First he raced cars; then he built the Cobra, the fastest sports car of all time. But that's just where the legend of Carroll Shelby begins.
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“I’M FIXIN’ TO BE SEVENTY-TWO YEARS old,” Carroll Shelby told me one afternoon last fall at his farm in northeast Texas. “But you could turn me loose naked on the street, and by next January I’d be comfortable somewhere.” Shelby is best known as the maker of the Cobra, the fastest street-legal American-production car in history. For some folks, making the most idolized sports car in the country might have been enough for one lifetime. It has been 28 years since the last Shelby Cobra 427 roadster rolled out of the Shelby-American factory in Los Angeles, marking the end of the muscle-car era Shelby helped invent. But with Shelby, who seems to shift gears at the right moments, you get the feeling that if he hadn’t made the Cobra he would have immortalized his name some other way.
“I just might think of something else to start today,” he said after listing a few of his recent projects, including an ostrich-breeding venture, a charity golf tournament, and plans for a hybrid electric car—not to mention the new Cobra he has been promising his fans.
Shelby, who has thumbed his nose at the traditional ways of doing business in the automotive industry, might be the classic hell-raising rebel, but he’s also a resilient opportunist who always seems to land on his feet. Mac Davis wrote a song about him, but as I got to know Shelby better, I thought his life story might be better captured in lyrics by Bruce Springsteen—or perhaps Bo Diddley. It has the quality of fable, the story of an East Texas chicken farmer with a bad heart, whose birds die of limberneck and who wins his first race when a friend puts him behind the wheel of an MG. He keeps on winning, goes to Europe still wearing his overalls, and drives little English and Italian Grand Prix cars until his bum heart forces him off the track. Retired from racing, divorced, and broke, he comes up with the idea for the Cobra and goes back to Europe to win again, this time as the carmaker with his own name on the car. If those chickens on his farm don’t thrive, Shelby’s gonna find a car to drive. If that racing car should spin, Shelby’s gonna find another way to win. If that heart of his should break, Shelby’s gonna find a car to make.
Even after he grew disillusioned with the car business in the late sixties and dropped out of it for a dozen or so years, he managed to broaden his legend in unexpected ways—one of the most surprising was the great Terlingua chili cookoff, which he and a friend, Dallas lawyer David Witts, started as a publicity stunt. In subsequent years Shelby built up and sold a chili-powder business, ran a safari business in central Africa, sold racing tires for Goodyear, and hired on as a consultant for Lee Iacocca at Chrysler. When he got a heart transplant five years ago, he was one of the oldest recipients ever, and he’s now one of the longest-living survivors.
Last year Shelby made waves again when he announced he was making a new Cobra, a feat that some car purists regarded as the equivalent of da Vinci’s trying to repaint the Mona Lisa. In a press release sent last summer to car magazines, he heralded the project in classic Shelby fashion: “Before they throw the last shovel of dirt on me, I want to take one last shot at another honest-to-goodness Cobra.”
For years kitmakers have been peddling cheap Cobra knockoffs, and Shelby himself has been building some old-style Cobras made of old engine parts and new chassis. He recently recruited the help of Nevada convicts, working for minimum wage in a car-restoration program at the Southern Desert Correctional Center, to help him build the Cobras known officially as continuation models, which sell for $500,000 apiece. Most Cobra lovers, however, have had to settle for the sedans and trucks Shelby was souping up over the past decade for Iacocca at Chrysler. Within three months of the announcement of the new Cobra, Shelby-American had dozens of inquiries for the five hundred to a thousand Cobras he plans to build and sell for $60,000.
While these plans for a new fire-breathing roadster might seem like one last act of bravado, one last chance to put his name on a hunk of aluminum and steel, Shelby has been reluctant to finalize his vision of the new Cobra. He has dragged out the planning stages like a striptease artist, doling out progress reports every few months, remaining coy about the details of the engine and a new lightweight chassis. At one point, he was considering V-8 motors from five different companies, including Ford, to power the car. Now he thinks he’ll use the Oldsmobile Aurora engine. He has promised Cobra lovers a staggering 450 horsepower. “If I can’t do it right,” Shelby told me, “I won’t do it.”
