I’ll kindly ask you to excuse my language in the title, but that’s no doubt how Carroll Shelby would have phrased it if he were still with us today. With his passing in 2012, the whole automotive world was at a loss. However, he’s spirit and his legend are still… that’s right, kicking ass at the Shelby Heritage Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
During my recent stay in Vegas, not only did I taste The American Dream in that flamboyant ’61 droptop Cadi, but I also made sure to visit the diametrically opposed side of US car culture at the Shelby Heritage Center. Here it’s all about horsepower, speed and racing. And of course about their name bearer, perhaps one of the most charismatic and larger-than-life individuals in American motoring history.
I arrived just in time for one of their twice-a-day free guided tours of the new facilities which were opened in 2014, thereby bringing together Shelby American Inc. and the Carroll Shelby Museum under one roof. Leading our tour was their company historian, Jim King, retired from Ford and an early costumer of Shelby’s, as he bought tuning parts for his personal ’65 Mustang 53 years ago when the car was still just about factory-fresh. Jim is a proper storyteller – in the way that only an individual who has seen it all can possibly be. He gave every little detail a small personal twist, adding one anecdote after the other as he untangled the awe-inspiring life of Carroll Shelby, thus keeping everyone on the tour spellbound for one and a half hour.
Starting with Carroll Shelby’s days as a flight instructor with the US Air Force in San Antonio, Texas, and not leaving out his early civilian life running a dump truck business and then of course as a chicken farmer, Jim proceeded to use the brilliant cars on display in the museum to portray the exciting automotive side of Carroll Shelby’s life. The seed was sown in May 1952 when Carroll amazingly won the first two races he ever entered while driving a friends MG TC. More races were entered with great success and a 2nd place with John Wyer’s Aston Martin DBR3 in April 1954. led to Carroll being offered a co-driver seat with the Aston Martin Works team at that years Le Mans – only two years after Carroll’s first race. He was named “Driver of the Year” in both 1956 and 1957 by Sports Illustrated, and in 1959 Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori gave Aston Martin their first 24 hour of Le Mans win with the DBR1. Then a severe heart decease changed Carroll’s life forever and the following season became his last as a racing driver – though not before winning the USAC driving championship for 1960. Carroll Shelby entered 168 races in his career from which he achieved a rather impressive 60 wins with over 50% podium finished.
At this point Carroll wanted to build something. The British AC Ace was quickly found to be a suitable starting point. From here Carroll approached Lee Iacocca from Ford in 1961 with the famous words: “This little car I want to build will put the Corvette in the weeds”. Promptly Lee saw to it that Carroll was given two brand new experimental 260 cu.in. small-block Ford V8’s and not least US $ 25,000 in funding. As we all know, from that was born one of automotive history’s biggest icons: Cobra!
Of course, the 260 cu.in. was quickly replaced by the enhanced 289 cu.in V8, and success on US soil came quick and fast. But Carroll strived for more – he wanted international success. Carroll had an uncanny ability to attract talent to his small team. This lead to the 1964 FIA Sebring Cobra which was both fast and strong, but ultimately still lacked the aerodynamics to achieve the necessary topspeeds to truly challenge the established European competition at high-speed tracks like Le Mans. Carroll managed to lure Peter Brock – the youngest designer ever employed by GM – into his team as well, and he immediately delivered by designing the slippery and oh-so-gorgeous Shelby Daytona Coupé. With a few tweaks, such as a crude rearspoiler, and test driver Ken Miles behind the wheel, the sleek coupé broke the lap record at Riverside Raceway on its first test day out. The 1964 season was going well with the Daytona Coupé, and prior to the last race Ferrari was leading Shelby by a mere six points in the World Sportscar Championship. The last race was to be held at Imola and everyone knew – including Enzo Ferrari – that the Daytona Coupé would be faster than the Ferrari’s here. Typically of Enzo’s methods he somehow managed to convince FIA to cancel the last race, thus giving Ferrari the ’64 Championship. Carroll’s response was simple and to the point: “Ferrari’s ass is mine!”. It’s almost unnecessary to explain how Carroll’s stubborn determination led to just that. They obviously won the championship the following year.
Continuing his close bond with Ford, Carroll also got involved with developing the coveted Shelby Mustangs in 1965. Then for 1966 Carroll was asked to take responsibility of Ford’s Le Mans efforts with the GT40. With the reworked Ford GT40 mk.II they managed to beat Ferrari at Le Mans that year (and the following with the mk.IV), thus making Carroll Shelby the only person to win the grueling 24 hours of Le Mans as both a racing driver, a constructor and then as a team manager.
From an automotive perspective, the seventies were a little quieter for Carroll Shelby as he pursued other dreams mostly in South Africa instead. Upon returning to the US in the eighties, that life-long friendship with Lee Iacocca got him back into the car industry. Lee had left Ford and was now in charge of saving Chrysler – a task which he could use a little help to achieve. He asked Carroll to work his magic on some of the Chrysler models, which initially lead to the birth of what must be the first American-produced hot hatch – the rather rapid Dodge Shelby Omni GLH / GLHS, which utilised a turbo and intercooler to achieve very decent performance. Other models followed, and to my own personal delight, this part of Shelby history was equally represented at the Heritage Center with an immaculate Omni and a late eighties four-cylinder Dodge Shelby Charger.
The nineties saw Carroll get involved with both Continuation Cobras and not least the only Shelby constructed from a clean sheet of paper, the Shelby Series 1. Only 249 examples were built and one of these intriguing roadsters is also present in the Heritage Center. Then in 2005 the production of Shelby Mustangs was reintroduced to the world of performance car enthusiasts. As the tour exited the museum and entered their vast workshop, it was clear to see that these Shelby Mustangs have continued to evolve in true Carroll Shelby style, and have now become a sound little niche which keeps the Shelby name alive, with an expected 500 Mustangs to leave Shelby American Inc. this year.
“When in Vegas…” Well, this won’t be your clichéd Trip Advisor one-liner, but seeing as you’re on ViaRETRO and reading this, it’s probably safe to presume that you have at least some interest in classic cars and automotive history. So, when in Vegas, make sure you take the time for a visit at the Shelby Heritage Center. Try to get on one of their tours as well, as Jim King as is an experience in his own right. And then be prepared – you will inevitably want to own a Shelby Cobra or at the very least a Shelby Mustang afterwards. Lacking the funds, you can always do what I did: Linger in the shop for a while and spend a couple of hundred dollars on books, model cars, t-shirts and caps in some misconceived attempt at making up for not being able to power away through the Nevada desert in a vicious 427 Cobra…