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Carroll Shelby

Carroll Shelby of Texas—and nearly everywhere else—looks like a cowpoke, cooks like a chuck wagon chef, talks like an oil-field roughneck and builds a fangs-out kind of American sports car
by Coles Phinizy

As most car nuts are aware, Shelby's car is called the Cobra, for no better reason than that is the name Shelby always liked, although market-minded friends have pressed him to switch to something dreamier or at least less scary. Though Cobra is its given name, in smart car circles it is known variously as the Snake, the Shelby Snake, the Shelby Cobra, the A.C. Cobra, the Ford Cobra or the Cobra Ford. Strictly speaking, to give everyone his due, its full name should be Shelby-American A.C. Cobra Ford. The final assembly of cars—currently about 125 a month—takes place in the Shelby-American plant on the south side of the Los Angeles airport, where the hum of the little-car business is lost in the constant howling of transcontinental jets. The frame and body of the Cobra are fabricated in England by the A.C. Car Company, Ltd., a firm that in a long and respectable life has produced a variety of vehicles, from railroad engines to invalid carriages. The Cobra's engine is made by Ford in Cleveland and is essentially the same Fairlane V-8 used in several production models. The business relationship of little Shelby-American and giant Ford has been beneficial to both. There is a good deal of Ford know-how in the Cobra, and a little Cobra venom in some of the fancier Fords.

Carroll Shelby is by no means the first retired racetrack driver to try to persuade a big, busy motor company to collaborate in a modest venture, but he is one of the most successful in recent years. Shelby apparently has the certain something that it takes to win a giant over to a minor cause, although no one, including Shelby, is altogether sure what that something is. Some say it is simply the winning personality of an easygoing Texan. Shelby was born and raised in Texas and, to be sure, he has a winning way, but it is no more honest to explain the Shelby-Ford alliance that simply than to say Columbus won over Queen Isabella with Latin charm. In both cases, reputations were at stake. If Columbus had sailed over the edge, Isabella would have had some explaining to do about her hocked jewels and, similarly, if Shelby's dream had come a cropper, well, certain heads might have rolled at Ford. The manager of Special Events at Ford, David Evans , who still has his head, remembers his first contact with Shelby fairly well: "Shelby said he would like to consider that little old engine of ours for his car. Now, we get many sensible proposals from people as smart as Shelby. Perhaps it was the way he said it or something about him, but whatever it was, I got to thinking why not? I had two engines available, and I sent them to him and then sat back and wondered why I did it. I can't explain it, but he sells himself and his idea, and you can get mad as hell at him but he delivers."

Outwardly Shelby satisfies the trite image of a Texan. He has the slack shoulders and high waist of a cowpoke. His smile comes easily and scatters quickly into wrinkles etched by the sun. His manner is relaxed, yet he is forever stirring about, sitting down and getting up and sitting down again, as if worried or saddlesore. On the eve of the last 12-hour sports car race at Sebring during the preparation of seven Shelby-American and Ford entries for which he was responsible, in one 20-minute period Shelby settled and resettled 13 times on the following perches: an oil-stained lawn chair, a midget motorcycle, the edge of a table, a box of tools, a stack of pop bottle cases, a stack of tires and a badly sprung sofa that saw its best days before Coolidge took the oath. In his office at Shelby-American or in the pit during a race, and even while drying his hands in a washroom, Shelby paces about restlessly, like a lawman who expects trouble suddenly to bust out behind every swinging door in town.

His former secretary, a girl named Pat Rodgers, who is beautiful and drives a twin-cam MG, has this to say: "When I worked for him I had to keep asking myself, 'If I were Carroll Shelby , where would I be two hours from now?' He's the kind who takes off for Paris at any time but can't understand why the banks aren't open at noon on Sunday. He had a large automobile horn he used to squawk behind everybody in the office—and an electric cattle prod. We took the batteries out of the prod, thinking he'd think it was broken, but he found new batteries, poked me in the hand with it and I nearly went through the ceiling. Oh, he's a fun-lover. You have to go 90 miles an hour to keep up with him, and I'm just an old-fashioned 80-mile-an-hour girl."

