Are you sitting comfortably? If not, then this may be the perfect tale for you. Family-run Cobra Seats is one firm that proudly flies the flag for British design and manufacturing, and can trace its impressive roots back to one of the coolest cars to have ever rolled out of the UK. Seeing as my good friend Mark Dunsford runs it, I though I should wander over to meet the team and have a look for myself.
It’s funny where great ideas begin sometimes. Where the acorn of a now mighty oak starts to grow. Today, Cobra Seats are feted by everyone from the world’s greatest racing drivers, football teams, powerboat owners and classic car nuts, but the firm can still proudly trace its lineage back in one short and easy line from Mark who now runs the company today. This is one family business with a blissfully straight forward run of succession.
“Cobra Seats was started by my father in 1975 in Camberley after he’d left Mota-Lita’ where he designed and made steering wheels,” explains Mark. “After honing his skills he decided to go it alone, knowing there was a market for sports seats. My grandfather had helped coach my dad for many years as he was a master trimmer at AC in Thames Ditton, where he served his entire working life. He designed, patterned and trimmed every aspect of AC’s cars including the legendary Cobra, working closely with Carroll Shelby throughout the entire process. It was inevitable that Dad would start his working career as my Grandfather’s apprentice. I think it’s fair to say that this family has upholstery in its blood!
With just three staff, in a humble unit in Camberley, the fledgling business took its first tottering steps. The Cobra name was decided early on, and was a hat-tip to those iconic early Dunsford designs. Quality standards were set stratospherically high from day one, and everything was done the good old fashioned way, with care and craftsmanship, setting the mould for the years to come.
The firm’s reputation quickly spread, meaning orders were coming in thick and fast. When the first big order came from Gordon Spice Engineering, demand soon outstripped the meagre production capabilities, necessitating a move to a larger factory in 1978, and the much needed addition of extra staff!
In those early days, the order books were filled mainly with custom and vintage designs, but as the 80s rolled around, the firm spied an opportunity for volume in the sports seat market, and designed models like the ‘Classic’ and ‘SFY’ which soon became international bestsellers. Infact, during this peak period, Cobra was manufacturing over 30,000 seats a year and began exporting to countries such as Japan, Australia, the USA and Sweden in serious numbers. “We still have very strong markets in these countries from the work we did years ago,” smiles Mark, “and now we export to over 50 countries worldwide. In fact, most years, more than half our products go overseas.”
In 1989, aged just 21, Mark joined the family firm.. “Another inevitability!” He laughs. “What we do has changed significantly over the years though – In all the time I have been here, I have seen changes which have been driven by market demands and like any UK manufacturer, competition from Chinese manufacturing. We no longer make the cheaper volume seats we used to in the 80’s and our focus moved from being just a sports seat manufacturer to a motorsport, sports and historic seat manufacturer. We have put the emphasis back solely onto quality, design, and the use of the best possible materials.”
Despite being heir to the thrones, as it were, Pops didn’t give the new boy an easy ride. “I willingly learned every single aspect of the business from the ground up,” explains Mark, and I would say that it took me the thick end of 10 years to really know it intimately. By this time, my parents were ready to retire. I never expected anything on a plate, so I offered to buy it from them for the full market value. Not only as a mark of respect for what they had achieved, but also, so I could take a pride in putting my own stamp on the company. Our family heritage is incredibly important to me – hence the three dots in our logo…. each one represents the three generations of Dunsfords; Grandad, Dad, then me…
The ‘Classic’ seat is still a good seller for Mark and his team, but nowadays it’s aimed at the more discerning historic owner and is usually upholstered to a ‘Signature’ level and designed with a specific classic vehicle in mind.
“The Historic range of seats is a strong market for us now and we build more model types in this area than any other with the list growing every month alongside our understanding and passion for these vehicles.” Says Mark. “In total we have over 35 different seat models across the Motorsport, Sports and Historic ranges all available in an infinite range of trims”. It’s very rare we make the exact same seat twice… There are just so many possible permutations.”
