Petersen's Kit Car

March 1988

Shelby SpeaksShelby leaning on ...

…And the world listens

By now, fragments of CS's remarkable story - a saga of a man with modest beginnings who talked and thought and persevered his way into a select group of men who are considered architects of the American highway experience - have toughed the universal mindset of automotive America.

Shelby's life has taken mystical turns, sometimes in proportions that he finds uncomfortably grandiose. "We never had a sense of building anything historical," he embarrassingly admits, recalling the formative days of his Ford-contracted Project Cobra. Catapulted by the conception and production of a car called Cobra - a no-frills, aluminum-bodied track mauler that offered performance so pure (0-60 in 4.5 seconds) as to simultaneously challenge and delight some of the sport's legendary wheelmen - Shelby hasn't slowed enough to thoroughly absorb the impact of his Cobra legacy.

He seems bored with the inevitable and continuing queries about Cobra history, impact and replicators: closer to his tongue are such varied topics as electronic technology the inevitability of 16-valve proliferation in the American marketplace, the cost of worldwide labor, environmental issues and how all these factors will affect the American automotive marketplace in the Eighties and Nineties. He will oblige inquiries into GT40, GT500 and GT350 project are just as quickly, however, he'll shift the subject to threatened Japanese dominance of a market that he perceives as rapidly dividing into specialized niches.

Shelby conducts interviews the same way he does business: His words and style are unbridled by protocol, policy and convention. This uncommonly unguarded aspect of Shelby's personality has been jointly responsible for his incredible successes and his most bitter disappointments.

The Chrysler-Shelby technical center - a mammoth development/testing facility geared to elasticize the potential of Chrysler's fleet of four-cylinder, front-wheel drive econoboxes - is the pivot point of Shelby's career. The Iococca-Shelby connection dates back to the days when both men enjoyed better relations with Ford Motor Company.

It is when that four-letter marque is discussed (he confesses to at least on mental reference to Ford per day) that Shelby becomes most animated. He is philosophical about the events that put up a wall between him and Ford but outspoken about differences of opinion that spurred the eight-figure lawsuit he has pending against the firm.


KC: How do you view the Cobra, in the context of its time.

CS: To me, the beauty of it was that it was something put together by California hot rodders, a few good people at Ford that worked after six p.m. to get things done. People like Claus Horning, who designed the chassis for the 427 Cobra. It wasn't a perfect car. I never said it was. The timing was lucky.

KC: : Which leads to the next logical question. What do you think about firms that replicate Cobras?

CS: Nothing you can do about it. I don't' think they ought to call 'em Cobras though, because Ford owns the name.

KC: : Aren't you and Ford at a disagreement over names?

CS: I sold the Cobra name to Ford for a dollar many years ago, and I've never denied that. I built GT350s in 1982. There's never been a piece of paper saying Ford bought it. That's why I'm suing Ford for $30 million. I'll let the federal judge in Dallas decide it all. I've got faith in the judicial system.

KC: : Did the handful of people who helped develop the Cobra have a sense of something special happening during the project?

CS: No. We were just trying to do the best job at the time that we could to beat the Ferraris if we had enough money.

KC: : Does the fact that the cobra is probably the most popular replicar of all time surprise you?

CS: Yeah. There were some of these Cobras that didn't sell for a few years after we quit building 'em.

KC: : Do you know where CSX-2000 is today?

CS: That's the number one Cobra. It's in Dallas. I got offered a million dollars for it. Funny thing about it is I offered that car to the Ford museum in 1974, and they said, "Nah, we don't want no Cobra." I offered it to 'em for nothing. I didn't want it laying around taking up space.

KC: : Back to the replicar industry.

CS: I'm not jealous of the people that build these replicas. They're just people with dreams like I had. They're trying to make a living. I do get upset if they try to say they're Cobras. The reason I get upset is that there's too much of too many people in making a Cobra. Everyone says, "Oh, all that fool [Shelby] did was take an AC chassis and drop a Ford in it, and it [the Cobra] just happened." It didn't. These people took a car from AC - that you couldn't drive around the block in - and turned it into something that, as unsophisticated as it was, caused Ferrari to give up GT racing.

