Shelby Shifts Gears
New Shelby American president John Luft talks about the future of the Shelby brand in an exclusive Mustang Monthly interview
In April, Carroll Shelby International announced that it had reached the halfway point in reshaping its Shelby American subsidiary to focus on post-title vehicle programs and high-performance parts along with a new speed shop business. Another big change came when Shelby announced that long-time company president Amy Boylan had left the company and was being replaced by John Luft from Shelby's licensing division. We recently had the chance to talk with John to learn more about his background and his plans for Shelby American's future.
MM: What is your background leading up to Shelby?
Luft: I grew up in San Diego. I was one of those kids who raced up and down Valley Parkway, challenging all comers like we did back in the 1970s. Growing up in southern California, it was all about your car. I had a friend who had a Camaro, and other friends with a Corvette, a Challenger, and a Charger. I was the Mustang guy. I started out with a '69 with a 302, and then I got the ultimate when I traded it for a '69 Mach 1 with the 428 Cobra Jet. I wish I had that car today.
After school, I basically worked for two companies - Hilton Hotels and Disney. With Hilton, I was a regional director and wound up being a corporate director and corporate VP out of the Hilton headquarters in Los Angeles. I had oversight of the Hilton franchise division, so that was a big plus when I came to work for Carroll. At Disney days, I did product development for everything from Disney Cruise to Disney Vacation Club. Then I was recruited into the Shelby world. Interestingly, I had spent the first 20 years of my career with Fortune 100 companies that are two of the biggest brands in the world. Of course, with a small company like Shelby, you don't have the infrastructure and all the things that you would have at your disposal like you do at a big company. But then there's the Shelby brand. When I was a kid, being the Mustang guy I always had an affinity for Shelby.
MM: We've heard that you're a car collector.
Luft: I'm an amateur car collector. I've got an old 308 "Magnum PI" Ferrari and I just bought a '65 Sting Ray Corvette. I've got a beautiful old 928 Porsche, an '88 S4. I've restored everything from Speedster Porsches to 914s. I had a '68 California Special that I restored. I've had plenty of cars that make a lot of noise and push you into the seat, including my current '07 Shelby GT500.
MM: How long have you been working with Carroll?
Luft: I've been with Carroll for 10 years. In 2000, I came in as president of licensing and started growing that side of Carroll's brand. Having spent all that time with big brands, I understood brand equity and compatibility, and understood how you grow, nurture, and protect a brand. Shelby is such a powerful brand. I didn't realize how powerful until I actually got my feet on the ground. I spent the next several years putting in place controls and enforcement, growing licensing, growing the brand to reach a younger demographic. Obviously, the ideal scenario, as Disney has established, is called "cradle to grave" branding. A newborn will have Mickey Mouse in the crib and the grandparents will take him to Disneyland. I noticed that with the Shelby brand, the first age of trial was often individuals in their early 50s. So part of the goal was to get people in their 40s to experience the Shelby brand. We started pushing licensing to video games and companies like Mattel Hot Wheels. You know, there's a Shelby in pretty much every driving simulation game, from "Need for Speed" to "Grand Turismo." So now we're getting eight-year-olds to have their first Shelby experience.
Part of the motivation of building the Shelby GT was to draw the demographic window down to people in the early 40s. It was naturally-aspirated so we didn't have the complexity of a supercharger. And it had a little bit of nostalgia with the Hurst shifter and things of that nature.
MM: You've caught some flak from enthusiasts about enforcement the Shelby trademarks.
Luft: There are a handful of things that tell you to do that. If you own a trademark and you don't make an effort to enforce your rights, you can lose your rights. That's very motivating. Secondly, the Shelby brand, Cobra in particular, is probably the most counterfeited car on the market. We have a person who spends an average of six hours a day, five days a week, looking online - eBay, etc. - and checking print publications to locate counterfeited Shelby parts. That's everything from shirts and caps to car components, to the extent that we go out and police enforcement of people who build fake Shelbys. I've seen a website that marketed, "Can't afford a real Shelby GT500? Come buy the one we build." Every week we send out cease and desist letters with the intent to keep the brand consistent and to protect the licensees who do it properly. And to keep the values up for the people who own real Shelbys. We have that obligation.
MM: Now that you've been president for a few weeks, how has your role changed at Shelby American?
Luft: I'm now going Mach 1 with my hair on fire. Probably the single most exciting thing is that all of Shelby companies have deliverables that the others don't do. We have pulled all these Shelby companies into what we are calling one Shelby world. For example, we have Shelby Engineering, a shop with CNC equipment that machines blocks, heads, and other components. Previously, Shelby American would have parts made by other machine shops. Well, we have a CNC shop. Our battle cry now is, "Let's look within." Let's solve our issues and look for opportunities within before we look outside. Licensing is working hand-in-hand with Shelby American, who is working hand-in-hand with the Carroll Shelby Engine Company, who is working hand-in-hand with Shelby Engineering. And all are working closely with the Shelby Foundation now.
MM: How does the Foundation tie in?
