
To reach those buyers, the Aurora needed improvements that included switching to electronic fuel injection to meet tightening emission regulations; enlarging the doors to accommodate new power windows and to allow easier entry and exit; and adding air conditioning and several other refinements.
Finding the investment capital to enable those changes—which proved immensely costly to execute—at a time when the auto industry globally was struggling proved more difficult than expected, Ford said, even though several parties had expressed interest in buying the company.
It was bought in 1986 by AHA Limousine of Toronto, and for a time limos were “stretched” in the shop alongside Aurora production. “That’s when the Mark II happened,” Ford recalled.
The Mark II was little changed from the GRX, but reflected the fact the company was under new ownership.
Aurora Cars “went public” on the Toronto and Vancouver stock exchanges in March 1987, becoming Aurora Cars Corporation, in an attempt to raise funds and operating capital.
“The GRX [and Mark II] was a true-blue roadster in the traditional meaning of the word,” said Jamie Ford. It had no fixed roof or side windows, but only a “tent” that needed to be constructed around the cockpit should the driver encounter rain while out on a drive.
The new owners wanted to turn the Mark II into a convertible instead. Six copies of that new, improved, convertible car—the 302 SC—were built and sold, but by then all the company’s capital had been expended in trying to make the car meet crash and emission standards, plus convert it to a proper droptop.
Bankruptcy was declared in 1991 and a unique Canadian automotive enterprise ended its 11-year production run.
The Aurora conspiracy theory…
Ford Motor Co. had agreed to provide participating North American dealerships with the Aurora as a showroom model “financed through Ford like any other vehicle,” and sold through company dealerships. Part of the reason for using the Ford 302 engine, said Jamie Ford, was that buyers could go to their local dealer and “get a lot of work done there.”
Jemmett alleged on a now-defunct Internet blog that, “when the news of Ford’s plans leaked out, General Motors decided it was time to flex its muscles … a group allegedly financed by GM began buying up small blocks of stock in Aurora Corporation until they had majority control.”
Once that occurred, he said, “the new owners withdrew all financial support and Aurora Corp. was forced into bankruptcy.” Within a year, General Motors released a new model of Oldsmobile called the Aurora.
“Strange but true. Were they complicit in the demise of the Aurora?” Jemmett asked, then answered his own question: “No conclusive evidence is available [but] with a little common sense you can draw your conclusions.”
General Motors of Canada did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Jamie Ford says so far as he knows, Jemmett’s opinion, “is just that. Aurora was just a small blip on the big screen. With only 181 cars built over more than a decade, compared to hundreds of thousands of Corvettes built and sold, the Aurora was no threat to either General Motors or the Corvette.”
Though Aurora Cars had established an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) certification approval number for the 302 SC—thus establishing full credibility of the “Aurora” name with the U.S. feds—Payton said GM, “went ahead and ran roughshod over us and released their Aurora… Having insufficient funds to halt or sue for compensation, we had to stand by and watch it happen.”
For more background about Aurora, surviving models and who owns them—or to join a community of like-minded individuals—visit auroracobra.org.
(Some photos courtesy of Jamie Ford, Larry Jemmett)