Friday, January 2, 2015

Carroll Shelby

I've always been asked, 'What is my favorite car?' and I've always said 'The next one.'

Once, on Ohio Route 322 in the rural part of the state east of Cleveland, when the flat two-lane blacktop gave me almost three miles of visibility, seeing no cars in front of or behind me, and knowing that none of the towns along that stretch had police departments, I scared myself silly getting that beast in the photo above up to 125 miles per hour with a simple tap on the accelerator.  Man, it was great.  I did, however, finally have to stop and turn around to help an Amish guy by the roadside pick up the cheese wheels and wedges that my draft had sucked off his farm stand. 

His first statement was, "Is that a Cobra?"

Maybe it was because I was exposed to it at an impressionable age, and with a couple of wrenches in my hands, but I've always thought that one of the world's great works of art is the carbureted V8 Cobra engine.  If form follows function in architecture and graphic arts, then surely this automobile engine, the pure product of mid-century American engineering, deserves a place in a museum.  [There actually is a Ford V8 museum in Auburn, Indiana.]

It has certainly captured the imagination of many different types of men and women through the years.  Some have been actual engineers, some garage or shade tree mechanics, weekend hobbyists, farmers with something rusty and discarded in the corner of a barn, Southern California hot rodders, or a 20-year-old in Ohio who has just purchased a 1969 Ford Torino GT with the 390 c.u. Cobra package from a neighbor for $100.  This writer even knows a professional poet who has about a dozen cannibalized V8's scattered about his garage in various conditions, all waiting eventually to be consolidated and fitted into a 1932 Ford pickup truck.  Whatever their background, they're all motorheads; and motorheads love V8's.

There is a bit of an "attitude" about a Cobra V8, too, that's rather hard to describe unless you take into account the guy who managed to make a simple auto engine an international corporate statement and the rallying point for a kind of asphalt patriotism. 

Imagine, if you will, a collection of Detroit auto executives in the 1960's gathered in a top floor office: Brooks Brothers sack suits, horn-rimmed glasses, skinny ties, button-down shirts, the full Mad Men look.  At least one has a pocket protector.  Their boss, Henry Ford II, and his hatchet man, Lee Iaccoca, have just given them a directive to build an American car that can compete with the best that Europe has to offer in both the showroom and the race track.

As the last innovation of these men was the Ford Edsel, the most unpopular car in U.S. automotive history, the room is rather glum.  Then in walks a tall, rangy, drawling Texan wearing a suede, western-style sport coat with no tie.  He looks around the room for the whisky decanter, rests his cowboy boot-shod feet on the nearest side table, and tells "the fellers" that he is "fixin'" to build them a car like no other.

I'm sure they thought he was either some kind of turbo-powered savior or a complete lunatic.  In reality, Carroll Shelby was a little of both.

He had done a number of things in the automotive world, mainly selling cars, building cars, repairing cars, improving cars, and racing cars.  Perhaps you will notice the leitmotif in his activities?  Born in a small town in Texas in 1923 and having spent his childhood in bed with a heart ailment, the teenage Shelby was told by doctors that he had "outgrown" his malady [ah, early century medicine] and thus indulged his interest in machines by attending the Georgia Institute of Technology [whose president at the time was my wife's grandfather, by the way].  Unfortunately, Shelby's academic career was interrupted by WWII.

After the war, during which he served as a sergeant in the air corps, he sought to recapture the thrill of aerial derring-do by entering as an amateur in auto races, performing so well that he became semi-professional and then fully professional, driving for several of the leading teams of the 1950's in competitions as significant as the Le Mans 24 Hour race, which he won in 1959 driving for Aston-Martin.  During the race he came to admire the sturdiness and style of the British AC automobiles against which he competed.  So much so, that when he retired from racing at the end of that year, Shelby received the license to sell AC autos in the USA as part of his new company, Shelby-American.

Even snazzier than James Bond's Aston-Martin.