"Have you ever had dinner at Shelby's house?" a business associate asks. "You know he is well-traveled and has excellent taste in clothes and furniture, but he doesn't like to eat out. He likes to cook. He's got a shelf of cookbooks—French, Italian and God knows what. Maybe I'm betraying his confidence, but do you know what he cooks for you in his home? There's no meat. You get corn bread and butter beans, raw sliced onions, tomatoes and maybe lettuce—I forget—and catsup. After cooking for us he sat down and said, 'Now I'll show you how to eat this.' Apparently there's a correct order for piling everything on the corn bread, but I forget. Anyway, the butter beans weren't quite done, but I'll say this, he served an excellent light white wine with it."

Despite his outward ways and some of his particular tastes, in actual disposition Shelby is not so much a classical Southwesterner as an American Yankee with an itch. Spiritually he is much like the old Connecticut gun inventor, Sam Colt, who also had a good idea and was very loyal to it. Like Colt , Shelby of Texas is the best and frankest salesman of his own cause. Like Colt , he has a thirst for knowledge and mild contempt for people who merely wallow in it. In the Shelby plant there are graduate engineers as well as tinkerers who came along the road of trial and error. Shelby has a respect for the university man who can program victory on a computer, and he has equal admiration for expedient men like his old co-driver, Dale Duncan, who, in the middle of a race before 20,000 cheering fans, urinated in the carburetor to put out an engine fire.

Also like his predecessor, Sam Colt, in school Shelby was a sluggard with the English tongue but became a skillful user of it, coloring and enriching the language without wasting it. When interviewing a new secretary recently Shelby simply asked, "How would you like to work in a snake pit for a real snake?" His total phone conversation with an important business contact is apt to run as follows: "Hello, butter bean. When I heard what you did, you could have cut buttonholes in my behind. My opinion may not be worth a pin whistle, but I think you're dumber than a hundred head of billy goats." After an important meeting with half a dozen very rich men about organization of a racetrack, Shelby announced, "As far as I can figure out, all we decided was to hold another meeting." When an associate criticized one of his moves, Shelby replied, "When you are a jerk, it sometimes pays to act like a jerk." When asked in an interview recently why he went into the car business he said, "I liked the idea of building an American car that can be raced or used on the streets. And beyond that, I wanted to see Carroll Shelby amount to something."

Though the men are alike, the careers of Colt and Shelby differ considerably. Colt invented his famous revolving principle at the age of 15 and spent most of his life proving its worth. Shelby, in contrast, did not take motor cars seriously until nearly 30, and was successful in a short time, first as an amateur race driver, then as a professional, tangling with the best on the Formula I circuit and in such classic sports car brawls as Sebring , Le Mans , the Tourist Trophy and the Targa Florio . Shelby's late arrival on the automotive scene was happenstance as much as anything: in his early years he often picked the wrong fork in the road or was forced to take it. While growing up in Leesburg , Texas and later in Dallas , he had a normal American boy's idiot craving for machines and sated it as a teen-ager by careening around in a Willys. He got out of high school just in time to join everybody else in World War II. His first military assignment was shovelling chicken manure onto the flower beds at Randolph Field. He graduated from that to running a fire truck, and finally went through pilot training, subsequently serving as a flight officer, a peculiar rank that the Air Corps gave to pilots who were superior to the unwashed, enlisted masses but were not considered to have quite what it takes to be part of the brass. In the worst of two air disasters that he survived, Shelby bailed out at 600 feet at night and, impelled by howling coyotes, walked 35 miles across the scrabbly land of West Texas looking for civilization (he had actually landed about two miles from a town but, typical of his early life, he took the wrong fork in a trail).

After the war, married and a father of three, Shelby tried a number of enterprises, among them chicken raising, concrete mixing, timber hauling and oil-field roughnecking. Although Shelby and his wife Jeanne are now divorced, they remain a mutual admiration society, and Jeanne Shelby remembers fondly the uncertain postwar years. "Carroll was always a restless and determined man," she recalls. "There were simply a lot of things he got into that didn't really interest him. Have you ever seen a mile-long chicken house? Whooey! We had three of them. He used to recruit friends to come out and inoculate chickens.... I don't think he ever really found what was good for him until he got into a little sports car. He did race stock cars some before that. There was a place called Devil's Bowl or something that looked like somebody had ploughed out a hollow and turned loose every car wreck in town. The cars just boiled around in a genuine contest of who could hit who the most. I went to watch a few times and, after smothering in dust, I said, 'Carroll, it's all yours.' "

