There is a story the implications of which would have had a profound effect on the automotive world as we know it. It begins with one of the icons of motorsport, and the creator of one of the single most recognizable sports cars of all time, Carroll Shelby.
Carroll Hall Shelby was born in January of 1923 to working-class couple Warren and Eloise Shelby of Leesburg, Texas. Carroll was a sickly child, spending most of his early years in bed. By the time he was seven years old, Shelby had been diagnosed with a leaky heart valve. His health improved as he grew, and by the time Carroll was in high school, it seemed as if he had “outgrown” his health problems.
Shelby graduated from high school in 1940. He was headed to college in Georgia to study aeronautical engineering, but instead enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Shelby began training at what is now Lackland Air Force Base to become a test pilot and flight instructor. This career would help Shelby hone the skills needed to be one of the world’s finest racing drivers.
In 1952, Carroll Shelby began his professional racing career. In a weekend racing series in Norman, Oklahoma, Shelby had a class win racing an MG-TC against other, similar cars. Later that day, Shelby took the MG out to win against much faster Jaguar XK120s. The die was cast, and Shelby was hooked. He continued to race and win in a number of different cars until capturing the respect and admiration of Aston Martin racing manager John Wyer. Shelby subsequently raced for Wyer through the 1954 season, and raced for Aston through 1960.
Shelby was known to be one of the toughest racers around. He had not outgrown his heart condition, and often raced with nitroglycerin pills under his tongue. He rolled an Austin Healey four times during the Carrera Pan Americana Mexico in November of 1954, shattering both elbows. In March of 1955, with his elbows not yet healed, he had a custom cast made that would allow him to tape his hand to the steering wheel. This allowed him to co-drive with Phil Hill, racing a three-liter Monza Ferrari at Sebring.
Shelby disliked Enzo Ferrari. While racing for the Ferrari racing team, Scuderia Ferrari, Shelby got to see first-hand how poorly Enzo treated his drivers. Ferrari’s first concern was always winning, and seldom about the drivers’ well-being. Ferrari would encourage competition between his own drivers, ‘threatening’ to fire the loser. In 1958, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, several drivers lost their lives. Among them was Ferrari team driver and good friend of Shelby, Luigi Musso. Shelby held Ferrari personally responsible, and made it his mission in life to beat Ferrari anywhere he could.
Shelby had long wanted to take on Ferrari and the other European manufacturers with a limited production American car. He thought he could utilize an American frame, suspension, and drivetrain, coupled with an Italian-styled body. At the time, the only American sports car was the Chevrolet Corvette, so this was Shelby’s natural choice. He had raced Corvettes in the past, and was impressed with the performance of the Chevrolet. Shelby, and fellow racers Jim Hall and Gary Laughlin purchased three 1959 Corvettes, and sent them to Italy. They commissioned design house Scaglietti to build streamlined coupe bodies for the Chevys. They wanted to use the power of the small block V-8, with the economy of the Corvette construction and the light weight of the Italian aluminum bodies to complete with much more expensive European offerings. Specifically, they wanted to hunt Enzo Ferrari on his own turf.
After production was completed on the three Corvette Italias (as they were known at that time), Shelby, Hall, and Laughlin presented the cars to Harley Earl, former vice president of GM, and Ed Cole, then head of GM’s Car and Truck division. Earl and Cole loved the idea; GM brass did not. They did not want a low-production, high-performance, specialty version of the Corvette poaching from the rest of the Corvette production. Moreover, Chevrolet was part of an informal agreement between the Big Three American auto manufacturers against supporting sports car racing. This was born out of the 1955 Le Mans disaster which killed driver Pierre LeVegh, 83 spectators, and injured 120 more.
GM brass wasn’t the only hurdle for the trio from Texas. The Italian design house Scaglietti had a big customer, and it wasn’t the Texans. Ferrari was Scaglietti’s biggest customer, and Enzo was livid when he found out the design house had re-bodied three Corvettes in an effort to make Le Mans competitors.
