The Renegades Who Built the Cars, Won the Races, and Lived the Legend
There are a lot of (good) books about Carroll Shelby and his Cobra race cars, I’ve got a number of them. I rate this new one - "Shelby American" - as one of the best.
By Doug Stokes
Mon, Sep 5, 2022 08:01 AM PST
All images courtesy of Octane Press.
Henceforth it will be among the first-mentioned when someone asks my advice on reading about Mister Shelby and the (still reverberating some 60 years later) world that he created when he jammed a Ford Fairlane motor into a little-known, flimsy, British teacup of sportscar that was called an "AC Ace".
Starting From The End
...With that endorsement, let me start at the end (of the book).
I think that I’ve mentioned it before, but my first look into any book which, in any way, purports to cover actual events and real people is at the index. Names (the more the merrier for me), places, events, dates, inanimate objects … all the stress points of a book there laid out to the reader’s great advantage, ready to unwind and relate history.
You’ve likely guessed that "Shelby American" has a wonderfully diverse roll-call/index of players, places, motorcars, and more - and you are correct. Those nine pages of 5-point agate promise a fact-filled relating of the Shelby saga that (very truly in this case) Mister Lerner’s newest book on the sport delivers.
And the listing of every quote (twelve pages there) used to tell this tale might seem a bit over the top, but again, author Lerner is simply doing his job as a reporter and making (damn) sure that the statements are both clear and identified as to the speaker.
Timelines & Lists
While we’re in the back pages of this adventure book, I want to mention that there are two lists, two timelines, that both add context and value to this book:
First a full timeline of the original Shelby American company from 1962 to 1969. And second, a list of each model of the Shelby Cobra that the company produced during that same seven year time span. Both frame and augment Lerner’s fast-moving documentary.
Of course, the story: A retired race car driver (with little/no engineering background) decides that he can build better racing cars than the then standard of the world, Ferrari. He ropes the great and powerful Ford Motor Company into the deal, has a lot of laughs and even more knock-down/drag-out confrontations with everyone from line mechanics to the autocratic head of the aforementioned big-three car company, and goes on to raise up a legend that endures this day and, I’m very sure, well beyond.
As alluded to above, author Lerner here relies heavily on actual (and carefully annotated) quotes from all of the key players … their notes and notions give the Shelby story it’s evident shape and substance. Told here in eight chapters starting with "Building A Better Beast 1962" through "Taking On The World 1966" and on to "Hard Times 1968" and "End Of The Line 1969". Each has a very clear glimpse into Shelby the man and Shelby American the company.
Yeah, there was “that movie” about the 1967 Le Mans race. Lerner here covers the episode in the most level terms imaginable. I wasn’t there, but I’ve known and met a few who were and, for my money, the telling in this book is accurate.
One sentence in Chapter 8 ("End of the Line 1969") sort of drops both shoes in a passage about the Shelby Trans Am team. Unlikely late recruit Sam Posey had driven the team’s Mustang to a win at Lime Rock with only seven of the car’s eight cylinders operative, but Lerner has to tell us: "This was the last professional race that Shelby would ever win." and following up with: "After Lime Rock the team slouched toward mediocrity." This book has as many moods from elation to something that had to be pretty close to despair.
Carroll Shelby, who often talked like a s--t-kicking cowboy fresh off a West Texas spread, somehow, someway, just had a knack for picking the right people to bring his dreams to life. He was lucky/smart to have the so many heroes and outright zealots in his band.
The book’s subtitle calls them "Renegades", some might have a different word after reading this heroic catalog of their exploits. None will be easily forgotten.
This is a highly nuanced, carefully detailed, and fascinating look at the way Shelby American accelerated from piecing together a hotted-up, off-brand British sports car to winning major races across the world - and almost as quickly simply faded into mythology.
In the end, this book is a lot like the cars that Shelby made legendary. It’s carefully built, totally devoid of any fluff or filigree, and packs a whole damn lot of story performance into it’s 328 well-tuned pages.
Maybe I should add something about: "...print the legend" here..? Naah, no need.
By my (shoes and socks off) count of the aforementioned tally of "production" automobiles that Shelby America either built in-house or contracted out, there were 1,011 Cobras, one Sunbeam Tiger, and just under 15,000 highly modified (road use) Mustangs identified with the GT (GT 350 etc.) label built between. That number includes 1,001 1966 350GTH models that were crafted for Hertz to spice up their rental fleet. We’ll here go on record as opining that, of those just under 14,730 automobiles, less than 2-3 thousand of them are still around today.
Bonus Round: Just for shine and grapefruit, how many of this band of Shelby Players do you recgnize? Gus Vignolle, Carroll Smith, Jackie Stewart, Charlie Hayes, Henry Ford II, Mickey Thompson, Swede Savage, Bruce Burness, Dean Jeffries, Allen Grant, Lew Spenser, Jerry Titus, Jerry Grant, Pedro Rodriquez, Charlie Hayes, John Morton, Peter Revson, Bruce McLaren, Ken Miles, Dan Gurney, John Edgar, Bob Bondurant, Lee Iaccoca, Parnelli Jones, Charlie Agapiou, Mario Andretti, Roger Penske, Raquel Welch, Bill Cosby, Twiggy, James Garner, Sig Erson, J.L.Henderson, Ed Leslie, Tony Curtis, Jerry Bondio, Raoul Balcaen, Phil Remington, Lucky Casner, both Brocks (Peter and Yates), and Phil Hill … to name but a few.
And right … all of the above are accounted for in "Shelby American" - each with their own place in the seemingly infinite Shelby aura.
Hertz Shelby GTH
And, just as we went to press with this book review, Hertz has (once again, 50-odd years later) announced that they will be renting 900+ Shelby Mustangs, replete with the original standing snake that Peter Brock penned very early-on in this journey. Check out hertz.com/shelbygth for more.
Book Title: Shelby American - The Renegades Who Built the Cars, Won the Races, and Lived the Legend
Book Author: Preston Lerner
Publication date: Wednesday, August 17, 2022
Retail Price: $35.00 USD
About The Author
Doug has a long and wide-ranging history in the motoring business. He served five years as the Executive Director of the International Kart Federation, and was the PR guy for the Mickey Thompson's Off-Road Championship Gran Prix. He worked racing PR for both Honda and Suzuki and was a senior PR person on the first Los Angeles (Vintage) Grand Prix. He was also the first PR Manager for Perris Auto Speedway, and spent over 20 years as the VP of Communications at Irwindale Speedway. Stokes is the recipient of the American Autowriters and Broadcaster’s 2005 Chapman Award for Excellence in Public Relations and was honored in 2015 by the Motor Press Guild with their Dean Batchelor Lifetime Achievement Award. “… I’ve also been reviewing automobiles and books for over 20 years, and really enjoy my LA Car assignments.” he added.