Carroll Shelby (1923 - 2012)

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Carroll Shelby (1923 - 2012)

Carroll Shelby
IN THE beginning, there was only a man with an idea. Not even a new idea, mind you, but a good idea nonetheless. In a nutshell, it went like this: find one light, strong European sports car chassis and add one good ol' powerful American V8. Refine by racing. The result? A car that would never be purebred but which would go like stink, have bullet-proof reliability and, best of all, never leave you stranded in the outback for lack of engine parts.

Other Americans had tried this idea before, men of means like Briggs Cunningham, the famous yachtsman, who had sunk a fortune into such ventures as racing Cadillacs at Le Mans (yes, Cadillacs at Le Mans!) and creating Italian-bodied Chrysler-powered GT cars, or Lance Reventlow, the wealthy playboy whose Chevy-powered Scarabs beat the best in America only to fall flat on their face in Europe.

But those two men were rich, and could afford the idle pursuit of losing money while trying to manufacture cars. Carroll Shelby was 38 years old when he started the Cobra project and, except for a Goodyear race tyre franchise, all he had to go on was his good name in racing.

Snubbed by GM

Shelby originally had in mind building his car around a Chevrolet engine since it had proven high performance potential. He even considered mating the Chevy to a chassis built in Japan. But the Chevy angle was dashed when the Corvette people in General Motors gave Shelby the cold shoulder. They didn't want some cowboy from Texas telling them what to do with the Corvette, or worse yet, building a lightweight competitor to the Corvette. Then two lucky things happened. First, AC Cars Ltd, a British firm making a lively two-litre sports car called the Ace-Bristol, announced that it was going to cease building the car because Bristol, the engine supplier, had decided to stop making the two-litre six. AC had a 2.6-litre Ford six to fall back on but sales of that model were not up to the level of the Ace-Bristol.

Shelby perked up his ears when he heard about a European car-maker lacking an engine. Only a few days later, Ray Brock, an editor of an American car magazine, called him and told him that Ford had a new lightweight cast iron V8 in the works, ostensibly intended for some Canadian trucks. In best Texas wheeler-dealer style, Shelby first borrowed an Ace-Bristol and measured it for size. A V8 would fit, and the frame was stout with two main frame rails 75 mm (three inches) in diameter. He contacted the men at AC and told them what he had in mind. Ford was interested enough to send him a 3.6-litre V8 to try.

Ford's New V8 Fits The Ace-Bristol

Ford also told Shelby that a high performance 4.3-litre version of the engine was on the way. This engine had been developed because Ford was worried about the increasing sales of the Chevy Corvair Monza and decided to drop a souped~up V8 into the Falcon to counter the Monza. AC put together a running prototype and Shelby flew to England to test it. Even with the 3.6 engine the car went like the hammers, but the drive train, from the gearbox to the axles, wasn't up to the little V8's torque. So Shelby gave the engineers a long list of things to correct on the prototype before he could show it to Ford.

A few weeks later, AC air-freighted the prototype Cobra (Shelby claims he thought up the name in a dream) sans engine to California. Shelby and an associate, Dean Moon, installed the Ford 4.3-litre V8 and four-speed gearbox and found they had themselves a real stormer. Next, Shelby called Ford and arranged to meet the big brass of the Ford Division. He shipped the car on ahead, a little nervous about his venture because Detroit is known to be a cold-hearted place to anyone but NASCAR (roundy-round) racers.

But Shelby arrived at the right time. Ford was poised to pump millions into motor sport in every conceivable form, from drag racing to the Monte Carlo rally. When Carroll Hall Shelby, the 1959 Le Mans winner, walked into the room with a workable Ford-powered sports car, the Ford men rolled out the green carpet and gave him enough capital to order 100 cars from AC. Naturally, he got the engines on credit. Why 100? Because that was the minimum required by the FIA for homologation, and, above all, Shelby's goal was to race, not just build a nice touring sportster.

The first shipment of 1966 Shelby Mustangs
The first shipment of 1966 Shelby Mustangs.

