Jerry Heasley
July 1, 2004
Photos By: Mustang Monthly Archives

Friday the 13th, February 2004: Shelby's Cobra dealers, about 30 of them, are gathered at the Shelby Automobiles production facility just outside the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. SAAC Does Vegas-8, with a Saturday open track and a Sunday car show at Shelby's facility, takes place this weekend. Carroll Shelby is on the grounds. Excitement charges the air. The weekend is special.

I walk inside the building and find myself in a showroom filled with various Cobras and Shelby Mustangs. Shelby's office, within this large room, is enclosed by glass. I can see him through the blinds, sitting in a chair at the end of a long boardroom table. Dressed in black slacks and a black sport coat, he looks corporate holding a cell phone, which he answers on and off. Evidently, deals are going down. After one false entrance (oops, not yet), we wait until Shelby is off the phone to walk inside.

"When did you leave Pampa?" Shelby asks immediately.

"Five this morning.""Who'd you fly?""Southwest.""You fly out of Amarillo?""Yeah.""You don't get a good airfare out of those little towns, do you?"

Shelby always surprises me. He had probably been on his cell phone doing a deal with Ford, his dealers are packed outside, his plate is full, and he's wondering what time I had to get up in the morning and if I got a good airfare.

Brent Fenimor steps in and interjects, "They want you to make a presentation." The vice president of Shelby Automobiles refers to the Cobra dealers who are listening to Scott Black lead a sales meeting. Apparently, selling Cobras requires a sales strategy.

"OK, just let me know when. I'll do it."

Obviously, Shelby has more than one iron in the fire. Today, we happen to be one of his irons, hopeful of a magazine photo shoot and an interview. Carroll has always been friendly to the press.

"I want to take care of Jerry," Shelby says decisively to Brent. Some way, he will fit us into his schedule. We'll get the photo done. But the interview is out for this minute.

I hand Shelby a list of our questions. He reads out loud, "A lot of people don't consider the GT500E and GT350SR real Shelbys. Well, nobody ever said they were real Shelbys."

He stops again and looks down the list of questions. His mood changes in an instant from corporate to kid. He lets out a whimsical laugh.

This interview, tense at first, is shaping up to be fun. Carroll Shelby is fearless. You think he's upset. He's intense. Attending to the corporate side of business is a necessary evil to doing what really makes him happy: building cars. Our interview focuses on the cars and winds up with a message from Shelby straight to our readers, the people who collect the Shelby Mustangs and Cobras and who come to the conventions and car shows to seek his autograph. There's certainly not enough of Shelby to go around, but nobody should ever think he doesn't care.

"These are the people I love," Shelby told us.

He came to the SAAC Does Vegas-8 open track the next morning. Cobras and Shelby Mustangs were angle parked in front of his big Shelby tractor-trailer rig. Cars were in and out, going to and from track sessions. Take a look at our lead photo. This is a for-real shot, nothing fake here. Racing is what Shelby cars are about.

A few days later, Shelby got out the questions we'd printed and the fun began. Our first question was the one he started reading in his office. This time, we read it. "A lot of people don't consider the GT500E and GT350SR real Shelbys, even though...."

Shelby had been thinking about his answer for days and set the record straight before we could finish the question.

"Well, they're not supposed to be. I licensed the people to make them. I licensed the people to put my name on them. And nobody is trying to say they are original GT350s and 500s. Of course, they are genuine Shelby products-that's why they get a Shelby VIN. But people can't confuse them with the cars we built 40 years ago."

I looked at my copy of the questions and paraphrased the rest of the question, "OK, so what have you to say to them?"

Shelby gave his support to the people at Unique Performance in Texas who build the continuation Shelbys. "They're building a good product. And I felt, knowing Doug Hasty, that I would let them put my name on them. But that doesn't mean they're the same as the originals I built in the '60s. You could call them continuations if you want to. But that doesn't mean they are the same or they will bring the same money as the originals do. I mean, Doug's team spends a lot of money bringing these vehicles up to modern technology and so forth. So I'm not ashamed of what they're doing down there and I don't know what the damn controversy is. But there will always be somebody who gripes about everything. That seems to be what makes the world go 'round now. Everybody's got a different opinion on every subject. Do I personally like it? Yes, I like the car or I wouldn't have licensed it."

With that question put to rest, Shelby looked down at his paper and read our next lines.

"You recently partnered with Ford again. How does that feel?"

He looked up and gave his answer, this time without getting perturbed. His voice was calm, but assertive. He enunciated his words.

"Well, that's where I'm going to finish up. Ford is family, and Bill and Edsel Ford are people who make it a family. I'm happy to be back there. And that's where I'll wind up."

The next question focused on the new Ford GT and the Cobra concept, which may become production. Our paper listed the Ford GT as the "GT40," which lit Shelby's fire again.

"There has never been a GT40. The GT40 name was a figment of the English press just like the AC Cobra was. There was never an AC Cobra. It was a Shelby with a little AC, then Cobra. And the English press decided to call it an AC Cobra. I guess they felt like it was an English car, but it was a hybrid car that was built by a lot of people from a lot of countries. England always seems to be able to stick their moniker on anything that's built over there. But, the GT40 was never called that. I was there the day we put the deal together and it was always called a Ford GT. So, this GT40 crap that's been going around-some Englishman said it was 40 inches high, so that's what they started calling it. That was never the official name and it never will be."

"But with the return of the Ford GT and possibly the Cobra, which we've seen in concept form, and possibly the Shelby Mustang, is this like reliving the '60s?"

"Shelby Mustang? Don't say I'm going to come out with it. Say the rumors are very strong there will be a Shelby Mustang." At this early date, Ford had not announced for sure there would be a new Shelby Mustang.

"But, is it like reliving the '60s?"