So, Shelby didn’t have any Corvette frames, drivetrains, or suspensions. He didn’t have his slippery Italian coachwork or interiors. But what Shelby did have was a desire to beat, and even embarrass, Enzo Ferrari. Shelby had heard that English automaker AC Ltd had lost its engine supplier, Bristol Aeroplane. Carroll wrote AC, and convinced them to send him a roller, a chassis and body without drivetrain. He explained to AC that he had engines from Ford, and wanted to use the AC platform as the basis for a new sports car. Shelby also contacted Ford, asking for a couple of their new, small displacement 221 ci V-8s. He explained that he had some rolling chassis from AC, and wanted to use the Ford drivetrain as the basis for a new sports car. Some have described this as, “If we had some ham, we could have ham and eggs…..If we had some eggs."
Any car fanatic worth their salt knows what happened next. Shelby and Company developed the Shelby Cobra. Beginning in 1962, development began, first with a crude chassis which handled poorly, backed by a small displacement Ford V-8. Then came suspension and chassis improvements, bigger engines, better transmissions, stiffened frames, and so on. Aerodynamic limitations kept the open Cobra roadster from being competitive at tracks with high top speeds, especially Le Mans, with its lengthy Mulsanne Straight. Pete Brock, then in his early-20s, took a wrecked Cobra roadster and used it as the basis for the Shelby Daytona Coupe. The Coupe ( named the Daytona for the race it was being prepared to run) was designed and built in a scant 90 days. On long straightaways, where the roadster used to give up 30mph top speed to the Ferrari 250 GTO, the Daytona Coupes bested the Prancing Horse by nearly 10mph.
While all of this was taking place, Henry Ford II had entered into negotiations with Enzo Ferrari to purchase Ferrari’s company. In 1963, Ford learned through a third party Enzo Ferrari was interested in selling the company (Ferrari) to Ford. During these negotiations, Ferrari became upset with not being allowed to keep full control of the company’s open-wheel racing efforts. At the last minute, Enzo backed out of the deal. Ford had spent millions auditing Ferrari assets, legal involvements, and business. Henry Ford II was infuriated. He vowed to beat Ferrari on the racetrack, especially at Le Mans, where Ferrari had previously reigned supreme. Thus began the Ford GT40 program.
The GT40 began racing in the 1964 season….And it bombed. It would lead races, only to be sidelined by mechanical failures of one kind or another. Suspension failures, brake failures, engine cooling failures, transmission failures, the GT40 saw them all. After being overseen by John Wyer for the majority of the 1964 racing calendar, the program was turned over the Carroll Shelby. The idea was to give the program to the man who had developed a successful race car essentially from scratch. So, as Shelby was racing his Cobras and Daytonas, he was also spearheading the GT40 program. Shelby was given the best shot ever at trouncing Ferrari, while winning glory for himself, his compatriots, company, and drivers.
Shelby’s team of developers, mechanics, racers, and builders tweaked the GT40. They improved upon the design, making the car more robust, more competitive. They put the best drivers behind the wheel. The 1965 season was one of both victory and disappointment. The program continued to evolve and improve. By the 1966 racing season, they were ready to take on the world. And they went hunting.
The GT40s finished 1-2-3 at the first 24 Hours of Daytona. The same result came at the 12 Hours of Sebring. The team had a 1-2-3 finish at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The GT40s continued winning and winning, racking up Le Mans wins in 1966, 1967, 1968, and 1969. Enzo Ferrari was publicly humiliated on what was widely thought to be his venue.
While all of this was happening, Carroll Shelby had formed a fantastic relationship with Ford. Shelby Mustangs were the Jeckyll and Hyde of the automotive world, having been transformed from what was commonly thought of as a ‘secretary’s car’ into a fire-breathing performance coupe for street or strip. The Shelby name had become synonymous with performance. The Mustang had been Lee Iococca’s pet project, but Shelby had made it into the hairy-chested beast that captured the imaginations of men and boys alike. So tight was the bond between Shelby and Iococca, that when Lee left Ford for Chrysler, he was able to convince Shelby to bring his performance name and magic to the Pentastar.
