Shelby: A Six Letter Word For America
Photography by Jonathan Mills & Jeff Suhy
I’m guessing that “Carroll” was a difficult name to grow up with, which is why it’s not hard to understand why the world has come to know Carroll by his family name instead: Shelby.
You don’t have to love Ford or even be steeped in motorsport culture to be familiar with those six letters. It’s a name as red, white, and blue as they come. An icon and an outlier, Shelby represents an era of American performance and distinct American mechanical creativity.
This is the man, after all, who created the AC Cobra, the Shelby Mustang GT350, and a name brand chili. Carroll was always more than a guy who made fast cars; he was an iconoclast and a raconteur who knew how to jam the levers of power to get things done… (Often in ways that would confound just about any person working in business today.)
It’s been more than fifty years since those early days, and Carroll died in 2012. It’s the 21st Century, and there is still a very large demand for very fast cars, a demand that Shelby American is working to satisfy through multiple means, from the original Cobras and Daytona coupes to modified, brand-new Mustangs. There is, as they say, a saddle for every butt.
Long a Southern California fixture, Shelby American finally succumbed to the lure of cheap land and great corporate tax structures, and is now located in Las Vegas, NV. The giant building, visible from an eight lane freeway, houses a museum equal in size to the gift shop supporting it.
But walking around the first corner, past the licensed shot glasses and key chains changed everything for me, because sitting in that museum is the very first Cobra ever made.
Think about that: every single car show you’ve ever attended probably had three or four Cobra replicas, usually driven by a middle-aged man in a Hawaiian shirt. And yet, now one of the most rare and iconic cars ever is two feet away from me, behind some flimsy velvet ropes. The original Cobra, numero uno. Gary Schechner, who heads up Shelby’s marketing efforts shared this little anecdote:
“You see the color?” he asks.
“It’s not original. Carroll would have it painted in between meetings with buyers,” Schechner said.
“So, people would think there were more of them?”
“Yep,” he replied, which pretty much sums up Carroll Shelby’s modus operandi. Carroll Shelby knew he had something special, and and understood he may have to play fast and loose to make his dream a reality. We all know how that turned out: original Cobras remain, like Shelby, icons of American ingenuity. Even the replicas tend to hold their value…and that’s kind of crazy.
Now the cars, all of them, are made by hand under this single, very large roof, in Las Vegas. It’s an impressive facility. You can wander about and see various cars in various stages of construction and beside many of the lifts are mechanics benches that are often adorned with stickers, notes, and worn and greasy tools. This is a place of people, not fancy robots putting together cars with tolerances closer to those in a spacecraft.
The people working on these cars are doing so knowing they are part of a legacy that cannot be replicated, and part of a culture that values the very human labor that goes into building something special. That’s increasingly unique in American culture, as many news outlets will increasingly point to the abandonment of manufacturing in this country.
A few days of watching these amazing cars come to life will quickly remind you that craftsmanship is alive and well, with everything is done in house, from paint to engines.
As you can tell, it’s no longer enough to rest on laurels earned on days gone by, and these days, Shelby American makes new cars—but that Cobra #1 sits only a few feet away isn’t lost on anyone. The legacy of that original Cobra still matters very much to every single member of the Shelby team.
So, what does Shelby mean in today’s fast car landscape?
I spent a day tearing the new cars around a very nice race track, and I think Carroll would be happy to know his name is still attached to fast cars headed out onto the street. He would be even more pleased to know that a new generation of motorheads and speed junkies are keeping his dream alive.
That said, he may be perplexed to learn that China could be a huge market for 600 horsepower, Baja-style trucks that also bear his name…but he’d at least chuckle at the prices they are commanding.
My days in Las Vegas proved one thing to me: I can continue to wear my Shelby T-Shirt with pride. The Shelby legacy is intact, and if you’re the kind of person who is drawn to the unique, to iconoclasts, to something that reflects an American sensibility, then Shelby American would be happy to help you go faster, go louder and smile a hell of a lot more…