Carroll Shelby, Portrait by Wallace Wyss
By Wallace Wyss
Somewhere I heard the saying: “Sometimes a tree is down a long time before they measure its length” and it’s that way with Carroll Shelby who died May 10 at the age of 89. He has influenced the auto industry and car racing in so many ways, it’s difficult to grasp just how much until after the media will have been able to cover his accomplishments over the next few months. But let me try.
First of all in car racing, I think that Shelby, by being a home-spun type with no education beyond high school, helped change the American perception of sports car racing. Before Shelby came along it was a bit snobby, a sort of “the right crowd and no crowding” type of sport like polo is now; you didn’t participate unless you were of a certain class, etc. Big players in the game were guys like “Gentlemen Jim” Kimberly and Briggs Swift Cunningham.
By excelling in the sport, that ol’ chicken farmer, Carroll Shelby democratized it. And throughout the time he was a team manager he hired drivers who were equally without portfolio, like Ritchie Ginther, who drove as well as the more patrician sports car drivers.
You could say much the same about the Cobra cars. Before Shelby came along, you had to buy a pretty expensive car to go over 150 mph and keep a British or Italian mechanic happy just to get your car breathed on. But by pushing the Cobra with its off-the-shelf Mustang engine, he showed that you need not have a car that requires a “furrin’” car mechanic to go fast; and by then bringing the Shelby Mustang into the sports car circles he more or less egged on Chevrolet to make more of a sports car of their Corvette.
Shelby, by convincing Ford to go endurance racing, also got the American car industry a little more grounded in reality. Think back to what you saw Detroit automakers displaying at car shows prior to 1962? Bubble-topped fantasy cars with jet exhausts. But the cars that Shelby was involved with had real features for real purposes — spoilers that kept the rear end down, scoops that scooped, not all that phony-baloney stuff from the earlier era. He shook us out of our dream world of cars and grounded us in reality.
Another area where Shelby really made a contribution was at Chrysler. Sure, those Dodge Shelbys he built there are not very collectable now and even the Shelby Ford fans won’t look at one, but you have to remember, there was a real impediment to selling front wheel drive cars in America before he came along. When Chrysler started building Shelby Dodges like the GLH, that attitude changed, paving the way for front wheel drive cars we enjoy for decades from American automakers.
As a former advertising man, I also have to take my hat off to Shelby for the way he changed car advertising. When he assigned Pete Brock to write those first Shelby GT350 ads, Brock wrote ads that talked about “decreasing radius turns” and “g-force” — non-nonsense words that real tech guys are interested in. Contrast that to the rest of Detroit, which was still showing swoopy cars with beautiful women, mountain scenery, etc. Of course when Ford’s ad agency took over the advertising later, they went back to the usual formula of babes-and-scenery but Shelby started a trend in advertising that is still found in enthusiast ads (I know he started the trend because in 1967, I worked for Chevy’s ad agency and wrote an ad for the Camaro Z/2 which was inspired by a Shelby ad).
Shelby was a controversial character — almost the model for the wheeler-dealer Texan as exemplified earlier by “Billy Sol Estes.” But at times, he could be remarkably generous, like starting a Heart Fund for children (after his own transplant) and starting an educational program for young auto mechanics in a town close to his home town.
He was an enthusiast of the first order, appearing at vintage races, at auctions where significant cars he had owned were sold, and collecting art work depicting his most memorable moments in racing. All over the world there were enthusiasts thrilled to see him come to an event. He did this despite considerable physical obstacles, including a couple of bypass operations, and a kidney transplant. We were especially eager to see his old employees and race car drivers, who once composed that “merry band of men” that shook up sports car and endurance racing. Sometimes, Shelby would want to make an event so bad, he’d sneak out of his hospital bed to do it.
When asked what his greatest achievement was recently, he referred to his three children, now in their sixties themselves, but it is a credit to Shelby that, even when divorce loomed while they were still children, he always made sure they knew they could call on him for help, and they, too, have become keepers of his legacy.
As a car writer, every so often I look at what cars are out there, and wonder if I should do a book on this one or that, but then I have to lament — damn it, there aren’t any colorful car creators out there even half the measure of Carroll Shelby. Oh, there’s interesting cars, but are the people who designed or engineered them interesting? Not like Shelby. When they created him, it’s God’s truth, they broke the mold.
One of the most interesting things I ever heard about Shelby was that, when he was contemplating moving to Las Vegas, he wanted to be sure that he could still receive the Art Bell show on radio. Art Bell was a smooth voiced radio show host who did a show that was syndicated, and talked about odd things, like flying saucer sightings and the like. Why was Shelby interested? I think, as a self-made self-educated man he always had the hopes that he would, in his own little research expeditions, discover some new technology in what others have ignored and use that technology to not only make his fortune but to benefit society. He had investments in a hydrogen car, an experimental engine and other projects that received little publicity. Maybe because he was not educated, he wanted to show he had a gut-level instinct for what could be good. So that’s what I admire most about him - he had an urge to excel, and didn’t let the fact he was a failed chicken farmer ever stop him from trying.
Every time I see a Cobra I’ll remember him for being the adventurous guy that he was who not only built cars, but entertained us all…
Wallace Wyss is an author and fine artist.