When he does make the car, it will be at the Shelby Development Center he is building in Las Vegas. The center will be the new home of Shelby-American and attached to the Las Vegas International Raceway, which is opening next year.
Meanwhile, dozens of his other projects continue to percolate. Clearly, there is no such thing as retirement for Shelby, who has never been one to slow down rounding a curve, although he has been making certain adjustments. He has been spending more time at his farm in the piney woods of northeast Texas, just south of Pittsburg, near his roots.
I drove out to the farm one warm autumn afternoon, not sure what to expect. Shelby is notoriously cranky. A secretary from the early years at Shelby-American said that he used to bring a cattle prod to work. He set the tone for my visit, however, by pointing out the huge new hummingbird feeders he had just hung beside the glass window overlooking his patio. We walked down behind the house toward a pond, where black swans were floating peacefully. He helps protect their eggs, he said, by sitting on the bank with a rifle and shooting at crows, blackbirds, and even coyotes.
Dressed in jeans, red suspenders, a crisp white shirt, and a straw hat, Shelby, at first glance, wouldn’t have stood out from his neighboring farmers. There was a slight old-timer’s shuffle in his walk, the result of motorcycle injuries. He takes 35 pills a day of various sizes and colors to suppress his immune system—or as he puts it, “to keep from puking up my heart.”
Cancer is always a worry for transplant patients, and Shelby had just completed a debilitating course of radiation therapy to treat skin cancer. He doesn’t make many concessions to his poor health, though, other than a brief afternoon nap and a usually futile attempt to stay out of the sun. When I first called him to arrange my visit, he was out on his D9 Caterpillar bulldozer, scraping dirt to level the foundation for a new barn to house his “toys”—the Cobras and other supercharged vehicles that he plans to drive on the quiet roads near the farm.
Shelby bought his 65-acre farm nearly thirty years ago, but he has only recently begun to settle in. He gouged out much of the pond behind his house, and he also had a big lake dug out on a large wooded tract of land he owns near Holly Springs, where he can land the amphibious ultralight plane that he put together from a kit. He tries to spend four or five months out of the year on the farm, which is just down the road form Leesburg, the speck of a town where he spent his early childhood. His family left Leesburg for Dallas when he was seven, but he kept close ties here to a network of aunts and uncles and cousins—”country folk,” he called them. “You’d be surprised how many of my cousins tried to get me resaved when I moved back,” he said. His cousins are still trying to get him back in the pews of the little Baptist church where he was baptized as a boy.
Compared with the showplace owned by Pittsburg’s other big name, chicken magnate Bo Pilgrim, whose palatial spread has been dubbed Cluckingham Palace by the locals, Shelby’s place, with its single-story brick farmhouse, is decidedly modest. It’s the kind of functional, unadorned place built by a man who has nothing left to prove.
When I mentioned that if the chickens hadn’t died all those years ago when he was trying to make a living as a poultry farmer, he might have stayed home to become a rival of Bo Pilgrim, Shelby thought a moment and nodded. “If I’d stayed with those chickens,” he said, “I might have outdone Bo. But I wouldn’t have had as interesting a life.”
Looking back on his racing exploits, he seemed to regret most the vagabond nature of the racing life. If he had it all to do over again, Shelby said, “I might not have driven race cars because I missed so much with my children.” He is now good friends with his first wife, Jeanne, whom he wooed as a young flight instructor at Lackland Air Force Base by flying over her family’s farm and dropping notes. And these days he is happily married to his fourth wife, Lena, a beautiful blond Swede he met in 1968 at a chili cookoff and finally got around to marrying four years ago.
For all his ties to the area, Shelby told me that the locals don’t pay him much mind. “All they care about around here is pickups,” he snorted. Of course, Shelby owns a supercharged Dodge Ram with a golden hood ornament, as well as more than half a dozen experimental trucks he has fooled around with. He keeps them parked in a row, dealership-style, in front of one of his barns. And he does not go unrecognized in Pittsburg. I noticed that a waitress at a fast-food place we went to for lunch was gazing at him with a certain star-struck look. He can still flash the smile that has clinched many a deal and persuaded many a woman to tarry a while.
