SHELBY AMERICAN Up Close And Behind The Scenes 1962 – 1965 The Venice Years

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LACar.com BOOK REVIEW
SHELBY AMERICAN
Up Close And Behind The Scenes
1962 – 1965 The Venice Years

Story and Photos by Dave Friedman
Published by Motorbooks International
an imprint of the Quarto Publishing Group
ISBN: 978-0-7603-5198-7
246 pages $50.00

… As strange as it may seem today, the now well-beyond iconic original Shelby Cobras were not an out-of-the-box, rip-roaring, over-night success.

They were somewhat frail* (but Oh … so sleek and sexy) two-seaters built by a relatively unknown British sports car builder known by just two letters “AC”. They had sexy coachwork that was a stylized rendition of the classic Ferrari 166 Barchetta, and which had a stance that made the car look (even today and even in repose parked in a Trader Joe’s parking lot) forever as if it was ready to lunge forward without any provocation whatsoever.

But Carroll Shelby had an idea, a little bit of money, and just the right amount of audacity (some had said way too much at the time, of course they were very wrong) to think that he could build his own brand of hot rod/sports car by ordering a batch of spindly AC Bristol two-seaters from the factory with his version of a “delete option” (than being leaving the engine and transmission back in Blighty, thank you very much) and then shoe-horning a tough little 260 Ford V-8 into the space that was meant for an already outdated, two-liter, six cylinder Bristol engine.

Shelby American is (and here’s a word that really can’t be repeated enough about this book): an unprecedented inside look and story of those first years (1962 – 1965) when every day at Shelby American was an adventure, and the sports car spirit ran high across America.

By the way, that above “look” comes with direct first-person text and extended picture captions from the author Dave Friedman.

The tone here is almost like sitting down and paging through these photos with Friedman** … fully 90% of which are candid, un-posed and very much of the moment. That, of course, is what makes these photos, taken over 50 years ago so personal and such a rich trove of history.

Dave Friedman was there to chronicle every move and every nuance of this iconic car company and the people who built, re-built, designed, re-designed, cared for, repaired, reconstituted, re-painted (a lot), raced, wrecked, and made racing history … with cars that were all “Cobras” in one way or another.

There are a good number of books on this marque, maybe more on Shelby Cobras than any other save Ferrari and this book stands alongside the best of them. Like all enduring subjects, there’s always much more that people want to know.

As a California kid and growing up hanging around these machines, I can personally vouch for the fact that one book offers a (racer’s term) nuts-on first-person view of the “Carroll and Cobra Show” that played large on the pages of motorsports history and that still stirs the senses five decades down the road. I wasn’t going mention it, but I was given a ride around the 2-mile road racing course at Pomona by Mister Shelby in the first Cobra (remind me, I’ll tell you about it sometimes).

It’s cold, dark, been raining off and on, there’s more water in the cockpit than on the damn race track, rather than come in for personal pit stoo half an hour ago, I let fly, and now I’m going to have to sit down on my own cold piss … the car’s really not running all that good and there’s still three and a half hours until the race ends at midnight … Dan Gurney enjoying all the glamour of racing at the 12 Hours of Sebring.

It might almost seem odd to use the term “intimacy” in a book about one of the best-known sports cars of all time. The term is not misplaced here; in fact, if anyone ever thinks that Cobras were just “hot little sports cars” I’m pretty sure that they’ll have a change of heart about that, even after even the quickest trip though this wonderful photo file of the indelible history of the earliest years of Shelby American.

Been there, lived it, photographed it … Dave Freidman’s contribution to the words and music … er… history of racing in his many books on the subject chronicle the most exciting eras in Indy, Trans Am, Sports-Racing, and GT machines as well as (at least) four about Cobras along with one each about Corvettes, Lolas, McLarens, and Chapparals. All suggested reading by the way.

