Honoring An American Icon At The Carroll Shelby Tribute and Car Show
Photography by Alex Sobran
Last weekend was the 5th edition of the Carroll Shelby Tribute and Car Show, held at the company’s location in Gardena, California. Being admittedly more of the European persuasion, I wasn’t sure what to expect after I parallel parked my old BMW between two new-model ‘Stangs with “Fear This” stickers on the back glass. Walking into the crowded lot, I was greeted by a fair share of denim, but the special metal in attendance offered more than enough exquisite American style in the highest form. Everything from genuine AC Cobras to Don Prudhomme’s restored “Super Snake” dragster was in attendance (though sadly, no real-deal Daytonas, but what can you expect?), and so for the budding enthusiast and original-GT-350-owner alike, this was clearly the place to be.
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about Carroll Shelby without seeing some mention of his past attempt at chicken farming, so consider this the requisite sentence about his avian endeavors. The ubiquity of this part of his story isn’t hard to understand—frenetic flightless birds evading a cursing Texan in a raucous mess of feathers, squawks, and dust was surely something to see—but it’s also sort of an unfair portrayal of the man who was so much more than the guy who built the Cobra. Surely, it is a piece of his past all the same, but it sort of implies that bare luck was the propellant for his career: “He went from farming chickens in the dirt to making millions by jamming V8s into things?!” Not untrue, but not very comprehensive either, because Shelby’s life before AC meant anything to him besides air conditioning is nothing to spit a wad of chew at.
Among all the accent and aura was someone with bonafide talent. There’s no need to emphasize that to anyone reading about Shelby in the first place, but with a history that for many began once he’d already hit it big, there’s often some pieces left out. For one, he had hauled himself onto the international racing circuit in the 1950s (and performed with admirable abilities at that). Indeed, if it were not for heart health issues, Shelby would have continued adding clout to his racing career (that included everything from Formula 1 drives to Salt Flat speed records), but the fact that he’d already teamed with John Wyer of GT-40, Mirage, and 917 fame to take home the constructor’s win for Aston Martin in the FIA’s 1959 WSC season, including overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans that year—in a DBR1 that he co-drove no less!—is clear evidence that this was not a story of luck alone.
Indeed though, Shelby did seem to be the recipient of some deity’s chromoly kiss. There must have been some serendipitous moment when he was working at Moon’s speed shop in the late ‘50s when the first inklings of the Cobra idea materialized in his mind. Perhaps the stroke of luck took the form of a proto-“Moon Disc” hubcap falling on his head, shaking the thought loose.
The full story of the Cobra is obviously more in depth than taking a Ford V8 and squeezing it into a British sports roadster, but over the course of the developmental years, this is more or less what it boiled down to. He wasn’t the first to swap motors across brands and platforms, but he found one of the sweetest, and most lucrative, recipes for it. And from the very early narrow-bodied 260-powered Cobras to the flocks of overtly-bulged replicas that can seemingly be found at any American car show in the world, the impact of that combination is still reverberating.
After a rather meek start in competition, Cobras would quickly come to dominate the top class of SCCA racing in the States, but with vast support from Ford (most importantly, from their new head with a head for racing, Lee Iacocca), the Cobra’s success provided Shelby with a new challenge. By 1965 the little souped-up Cobras were sort of at the “Great, but what’s next?” stage, and this being the heyday of American sports car competition, Ford was keen to not only take home the trophies in the A-production races, but also in the lower rungs of SCCA (to say nothing of course of the GT-40 program underway at the time). To that end, Shelby (who was also stirring the pot of the Ferrari killing Ford) took the company’s Mustang and gave it a makeover that’s cemented the line’s reputation to this day.
What used to be a 2+2 fastback Mustang ineligible to compete with the “sports car”-classed Corvettes in B-production, Shelby handily converted into a rules-compliant two-seater sports car. Turns out it was a simple case of ripping out the rear seats and putting a spare tire in their place.
While there are still Shelby badges being affixed to Mustangs right at this moment, the 1965 and 1966 Shelby GT-350s are the real-deal cars wearing the name. Later efforts like the next-gen GT350 and GT500 were quick in straight lines of course, but these were the rather chunky relatives of the lithe and nimble GT350s. The first cut was the best one, because these cars were built to race instead of capitalize on that fact. Both road and track versions of the 350 were urged onward by Ford’s famous 289 V8, but the namesake of the car comes from Shelby’s ability to coax out 350 horsepower from the car in its racing configuration.
Shelby had his hand in all kinds of cars at this time, and after he more or less packed it up with Ford following the introduction of the brand’s factory efforts with the Boss, his name continued to adorn the body panels of seriously quick kit, and it is one that will be remembered and celebrated for many years yet.