Shelby can also flash his famous streak of pure devilment. At another local restaurant—where he had taken me to see a display of Pittsburg’s famous Ezekiel Airship, an odd flying contraption said to pre-date the Wright brothers’ 1903 Kitty Hawk—he simply couldn’t resist causing a stir. As we were waiting to order, he peered over the menu and told a waitress with a sly grin, “I hear you serve Tyson chickens here instead of Pilgrim’s Pride.” Later he commented loudly on a local man who was dining on oysters Rockefeller, “Now that’s a real Pittsburg operator.” The man, who had been twirling a bottle of wine in an ice bucket, stopped as though he had been bitten by a snake.
It’s not that Shelby has an aversion to the high life. He does, after all, own a $1 million house on a hilltop in Bel-Air, California, and a membership at the posh Bel-Air Country Club. He and Lena recently had their house in Bel-Air redone in a style that the decorator dubbed “rustic cowboy chic,” with an old church pew serving as a bar and decor adapted from a barn on the Texas farm.
What Shelby does despise is pretension and the sort of do-nothing poseurs whom he refers to as “lard-butts.” What’s more, he can be a world-class penny-pincher who shops at Kmart and flies coach rather than first class. During my visit, he proudly displayed a number of bargain items he had just purchased for $1 each at a dime store in town. Then he pointed out a collection of French and English antiques he bought at auction that he keeps piled in a trailer in the woods near Holly Springs. “I love junk,” he said. “I’m a bottom feeder.” He’s obviously no snob when it comes to decor. But Bo Pilgrim’s place, he said, has the look of a “big fish in a little pond.”
Shelby’s farm looks more like a petting zoo than an estate. In one field his retired champion Appaloosa, Mr. Parrot, is grazing, a relic of one of the many racing pursuits he has conquered. Shelby was a novice when he got into Appaloosa racing in 1965, and remarkably, Mr. Parrot, one of his most successful acquisitions, still holds a number of racing records. In other fields are herds of miniature sheep and African pygmy goats. Shelby’s most treasured prizes, though, appear to be the miniature horses that race to the fence for a carrot when they spot him. He has been reducing his herd recently. It is amusing to Shelby’s friends to contemplate this purveyor of ultimate horsepower, the man who turned the Ford Mustang into a road-burner of a car, out in a field sweet-talking his tiny horses. It’s enough to make you consider a new version of the Peaceable Kingdom, where the Cobra shall lie down with the miniature lamb.
If there is something almost perversely downscale in Shelby’s choice of horseflesh, he can be equally whimsical these days about his choice of vehicles to drive. He could drive any number of fast and exotic cars—including his Cobra Daytona Coupe race car, one of six in the world and practically priceless, but which he would sell, he said, for $3 million or $4 million. It was the Daytona Coupe, a closed-coupe version of the Cobra roadster designed by Shelby protégé Peter Brock, that is considered the consummate Cobra race car. His most frequent choice, though, is a minivan—”I’m a van man,” he said proudly. On the day of my visit, he was driving a red Jeep Renegade. When we climbed in to tour the farm, at first I was a little disappointed that we weren’t going to be zipping around in a Cobra. Of course, this was before I had ever actually ridden in a Cobra and before I learned that Shelby’s passengers in a Cobra have been known to faint from terror. According to one story, when a female passenger fainted, Shelby reassured onlookers, “Well, she still has her clothes on.”
As it was, I noticed that we were rounding turns at an alarming clip. “We’re only going seventy-five,” said Shelby as I braced myself, “but on this road, it feels like a hundred. I like driving out here because nobody bothers you. Some farmer might look out and say, ‘What’s that?’ But I’ll be out of sight by then.” As we were whizzing along, Shelby did not put my mind at ease when he told me about two foolish young men who had been racing a Z28 Camaro on one of these country roads and cracked up at an intersection. “They had to pry them out,” he said. “They were dead, but they had these bottles of Jim Beam stuck in their belts that didn’t even have a crack in them.”