Although clearly a family of petrol heads, Mark decided early on in his tenure to make sensible steps into other diverse markets to give Cobra a wider customer base. “I took the core values that we used for making our seats and diversified into a number of new areas alongside the growing historic and motorsport market,” he explains proudly. “I’m insistent that we will always manufacture everything in the UK and our fully certified ISO 9000 production facilities now boast the very latest engineering equipment including CNC tube manipulation, press brake and a 3 axis machining centre, all of which came along when we remodeled our engineering facility in 2011. Our cut, sew and trim facility boasts the latest CNC bed cutters and sewing machines but we still have the traditional skills my grandfather had to pattern and trim bespoke interiors from individual clients to OEM prototypes. Nowadays we get involved in carpets, interior panels, weather gear and even seats for the Ministry of Defence in Kevlar/Nomex for the interiors of a Warrior tank!.. There’s not a lot we can’t do, really!”
This investment in equipment and infrastructure gave the firm confidence to keep pushing into other markets -which we will come to in a moment – but the beating heart of everything that happens still focuses firmly on the Motorsport activity that started it all in the first place.
“Competition is still what we live for!” exclaims Mark. “Everybody who drives, from the club level competitor to the pinnacle of series like BTCC and Australian V8 Supercars, we have always been involved in the business of protecting professional competition drivers. The engineering understanding and the speed of development required in Motorsport stands us in good stead for other industries where people are usually shocked at how quickly we can bring a product to market.”
Motorsport started for Cobra in the early 80’s when the original SF3C tubular steel seat was chosen as factory fitment for the legendary Metro 6R4 group B rally car. Fast forward to the present day and the current order books sees the company’s latest sub 5Kg autoclave carbon shells being crafted for BTCC drivers such as Matt Neal, Gordon Shedden, Colin Turkington, Rob Collard and Nick Foster. “All of these drivers came to us out of choice as they all need seats that provide support, protection, feedback, safety and light weight,” says Mark. “By working closely with these teams we have secured our position year after year by listening to their needs and providing bespoke fitment solutions around our Ultralite FIA homologated shell design. It’s one of our proudest achievements.”
Even from our short time at Cobra HQ, we could tell from the bustle of varied phone calls and visits, that each day holds a multitude of surprises for this enthusiastic team. “No two days are the same, that’s for sure!” says Mark, clearly very happy at the fact. “One day we’ll be custom padding a seat for Colin Turkington alongside our friends from Hans Seat and the next I’ll be measuring a football dugout for our stadia range of seats. Currently we have seats in over 50 stadiums worldwide including more than 18 in the English Premiership and Championship leagues. We’ve gone as far afield as Qatar for the Asian Football Cup and even to the New York to kit out the Red Bulls! Right now we’re busy designing bespoke seats for a number of clients in high end applications for both road and marine which require some very specific features, as well as supporting a major car manufacturer with all their test driver’s requirements. It’s impossible to get bored working here!”
And, as if that was impressive enough for a corporate CV, there’s always Cobra’s foray into the worlds of the big and small screen. One gig that no manufacturer of anything will ever beat for cool factor, ever, is the fact that Cobra made the seats for the Millennium Falcon in the original Star Wars film! Making Chewie and Hans’ perches?! You’re going to struggle to top that one! Then, there’s the X-Men’s transporter, for the comic book fans, and for readers of a certain age, the set of cult sci-fi series ‘Blake’s Seven’ and even Roland Rat’s Ratmobile!
Despite often operating in such rarified air, it’s still clear the focus at Cobra is still very much on the little guy.. the true, real-world enthusiasts and the tuning scene in particular. “We will never forget our core values and our core customers,” intones Mark seriously. “In 2013 we developed our two demo cars, the Mini R53 race car and the R56 road car, both of which connect with our tuning and enthusiast customers, as we are just as passionate about our cars as you guys are. Don’t worry though! This year we want to do our first VAG project car to launch a brand new recliner design, so watch this space and think along the lines of the most beautiful full carbon seat you’ve ever seen….and then some!” With an in house design team of petrol heads champing at the bit, creating new trends and ideas is only ever a few clicks away.. “But we do have to hold ourselves back a little sometimes,” laughs Mark.
As we reluctantly wind up our tour and head for the car, Mark’s enthusiasm and relentless excitement for what he and his team are doing never lets up for a second. It’s clear that the Dunsford clan has created a lasting legacy of design excellence and old fashioned craftsmanship that should easily see them through the next 40 years, and no matter what car design does over the approaching decades, we’re all going to need somewhere to sit. Safe to say then, that Cobra are going to continue as a major force in the Global tuning and Motorsport scene for many years to come. Choosing parts for your car is never easy, but when it comes to upgrading your perches next time, just ask yourself… ‘What would Chewie do?”
Pictures by Mark Bass