Today, when the major automobile manufacturers of the U.S. can be counted on one hand, only the geriatric crowd remembers that 55 years ago more than 150 companies were turning out an exciting assortment of motor cars. In that naive and pioneering day there were large, gas-powered touring cars and fine steam cars that sometimes exploded, scalding the driver and warping his straw boater. There were electric carriages that crept elegantly along like giant snails, and sporty roadsters, such as the Apperson "Jack Rabbit," that scorched over the roads at 65 miles an hour and were very dependable except at those times when a chicken got tangled in the drive chain.
Most of the early motor companies passed away long ago. Only the fittest survived and grew big, a fact deplored today by some car zealots, who feel that the industry, for lack of small-time operators and harebrained tinkerers, has become an impersonal monster that gorges itself on consumer surveys and dispassionately spits out impersonal cars. In the face of such harsh criticism, it is only fair to state that the mass-produced car of today outperforms any machine of 50 years ago and, if given reasonable care, will last almost as long as a horse. It is entirely adequate for plain, drab citizens, but for a genuine car buff such decent virtue is not enough.
For a genuine, 100% buff, for the man with an unmitigated, four-barreled love of machines, a car is not a car unless it has an aura of uniqueness and a throbbing personality akin to his own. Many car enthusiasts have dreamed of designing their ideal car and producing a limited volume for sale to others with the same ideals—not competing with Detroit, but supplementing it. A few have actually had a go at it, discovering in no time at all that the motor car business is the perfect place to achieve fleeting fame and financial ruin. Of all these who dreamed of someday owning a little car business in the black, Carroll Hall Shelby, a former Texas chicken farmer and errant knight of the roaring road, is the most unusual. His dream has come true. He has succeeded in producing a car without losing his shirt.
Five years ago Shelby was operating out of an office slightly larger than a playpen. Now he is president and proprietor of Shelby-American, Inc., a California corporation with a physical plant worth more than $3 million and an annual gross business of around $10 million. There are a number of reasons why Shelby succeeded, the most important being that he never backed off. About 10 years ago he dreamed of producing a sports car "for the true sports car enthusiast," and he never welshed on the original dream, never considered adding so much as a cigarette lighter to make his car appeal to the masses. Many people would not care to drive Shelby's dream car, and many large, stout people would have a hard time of it, for it has a bucket-seat snugness that makes a Gemini capsule seem as roomy as an old Daimler-Benz. Regardless, Shelby has no thought of increasing the headroom, the leg space or the trunk space of his car, or in any way making the interior more comfy. He has resisted all temptation to style the exterior after a fin-tailed spaceship, since it was not intended to exceed Mach I but merely to dawdle along at 140 miles an hour. "I couldn't care less," Shelby has said, "about selling cars to someone who needs power windows and wants to look like a sport. It does not matter whether you are building an outhouse or a car. You don't compromise."
Shelby's dream machine is the first U.S. sports car produced in any volume that both looks and acts the part. Like its European precursors, it is squat and low-slung. It resembles as much as anything a futuristic turtle, but in its modest shell there is lots of pent-up energy. It leaps away from a standstill, and through all four gears it growls softly as if eager to snap at every Volkswagen in its path. When the driver eases up on the throttle, from its muffler the Shelby car emits petulant, flatulent complaints. In brief, it is not an ordinary beast of burden. The writers and editors of car magazines—a very critical gang of archperfectionists and nit-pickers—consider Shelby's car well worth its base price of $6,000.