I must have looked a little pale because Shelby glanced at me solicitously. “I don’t drive reckless,” he said as the trees flashed by in a blur. As a race car driver, Shelby was known for his cool. By all accounts, he was a natural too, from the first time he climbed into the cockpit of a sports car—a little MG TC owned by his longtime friend Ed Wilkins, who loaned him the car for a race at a small track in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1952. Shelby won the race and then won again later that afternoon against larger Jaguar XK 120s by cutting corners and saving time.
Shelby was 29, and he had been working as a jack-of-all-trades. His experience in competitive driving had been confined largely to high school hot-rodding and primitive dirt-track oval races near Dallas. He had trained bombardiers at Lackland Air Force Base during World War II and later worked as a roughneck, a motorcycle dispatch rider, even a golf hustler. He tried his hand at raising chickens until his barnyard was wiped out by limberneck, a form of botulism. In fact, it was during his days as a chicken farmer that he began wearing bib overalls to the races, which became his trademark. Blackie Sherrod, then a sportswriter for the Dallas Times Herald, witnessed one of Shelby’s first races, in which Shelby had listed his profession on the entry form as chicken farmer. Even then, said Sherrod, who is now at the Dallas Morning News, Shelby had an aura about him that let you know he wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life around poultry.
Shelby’s first wife, Jeanne, once said of him, “I don’t think he ever really found what was good for him until he got into a little sports car.” When Shelby began racing in Europe, in 1954, sponsored by Astin Martin and surrounded by the aristocratic swells who traditionally dominated racing in Europe, he became even more emphatically down-home. “There’s a tendency for the rough places in a man to get smoothed over,” said David E. Davis, the editor of Automobile Magazine and the éminence grise of car journalism. “But Shelby has succeeded without getting smoothed over.” During his racing days, Shelby also acquired an antipathy to the autocratic Enzo Ferrari, the Italian manufacturer whose name on a race car was the ultimate imprimatur. Although he drove Ferraris on occasion, he did not race for Ferrari himself because the Italian paid his drivers so little. “They were basically racing for the trophies in those days and not much else,” recalled Shelby’s friend Bob D’Olivo, a well-known automobile photographer.
Shelby’s forte as a driver was a combination of cool nerves and consistency on the turns. Bill Neale, a renowned automotive illustrator and the head of the Dallas advertising firm Point Communications, described him as one of the best drivers he ever saw. “He was extremely smooth, and he was very consistent. You could watch him going through a turn, and his line would never vary,” Neale said. “What’s more, he never lost his nerve. Before a race, while other drivers might be pacing around nervously or even throwing up, Shelby would be taking a nap in the back seat of a car.”
It’s not that Shelby went unscathed in the dangerous world of Grand Prix racing, where, he said, there was a death every two or three weeks. Ken Miles, who helped design the Cobra, and Dave MacDonald, one of his first test drivers for the car, were both later killed on the racetrack. Shelby himself still feels the aches and pains from a crack-up during the 1954 Carrera Pan Americana Mexico, a grueling road race that ran nearly the length of Mexico. He hit a rock while going full blast and flipped his Austin Healey four times, end over end. His arm was shattered, and as Shelby tells the story, two schoolteachers, who had stopped to watch the race, gave him some brandy, and local Indians offered bottles of beer to ease the pain.
His elbow was so badly injured that doctors had to graft a piece of bone from his hip into his elbow. Shelby continued to race—and win—during his recovery, with his arm in a fiberglass cast and his hand taped to the steering wheel.
During his last year of racing, in 1960, when he won the national driving championship, he had already begun slipping nitroglycerin pills under his tongue to relieve the chest pains caused by his defective heart. He had his first heart surgery in 1973 and a bypass operation in 1978. By 1990, he had grown so weak that he carried a beeper to alert him of the availability of a heart for transplant.
At age 67, Shelby was probably less than two weeks from death when he was at last notified that a suitable donor had been found. As Shelby’s odds improved, time had run out for a 34-year-old man who died of a stroke while betting at a gambling table in Las Vegas. Just two days after the transplant operation, Shelby called Lee Iacocca, his voice barely above a croak, to tell him that with his new young heart, he could no longer hang out with old fogies like Iacocca.