I'd been wanting to build a car since 1950. It wasn't something that just came all of a sudden. When I was driving race cars in Europe, I was mainly there to find out how to put a building operation together. That's the reason I stayed with Aston Martin. That's the reason I'd hang around Modena for three months every summer. I was interested. That's the reason when we started to build the Daytona Coupe. I went straight to Modena because that's where the best panel-beaters were. Best panel beaters are still there. You can go to Modena and build a good sports car probably today cheaper than anywhere in the world. But you gotta know where those back alley shops are. You gotta now where the people are.

KC: : If you were emerging today, what would you build.

CS: I don't know. I do know that you can build a good car in this country for a lot less than the $275,000 Ferrari G-40. There's a lot of people out there that will pay that, that always dreamed of being race drivers and never got to be. Now they've got a little money in their pockets, so that's the way to impress their girlfriends.

KC: : Speaking of dreams, isn't the Cobra replicar market built on the guy growing up in the Sixties who saw the original as his dream car? A guy who knows that a replica is as close as he'll ever get?

CS: I don't mind if people do it (build replicas). It's a compliment. People don't realize how much even copying something today costs versus how much it was when I did it. (built Cobras). I went to the cheapest source in the world. They banged those bodies out underneath a bridge. You start building those bodies in England now, the chassis at prevailing wages over here, finding the parts… it costs a lot of money.

KC: : Some Cobra replica manufacturers are back ordered six months.

CS: (Surprised) Are they? I tested some about four or five years ago, and only about one out of the six was anything. I don't remember the name of the company that made it.

KC: : Do you attribute the popularity of the replicar market to a desire for our cars to be individually oriented, to show more of our personality?

CS: There's a little of Walter Mitty in a lot of people, and a replicar - the Cobra - represents the ultimate in performance. You can't pull one of the vehicles into a filling station without drawing a crowd. I think when one person sees that happening, they may not even know what a Cobra is, but they'll buy one because they can stick their chest out when they're driving.

KC: : How did the Cobra body design come about?

CS: It just happened. We had to make it wider that the old… it looked a lot better than an AC Bristol did! I said, "Just make the nose longer. We gotta put wider tires on it. Put flares on the fenders." Tell you the truth, I don't remember where exactly the 427 body lines came from. Just kinda a 289 blown up a bit.

KC: : You've been quoted as saying that you wished the Cobra experience were behind you.

CS: It seems I can't live it down. All I've said as far as I remember is that I would never build a car like the Cobra again probably because it was the most successful of the muscelcars of the Sixties, but that was 20 years ago! There's so much more technology now! For instance, I have a lot more fun driving the CSX with a 16-valve engine today than I do driving a Cobra. We're past the Cobra days. A Cobra's like driving T Ford. Electronics are interesting to me now.

KC: : How do you perceive Chrysler/Shelby's market profile?

CS: Of all the cars on the market in America today, there's probably not any company that outperforms Chrysler, and all we've got is that little four-cylinder engine. Coming along with the V6 in the Mitsubishi, we've still got some V8s. Some dinosaurs. All the magazines yell, another K car chassis. They gotta have something to write about, but the K-Car chassis is as fine a front-wheel-drive chassis as there is.

For mass-produced cars. (Pause) I would have loved to have a 16-valve engine that I could emissionize for 265 horsepower and four-wheel drive. But I didn't have that and we had to make do with what we had. I haven't built anything that I don't like to get on the street in. Our guys here can emissionize 260, 275 horsepower with a little 2.2, 16-valve.

(Conversation drifts to Ford's purchase of AC.)

KC: : What was the motivation?

CS: Chrysler bought Lamborghini and have an option to buy whatever of Maserati they don't own now, and Ford feels like they might have gotten left at the switch. AC was a name they've been connected with and it also kind of helps blow me out of the tub. A lot of people at Ford are still my friends, but there's a lot of 'em that are madder than hell that I get credit for the Cobra and GT40.

KC: : Final thoughts?

CS: Just that I'd like more of the people who built the Cobra to get some credit.

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