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For Shelby, return to Ford is like a victory lap

By Bill Vlasic / The Detroit News
Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News

GARDENA, Calif. -- The cavernous garage went dead silent as the team from Ford Motor Co. gathered around the vehicle hidden under a silk tarp.

Then Carroll Shelby, clad in black from head to toe, walked up slowly, savoring the moment he had thought about for more than 30 years.

And when Ford design chief J Mays whisked the cover off the sleek, one-of-a-kind, 2004 Ford Shelby Cobra supercar on Dec. 15, Shelby was home again.

“This is what I have been looking forward to for a long, long time,” Shelby said in his East Texas drawl. “As the NASCAR boys would say, this ... is ... awesome.”

Tonight, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Shelby and Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr. will unveil the new Cobra concept car to the world’s automotive media.

But as impressive as the 600-horsepower, silver-and-gray Cobra is on stage, the real star will be the 80-year-old Shelby, the biggest name in American auto racing in the 1960s and a Ford icon for the ages.

He ran the Ford race team that conquered Ferrari at the legendary 24 hours of Le Mans, turned timid Mustangs into souped-up muscle cars, and created the lightweight, high-performance Cobra, perhaps the most influential sports car in U.S. history.

It’s been 35 years since Shelby and Ford bitterly parted ways, ending one of the most storied partnerships the auto industry has ever seen.

But the hard-driving Shelby, the one-time “Super Texan” of motorsports, is back where he belongs — at Ford.

Ford patriarch Henry Ford II tapped Shelby to lead Ford to victory on the racetrack in the 1960s.

A generation later, it was his son, Edsel Ford II, who brought Shelby back to the automaker as a special consultant on future products.

The peace was made in the summer of 2001, at the annual Concours d’Elegance classic car show at Pebble Beach in northern California.

“I said to Carroll, ‘we’ve got to put all this stuff behind us,’ ” Edsel Ford told The Detroit News recently. “It was very important to me personally that we put everything aside and looked to the future.”

Since last spring, Shelby has met regularly with the designers and engineers working on “Project Daisy,” Ford’s top-secret effort to create a modern, 21st century version of the famed Cobra.

The stakes were sky-high. If anything were to punctuate Ford’s corporate turnaround, it would be a brand-new Cobra. A misstep, Ford executives knew, would be disastrous.

But with Shelby on board, the Ford team felt it could do no wrong.

“He’d tell us, it’s not about winning beauty contests,” said Richard Hutting, the lead designer on the project. “It’s about uncompromised performance.”

When Ford brought the finished product to the sprawling headquarters of Carroll Shelby International outside Los Angeles last month, the circle was complete.

Shelby, the prodigal son who once sued Ford for $30 million, had returned to the fold.

“I’ll bet you boys,” he said with a craggy smile, “that we’ve got a hit on our hands.”

Swaggering confidence

One by one, the six Ford GT-40s dropped out of the 1965 French endurance race at Le Mans with mechanical problems. With each successive breakdown, Henry Ford II’s mood grew darker.

Several years before, he had tried to buy the Italian carmaker Ferrari to give Ford the cachet of a championship race team. But when the deal fizzled, Henry Ford II had turned to Shelby.

Despite the flop in 1965, Shelby’s swaggering confidence as head of the Ford race program was hardly shaken. “We were so close to getting it right,” he said. “I knew it was going to happen.”

And given Shelby’s remarkable track record, who could doubt him?

A dirt-poor, former chicken farmer from Leesburg, Texas, Shelby had enjoyed a meteoric career as a race driver in the 1950s. Twice named Sports Illustrated’s “Driver of the Year,” Shelby became only the second American to win at Le Mans when he co-drove an Aston Martin to victory in 1959.

The triumph took on near-mythic proportions when Shelby later revealed that he popped nitroglycerin pills throughout the race to ease searing chest pains from a heart condition.

“You ever take nitroglycerin?” he said. “It just blows the top of your head off. But it takes the pain out of your chest when you’ve got angina.”

Heart problems forced Shelby to retire from racing, and he started his own sportscar operation, Shelby-American, in a small shop in Southern California.

With a $25,000 stake from Ford in 1962, Shelby developed the first Cobra, a pocket-rocket roadster capable of zero-to-60 in just under four seconds.

But while Shelby’s Cobras and Daytona Coupes tore up the U.S. racing circuit, Henry Ford II was dead-set on winning Le Mans, the most prestigious race in Europe.