IT IS THAT KIND OF INDOMITABLE cockiness that has kept Shelby going at full throttle most of his life, but it has also contributed to both the highs and the lows of a roller-coaster career. “I’ve seen him up on the peak and flat broke,” said Bill Neale. “He’s had some leadbelly flops, but he always comes back.” His friends have sometimes been part of those ups and downs too, either on the sucker end of a practical joke or the losing end of a business venture. Neale still needles Shelby about a failed cattle embryo transplant deal put together by Shelby that he lost some money on, and on which Shelby himself claims to have lost millions.
Blackie Sherrod admitted that back in the sixties, when he bought an Austin Healey from a used-sports-car lot in Dallas co-owned by Shelby, he was “stung like a rube.” Sherrod didn’t carry a grudge, though, pointing out that Shelby had been out of town at the time. And he added, “The people who know Carroll Shelby rejoice every time he accomplishes something.” Sherrod gave the presentation speech when he inducted Shelby into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. The speech, as Sherrod described it, was about how much he hated Shelby—mostly for doing so many of the things he wished he had done himself.
Peter Brock, who joined Shelby during the early days of Shelby-American as a test driver and driving instructor and who designed the champion Cobra Daytona, said that Shelby, for all his orneriness, has an uncanny ability to persuade people to take a chance on him. “He can meet anybody and within five minutes have them convinced they’ve been friends for a lifetime,” Brock said. “It’s not just a line. You develop this instant trust in him. You can feel Carroll’s energy, even today. People want to be a part of that. They have a sense that here’s a guy who’s going to do something exciting, who’s going to change the world.”
It was that air of invincibility, in part, that persuaded executives at Ford Motor Company to take a chance on Shelby back in 1961, when he walked in with the idea of fitting one of the company’s powerful new smallblock V-8 engines into a buglike British sports car chassis Shelby had acquired from AC Cars Limited. As Shelby tells the story, Lee Iacocca, then at Ford, responded, “Give this man $25,000 and get him out of here before he bites somebody.” According to other accounts, the folks at Ford assumed that Shelby was a rich Texan with plenty of his own money to gamble.
During the early sixties, the Chevy Corvette was the fastest thing on the American road. The streets were dominated by big-finned, chrome-laden sedans. Iacocca remembered that when Shelby came to Ford with his racing know-how and his penchant for speed, “at Ford we were fuddy-duddies, and Chevy was cleaning our clock.” The resulting hybrid roadster, the Cobra, which Shelby and his small team of collaborators at Shelby-American modified part by part as they tried out the car on the racetrack, became the most celebrated race car ever made in America. Within a year, the Cobra had blown the Corvette away. Said Iacocca: “In my opinion Shelby invented the muscle car in this country.” Shelby’s modified Mustang, known as the GT350 and GT500, which sold for $4,700, made hot-rodders out of ordinary drivers. What’s more, Shelby turned Ford into an international racing power in two years. David E. Davis recalled that after Shelby’s first year of racing his Cobras, he declared, “Next year, Ferrari’s ass is mine.”
In 1965 Shelby won the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile world championship for GT (Grand Touring) cars. He clinched the title, the first and only for an American manufacturer, from Ferrari in a race in France on the Fourth of July.
IT IS DIFFICULT THESE DAYS TO separate the Cobra from its era, which many car aficionados consider the golden age, a last blast of romance with the open road. When Shelby and his team developed the Cobra in the early sixties, surfing music was big, and American technology, with its promise of speed and power, was reaching its apogee with NASA’s Mercury program. It was a heady time for fast cars. As David Bell, a well-known restorer of old Mustangs and Cobras who lives in Argyle, put it, “It was the era of old-time rock ‘n’ roll and Detroit iron, before America lost its virginity in Vietnam.” The Rip Chords even wrote a song about the Cobra, “Hey Little Cobra.”