During Shelby's racing years, reporters who were not closely associated with the racing scene often described him tritely as a "wild and woolly Texan." But those who genuinely knew the game never considered him an all-out, self-sacrificial driver like the late Mike Hawthorn or Dave MacDonald . In fact, to the contrary, it was his apparent capacity to get total performance from a machine while leaving himself and his rivals a narrow margin that gave him his first good break. In 1954, before Shelby was at all well-known, an Englishman, John Wyer , who was then racing manager for the Aston Martin factory team, saw him in action in Argentina and offered him a job. "He seemed to be a driver who did not merely go fast but was quite aware of how he was going about it," Wyer recalls. "A driver must always think deeply about himself and about his machine, and he seemed able to do both. Of course, although we couldn't be more different, I liked the chap from the start, and even today, when I remember how I pushed him early, I wonder if it was because I liked what he could do or simply liked him. It is a question I still cannot answer."

Although Shelby always drove with reasonable caution, he managed to collect a few battle scars. In the Mexican Road Race of 1954, while chasing Umberto Maglioli and Phil Hill , he flipped on a lonely turn, badly breaking an arm and knocking himself silly. Passersby succored him, pouring brandy into him until he passed from a semiconscious state into one of drunken bliss. Meanwhile other passersby stole the wheels off his car. At Riverside in 1957 he lost his machine in loose gravel on a turn and bashed his face into the steering wheel. A girl friend named Jan Harrison who saw him in a freshly bleeding condition after that accident remembers that the end of his nose was resting on his forehead before the plastic surgeon went to work.

Like most drivers, during his active career Shelby was torn by two forces: one in his own sporting soul that kept him racing and the other in friends who urged him to quit while he was still alive. Shelby remembers particularly a good friend named Henry Maag, a California real estate and investment man. "Henry kept trying to get me to stop," Shelby relates. "We'd be together and he'd get out a book of race drivers and read off the names of the dead. Whenever the newspapers reported another one, of Henry would be apt to phone me at any hour and say, 'All right, Shelby. When are you going to learn? There you are, you dumb bastard. Another one gone.' " In the past 13 years Shelby has attended the funerals of 29 drivers, and though he now merely manages the racing fortunes of Shelby-American and Ford, he remains fully aware that disaster is an inevitable part of the game.

Shelby retired from racing in 1960 because of a mild heart condition that would not correct itself although he took overdoses of nitroglycerin pills. It was his luck, for a change, that a very promising fork in the road turned up just about the time he faced retirement. In 1959 the Goodyear Rubber Company , which had not been in the racing tire business for 40 years, decided to give it a go again. Tony Webner, the Goodyear man in charge, looked up Shelby and was impressed. For advice rendered then and since, Shelby serves as racing tire distributor in the western states, doing a monthly business these days of about $40,000. Shelby also runs a school for race drivers and serves as a consultant to All American Racers in the development of Formula I and Indy cars. He is also a consultant for a slot-car company, owns half of a car agency and gets a royalty for his development work on the Sunbeam Tiger, a Ford-powered English sportster that has lots of evil charm. The way things have been breaking for him lately, if he gave the chicken business another try he probably would succeed.

Meticulous readers of the sports pages are aware that on the international scene the Ford Grand Touring prototypes managed by Shelby and his own Grand Touring Cobras are having a dingdong battle with the Ferraris of Italy—the habitual winners. Next month at Le Mans , in the classic of sports car classics, the Fords, Cobras and Ferraris will be at it again. Because big-time sports car racing involves all manner of carbureted beasts and is subject to constant changing of the rules, only an absolute car nut can appreciate the whole signficance of the battle of Shelby versus Ferrari . In fact, there are so many categories and changes that it would come as no real surprise if some of the honors this year were won by a factory team of Flexible Flyers driven by mountain gorillas. In the soul of Carroll Shelby , victory at Le Mans means a lot, but for his particular destiny the outcome barely matters. He has a successful little car business he can call his own, and all the forks in the road ahead look good. He is riding high on a cloud of Los Angeles smog, and at this point it would take a lot more than a squat, red Ferrari to blow him off.


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Originally formed as the COBRA Club in 1972. Established as a Region of SAAC in 1975. One of the oldest SAAC Regions in the United States