Automotive legend Carroll Shelby and I recently had the opportunity to spend the better part of a day together at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, for the judging of this year's Kids' Automotive Art Contest. The report on the results of this latest installment of the contest will appear in next month's issue along with photos of some of the fabulous winning artworks.
I took advantage of our time together to interview Shelby, something I hadn't done in many years. But now that this man who has produced so many exciting cars for enthusiasts has reached the age of 85, I wanted him to reflect on where he is now and what keeps him going (besides the heart and kidney transplants of some years ago) at a time when many people choose to retire. And make no mistake, Shelby is still as feisty and hard-driving as ever.
When asked how he feels about the way things are going with Shelby Automobiles, he responded: "The same way I felt 45 years ago. There is always a place for a small company like mine to work with a large manufacturer for building niche vehicles. Because of all the checks and balances in a big company, a small organization doesn't have all the impediments, like high wages, super-expensive health care, terrific costs to meet emissions and safety regulations. And especially with the onset of 'green' concerns, a small company is much lighter on its feet."
I asked Carroll if things were a whole lot different now than in the heyday of Shelby American Automobiles. "Where I am today is very much like it was 45 years ago working with the Ford Motor Company. But remember there was a hiatus in performance back then that lasted for about 25 years, from 1970 to 1995. Then, thanks to electronics, metallurgy and communications, niche performance cars came back and the Baby Boomers jumped all over them because they had a lot of money.
"So, I'd say I'm the luckiest guy in the world, because I'm getting a second opportunity to fulfill my dreams. And I'm looking forward to working with Ford until I go horizontal."
Our conversation turned then to the controversy that has erupted about the Shelby American Automobile Club and the replica-car business. Lots of people have been attacking Shelby on blogs and in print for trying to close down the SAAC, so I figured we should hear his side of the story.
"This controversy over me and the SAAC really sticks in my craw. The club was founded in 1974, and was the idea of Edsel Ford, so he and Austin Craig and I put it together as a non-profit organization to carry on the legacy of Shelby American cars. Later we gave a license agreement to a group to run it, and it turned from a non-profit to a multimillion-dollar for-profit organization. Under the agreement, they were supposed to get approvals and provide financial and other reports but they constantly refused to do so and went on selling millions of dollars' worth of merchandise. So I canceled them, and I will go to the Supreme Court if necessary to close this."
Carroll also pointed out that he had provided all kinds of records and memorabilia to SAAC that should have been returned to him, but were instead sold. "I'd really like to have all that stuff from the old days for the Shelby Museum we're building at the factory in Las Vegas. I want my legacy to be mine and Ford's, not part of some for-profit operation."
On the other side of the ledger is the issue of replica builders. Shelby says: "I'm also going to work until I'm horizontal to right the terrible wrongs in the replica-car business. I never intended to build more than a few hundred Cobras, but long after we closed down the production line I realized that others were building replicas of the Cobra. I assume it was because it was the only American car to win the World GT Championship. I've now spent 40 years securing and protecting trademark registration rights on cars that I created and helped me build in the 1960s.
"In my opinion, if these people aren't smart enough to design their own cars, they shouldn't be able to make money reproducing what I did in the 1960s, with help from Ford and great people like Ken Miles and Jerry Titus."
At the end of our conversation, Carroll made it clear that he's enjoying the car business more than ever. He has a great relationship with the executives at Ford, and he's looking at how to make performance cars that will fit into the "green society" that everyone is predicting. He is certain that the current horsepower race will soon come to an end and says he's looking forward to building "pocket-rocket" cars again with Ford.
"You remember that Shelby GLH we did at ? I still have one in my garage and it puts out tons of horsepower. I love to take it out every now and then and embarrass the high-horsepower boys. Now, we're working on a Mustang called the Shelby Terlingua that has a V-6 engine and will have ample power and be really fun to drive. But it will also have better fuel economy."
The thing about Shelby is that, even at 85, he never stops looking down the road and seeing opportunities for more fun cars.
Road America in July
This year's Kohler International Challenge with Brian Redman takes place at Road America's fabulous road-racing track near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, July 17–20. The focus is on historic Can-Am racing, the Scarab Reunion and the Formula 5000 series' 40th anniversary. Contributing Editor Sam Posey will join Editor-at-Large Peter Egan at the track, so be sure to look for them at the Road & Track booth in the paddock. And Road & Track will sponsor the R&T Car Exchange where owners can pre-register and bring sports cars and enthusiast cars for sale. Entry fee is $75, and registration information is on .
Also, the R&T Auto Gallery is a dedicated area where Road & Track readers can park their enthusiast cars in a special reserved area. Readers will have to register in advance for admittance to the R&T Auto Gallery and space is limited, so it's first come, first served. To register, and provide your name, car and information or e-mail address. Then come join the fun and great road racing at Road America.