The year 1963 was a good one for jazz phenom Herbie Hancock. At 23, he had just joined the biggest band on earth, led by star Miles Davis on the Blue Note label. Plus, he had received a fat royalty cheque for the song Watermelon Man, which crossed over to crack the top 100 on the pop charts. Hancock found himself flush, pocketing six grand, the equivalent of about $50K in today’s dollars (£40,000). That was a lot of money for a guy who grew up middle class in Chicago.
Of course, Hancock has been rewarded many more times since, winning 14 Grammys and an Academy Award for the soundtrack to the film Round Midnight in 1986, as well as earning six honorary doctorates. But that was all still to come. On that day in 1963, Hancock wanted to buy himself a gift to celebrate his early success.
“I had never purchased a car before,” Hancock told us. “The only car I ever drove was an old Dodge.” That car was Hancock’s ride at Grinnell College in Iowa, where he graduated with degrees in music and engineering. So when it came to buying a new car, Hancock recalled his dad’s advice about being wary. Probably for that reason, he planned to play it safe and just get a station wagon, “so I could haul my band around.” But Hancock’s roommate, trumpeter Donald Byrd, drove a Jaguar and talked Hancock into checking out a Cobra. “This guy Carroll Shelby is kicking Ferrari’s ass!” Byrd told Hancock.
A rude New York City car salesman had no clue who the fresh-faced Hancock was when he strolled into the dealership, ogling the gleaming white swoosh of aluminum with its red leather cockpit. “The salesman saw a shabby-looking Black guy. He didn’t treat me like a customer.” Hancock admits he bought the 260-cubic-inch Cobra out of spite. “If he hadn’t pissed me off, I probably wouldn’t have bought it!”
That impulse buy 60 years ago has appreciated considerably; the car could be worth $2 million or more today, and Hancock is now the longest continuous owner of any Cobra.
Tom Cotter: You said the Cobra scared you at first?
Herbie Hancock: My roommate Donald drove the car home. I was afraid because it was so powerful. Before I ever drove it, I’d go into the garage I rented and practice shifting it through the gears.
Eventually you got used to driving it—even cross-country, right?
I lived in New York City, so I mostly rode the subway, but if I needed a car, I drove the Cobra. I spent a lot of time commuting over the Triborough Bridge and on roads like the West Side Highway. The clutch was so hard to push down that I had to anchor myself against the back of the seat to push it. In 1964, when I was playing with Miles, I drove it to Chicago for a gig. It was summer, and the car ran really hot, so I brought along a mechanic friend in case I had any problems. We had to stop a few times to let it cool down, but we drove straight through from New York City to Chicago with no issues. I’d drive it to gigs in Philly and Boston all the time.
A Black man in an exotic sports car—were you ever harassed?
I lived on 93rd Street in Upper Manhattan. Once, I entered the West Side Highway and floored it to merge into heavy traffic. Man, I was going so fast! A police officer chased me down and gave me a ticket. I could tell he had a bad attitude because he didn’t believe it was my car. I did my best to avoid conflicts like that.
You didn’t baby the Cobra. How come?
An accident changed my perspective. A few weeks after I bought it, I gave Donald the keys. He was waiting at a traffic light in Manhattan when two cars crashed going through the intersection and slid into the Cobra, smashing the left front fender. Thankfully Donald didn’t get hurt, but he called me and said, “Herbie, I screwed up your car,” but it wasn’t his fault. I found a shop on Long Island that knew how to work on aluminum, because I didn’t want any Bondo. They had to repaint it entirely. From then on, it was just a car to me.
What did Miles Davis think of your Cobra?
He was always driving Ferraris and Maseratis, right? He had a new one every three or four years. Just before I joined Miles’ band, I was playing a gig with trumpeter Clark Terry at the Village Gate in New York, and Miles was in the audience. At the end, he came to my dressing room and asked if I wanted a ride uptown in his Maserati. I said, “I’d love to, but I bought a car a couple of weeks ago.”
Miles said, “But it’s not a Maserati.”
I said, “No. It’s a Cobra, and it’s right outside the door.”
When he saw it, he said, “Oh, cute.”
This was about four in the morning, so we both lined up our cars at the traffic light and waited for it to turn green. I floored it and left him in the dust. Before we got to the next red light, I had already taken out a cigarette and lit it.
“What the f*ck was that?” he asked.
“I told you, it’s a Cobra.”
“Well, get rid of it. It’s dangerous!”
You wrote a song about your car for your album, My Point of View, in 1963.
I had a song, but I still didn’t have a title. Then I got it! It came to me: King Cobra. Not having a title’s pretty common. In 1965, I wrote another song without a name. Then I played it for my sister’s friend, and she said, “It reminds me of the water.” That clicked. Then she said, “It feels like a voyage,” and I almost peed my pants. Blue Note liked it so much, Maiden Voyage became the album name.
Apparently, your Ferrari never inspired a song title?
It was a lemon. When I turned 50, I bought a 348. But I didn’t buy a red one, because a Black guy in a red Ferrari is just looking for trouble. I joined the Ferrari Club and once attended a fancy car show in Beverly Hills. The press wanted to interview me. They asked, “Do you own a Ferrari?” I said, “Yes, a 348.” They asked, “Can we see it?” I said, “Well, no. It wouldn’t start this morning, so I drove my Cobra instead.” But when I bought the Ferrari, I walked out into the carport and apologized to the Cobra. I said: “This is for your own good. You’re too valuable. Look, it’s a Ferrari. At least it’s not a Corvette!”
Would you ever sell your Cobra? Who gets the car when you’re gone?
I’ll pass it on to my daughter. Maybe my little grandson will inherit the Cobra eventually. A classic car dealer offered to buy it in the 1970s. He offered me $10,000. He started to take stacks of hundreds from his briefcase, placing them on the table. He said, “All you need to do is sign over the title and all this money will be yours.” So I looked at the money, then I looked at the title. Then I looked at the money, and I looked at the title. Finally, I said, “Sorry, but I can’t sell it. This car is my buddy.” As the man was leaving, he shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, “You did the right thing. You should never sell that car.”