“I think we were doing everything we could to win at Le Mans,” Edsel Ford said. “We had great cars and great drivers. My father wanted to win badly.”

After the embarrassment of the 1965 race, Henry Ford II summoned Shelby and two associates to his office. Without a word, the imperial Ford chairman handed them each a name tag that read: “Ford Wins Le Mans in 1966.”

“Henry said, ‘If you boys would like to have a job next June, those tags better come true,’ ” Shelby said.

On June 20, 1966, Henry Ford II and a crowd of 250,000 spectators watched as a trio of Ford GT-40 Mark IIs crossed the finish line first, second and third at Le Mans.

Mighty Ferrari had been vanquished, and Ford stood atop the auto racing world. For Shelby, the victory brought relief more than anything.

“I’m flying home on Monday, and I’m going to go hide for a while where no Ford man or no Frenchman can find me,” he joked.

But by then, the gruff, 6-foot Texan in the black cowboy hat could hardly fade into the background at Ford.

With the backing of Ford division boss Lee Iacocca, Shelby was turning sedate Mustangs into scorching GT350 fastbacks. His 427 Cobras set the standard for street-legal sports cars. Performance ruled at Ford, and “Ol’ Shel” embodied the American love affair with horsepower.

“What Carroll did for Mustang in the 1960s will never be repeated,” Edsel Ford said. “We were ensconced with Carroll. It was unique.”

But Shelby was still an outsider at Ford, and vulnerable to the shifting politics in the Glass House. Ford’s new president, Bunkie Knudsen, wanted to bring the high-performance program in-house.

“Iacocca couldn’t protect me anymore,” Shelby said. “I couldn’t get anything done.”

Moreover, new federal guidelines on safety and emissions had stalled muscle car mania. By 1970, Shelby “saw the handwriting on the wall.” The relationship with Ford had run its course.

Shelby packed up and moved to Africa, spending the next decade wandering the continent, hunting big game and financing safaris.

“There was nothing left for me to build in Detroit,” he said. “There was no sense trying to make a racehorse out of a mule.”

Ford becomes the enemy

A call from his old pal Iacocca, by then the chief executive of Chrysler Corp., brought Shelby back to the United States in 1981. He began customizing dull Dodges, injecting performance and laying the groundwork for the sports car that ultimately became the Viper.

Ford was the enemy now. In 1986, Shelby sued Ford for $30 million for alleged trademark infringement when it put the GT350 name on a 20th anniversary edition of the Mustang. The legal battle raged for nearly five years before the suit was settled out of court.

His racing associates from the glory days saw the toll the fight with Ford took on Shelby.

“You know those championships that Ford won in the 1960s didn’t just happen,” said Bernie Kretzschmar, a former Shelby-American race mechanic. “Carroll made it all happen.”

Moreover, Shelby was slowly dying. Two heart-bypass operations in the 1970s failed to correct a hereditary condition. By 1990, his heart function had shrunk to a frightening 14 percent.

“My doctor decided I better have a heart transplant,” he said. “Soon.”

And in typically dramatic, Shelby fashion, he got his new heart from a 38-year-old gambler who dropped dead of a cerebral hemorrhage in a Las Vegas casino. Less than a year later, Shelby was driving the Dodge Viper pace car at the Indianapolis 500.

Shelby left Chrysler when Iacocca retired in 1992, contenting himself with raising exotic animals on his Texas farm and building Cobras out of parts made by inmates at a Nevada state prison.

But there was always a gnawing sense that he had another chapter left in his automotive career. The seeds of his return to Ford were planted by two of the automaker’s top engineers — John Coletti and Chris Theodore.

Coletti and Theodore harbored a dream of building a new Ford GT, a modern re-issue of the car that won Le Mans. When Ford CEO Jacques Nasser gave the project the green light, they reached out to Shelby.

“The Shelby name is still pure magic,” Theodore said. “It seemed natural for him to come back to Ford.”

The deal was struck over dinner at Pebble Beach in 2001. Edsel Ford, who spent a summer as a teen-ager working in Shelby’s race shop, pitched the idea personally.

“This is not some ceremonial thing,” Edsel Ford said. “We want to build a real GT, and we want your personal imprint on it.”

Shelby wasn’t sure at first about the overture.

“You know, for 35 years nobody gave a damn about Le Mans and what we accomplished,” he said. “But hell, when Edsel came and said they want to build a real sports car, well, that’s what I do.”