Luft: The Foundation is truly Carroll's legacy. When Carroll Shelby goes to that racetrack in the sky, there is a succession plan in place that will keep these companies operating. Ferrari didn't fold up their tent and go away when Enso died. The keeper of the brand through generations to come will be the Foundation. So in licensing, we'll create licensing opportunities where a licensee will package their product with a marketing bug that says, "A portion of these proceeds will go to the Shelby Foundation."
We're going to do the same thing at Shelby American, which has always been a great supporter of the Foundation. We're going to add a section to the Shelby Museum to market the Foundation. It's as important to Carroll's legacy as those cars are. We've just expanded the Foundation's reach beyond children. It now reaches kids in their educational years. Having been the Carroll Shelby Children's Foundation, it's now just the Carroll Shelby Foundation, which now allows us to help kids in their educational years. One result is the Carroll Shelby School of Technology in Texas, which trains young people so they can give back to the automotive world.
MM: In a recent press release, you mentioned that Shelby Performance Parts is changing.
Luft: We've taken the entire parts business in-house so we're no longer in the joint venture with Scott Drake. In a short period of time, we've expanded the product and grown that business by leaps and bounds. We're currently in print on a new Shelby Performance Parts catalog. The expanded marketing allows us to reach people who, due to economics or their own desire, only want a six-cylinder Mustang. We're going to have performance and styling parts that you can put on your Mustang to give it a certain Shelby style. The idea is that not everyone can afford a Shelby but your passion for Shelby can live in your Mustang, no matter what model it is.
We just opened the new Shelby American Motorsport Speed Shop at our Mod Shop in Las Vegas. This gives enthusiasts the opportunity to bring their car down to our facility. We have a chassis dyno so they can document the horsepower, then begin tuning. We can actually help modified cars perform better. The owners receive a certificate and a copy of the dyno pull to validate that it was a Shelby tune session.
MM: I guess we should talk about the cars...
Luft: What we've talked about so far is really the synergy of the Shelby world. There's so much in the world. The best way to describe it is to imagine each company is a musical instrument. And I have the opportunity to be the conductor of this orchestra. Each instrument plays wonderfully by itself but it just a matter of getting them all to play together.
MM: Tell us about the decision to offer naturally-aspirated and automatic '11 GT350s in addition to the supercharged versions.
Luft: When five out of ten calls ask if they can get an automatic or does it have to have a supercharger, thank God we're not so set in our ways that we can't say, "The consumer is telling us they want it like this." We have the ability to move quickly so we put together a naturally-aspirated package. We've started taking orders on it because we get into production immediately. It allows owners to have a little more drivability, and some people don't want to shift gears.
The team on the ground - Gary Davis, Gary Patterson, and the other guys -already had this penciled out. If you think about it, we are offering three types of cars - supercharged manual; naturally-aspirated manual, which lends itself to the SCCA competition side; and naturally-aspirated automatic.
MM: Are you continuing your post-title program with cars like the Shelby SR?
Luft: Yes, and we've also got the Super Snake F150, Terlingua... you can go down the list of our post-title activity. We've done a great job of rewriting history but there's still a lot of history to write. Carroll is always about the next car he wants to build. We'll focus on post-title.
Ford has put its arms around the GT350 in such a positive way. Carroll was just up in Detroit for about a week. They are helping us with placement of the product at Ford dealers, opening doors where we need them opened. Carroll spent hours with the design team going over the '12 and '13 GT500. Jim Owens told me that the designers would sit there waiting for his every word. At 87, Carroll will look at something and cut right through it with his pearls of wisdom. He's truly one of the last living legends.
MM: Are Super Snakes still coming out of Las Vegas?
Luft: The Super Snake has proven to be our bread and butter. It can be applied to multiple product years, it's now on multiple platforms. The new Super Snake on the '11 GT500 platform is really a beautiful car. In this economy, you can buy a used GT500 fairly reasonably and you can have us convert it into a Super Snake. When you think of the cost related to a full Super Snake and you compare it to the other supercars in that class, I don't think you can get any better bang for your horsepower buck than a Super Snake.
MM: How about the Cobra program?
Luft: It's still kicking. I've never met anyone who didn't say that Cobra personifies the American sports car. There are those who hang their hat on the Corvette, and the Corvette is a great car, but with the Cobra, there's an incredible story behind it. The Cobra Daytona Coupes were the first and last American-built sports car to win the FIA championship. There's a reason why it's the most copied - and it's not because people don't like it.
The 427 SC Cobra is alive and well as the CSX 4000, fiberglass as well as aluminum. In about six months we will be in production on the 289 slabside, the sports car version with wire wheels and racing tires. The 427 SC loves to go straight real fast. The 289 FIA slabside is the one that won all the races. It will hug the curves.
MM: Any final thoughts are your new role at Shelby American?
Luft: The good news is that I'm not an unfamiliar face. I've been on the ground in Carroll's world for ten years. And I've served on the board of the company so I've always been involved in the business side. I was there in the days prior to Amy, and even prior to the guy that she replaced. So I've seen the different management styles and directions. When Amy decided to move on, Carroll came to me and said he didn't want to bring in an unfamiliar face. Don't kid yourself when Carroll says he doesn't get involved very much. It's a slow day if I only get four or five calls from him. And I wouldn't have it any other way.