1968 Cobra Convertible
In 1968 the Cobra Convertible accounted for around a quarter of Shelby Mustang sales.

1968 Shelby GT 350
The 1968 Shelby GT 350 and GT 500 had the scoop located at the bonnet leading edge where it acutally caught air (unlike most scoops set further back). On this model, you could option the 427 engine.

Hertz Rental Car Shelby Mustang
The Hertz Car Rental company made world headlines in 1966 when it bought 1000 Shelby GT 350 H coupes for its US rental fleet.

Carroll Shelby 427 Cobra
The 427 Cobra, which could go 0-160 km/h in less than 9 seconds. The only thing quicker was the special (of which only 3 were made) that was fitted with twin blowers to boost output over the 450 kW mark.

Cobra Daytona
The Cobra Daytona was actually a re-bodied roadster. In 1965 it won the World GT Manufacturer's Championship.

"Uncle" Tom McCahill

But the Shelby Cobra was destined to go far beyond 100 cars. After the first few began winning races like clockwork, Ford saw that it had a good thing going and it kept priming the pump. After producing 125 cars with the 4.3-litre V8, Shelby switched to a 4.7-litre (289 cu in) version rated by Ford at 202 kW. The 289 Cobra was like nothing most car magazine editors had ever driven. It was faster than anything they had ever tested. "Uncle" Tom McCahill, a famous US road tester, wrote: "It will yank Gramp's head clear off his shoulders if you floor it in first gear." It even cornered reasonably well and stopped on the proverbial dime. The American car magazines recorded 0-100 mph in 10.8 seconds . . . quick by any standards.

Shelby, predictably, wasn't satisfied with the 289 the way it came from Ford. He had moved to California in 1960 because he knew that was where the hot-rod cult was emerging. Because of it, he found men like Phil Remington who had honed his talents racing flathead Fords on California's dry lake beds. Shelby's race shop, using simple tricks like porting and polishing the heads, installing a high-riser manifold with a 715 cfm Holley four-barrel, and using steel shim head gaskets and header exhausts, boosted the power to 275 kW on the Cobra race cars. By 1965 he was squeezing almost 298 kW out of the 289s and still enjoying enough reliability to run a 24-Hour race at an average speed of close to 160 km/h.

Leaving Corvettes For Dead

In US racing, the Cobra overwhelmed the Corvettes, which were 450 kg heavier. In European GT racing, the Cobra had much tougher competition in the form of the Ferrari GTO, a slippery fastback coupe powered by a three-litre six-carburettor V12. How could a three-litre beat the five-litre Cobra? Simple. It was mainly aerodynamics. The Cobra body style, after all, was your basic brick, an adaptation of the 1953 AC Ace, which in turn had copied the 1949 Ferrari Bar-chetta. In other words, by the time the Cobra roadster was introduced, its styling was over 12 years old and totally ignorant of any progress in aerodynamics. The Ferrari GTO, on the other hand, enjoyed such aerodynamic aids as a Kamm-effect tail to hold the rear end down at speed, and a much lower-sloping nose. Of course it also had a pure-race bred V12 engine. And refined handling.

So what did Shelby do? He pulled off one of the all-time great flim-flams in modern racing history. He had his crew defsign a new coupe body to slip over the roadster chassis. Since Shelby assured the FIA the chassis was unchanged (it was), he didn't have to build 100. As it was, he built only six. But that was enough to win the World Manufacturer's Championship for Cobra. The body of the new car, which came to be called the Daytona coupe after its premiere race, was suggested by Pete Brock who had been a trainee at GM's styling centre. The first car was built the same way they build prototypes in Italy - by hammering little bits of aluminium long enough until they are the right shape and then welding them into bigger pieces of aluminium. The first tests revealed the Daytona to be 32 km/h faster than a roadster.

The Daytona

Shelby sent six Daytona coupes and five roadsters to Europe in 1964, hoping to beat the Ferraris on such challenging courses as the Targa Florio, a race through Sicily on roads built by the Romans, and the Nurburgring, a track that winds through the Eifel Mountains of Germany for more than 23 km and includes about 175 corners. The Cobras fought the Ferraris tooth and nail. But just when it looked like Enzo was going to lose the Automobile Club of Italy cancelled its upcoming race at Monza. Since Shelby was counting on the Monza race to win much-needed points, his team was left with only two races to overhaul Ferrari. The remaining races were on tougher courses than Monza, and Ferrari emerged the season winner by seven points, taking the World Manufacturer's Cup in the GT class for the umpteenth time.