"Yep, it's like reliving the '60s. It went away for 35 years and nobody except the enthusiasts gave a hoot, until the Ford family brought back the things that were accomplished by our little company and Ford in the '60s. It seemed like it went away for 40 years. And now, thank God the people who put it together are getting the recognition. Not for me, Carroll Shelby, but for the people at Ford and Shelby American who made it all happen."

We got his slant. To Shelby, the rebirth of the legends is not for him, but for the people who made it happen. He's happy they're getting the recognition they deserve. I complimented Shelby on a good answer. He'd spoken like a world champion athlete thanking his teammates after winning a playoff game.

This time, we beat Shelby to the sheet of paper with the next question. "Can you tell us anything else you're working on with Ford?"

"We're talking with Ford about the things we want to work with them with. We're talking about the Cobra, and we're talking about several other projects. I'll let Ford announce that."

We would have liked to have pushed him about the other projects. Instead, Shelby was quick to move on. He peered at the paper and read, "What about another Shelby Mustang in the future?"

"Carroll, you've kind of answered that."

"Yeah."

"OK. Well, then, do you like the '05 Mustang?"

When Shelby answered this question he had to giggle. He had to grin one of those pie-eating grins like he'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

"If they're going to put my name on it, I better like it, hadn't I? It seems to me that it can be a real winner."

I had to laugh. A modern Shelby Mustang, we would say, appears to be a reality.

Shelby reads: "We recently ran an interview with Lee Iacocca and he said you were offered the Toyota distributorship...."

The question says "for Nevada." Shelby straightened us out. "Not for Nevada-for six southern states. And one of Iacocca's bean counters said don't do it, we're going to push the Japanese back into the ocean. Well, the car turned out not to be a piece of crap. But there's no sense in me having regrets about it because there's nothing I can do about something I didn't do 40 years ago. I'm looking forward to the things I'm building now and the things I'm going to do. I don't use 20/20 eyesight in my behind."

Our next question was whether or not Shelby remembered the first time he met Iacocca.

"I certainly do. I went into Lee's office, taken in by Don Frey. I told him I needed $25,000 so I could build a sports car that would beat the Corvettes. And I'm told he said he would think about it. But as I went outside, he told Frey, 'You better give him the $25,000 before he bites somebody.' "

Now, I'm laughing out loud.

"Lee Iacocca lives close to me now and I stay in constant touch with him. I think the world of Lee."

Shelby reads: "A 1968 GT500KR convertible recently sold for over $95,000 at the Barrett-Jackson auction. Do prices like that for old Shelbys surprise you?"

Shelby replied, "How about saying a 1967 GT500 with a Shelby engine recently sold for $300,000, counting the 8 percent on the top and bottom in Scottsdale. That blew my mind. However, another one, I'm told, sold for $240,000 at Russo and Steele."

Shelby assured us these Shelbys were originals.

"Yep. I guess they've jumped a lot, haven't they? That makes the originals sell for a lot more than we ever imagined."

Shelby was "touch-ing" us.

Our final printed question was about his health. How is it?

"Hour to hour. With a heart transplant 14 years ago and a kidney transplant eight years ago, I'm lucky to be here. Thank God for my son because I wouldn't be here without his kidney."

"Michael, right?"

"Yeah, and I look forward to every day, building cars and doing the things I want to do."

The phone rang. Shelby asked us to hold on for a second. The time for his meeting was fast approaching. He gave us more time.

"Tell us a typical day. You have different places, but you live mostly in L.A., right?"

"Yeah. I usually stay home and do the telephones back East, then I go back to my place in Gardena (California) where Shelby Engineering, the Shelby engine company, my Goodyear distributorship, and my Children's Foundation are located. I try to spend about a week a month in Las Vegas, but I'm going to be spending a lot more time there."

"Why's that?"

"'Cause that's where we build cars."

"The Shelby Mustang, would that be built there?"

"I don't know where it will be built. I hope it will be built in Las Vegas."

Our questions finished, I wanted to give Carroll a forum to send a message to his fans. As a journalist covering Shelby for the last 20 years, I know, as I told him, that people love Carroll Shelby. The name is magic to them.

"What have you got to say to these people? I know you like to give autographs. I'm not sure what I want to put here, just something to tell the people personally I know you really have a lot of love for them."

"Why sure I do. I thought the Cobra and the Shelby Mustangs would go away 35 years ago. And these are the people who have kept it alive. These are the people I love."

This sentiment would have been great for a Hollywood ending. For all the hours Carroll Shelby has spent signing autographs, for all the thousands-tens of thousands-of times he's been stopped and asked to pose with somebody for a picture or shake hands or just say "hi," it's great for all of us to know that Shelby loves our attention.

"My only regret is that these replica car guys have copied the Cobra, and most of them have put out a bunch of crap to tarnish some of the things the guys at Shelby American built. Some of them died to build those cars. But when I asked the replica car people to put $1,000 into the foundation for each one they built, in unison they told me to go screw myself."

Shelby likes to get in a "lick every chance I get" to the replica Cobra builders who refused to put up $1,000 per car. He says they "are not smart enough to build their own cars" and they are not the ones who "kept the Shelby name alive." OK, so that's two good licks.

"The people who come to the functions that I sign autographs for, who bought the original cars, are the people I love to talk to. I'm thankful I'm still here at 81 years old to be a part of them, to be with them. And there's nothing that makes me happier than to sit around and talk to these young kids, 8 and 10 years old, and there's hundreds and hundreds of them named Shelby out there."

This time Carroll was referring to people who named their kids after him. Some have even become grandmothers.

"The grandmothers are Shelby. Their daughters are Shelby and their granddaughters are Shelby. There's nothing that makes me feel luckier and more thankful than to be around those people."

That was an even better Hollywood ending.