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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Book Review Carroll Shelby: The Authorized Biography


  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Motorbooks; First edition (April 26, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0760340560
  • ISBN-13: 978-0760340561
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds

  • Review by Wallace Wyss

       Most of the books on Cobras , Shelby Mustangs and GT40s—cars in which he was instrumental in creating —concentrate on the nitty-gritty of mechanical bits, such as how big the carburetor was in the ’66 GT350, or what additional colors there were on the ‘67s and so forth, etc.

       That’s because car reporters, who write most of these books, tend to steer away from covering personalities because they think the market wants only the nitty-gritty detail on the cars and doesn’t care that much about the background on the folks who created them.

       This book happily goes much more than usual into the man, the quirky, controversial former chicken farmer who became one of the most famous names in car racing,  Carroll Hall Shelby.

       The author is British author Rinsey Mills, who has written earlier books on Cobras He was a surprising choice because usually  British authors seem more to reflect the attitude that A.C. Cars Ltd. Was doing fine and Carroll Shelby didn’t “save them” but more took advantage of them.

    But in this huge two pound book, Mills gives Shelby full credit for the idea of the Cobra.

    This book starts out with Shelby as a boy, where he grew up the son of a rural mailman  in a small town near Dallas.
    This book is an “authorized biography” which could mean that Shelby read every word and “authorized” the depiction of his life, but it could also mean that Shelby merely authorized Mills to contact his lifelong friends, former employees, race drivers, business partners and even ex-wives. In other words, Shelby paved the way, by handing him his Rolodex. And it shows that in a way, Mills quoting nobody but Shelby’s friends, though of course, being in business over 50 years he has stepped on a few toes and has his enemies.
       In almost all the areas, Mills tells it like it is, or was, such as in the disaster of Shelby’s one all-new car, the Series 1 Olds-powered car, telling how it became a failure.
       While his coverage of  Cobra and GT40 racing during the ’62-’67 period is very thorough, if you are not schooled in racing at the time, it is a little byzantine trying to figure out what “first in class” means as opposed to “first overall.” Some authors choose to tell the racing story twice, once about Cobras and then about the GT40s, or even three times, covering Trans-Am separately as well.  You could argue that each type of car has its own fans who want to read about their favorites separate from the others.
    Mills is so busy talking about Shelby he doesn’t go into mini-biographies of some of the most interesting people Shelby hired as drivers or executives. For instance, Phil Hill. How did Shelby ever let Hill—his most talented driver along with Ken Miles—get away to the Chaparral team, who, since they were running Chevys, were the enemy camp?
    Still, when he does deviate from Shelby, then you get impatient that he’s telling you more than you really want to know about some side subject. For instance, it’s known Shelby was in Africa but we don’t need to know the history of each country he hunted in, but a good 6-8 pages on African history take up room in this heavy tome, room that Cobra fans wish were devoted to Cobras and Shelbys.
       Shelby’s married life is touched on, and it was surprising to this author that the failure of Shelby’s first marriage was covered to the extent that Mills tells of the first Mrs. Shelby confronting her husband’s movie star girlfriend in California to find out what the status of her marriage was. The rest of the wives, though, get short shrift and there’s not even a line on each of his children, now grown and parents of their own. (It would have been interesting to find out why, for instance, why none followed him into the car business, and if not, why?)
    It must have been a Herculean task for Mills to research each aspect of the book, but he does it so thoroughly that the thought of anyone else doing a “complete” biography makes you wonder why they would bother. Still there are some aspects that are not discussed enough for this writer—such as what the executives employing Shelby at various automakers thought of him, and so forth. Did Lee Iaccoca like him, if so why is Shelby not mentioned in most of Iaccoca's self-congratulatory books?
        The main problem with the book vis-a-vis what the fans want is that, while there are over 500 pages, there are only a few pages of pictures, less than 10% of the total number of pages. While some of the pictures are new to Shelby fans, even pictures of Shelby as a lad, it’s far from a compendium of pictures of each type of car that Shelby has been involved with. Perhaps the only true way you can cover the man and his times is to have a words book like this as your foundation and then two or three appendixes with pictures.
        I quibble too with the choice of running paintings of Cobras in some cases instead of photographs. Although Bill Neale is extraordinarily skilled at depicting cars and striking a mood with his art, I know Cobra fans are buying books with pictures of Cobras because they have a model Cobra, or are building a replica, but they want to see detailed photos of real cars, not paintings. (Idea for publishers: an art book featuring the art of the Cobra. )
        Anyone who hopes this all-encompassing book will sort out the features of each year of the modern day Shelbys, from 2007, hopes in vain because although the Mills book is published this year, it skips through the cars built after 2007 rapidly and maybe rightfully so since long lists of specifications and colors and model packages would have called for  another style of book altogether.
        So, in sum, Carroll Shelby: The Authorized Biography by Rinsey Mills has achieved a new milestone—covering its subject's life so thoroughly that it has set a tough standard for writers of any future books on Shelby  to match. What else remains in the untold story? Precious little (what about the time Shelby told Vanity Fair magazine he was a diamond merchant? Not a word of it in the Mills book...)
    It will be interesting to see how this book does sales-wise. Will Shelby fans all want to have one or will some hold out, preferring the “coffee table” type book, the type that are heavy on pictures and sparse on words, like those by Randy Leffingwell and Colin Comer? I have those on my bookshelf but wanted a big fat biography too to provide almost a year by year saga of Shelby's life.
    I think Shelby fans want both but this book represents a more academic direction, one that might not have as big a market as MBI hopes. Maybe a series of smaller books, each concentrating on one aspect only-- is the best way to satisfy the fans because I can’t think of a more satisfying Cobra book as an example than the one that’s just on Daytonas called The Cobra-Ferrari Wars by Mike Shoen. That author, who actually owned a Daytona coupe, didn’t bother summarizing Shelby’s life before or after the Daytona but just concentrated on why that particular model was developed, how it was developed, and its racing career. Then there’s Go Like Hell, by A.J. Baime,  that discusses only why Ford went racing at LeMans and cuts the subject off right after the ’66 victory. Yet both books are satisfying in how well they cover their narrowly-defined area. So dividing the subject of Shelby into smaller chunks maybe makes more sense than a 500-plus page book that tries to do it all.
     But don’t take that as a negative. For the price, with the retail price of $35.00 (and almost one third lower online), it is a small price to pay to get almost the whole span of Shelby’s life between two covers. Think of the Mills book as the basic building block of your Shelby library….
    The Reviewer: Wallace Wyss has written three books on the subject and is now preparing a second edition of one of them, SHELBY: The Man, The Cars,The Legend.

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