. Cobra Ranch Historical Automotive Blog: Featuring Wally Wyss

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Carroll Shelby died May 10, 2012, at Baylor Hospital in Dallas at the age of 89.  It will take years to assess his impact on the car racing world and automotive world.

I think the part of his legend that will be remembered most is that he came out of nowhere--no education, no college degree, no business education, yet he conquered several worlds, such as the sports car world, with his Cobra, and the automotive marketing world with the Cobra and the Shelby Mustangs.    You wouldn't think  a rube from a small town in Texas could become  a world class race car driver but he won the 24 Hours of LeMans only a few years after he started racing.    When Shelby came into  the sports car world as a manufacturer, he started from California because he knew the California hot rodders--the guys who had been making their own intake manifolds and bodywork-- those were the guys who could help him create something that would beat the fancy foreign cars from Italy and England.   And he was right.   And you can't deny that the Shelby GT350 led to Ford backing Shelby in Trans-Am with the result that Shelby-prepared Mustangs took the Trans-Am trophies for several years running.  But the biggest victory for American marques was when Shelby was called late by Ford (after Ford dropped the ball in 1964) to help them with the GT40. It was Shelby and his crew at Shelby-American that turned a loser into a winner that took LeMans in '66 and '67.    When Shelby went to Chrysler, there were those who thought: "What can he  accomplish there with those little front drive puddle jumpers?" Well, he proved front wheel drive cars could be fun to drive and while those Shelby Dodges are not collected like his Ford cars, he achieved Chrysler's goal so that Americans today buy more American-made front drive cars  than they did back before Shelby turned his hand to them.
    Fans of his collaborations with Ford were happy to see Shelby get back together with Ford. It was a long time coming, and surprising in that most men his age would have long since retired to the rocker on the porch. But, no, Shelby  perserved--even having a heart and kidney transplant to keep going--so that the modern Shelby Mustangs are worthy of the name.    Only a few months before he died, he saw the introduction of a 200-mph showroom stock Shelby Mustang.     There were failures, oh, yes, big time failures like the Oldsmobile powered Series 1. And fights, those clone wars got nasty with suits and counter-suits. But the potential car builder in all of us hoped Shelby would prevail because, damn it, he was the one who honed the original ideas only to have them stolen when he was busy elsewhere.     Trying to keep up with his other activities was impossible--you check cattle ranching, horse breeding, chili mix production, you find Shelby mentioned here and there and everywhere. Like Pete Lyons wrote "In every field that caught his interest, he was able to exercise a powerful combination of intelligence, curiosity, vision, timing, guile, cunning and charm, plus what he described as 'the work ethic.' "
   There are lots of other car companies that made interesting products, but none of them had a leader who is even one-tenth the exciting personality of Shelby. And his former employees, who met annually at this event or that, seemed to like remembering working for The Man, as the highlight of their working lives.   No doubt they scratched their heads whenever they read about Shelby's latest activiity. Here he was older than them, and by all rights  should be retired, but no, he was out there shaking up the troops.    I think those who read about Shelby's life will discover a lot to emulate--the way he would learn European courses so well that, 50 years later, he could remember each turn in the Mille Miglia. The way he supported young men with their ideas, even if he wasn't sure if they could do what they claimed (case in point--Pete Brock's design for the Cobra Daytona coupe).    By far the most fun in reading about Shelby is the "merry prankster" aspect to it all, the way his crew lived it up when they went to race, and partied hardy, but still won the races. It's like reading about Robin Hood and his merry men. They had fun, and lived life to its fullest.   And, as far as drama for a story, you don't get any better in talking endurance racing of the '50s and '60s than Shelby vs. Enzo Ferrari. The Ferrari people still like to pretend that Shelby was no threat but, for a few years there --say '65-'67-- Shelby managed to wrest away the mantle from Ferrari, and for that sports car fans who aren't die-hard Ferraristi are grateful.   As far as how Shelby changed the car world, I believe his driving school was one of the first for high-performance driving. His going into cast wheels for cars and motorcycles showed his prowess as a manufacturer. But the most important thing was proving that an American-engined sports car could conquer those fancy European sports cars where you had no parts and had to learn the language of your foreign mechanic.  His charity giving programs  have had  some ups and downs but suffice to say that heart funds and vocational education have received monies.Shelby's survivors consist of his wife, Cleo Shelby; his sister and only sibling, Anne Shelby Ellison; daughter Sharon Lavine and sons Michael and Patrick Shelby (all three from his first marriage to Jeanne Fields); six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.    With Carroll Shelby's death, an era has ended. And I, for one, will lament that the car world is duller for it. We are back to the machines, but machines are not interesting if there is not an interesting creator behind them... 
Wallace Wyss is the author of SHELBY: The Man, The Cars, The Legend(Iconografix, 2007)

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