The young Shelby-American crew turned out Cobras in a skunkworks of a factory adjacent to the Los Angeles airport. Sometimes they would sneak the car out onto runways for a test drive. “The Cobra wasn’t really designed,” said Shelby. “We just kept fixing what broke.” Because it was also a race car, the Cobra endured the most grueling of tests. Shelby’s genius was in knowing what to fix and how to get the right man to fix it. Most of the modifications in the car were made to accommodate a much more powerful engine than the original parts had been designed for. The original Bristol gearbox for the Cobra, for example, was replaced by a Borg-Warner four-speed, and Shelby added rack-and-pinion steering to the car. The result, nevertheless, was a monster of a car that required almost brute strength and sangfroid to drive. Iacocca said that the first time he drove an early model, the clutch sprang up and nearly drove his knee into the dashboard.
During those early days, some of the Mercury astronauts would stop by the factory for test drives. Shelby remembered, “They would fly there in their T-38s and taxi up to the door. Wally Schirra and Gus Grissom each took one out one day. They headed down to El Segundo. Grissom pulled up to a light and Schirra pulled up next to him and they got to drag racing. They looked over, and there was a cop right there behind them. The cop pulled them over and asked, ‘How about a ride?”
It was a wild time for Shelby too, who was living in the fast lane in more ways than one. He was a famous womanizer, and according to one story, his girlfriends knew their days were numbered when he bought them a full set of luggage. According to Peter Brock, Shelby sent one of his girlfriends, the former Miss Japan and reigning Miss Universe, to his high-performance driving school in Los Angeles; she nearly killed herself and Brock, who was an instructor at the time, by throwing up her hands in mid-turn and giggling. At one point, one of Shelby’s longtime companions hired celebrity-hounding lawyer Marvin Mitchelson to sue him for palimony.
Cobra posters from the sixties reveal the sort of Playboy image that the Cobra evoked, although in reality the car was just as likely to make its male driver as weak-kneed as an impressionable passenger. One poster, with the motto, “Some Guys Have It Rough,” pictures a red Cobra on a beach at sunset, with a high heel lying on the sand nearby and a set of filmy lingerie draped on an open door.
In the mid-sixties Shelby led an infamous gang of speed-and-party hounds called Los Turisimos, who raced their Ferraris and Cobras across Nevada before there was a speed limit. Shelby always invited along the head of state highway patrol and included a pit stop at one of the cathouses along the way—legal recreation, Shelby told me, as were the high speeds at the time.
During the late sixties, in yet another unexpected twist to Shelby’s career, he started the national craze for Texas chili with the Terlingua chili cookoffs in Big Bend country. Shelby had gone in with his friend David Witts on the purchase of the 150,000-acre ranch that included the ghost town of Terlingua, and another Shelby friend, a public relations man for Ford, suggested the chili cookoff as a way to generate interest in the land, which Shelby described as home to a few jackrabbits and not much else. In Shelby fashion, things escalated, and it was just a few years ago that Shelby sold his interest in his chili company to Kraft for a tidy sum.
The stories from the early Terlingua days are legion, including the time that Shelby and a fellow prankster, a deodorant salesman from California who liked to dress up as a priest and call himself Father Duffy, set loose a herd of goats inside the ranch house where scores of drunken journalists were sleeping.
WHEN SHELBY APPEARS AT CAR shows, he is mobbed by fans and autograph hounds. At a glitzy weekend auction of his mementos in California last July, billed as Carroll Shelby’s Historic Garage Sale, a Silicon Valley executive paid $10,000 for an old crash helmet the first day and another $5,000 the next for the black cowboy hat right off Shelby’s head. (Proceeds went to the Shelby Heart Fund for underprivileged transplant patients.) “Everybody wants a piece of Carroll Shelby,” said Rick Cole, the classic-car auctioneer who put the event together.
It wasn’t until a hot day this past fall, however, during a reunion in Dallas of the Texas branch of the Shelby-American Automobile Club in Dallas, that I really began to understand why car aficionados still worship Shelby. Peter Brock had offered to take me for a spin in a Cobra, and I was strapped into the passenger seat of a jet-black 1965 Cobra 289 with a quick-release Air Force safety belt.
Brock was smiling mischievously as he turned the ignition key and the engine roared to life. I felt as though I had been strapped to a jet engine. A friend had once likened the experience of riding in a Cobra to that of an ant stuck on a Roman candle. In reality, most people are terrified of the car. One Cobra owner told me that he had to take a shower after a half-hour drive in his car. We rumbled around the parking lot, and Brock launched the car onto the freeway. I would have looked back to see if the tail of the Cobra was on fire, but I was glued to the seat like an astronaut trainee to a G-force simulator.