He advised the GT team on technical issues, but his involvement ratcheted up when the Cobra project got under way last March.

“He’s still full of piss and vinegar,” said Mays, the Ford design chief. “The thing is, nobody knows what makes a Cobra better than Carroll.”

At one point, Shelby thought the new Cobra’s front end came off as too flush, too streamlined, and lacking the wide-mouth, menacing look of the original.

“If I’m honest, I’m not sure the front end looks as much like a Cobra as it should,” Shelby told Mays.

Changes were made. The final version evokes the raw, performance-first Cobra heritage in a modern package. For his part, Shelby was more impressed with what Ford did under the hood.

“It’s just amazing that you can put that much engine into this wheelbase,” he told the design team. “Good job ... good, good job.”

Ford executives insist the Cobra is only a concept for now, but hardly discourage the notion that it will eventually go into production.

“We showed the GT as a concept, and we built it,” Mays said. “We showed the Mustang, and we built it. We’re showing the Cobra, and you can take it from there.”

For Shelby, the return to Ford is like taking a long-awaited victory lap.

“You know, I don’t kid myself that I’m going to have a big impact on what Ford does with these cars,” he said. “But it feels real good to be back.”

He calls himself an “old man,” and complains about the 30 medications he takes daily to control his blood pressure and bolster his immune system. But he still drives too fast, laughs a little too loud, and enjoys nothing more than being Carroll Shelby.

The day before he saw the finished Cobra, Shelby and his wife, Cleo, drove down from their hilltop home in Los Angeles to the annual Christmas party of the Orange County Cobra Club. When he walked into the restaurant packed with Cobra lovers, the room erupted into a standing ovation.

“He may act like he’s just one of the guys, but he’s our living legend,” said John Marshall, a retired engineer who owns a Cobra and a GT350. “He’s our hero. He’s done it all.”

Tonight, at Cobo Center, the legend is rekindled at Ford with a new Cobra, but the same old Shelby.

“He’s come home again, and that’s pretty fine,” Edsel Ford said. “He has come home, and he belongs here. He belongs at Ford.”

 

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Detroit News

A Shelby timeline

Jan. 11, 1923: Carroll Hall Shelby is born in Leesburg, Texas, to Warren Hall Shelby, a rural mail carrier, and Eloise Lawrence Shelby.

November 1941: Shelby begins training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio. On training missions, Carroll corresponds with his fiancee by dropping love letters placed in his flying boots onto her farm.

1949: Carroll goes into the chicken raising business. His first batch of broilers nets a $5,000 profit, but he goes bankrupt when his second group of chickens die of Limberneck disease.

January 1952: Carroll drives in his first race, a quarter-mile drag meet, behind the wheel of a hot rod fitted with a flathead Ford V-8.

May 1952: At Norman, Okla., Carroll drives in his first road race behind the wheel of an MG-TC, taking first place in competition with other MGs. The same day, against hotter competition from Jaguar XK 120s, he wins again.

November 1954: Carroll Shelby enters the Carrera Pan Americana Mexico and T-bones a large rock and flips his Austin-Healey four times. Indians find him and offer him strong drinks to ease the pain of his broken bones, cuts, contusions and a shattered elbow.

March 1955: Shelby continues to race with his arm in a specially made fiberglass cast and his hand taped to the steering wheel.

1956: Sports Illustrated names Shelby sports car driver of the year.

Early 1957: Carroll Shelby Sports Cars opens in Dallas.

March 1957: Sports Illustrated again names Shelby “Driver Of The Year.”

June 1959: Carroll and Ray Salvadori co-drive an Aston Martin DBR1/300 and win the 24 Hours of LeMans.

Dec. 3-4, 1960: Shelby competes in his last race, the third annual Los Angeles Times-Mirror Grand Prix for sports cars and finishes fifth.

1961: He opens Shelby School of High Performance Driving.

February 1962: The name Cobra comes to Shelby in a dream.

March 1962: Shelby-American begins operations at a shop in Venice, Calif. Shelby creates the original Cobra Roadster.

January 1963: Dave MacDonald and Ken Miles sign to drive Cobras for Shelby-American and place first and second at Riverside, beating the Corvette Stingrays.

June 1964: The Cobras and Shelby-American win Europe’s biggest race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

August 1964: Ford asks Carroll Shelby to develop a high-performance Mustang fastback for street and track.