Along the road in this book, we’ll meet up with a number of other Shelby “animals”: like King Cobras, Sunbeam Tigers, the Cobra Snake drag racer, the stunning Cobra Daytona Coupes and the GT40 that started all that champagne spraying at Le Mans … all part of the smiling Texan’s menagerie.

Just recently the old “Venice Crew” was reunited to produce a continuation model of the iconic Shelby GT350 Mustang. Perfect in every detail from paint to exhaust note, LACar was lucky enough to be at the Shelby works in Gardena when the machine was introduced to the media in September. Not only was the Mustang we saw spectacularly authentic, but the good company on hand that afternoon was a match … with many of the people who designed, built, and drove these cars in anger right there among us.

Mister Friedman was there at the Shelby event with this book and, I must say, caused a pretty bad log jam at the table where he had a good sized pile of the first ones printed (needless to say, he did not have to schlep any back to his car at the end of the event!).

In the end, this book is a very important addition to the true history of Shelby’s Cobras and GT350’s. As we mentioned before, this guy Friedman, lived these photos, every one of them. Legends, when seen up close as they are here, sometimes show some rough edges.

Of course, there were a few rough edges to the story. Carroll Shelby is remembered as racing driver by some, an entrepreneur many, a hustler by others, and a larger-than-life admixture of all three by most. Here we see what many observers believe was his best trait, his uncanny ability to pick people to work for him who were, if anything, even more dedicated than the man with his name over the door. We’re told (not here) that there were fights, wars, and even the potential interregnum at times in the Santa Monica-adjacent Shelby shop, but every time they all went out to race, they were brothers-in-arms, the very definition of the term: “racing team”.

What could easily have been a wonderful book of original photos (which would have been worth every penny that way) is by virtue of Friedman’s often extended captions for each, an insider’s diary. He seems to have been everywhere and there every time that anything of note happened at the Shelby works (and at the races as well). Here’s the straight skinny: he was. In this shot we see the first Shelby Daytona Coupe, Pete Brock’s magnum opus, being brought to life in the Venice shop.

Readers will note that just about everyone pictured in this book is seen wearing a COBRA shirt, jacket, or T-shirt … More than just a cool-sounding animal name, it was the team’s name. It just as well could have been “Spartacus” for everyone involved. The adventure was on. One sees it in almost every picture of the Shelby crew in this book: tired or elated, beaten in a fair fight or wildly victorious, sleeping in the shop because they was too tired to go home, and all just having the time of their lives! – DS

*Which racing immortals like Phil Remington, George Boskof, Bruce Burness, Al Dowd, Ryan Falconer, John Morton, Louis Unser, Don Pike, Pete Brock, Carroll Smith and many others beefed into fighting shape and then took on the world and won.

**Which I’ve actually had the great privilege of doing for a number of years now, spending New Year’s Day with Friedman and other heroes of the game at the home of a well-known west side Los Angeles automotive writer/historian. I won’t mention Tim Considine here in this review, but stay tuned for news of his forthcoming epic 3-volume code-named: “Yanks” set on Le Mans and the American drivers who ever drove Le Sarthe … every single one of them.

***One more list: An honor roll of the drivers who took a chance on driving for what was then a new, unknown, underfunded team that went racing on the world stage against long-established teams foreign and domestic. Here’s the highlight reel of the great driving talent that rallied behind Shelby and happily booted some very serious booty: Bob Bondurant, Ritchie Ginther, Allen Grant, Phil Hill, Masten Gregory, Dan Gurney, Skip Hudson, Ed Hugus, Bill Krause, Ed Leslie, John Morton, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren, Dave McDonald, Lloyd Ruby, and Jerry Titus.

One more photo: “You break if, you fix it: Ken Miles and John Morton light up and go about uncrumpling a Cobra late in the evening … This photo and hundreds more, each as revealing, each almost a chapter in itself, are the reason here. The shelf with all the books about the failed chicken rancher have one more worthy addition. Let the record show that fact …

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