The 1980s are often referred to as the Malaise Era for American automotive performance. All of the Muscle Cars of the 1960s and 1970s were either dead or were mere shadows of their former selves. Gone was the Hemi Cuda, the Superbird, and the GTO. The Trans Am was just a sticker package, featuring the notorious Screaming Chicken on the hood. The Corvette for 1981 had only 190hp, down from a peak of 435hp just twelve short years before. Mustangs were built on the same platform as the Ford Fairmont. It was a sad time to be a car enthusiast.
Saddest of all was the lineup at Chrysler. The K-Car platform was the staple for most of the Chrysler/Plymouth/Dodge passenger car line-up. Bland, cheap, and cranked out by the thousands, it helped keep the Pentastar afloat, but there was certainly no soul. What was needed was some excitement, some guts, a kick in the pants. And who should provide that, but Mr. Kick-In-The Pants, Carroll Shelby. With Shelby’s direction and performance expertise, the new Chrysler Shelby Performance Center in Whittier, CA, produced the 1983 ½ Dodge Shelby Charger. It sold particularly well, especially for a model with a half-year introduction. The next several years would see the Dodge Shelby Daytona, the Dodge Omni GLH (Goes Like Hell) and GLHS, The Dodge Shelby Daytona Z, the Dodge Rampage, The Dodge Shelby Lancer, and even the Dodge Shelby Dakota and Dakota Convertible. These performance models, combined with Chrysler’s creation of the minivan, purchase of AMC/Jeep, and Iacocca’s leadership, saved Chrysler from doom.
With Bob Lutz as Chrysler’s Executive Vice President, Carroll Shelby helped develop a high-performance concept car loosely based on the Shelby Cobra. The V-10 drivetrain was developed with help from Lamborghini, which was owned by Chrysler at the time. The car came to market in 1992, after a prototype was driven at the 1991 Indianapolis 500 by none other than Carroll Shelby. Production of the Viper, and its 400hp V-10 helped kick off the horsepower wars with Chevrolet. Chevy had introduced the Corvette ZR-1 as a 1990 production model, featuring a DOHC 32-valve, aluminum block and head 5.7-liter V-8 made by Mercruiser Marine, and a suspension developed by Lotus. At the time of the Viper’s introduction, the ZR-1 was rated at 375hp. Chevrolet had loudly proclaimed the super ‘Vette “King of the Hill”. For the 1993 model year, the year after the Viper bowed, the Corvette was tweaked to yield 405hp, and the game was afoot.
Much of this may have been old news to the hardcore auto fan. Some of it may have been new information. But all of it was necessary to ask this question: What if the Chevy brass had said yes? What if the Corvette Scaglietti had gotten a green light, and a limited production of high performance Corvettes had begun to roll off an assembly line? What if there had been a Corvette Cobra? Could Ferrari have stood up to the industrial might of GM, forcing Scaglietti to make Ferrari bodies only? Doubtful. What would have happened to those fabulous cars from Maranello? If GM had said yes, there would have been no Shelby Cobra, no Cobra Daytona Coupes (one of the most expensive American cars ever, coincidentally, along with the ’63 Corvette Grand Sports). There would have been no GT40. Ferrari may have never been beaten in the 1960s at Le Mans. There would have been no Shelby Mustangs (in the 1960s, 1970s, or in recent years). There would be a tremendous gap in the collector car world. The horsepower wars of the 1960s may not have played out the same way. If Shelby had not gone to Ford, he probably wouldn’t have had the relationship with Iacocca, and there would have been none of the CSPC Chryslers of the 1980s and 1990s. Without the Chrysler relationship, there would have been no Viper RT/10 or Viper GTS. A simple change of heart at GM in 1959 could have had massive, titanic implications for the automotive world as we know it, and there’s a good chance none of us would recognize things as they are today.