This article was originally published in the June-July 1997 issue of Cycle World's Big Twin magazine.
John Covington isn’t afraid to take chances. That fact was made clear by his radical Stealth bike, a relentlessly angular one-off (featured in the Spring, 1995 issue of Big Twin) that got its styling cues from the F-117A Stealth fighter. What that custom accomplished, among other things, was to serve notice that Covington is willing—and able—to stretch the visual envelope.
Once he finished with the sharp-edged Stealth bike, Covington must have uttered the trademark Monty Python line, “And now for something completely different.” That certainly would explain his latest creation: the Cobra bike, a custom that emulates both the styling and the spirit of Carroll Shelby’s legendary Cobra sportscar.
Actually, the impetus for this Cobra bike came from Ed Marklow, a customer at Covington’s Surgical-Steeds shop in Scottsdale, Arizona. Marklow owns a four-wheeled version of the celebrated reptile and had a hankering to see one interpreted on two wheels. So, Covington—who studied at the highly acclaimed Art Center School of Design in Pasadena, California—turned out a few drawings of such a bike, using the feline arches of the car’s front fenders to carry a pair of small headlights on a handlebar-mounted fairing. The rear fender also mimicked those of the automobile while presiding over a fat, 200-section Metzeler tire.
After churning the design around in his gray matter for a few months, Covington sent the drawings off to his friend John Sodano, a designer for Chrysler Corporation who works at the firm’s Pacifica Design Center located in Carlsbad, California. Sodano tweaked the basic concept slightly before sending his recommendations back to Covington.
When actually building the Cobra bike, Covington adhered to several design criteria.
First, he wanted the engine to be big and wild, enough so to make a statement that this bike is more than just pretty bodywork. To that end, the snake’s powerplant is a dragrace-spec, four-cam, 120-cubic-inch monster that breathes in through a pair of 45mm Mikunis and out through a custom-made exhaust. Since Covington used two rear cylinder heads, which aim both intake ports forward, a conventional airbox could not be made to fit over the widely splayed carburetors; they make do with velocity stacks.
Second, the bike had to be long. Covington got some of the desired length by kicking the front end out to 33 degrees, but most of it came via a one-off, four-link swingarm that moves the rear axle back about three inches. And to fit that big, 200mm-wide tire, Covington had a local wheel builder spin a special rim. The bike’s all-aluminum bodywork hangs on a chrome-moly-steel frame that is a custom unit built by Covington.
Finally, Covington wanted the Cobra bike—its replica bodywork in particular—to be clean and elegant. “This could have been a six-month effort,” he says, “but we wanted to get the bodywork just right, and that stretched the project out over 18 months.” After early efforts with the bodywork by one metal-pounder fell short of expectations, Covington turned it over to Andy Palmer of Exotic Toys in Bellflower, California. Palmer builds reproduction aluminum bodies for Cobra automobiles and, much to Covington’s surprise, he had an open spot in the schedule. Six weeks later, the seven main aluminum pieces arrived at Covington’s shop. And once the bodywork was complete, the rest of the project came together quickly.
Stare for long at Covington’s creation and you begin to appreciate its many clever details. For example, that’s a genuine Shelby Cobra flip-up gas cap atop the six-gallon tank. The 1970s-vintage Sportster speedometer “looked about right for the part,” says Covington, so he adapted it. And the hydraulic, fuel and breather hoses all are military-looking rubber lines, not the trendy braided-steel hoses most custom builders less interested in authenticity would use.
All of this just serves as further proof that Covington is unafraid to buck convention. And now that he has made this quantum styling leap, going from the angular lines of the Stealth to the curvaceous sculptures of the Cobra, one can only ask the obvious: What’s next?
At this point, Covington isn’t saying. But whatever it is, you can pretty much bet the store that it’s going to be something, ummm, completely different. Not just different compared to the work he’s done so far. Different, period.