Shelby was furious. He had a thing against Ferrari because, back in his days as a driver, Ferrari had tried to hire him at what Shelby felt were insulting terms. Shelby had reportedly replied: "Some day, I'm going to come back here and beat your arse." He made good his threat in 1965. On the 1965 home front, competition was hotting up for the Cobras. The Corvettes were reported to be getting bigger engines so Shelby decided to let his chief test driver, the great Ken Miles, go ahead with Super Snake - a "289" chassis with a thumping 427 (seven-litre) Ford NASCAR engine under the hood. The 427 prototype, still using transverse leaf springs at the front and rear, was so squirrelly that even Miles crashed it. Shelby realised that so heavy an engine would need a new chassis. Following his original plan of working with a big car-maker, Shelby asked Ford for help.

The Cobra 427

In just two weeks it came back with a computer-designed plan for a larger version of the same chassis, but with coil-sprung suspension. The FIA homologation rules changed in 1965 and Shelby had to make only 50 of the 427 model to qualify it as a production car. The first 22 to 25 cars were full Competition versions with huge 155-litre petrol tanks, no mufflers, wide wheels and tyres, anti-roll bars, a roof roll-over bar and even a circle on the side waiting for a number. The remainder had most of the same equipment but were fitted with windshields and makeshift mufflers so they could be street driven. Shelby called them S/C models for "Street Competition".

With 362 kW, there was nothing on the road that could catch the S/C 427. The 0-100 km/h time was just 4.5 seconds, limited only by excessive wheel-spin. The 427 could lay rubber in all four gears and with the windshield removed could do close to 305 km/h, even with its brick-like shape. It was sheer power overcoming all obstacles. As for the pure street All Cobras (made after the first 50 Comp and S/C cars), the first few came with slightly detuned 427s. But then Shelby pulled a sneaky by fitting the next ones with 428 "Police Interceptor" engines. The 428 had solid lifters and a single four-barrel and looked like the 427, but if you tried to race it you found out the difference in the first hard corner when you ran the engine bearings.

Selling At A Loss

The 428 just didn't have the lubrication and longevity of the 427. Shelby's explanation of the switch was that the 428 cost half as much and in business you have to make a profit. Even so Shelby is said to have lost $1000 or more on every 427 Cobra sold. Later, the 427 Cobra was revived and Shelby even created a trio of 427s with twin superchargers. They were reported to have more than 445 kW on tap. While Shelby was working on his 427 Cobra, Ford was developing the Mustangs. Soon after the 'stang appeared in the showroom, Shelby prepared 100 special versions for racing. These Shelby Mustangs, promised the Ford officials, "would beat the Corvettes". They were right. The Shelby Mustangs did beat the Corvettes. And sometimes (embarrassingly) 289 Cobras.

That first 1965 Shelby Mustang was a rough, tough no-compromise machine. Under the fibreglass hood was the 289 V8, boosted to 228 kW with different intake manifold and carburettor, header exhausts and mufflers. Shelby had wanted big brakes and found them attached to a full-size Ford axle which he jammed into the Shelby. He also modified the front suspension to reduce the understeer that Detroit traditionally builds into its cars. A Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed box was standard. The original plan was to make them all two-seaters to compete against Corvettes. To do this, Shelby had the flip-up rear seat left out and put a tray in its place as a flat mount for the spare tyre. But it took too much construction time to make it a two-seater and so the spare went into the boot.

Shelby produced the raw grist for his first few hundred Shelbys by taking over a Ford assembly plant for a couple of days and programming the computers to build nothing but white Mustang 2-plus-2 fastbacks. When it came time to plan the '66 model Ford marketing execs explained a few of the hard facts of marketing to Shelby . . . like the buyers had to have some choice. So, automatic transmission was an option for '66 and the noisy Detroit locker locking differential was relegated to the option list and the any-color-as-long-as-it's-white policy was loosened to include red and green.

