Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Carroll Shelby, America's Enzo Ferrari.
On June 21, 1959, in Le Mans, France, the winning driver of the 27th Grand Prix of Endurance emerged from his Aston Martin DBR1/300 after 24 hours of racing (with British driver Roy Salvadori spelling him). The winner was a talk, dark, handsome Texan. He wore bibbed overalls with blue and white stripes. It was Carroll Shelby's way showing he was his own man, doing things his way, and winning.
Born on January 11, 1923, in Leesburg, Texas, to Warren Hall Shelby, a farmer and rural mail carrier, and his wife, Eloise, Shelby had heart problems from the time he was 7 until he was 14. but nevertheless he worked hard. He had a newspaper route and worked at odd jobs, a pattern of having more than one iron in the fires of business at any one time. His family moved to Dallas when he was 10.
“I used to ride my bicycle to the old bullrings around Dallas when I was a kid, 12 or 14 years old. So I've always had my interest in cars, that's always been my No. 1 interest,” Shelby said.
His first car was a 1934 Dodge whose lack of speed disappointed him. As did his next car.
“It was a '38 Willys, old four-cylinder Willys. Wouldn't outrun anybody, but I used to try to,” he said.
He did well in school and was all set to attend Georgia Tech. But America entered World War II and instead of studying aeronautical engineering in college, he was instructing aviators. He married Jeanne Fields on December 18, 1943. Nine months later, the first of their children was born. When the war ended so did his dreams of college. He became an oil roughneck and then a chicken farmer. Teenage dreams of fast cars and women were for the birds.
Or so it seemed.
He accompanied Ed Wilkins, a high school buddy, who took his MG-TC sports car to a show in Norman, Oklahoma.
“He wasn't going to race it himself; he was just up there to spectate. After we got up there we decided that I'd drive it. So it was really just kind of a lucky accident that I drove my first race. I raced against the other MGs and the Jowett Jupiters and so forth and won that race. Then they had the Jaguar race and I raced the MG in that and I won again. I wore the tires out on it. It was fun,” Shelby said.
At 29, he was racing, and winning, and getting notice because he was as good a self-promoter as he was a driver -- and he won four out of four races in 1952, and nine out of nine in 1953 before turning pro in 1954. One hot day, late for a race, he did not bother to change work clothes. He got in the cockpit wearing his overalls, birthing a trademark. But his biggest boost was he drove hard and got every inch out of his car. He usually walked off the track with a trophy and a babe on each arm. That cost him his marriage, which ended in 1960. He married actress Jan Harrison in 1962, but they annulled that marriage by year's end. he said he had four or five other brides after that.
People describe him as a failed chicken farmer, but he did well with them for a while until 20,000 chickens died on him. he had a car dealership as a backup.
The title "Carroll Shelby, America's Enzo Ferrari" should piss both of them off. They had a feud that stemmed from a meeting in 1958.
“Old Man Ferrari offered me a job and I said, ‘Well, Mr. Ferrari, I have a family, three children, what kinda money?' He says, ‘Oh, it's an honor to drive for Ferrari.' And I said, ‘Well, I'm sorry, I can't afford the honor.' And I had a deal with John Wyer, anyway, and I had another deal with Maserati. I had a choice of four or five different offers. So I turned Ferrari down,” Shelby told Autoweek years later.
But there was more too it than money. Ferrari had built the preeminent Italian car company despite growing up with modest means. Perhaps the two were too alike. But Shelby also talked to Dan Gurney, a Ferrari driver.
"I saw the way Ferrari operated," Shelby told Automobile magazine. "And I could always sense there was tension. I listened to Phil Hill, I listened to Gurney, and I watched enough of the drivers to know no one ever stayed with him for a long time. Juan Manuel Fangio was one of the kindest, gentlest people you'd ever meet in your life, and he told me [Ferrari] was a very difficult man. 'You will never satisfy him, and he will never have a kind word for you or your future ambitions'."
Shelby had his own ambitions. They called for him to build, not race cars. The one lesson he took from Ferrari was to treat employees well. He was extremely loyal to his mechanics (he really wasn't a mechanic) and his drivers -- and everyone else.
“He can be cantankerous, gruff, direct and outspoken, but to get to know him is to love him. He creates tremendous loyalty in people around him. He's really a very caring individual, which may be completely opposite to what he appears to be,” said Don Landy, who handled Shelby's holding company.
At age 37, heart problems forced Shelby to carry nitro-glycerin pills, which ended his racing career after a mere eight years.
“You ever try nitro?” Shelby asked in a 1990 interview with Autoweek. “It knocks the top of your head off. It dilates your arteries and veins and gives you a headache for 30 seconds. You don't want to do it in a race car. That's why it was not hard to give up drivin'; nitro gives you an incentive to quit. I wanted to build my car anyway, and make a go of my Goodyear distributorship.”
Hiss idea was simple: Take a light European racing chassis and drop an American V-8 in it.
"Lance Reventlow beat me to the punch back in 1958 when he launched his American-built Scarab sport carwhile the Cobra was still just an idea in my head," Shelby said.
Reventlow was wealthy.
"Lance’s Scarab was the result of development money being in the right hands at the right time. He was born in London to wealthy American socialite Barbara Hutton and Curt Reventlow, a Danish count. She married Cary Grant next. By the time Lance was 12 he had another stepfather – Prince Igor Troubetzkoy, who’d won the Targa Florio driving a Ferrari. Porfirio Rubirosa was another stepdad. Lance was still a teenager when he started racing his own alloy-body Mercedes 300SL," Shelby said.
If there was envy or resentment, he plowed it into business. His car building took off. The Cobra was his first. It was street legal and went from zero to 60 in four seconds. In 1964, Lee Ioccoca of Ford introduced the Mustang. The next year, Shelby introduced the Shelby Mustang. It was a tremendous partnership.
“In my opinion, Shelby invented the muscle car in this country,” Iacocca said,
Congress and OPEC ended the muscle car in the 1970s. Shelby and Ford had a bitter divorce. He tried real estate, African safaris, and sundry other enterprises. In 1982, Iacocca -- now CEO of Chrysler -- teamed up with Shelby for a second run at custom cars, this time using Dodges.
But health problems and a changing market plagued him. In 1990, he had a heart transplant, and in 1996 a kidney transplant, thanks to a donation from his son, Michael.
In 2004, the 40th anniversary of the Mustang, Shelby and Ford patched things up. The Shelby Mustang was back.
"I never dreamed I would be back with Ford to the extent that we are today, but I'm very pleased we are. I'm a lucky man that, at 81, I have such a wonderful partnership with Ford," Shelby said.
The Mustang was not the only pony in his heart. He also raised miniature horses, outfitting the ones he liked with tennis shoes so they could enter his house.
Every Christmas, he set up a train set in his bedroom, a tradition that stretched back to his boyhood in the Depression.
On May 10, 2012, he died of pneumonia at 89 and the tributes from the automotive industry were many. None were more endearing than the one from Edsel Ford II: "I worked for Carroll Shelby, I think it was the summer of '68. I went to his house in California and I knocked on his door, and -- I remember this as if it was yesterday -- this very beautiful Swedish woman answered the door. I knew it was going to be a really good summer."
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.
Volume 2's publication will be on September 1, my 62nd birthday. It will be available here, and on Amazon and Kindle.