Big Wheel

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.

I’M FIXINTO 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

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