September 1964: The first ’65 Shelby Mustang GT350 race cars and street cars are built.

February 1965: With Shelby handling the racing program, Ford’s GT-40 wins its first race at Daytona.

October 1965: The brand-new ’66 GT350 Shelby fastbacks go on sale.

June 1966: Henry Ford II watches proudly as a trio of GT-40 Mark IIs cross the finish line at Le Mans, 1-2-3.

March 1967: The last 427 Cobra Roadster is built.

August 1969: Shelby begins marketing his famous Chili mix.

October 1969: At Riverside, in the Trans-Am, Shelby fields his last Ford team race car.

December 1969: Shelby Automotive Racing Company closes.

February 1970: Ford ends its long-term racing agreement with Shelby.

October 1982: Shelby contracts with Chrysler to create performance cars based on Dodge products.

1987: Shelby envisions and begins prototype work on a Dodge sports car that later becomes the “Viper.”

April 1988: Shelby sues Ford for using GT350 for its ’84 Anniversary Mustang.

1989: Shelby builds the first Viper chassis prototype.

June 1990: Shelby receives the heart of a 38-year-old gambler from Las Vegas in a long-awaited transplant operation.

May 1991: Less than a year after his transplant, Shelby paces the Indy 500 in a Dodge Viper.

September 1991: Shelby starts the Carroll Shelby Children’s Foundation that funds heart transplants for indigent children.

Oct. 1, 1992: Shelby is elected to the Automotive Hall of Fame in Detroit.

Dec. 30, 1992: Shelby helps introduce the Viper concept coupe at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

July 2002: Ford hires Shelby to join “Dream Team” of designers for new Ford GT super car.

Today: Ford shows new Shelby Cobra supercar concept at North American International Auto Show.

 

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Ford celebrates 'year of the car' by developing legendary Shelby Cobra Concept Vehicle

Ford has issued the following press release:

The new Ford Shelby Cobra concept marks the latest step in an exciting evolution of Ford concept vehicles, with an evocative design, bonafide performance credentials and – thanks to engineering as nimble and efficient as a sports car – a level of feasibility that is already close to production-level.

Like the 2002 Ford GT40 concept, the Ford Shelby Cobra draws on Ford’s emotional and performance roots in a thoroughly modern interpretation that reinforces the company’s product-led momentum. It takes its place with the 2005 Ford Mustang, Five Hundred sedan and Freestyle crossover in the "Year of the Car," the largest new-product barrage in Ford’s history.

"Our lineup of new 2005 cars is all about momentum," said Jim Padilla, executive vice president and president of the Americas, Ford Motor Company. "But the Ford Shelby Cobra concept is all about speed."

The Ford Shelby Cobra concept team drew heavily on the Ford GT production car – especially the space frame and suspension – to maximize efficiencies. Although the cars have vastly different characters and different dimensions, smart engineering quickly adapted the rear-mid-engine Ford GT platform to this front-mid-engine application.

Inspired by the biggest, baddest Cobra of all – the renowned 427 – Ford engineers created a new aluminum-block V-10 to power the Ford Shelby Cobra concept. This 6.4-liter engine, adapted from Ford’s MOD family, delivers the rush of raw power associated with that big 1960s V-8 monster – with 605 horsepower and 501 foot-pounds of torque – without the aid of supercharging or turbocharging.

This combination of brute force and thorough engineering has created a rarity in the world of auto shows – a concept car that can actually do, rather than merely promise, zero to 60 in under four seconds, and would easily exceed 100 mph if not electronically limited. With show cars typically limited to a stately 15 mph or so, this fact points at the level of engineering packed into the Ford Shelby Cobra concept – and points to the authenticity that comes from working with Carroll Shelby once again.

"I'm sure the question on everyone’s mind at this point is, ‘Are you going to build a production version?’ The answer is, ‘We'll see.’ If we get the same overwhelming reaction to the Cobra concept as we did to the GT concept, anything is possible," said J Mays, group vice president, Design.

A New Legend is Born
As the saying goes, too much power is almost enough. So thought Carroll Shelby when he shoe-horned a 427-cubic-inch Ford V-8 under the hood of a small British roadster, giving birth to the legendary 427 Cobra.