As most car nuts are aware, Shelby's car is called the Cobra, for no better reason than that is the name Shelby always liked, although market-minded friends have pressed him to switch to something dreamier or at least less scary. Though Cobra is its given name, in smart car circles it is known variously as the Snake, the Shelby Snake, the Shelby Cobra, the A.C. Cobra, the Ford Cobra or the Cobra Ford. Strictly speaking, to give everyone his due, its full name should be Shelby-American A.C. Cobra Ford. The final assembly of cars—currently about 125 a month—takes place in the Shelby-American plant on the south side of the Los Angeles airport, where the hum of the little-car business is lost in the constant howling of transcontinental jets. The frame and body of the Cobra are fabricated in England by the A.C. Car Company, Ltd., a firm that in a long and respectable life has produced a variety of vehicles, from railroad engines to invalid carriages. The Cobra's engine is made by Ford in Cleveland and is essentially the same Fairlane V-8 used in several production models. The business relationship of little Shelby-American and giant Ford has been beneficial to both. There is a good deal of Ford know-how in the Cobra, and a little Cobra venom in some of the fancier Fords.
Carroll Shelby is by no means the first retired racetrack driver to try to persuade a big, busy motor company to collaborate in a modest venture, but he is one of the most successful in recent years. Shelby apparently has the certain something that it takes to win a giant over to a minor cause, although no one, including Shelby, is altogether sure what that something is. Some say it is simply the winning personality of an easygoing Texan. Shelby was born and raised in Texas and, to be sure, he has a winning way, but it is no more honest to explain the Shelby-Ford alliance that simply than to say Columbus won over Queen Isabella with Latin charm. In both cases, reputations were at stake. If Columbus had sailed over the edge, Isabella would have had some explaining to do about her hocked jewels and, similarly, if Shelby's dream had come a cropper, well, certain heads might have rolled at Ford. The manager of Special Events at Ford, David Evans, who still has his head, remembers his first contact with Shelby fairly well: "Shelby said he would like to consider that little old engine of ours for his car. Now, we get many sensible proposals from people as smart as Shelby. Perhaps it was the way he said it or something about him, but whatever it was, I got to thinking why not? I had two engines available, and I sent them to him and then sat back and wondered why I did it. I can't explain it, but he sells himself and his idea, and you can get mad as hell at him but he delivers."
Outwardly Shelby satisfies the trite image of a Texan. He has the slack shoulders and high waist of a cowpoke. His smile comes easily and scatters quickly into wrinkles etched by the sun. His manner is relaxed, yet he is forever stirring about, sitting down and getting up and sitting down again, as if worried or saddlesore. On the eve of the last 12-hour sports car race at Sebring during the preparation of seven Shelby-American and Ford entries for which he was responsible, in one 20-minute period Shelby settled and resettled 13 times on the following perches: an oil-stained lawn chair, a midget motorcycle, the edge of a table, a box of tools, a stack of pop bottle cases, a stack of tires and a badly sprung sofa that saw its best days before Coolidge took the oath. In his office at Shelby-American or in the pit during a race, and even while drying his hands in a washroom, Shelby paces about restlessly, like a lawman who expects trouble suddenly to bust out behind every swinging door in town.
His former secretary, a girl named Pat Rodgers, who is beautiful and drives a twin-cam MG, has this to say: "When I worked for him I had to keep asking myself, 'If I were Carroll Shelby, where would I be two hours from now?' He's the kind who takes off for Paris at any time but can't understand why the banks aren't open at noon on Sunday. He had a large automobile horn he used to squawk behind everybody in the office—and an electric cattle prod. We took the batteries out of the prod, thinking he'd think it was broken, but he found new batteries, poked me in the hand with it and I nearly went through the ceiling. Oh, he's a fun-lover. You have to go 90 miles an hour to keep up with him, and I'm just an old-fashioned 80-mile-an-hour girl."
"Have you ever had dinner at Shelby's house?" a business associate asks. "You know he is well-traveled and has excellent taste in clothes and furniture, but he doesn't like to eat out. He likes to cook. He's got a shelf of cookbooks—French, Italian and God knows what. Maybe I'm betraying his confidence, but do you know what he cooks for you in his home? There's no meat. You get corn bread and butter beans, raw sliced onions, tomatoes and maybe lettuce—I forget—and catsup. After cooking for us he sat down and said, 'Now I'll show you how to eat this.' Apparently there's a correct order for piling everything on the corn bread, but I forget. Anyway, the butter beans weren't quite done, but I'll say this, he served an excellent light white wine with it."