There was just one problem, though.  Shelby thought that the 2-liter engine that AC installed in its cars resembled more a sewing machine than a high performance motor, so he replaced it by fitting, barely, a robust, bulletproof Ford V8 under the hood.  The Shelby Cobra, as it came to be known, would become the hottest and most desired high performance automobile in the United States, outselling similarly priced models from Ferrari, Porsche, and Mercedes. 

Not to mention making it the car of this writer's dreams

The mid-'60's were a wonderful time for flexing on the world stage the competitive muscles of American manufacturing.  For some time, Henry Ford II had been annoyed at the perceived superiority of the European racing marques, knowing that American cars could be faster and more reliable than anything produced on the continent.  The only way to prove that was to go to Europe and roundly defeat the European racers on their home ground.  In Carroll Shelby, Le Mans victor and car innovator, he found the perfect champion to lead this effort.

Shelby was hired by Ford to take their newest car, a Ford Falcon with a jazzed body, known at that time as "the car for secretaries", and turn it into a street and race track powerhouse.  This new car, eventually labeled the "Mustang", would prove to be as popular with young men as with secretaries, and the Shelby version, the GT350, would become the stuff of which dreams are made.

The Ford Motor Company took this...

And, keeping the same chassis and engine, put a new body on it to make this:

Otherwise, it was the same car.  Not the same price, of course.

This appalled Shelby, so he took the Mustang and made this:

To the naked eye it looks like any other Mustang of the mid-'60's, but motorheads know that the back seat is missing [Who needs that?], the Falcon engine was replaced with a 289 cubic inch V8 racing engine, and, for good measure, big sedan suspension, an overhead camshaft, aluminum headers, and a large barrel carburetor were added.  Oh, and a chrome fire extinguisher mounted to the drive train hump, because you never know, especially when it's putting out 225 horsepower.  

It was almost impossible to drive, rather uncomfortable, and everyone wanted one. [In fact, two are currently listed for sale by Hemmings' Motor News for $140,000.]   While it was "street legal", with minor modifications it could handily compete on the track. 

And that was just the street car.  In order to show the Europeans who was boss, Shelby designed for Ford what was probably the best sports prototype racing machine of its era.  Designated the GT40, it fulfilled Henry Ford II's desire to prove American cars the best regardless of where, when, and in what conditions.

The GT40 at rest.

And at work.

To give the novice an idea of how dominant Ford became, and how much it changed the world of European road racing, from 1923 until 1965, Italian, German, British, and French cars won the 24 Hours of Le Mans each year, with Porsche, Ferrari, and Jaguar the teams with the most victories.  From 1966 to 1969, the Ford factory team won every race, with Fords also finishing to either place or show in the same races.

By 1970, Henry Ford II had proved his point, and anyone with even a casual interest or knowledge in automobiles knew that the Cobra trademark stood for speed, victory, torque, and good old-fashioned American attitude.  Seriously, what could be better than that?

Carroll Shelby would move on to work with Chrysler-Plymouth when Lee Iacocca took over that company in the 1980's, producing Shelby Cobra versions of the Dodge Viper, Charger, Daytona, and lesser models.  He would also make his own line of Shelby Cobra cars, based on existing models but serving the motorheads everything they could want in a car that was barely legal to drive in suburban America.  In 2003, he would return to Ford and produce 21st century versions of the Shelby Mustang and a street model based on the GT40.  He would also make a fortune with his own...chili sauce.

He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1991, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1992, and the SCCA Hall of Fame posthumously in 2013.  Shelby would die at the age of 89 in 2012, leaving a remarkable legacy in auto craft and racing engineering, reminding us of the glory days before cars looked like jelly beans stuffed with unnecessary electronics.

There are many, many books about Shelby, the Cobra lineage, and Ford's dominance in all forms of racing in the 1960's.  If I were to suggest one, it would be Go Like Hell, which chronicles the battle between Enzo Ferrari and Henry Ford II in endurance racing; a book that prominently features Shelby and his contributions.  There is also an authorized biography entitled [What else?] Carroll Shelby.

If that's not enough, his chili sauce is tasty and more popular than ever and, if you're ever in Las Vegas, you can visit the Carroll Shelby Museum just outside the gates of the Vegas Speedway.