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Monday, September 10, 2012

Carroll Shelby: The Authorized Biography – Book Review

by Wallace Wyss
            It was a long time coming; a near complete authorized biography of a giant in American sports car circles, Carroll Hall Shelby.  The author is a surprising choice, British author Rinsey Mills, surprising only because in a couple of his earlier books on Shelby he seemed of the opinion that the British side of the AC Cobra story wasn’t being given due credit, a common failing among British automotive historians who sometimes say A.C. did most of it until that cowpoke came along.  In this book he gives Shelby full credit for the idea of the Cobra.  This book is a step-by-step walk through Shelby’s life starting out as a farm boy in a small town near Dallas.  Mills had full access to not only Shelby, but Shelby’s lifelong friends, former employees, race drivers, business partners and even ex-wives.
            He is brutally frank in some areas, such as during the Series 1 Olds debacle, trying to fathom why Shelby persisted in making the car even though he was physically not up to it at the time and there were early signs that GM support could evaporate at any moment.  The book is best in the Le Mans racing segments, where he tells the simultaneous story of the Cobras and the GT40s racing. This reviewer has wrestled with the same thing–basically covering two very different kinds of cars–and concluded it’s easier to understand if you have separate chapters on the Cobras and GT40s. Mills took the more common approach, since they were both in the same races at the same time.  He doesn’t tell much about the personalities of the competition, for example the enigmatic Jim Hall, the young man that Shelby taught to race, and how Hall came back to haunt the Ford GT40 effort with his technically more advanced Chaparrals but he does paint a good portrait of Enzo Ferrari as a worthy adversary.
            The length of the book shows that Mills was trying to show that he could research more in depth on his subject than any author has done heretofore and that makes for fascinating reading at times but only occasionally drags, for example in over-coverage on Africa. He does establish Shelby had a game ranch there but goes on for several pages of mini-histories of various African countries and their rulers and that gets pretty far afield from Shelby, Cobras, and Mustangs and fans of those cars are the primary customers for doing a Shelby book.
            Surprising to this author was his close-up view of Shelby’s wooing of a TV actress while he was still married, surprising because this is “authorized” by Carroll Shelby. Hard to take because his wife Jeanne emerges as a noble woman who was forced to confront that situation (they got divorced, he married the TV star and shortly after divorced her). I am glad it’s in there because it presents a more complete picture of a man who, by most accounts, has lived the lives of six men, not just one.
            The role of various people in Shelby’s life becomes more in focus with Mills’ book, such as the role of Jacque Passino, a Ford racing czar. I had thought Passino came in only later in the GT40 period but Mills says Passino was one of those paving the way for Ford to fund the Cobra. Phil Remington is described numerous times as a key character. Remington was the mechanic who many times came up with last minute fixes on the Cobras and GT40s.  The threat that Holman Moody would take away a bit of Shelby’s empire in the racing days is well presented here though Mills never describes the people behind the name, Holman Moody.  Mills does a good job describing Shelby’s engaging personality, how a rural farm boy from Texas could go to Italy and learn Italian and drive race cars in several countries because he could get people to believe in him, to support his dream.
            The book weighs two pounds and is a whopping 552 pages. And yet has only about 32 pages of pictures, not even 10% of the total number of pages. Now the pictures are interesting, some not seen before from his youth, but I wonder if they will meet the expectations of Cobra fans who want to see every model: the wide hip, the narrow hip, the USRRC, the FIA and on and on. It won’t; and I expect you will have to buy another book to satisfy those needs. And though as an artist, I like Bill Neale’s paintings of Cobras, I wonder why he included several Neale paintings when pictures of the same cars are still available. True, the Neale paintings strike a mood, but many buyers of car books like pictures that help them make their model cars or replica cars more realistic and a painting can’t give you much guidance there.
Tony Parravano's Scaglietti-bodied Ferrari 121LM with Hans Tanner
at the Modena autodrome in Italy.

I thought, since the book is being published in 2012, that it would carry right through to the latest Shelby models, but it becomes vague soon after it discusses Shelby coming back to work with Ford, as if the author didn’t want to get buried in the multiplicity of models that has come out of the Shelby works and Ford since 2007. That’s okay when you remember that this book is a titled as a biography, so don’t expect a list of models with a discussion of the features and options. Maybe in the long view of history they are almost too new to be considered part of history.
            In sum, Carroll Shelby: The Authorized Biography by Rinsey Mills has set a tough standard for any future books on Shelby the man because he covers so many areas so thoroughly there’s almost nothing else anyone could add, no new area to shine light on. As far as technical areas, there will be minor quibbles, easily straightened out if he submits the work to various experts in each marquee. For instance, at one point he says Shelby was the one who got the flaws in the Pantera corrected, while it was actually Bill Stroppe in the West and Holman Moody in the East. A larger question is (and the sales figures will show what direction any future books should go) do Shelby fans want weighty tomes that are almost all words like this book, or do they prefer glossy picture books like Colin Comer’s Shelby and Cobra tomes?
            I think they want both. I think Mills will sell as many of these as Comer does his books. You need both kinds of books for your Shelby library if you want your library to be more complete. In racing scholarship, it doesn’t go near as far as The Cobra-Ferrari Wars by Mike Shoen but then Shoen doesn’t discuss Shelby’s life prior to the Cobra or go that much into after the Cobra. We’re glad to see that Mills’ biography got published while Shelby was still there to add to it and to steer the author to sources who could come up with a lot of information that’s new. The best part is the price. With a suggested retail price of $35.00 (and lower online), the price represents a real bargain for a book that will take you a whole weekend to read.
Author: Rinsey Mills
Publisher: Motorbooks; First edition (April 2012)
Format: Hardcover, 9.5″ x 6.375″, 552 pages
Photos: 25 color and 40 b/w
ISBN-10: 0760340560 ; ISBN-13: 978-0760340561
Price: starting at $22

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