A Luxury Shelby

In 1967, with the mandatory fitting of power brakes and power steering, it appeared that the Shelby Mustang was irrevocably aimed at the luxury market. And why not? As Shelby himself could point out, the racing grids were already clogged with 1965 Shelby GT-350s. Why not market a Shelby that one could drive on a long trip with and not end up being deafened by the exhaust ? And the heavier look was an illusion on the small-block car which didn't weigh much more than the 1966 model. But since it no longer had the re-worked front suspension, it didn't corner as well. 1967 also saw Shelby lose the lease on his Los Angeles airport hanger factory. That, plus a fiasco in trying to fit poorly-formed fibreglass parts, caused Ford to move production of the Shelby Mustangs to a plant in Michigan.

But the main news was the availability of a big-block model called the GT-500. For some reason, the model codes never matched up with the cubic inches, the GT-350 having only 289 and the GT-500 having 427 or 428. The 427 was preferred by the hard-core street racers and the 428 by the posers who liked to strut but also wanted to cruise at 160 km/h with the air and stereo on. Shelby being Shelby, he couldn't resist doing some things different. For instance, on the early '67s, he had the high-beam lamps located in the centre of the grille. No-one ever had said that quad headlamps had to be in pairs, right? But some States didn't like the location so he had to later move them to the outer edges of the grille cavity.

Shelby was concerned with safety and Shelby Mustangs in '67 marked the first and only time over-the-shoulder inertia reel shoulder harnesses were available in a Detroit-made car. The 1968 line included a convertible with a power-operated top. Six Shelby convertibles were built in '66 as VIP cars but those were prototypes. The later convertibles were regular production models and ended up accounting for almost a quarter of '68 Shelby sales. The 1968 model Shelby had some good news and some bad news under the bonnet. The high revving 4.7-litre was no longer available, replaced by a meek 187 kW 4.9-litre V8 (not the Boss 302, which was a horse of another color). But at least the seven-litre 428 was still available and the husky 427 remained on the option list.

The Cobra Jet Mustang

As a mid-year model, Ford introduced the Cobra Jet Mustang. Its 428 had new heads with ports larger than those on even the racing 427 engine! Ford offered this as the Shelby "KR" ("King of the Road") and claimed only 250 kW. But there was reason to suspect the figure was low-balled so Shelby buyers could afford car insurance. Ford also hoped to fool the National Hot Rod Association into putting the KR up against some weak competition. It didn't fool anyone. The engine put out way over 300 kW.

The 1969 and 1970 Shelbys can be mentioned in the same breath, for the 70s were naught but left-over '69s hastily fitted with front spoilers, new stripes and up-dated vehicle registration numbers. This last series of the Shelby Mustang is much sought after by collectors even though its performance is but a shadow of the previous cars'. One explanation is that collectors tend to gravitate toward the first and last of a given series. Another reason is undoubtedly that they were the first Shelby Mustangs to be totally re-styled. The entire front end was fibreglass and much of the aft end. A convertible was available, sporting a glass back window and this model must surely be the grandest Shelby of them all.

For powerplants, the 1969 and 1970 Mustangs are not outstanding. The 4.9 was listed, but never ordered. A 5.9 was the GT-350 standard and the seven-litre was the GT-500 engine. While the old high performance engines weren't available anymore, you could still get very low (like 4.3:1) axle ratios which allowed you to lay rubber from here to eternity. Although Ford ran ads for the '69 Shelbys, the '70 models somehow slipped into the dealer network and disappeared with nary a peep. They presumably sold on the strength of the Shelby name alone. And Ford was by then much more interested in promoting the upcoming Boss 302 model and felt that continuing the Shelby series would be an unnecessary duplication of effort. However it retained the Cobra name to decorate Mustangs and others which in the main have been cars for pose, not performance.

So that was the Shelbys that were. Just over 11,000 Shelby Mustangs were made in five years, and a total of 1011 Cobra sports cars. They were the stuff that performance is made of, and though the breed is dead the legend lives on.
Shelby Anglo-American Hybrid Chassis
The Anglo-American hybrid chassis as first seen in public at the 1962 London Motor Show.
Competitoin Cobra 427
Competitoin Cobra 427.
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