Meeting Carroll Shelby


Like many of his fans the world over, I was saddened to hear that Carroll Shelby passed away last week.

I only met him once, at Goodwood 10 or more years ago and I’d say he was more courteous than friendly, but given the long line of hacks who’d queued up to ask him the same obvious questions, I’d be the last to blame him for that. You can never judge the character of any man from so brief an introduction, especially in that kind of environment. Ayrton Senna was difficult in that situation and Sébastien Loeb retains the ability to be an extremely tricky interviewee as well, yet if you were lucky enough to catch them away from the flashlights and Dictaphones, both were charm personified. I never got that chance with Shelby.

I did however manage to drive a few of the cars to which he lent his name, most memorably a brace of original Cobras, one with a 289cu in engine, the other with the full-fat 427.

The 289 opened my eyes to a world I’d not seen before. Rare indeed can an Anglo-American collaboration have borne better fruit. It was all those things you’d hope a British roadster of the era to be: beautiful, nimble and oozing character, combined with the one commodity they always lacked: pile driver punch. It would make any road-going E-type look like a pedal car.

More interestingly, once I’d got used to the thrust and noise of its small-block V8, it became clear this Cobra was not just about straight-line squirts. With disc brakes at every corner it actually stopped quite well and having been lovingly maintained in the finest mechanical fettle by its owner, you might even call its handling good by the prevailing standards of the day. Certainly and for all its ferocity, I didn’t find it a particularly frightening beast.

Which is more than I can say for the 427. This was a street car but with a full race engine developing a mere 500bhp because its owner had deliberately tuned it to for torque. Even as it was, it still ranks among the most unruly and, if I’m honest, unpleasant sports cars I’ve sat in. It may be that other 427s are not like this, so I am in no way condemning them all, but this particular car was utterly overwhelmed by its engine: its steering was vague, its brakes no match at all for the engine and the chassis inclined to hop, skip and jump over every lump, bump, camber and surface change on the road. I don’t know whether its natural handling state was to over or understeer because I was too scared to make it do either on the road, but I expect it would not have taken much provocation to produce vast amounts of both in the same corner.

I last saw Shelby, though not to speak to, at the Los Angeles motor show in November, where he was unveiling the latest Shelby Mustang GT500, with its supercharged 650bhp engine. He was apparently in fine form and it’s a shame he did not survive long enough to see this latest car to bear his famous name go on sale. Then again this is a man who retired from racing through apparent ill health over half a century ago, received a new heart in 1990 and a new kidney in 1996. Yet had he survived a few more months, in January he would have celebrated his 90th birthday.

So rest well Carroll Shelby, a man who fought hard all his life, on road, track, and, lest we forget, in the air during the war. The Cobra race at this year’s Goodwood Revival will now have a special poignancy. I hope all taking part do justice to his memory.

You may also like