Four decades later, Ford’s Advanced Product Creation team – an in-house think-tank cum skunk works – explored the idea of applying Shelby’s famous formula to the latest components and architectures Ford has to offer. The result is the Ford Shelby Cobra concept, a radical new roadster, fully engineered for high-speed testing, completed in just five months by a small, tightly focused team of enthusiasts.

This production-feasible roadster has a 427-inspired 605-horsepower, all-aluminum V-10 engine mounted at the front of an advanced aluminum chassis modified from the rear-engine Ford GT.

It weighs slightly more than 3,000 pounds and is about as long as a Mazda Miata. There’s no roof, no side glass, not even a radio. "That’s the formula," said Carroll Shelby. "It’s a massive motor in a tiny, lightweight car."

Highly Evolved Engineering
The Ford Shelby Cobra concept is not just a huge engine with a pair of seats along for the ride. Owing to its front engine and rear transaxle layout, the roadster has nearly perfect weight distribution and a world-class supercar suspension for agility to match its alacrity.

What’s more, this ultimate roadster seats full-size adults without compromise. It actually has more front-seat legroom than a Ford Crown Victoria sedan. This key packaging achievement wouldn’t be necessary on a typical show car – but is absolutely essential to demonstrate production feasibility.

"We put together the mechanicals of a world-class supercar in a compact roadster package that can seat full-size adults," said Manfred Rumpel, manager, Advanced Product Creation. "And we did it in just five months on a budget smaller than that for many nonfunctional, nonengineered show cars."

The secret to the team’s success was Ford’s stepped-up efforts toward commonality, speed and the expertise of a team of engineers who had previously completed the all-new Ford GT in just 15 months.

"With the Ford GT, we now have a collection of supercar components," said Chris Theodore, vice president, Advanced Product Creation. "We also have a team of engineers who know how to work fast to get the job done.

"It can take a year to build a concept car that doesn’t even run or is speed-limited to 15 mph," Theodore said. "But in five months, we built one that will do 100 mph on the racetrack today."

Evocative, Modern Design
Honoring the Cobra heritage is a fully modern architecture with subtle styling cues that hint at the legendary Cobras of the 1960s.

"The powertrain, the space frame and the suspension were all key elements in the design, although for the most part, you don’t see them," said Richard Hutting, chief designer. "These established our proportions and naturally led to a race-bred shape that evokes the original Shelby Cobra, without sharing a single dimension or proportion. Just like its underpinnings, this car is thoroughly modern in every way."

While the design is clearly 21st century, the roadster is intentionally familiar. Key details – the dominant grille opening, hood scoop, vertical bumper bars and stacked lamps front and rear – establish the historical connection to Shelby’s original creation.

The Ford Shelby Cobra concept completes the trilogy of Ford’s greatest performance vehicles: the GT40, Mustang and Shelby Cobra. It heralds a new era of speed from Ford, the company that best knows and most loves performance cars.

Ford And Shelby: Partners At The Finish Line For More Than Four Decades
Carroll Shelby’s role in the program was more than that of a spiritual leader. "As soon as we decided to build the Cobra, J Mays and I went to talk with him," Theodore said. "Carroll has been involved every step of the way."

Shelby’s presence at every management review provided authenticity, as well as real contributions to the program. For example, he and Theodore independently hit on the breakthrough idea of the rear transaxle.

Early in 1962, Shelby drove his second Ford-powered race car. It was the first mockup for the Cobra, Shelby’s now-legendary marriage of a lightweight British roadster body with a small-block Ford V-8. By January 1963, he had homologated the car under the FIA’s GT III class rules and was lapping Corvette Stingrays at Riverside Raceway in Southern California.

In January 1965, Ford hired Shelby to lend his expertise to the upstart GT40 campaign. While Ford and Shelby took on Ferrari at Le Mans with the GT40, and won, they continued to fight Corvette at home with the Cobra. Production of the vehicle, which had a 1-ton weight advantage over the Corvette, began in June 1962 and continued through March 1967.

The first 75 Cobras that Shelby built were powered by Ford’s 260-cubic-inch V-8; 51 more had the larger and far more powerful 289.

Shelby first installed the Ford "side-oiler" 427 engine in the Cobra in October 1963, but the combination of this powerful engine and the rear leaf-spring suspension made the car treacherous to drive. Ford helped Shelby completely redesign the chassis, including an all-new coil-spring rear suspension, and by January 1965, Shelby introduced the production 427 Cobra – the car many enthusiasts herald as the ultimate street-legal racer.











 
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