I felt a great weight pressing on my chest as we zoomed into the passing lane. “We’re still in second gear,” shouted Brock, who then thrust us into third as I began to laugh hysterically and wonder if I was going to die.
When we finally arrived back in the parking lot, I was a believer. The Cobra is the real thing. No frills, no compromises, just pure thrill. After riding in a Cobra, you may never feel the same way about cars again. It’s a little like riding a runaway Thoroughbred after trotting around a ring on a pony. Fear melts into awe. The cobra is so powerful and primitive and so full of go that it’s way beyond macho—it’s almost a kind of life-form. Dangerous, gas-guzzling, insurance-busting, completely impractical—it nevertheless has a mystique about it that can’t be denied.
Or as Shelby said about his creation: “Almost everything built in the automobile industry is a compromise. But with the Cobra, there was no compromise. I just tried to build the fastest car. I didn’t build it for the guy to take his wife to the grocery store. I built it for someone who wanted the ultimate driving machine.” Shelby also sold the Cobra for half the price of a Ferrari. It was close enough to the price range of the average Joe, said Shelby, that all those guys “hoping to buy one someday made it the classic that it was.”
The Cobra’s reign of terror, however, was brief. Shelby built only 1,003 of the fire-breathing cars, and Ford lost interest in the Cobra after its Total Performance racing program, largely piloted by Shelby, had accomplished its mission. The last Shelby Cobra 427 rolled out of the factory in March 1967, the same year as the first major protests against the Vietnam War and three months after Gus Grissom and the two other Apollo 1 astronauts, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, were killed. A few years ago, at the height of the market, Cobras that originally sold for $6,000 were going for $250,000, and cars with traceable racing histories were bringing $500,000.
SHELBY HAS NO PATIENCE WITH people who live their lives cautiously. “So many people accept defeatism before they’ve even begun to live,” he said. “You have to learn how to do something that fits the pattern. But I’ve never done that.” He has little regard for most of the automobile industry executives he has dealt with over the years. Lee Iacocca, he said, is one of the few automobile executives “worth the powder to blow ’em to hell. The rest are ass-kissers with their eyes on the bottom line and the quarterly report.”
Shelby’s relationship with Ford deteriorated about the time Iacocca left. He is still fighting Ford over the Cobra name, which he cavalierly sold to the company for $1 during the Cobra heyday. Shelby got tired of what he calls the politics of Detroit. He stayed away until Iacocca asked him to help save Chrysler. As Shelby tells it: “Iacocca said, ‘We don’t have anything in the showroom over ninety horsepower.’ And so with mirrors and Scotch tape, we acted like Chrysler had a performance program.” Shelby told me, though, that his go-like-hell razzmatazz was little more than window dressing for Chrysler. “I was nothing but chum,” he said, to attract the younger fish into the showrooms. He has acted as a kind of godfather to the Dodge Viper, although by most accounts, he has had little to do with the final version of the car.
It’s not surprising that Iacocca found that it was Shelby’s contrariness and independence that made him valuable. “What Shelby accomplished in that factory out there in California,” said Iacocca, “you couldn’t do in a bureaucracy. If you put it through the system, it will lose its distinctiveness. During my days at Ford and later Chrysler, I didn’t want Shelby in the system. I never considered that he would become a corporate man, going through channels, worrying about lawsuits and warranties. I’ve got a thousand yes-men who’ll compromise.”
As Shelby put it, “People want a car made by somebody, not by some corporation without a soul.” Three years ago Shelby was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, joining such industry giants as Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and Walter P. Chrysler. Shelby made his mark, however, with fewer than 500,000 cars in his entire career—a number smaller than a single year’s production of Ford Thunderbirds. “The Cobra,” Peter Brock told me after our hair-raising ride, “represents doing something that nobody has done before. A lot of guys can paint as well as the Impressionists, but they didn’t do it at the time. It doesn’t matter whether it’s industry, art, or music—there are champions.”