Memories of meeting the cowboy supreme Mr Shelby

8

Author: James ElliottPublished:

It was weird the first time I met Carroll Shelby. We were on the lawn in front of Goodwood House some time in the late 1990s, admiring Gerry Judah's latest creation in the dark and escaping the noisy melee not so far away as ball-goers bopped away to Suzi Quatro (or someone else, but it always seemed to be her back then so that's my guess).

It was one of those moments when you never know whether to invade someone's airspace or just leave them be, so I resolved to just go up and say a polite hello, shake his hand and then instantly retreat and give him some space.

"Evening Mr Shelby I said," but as I went to pull my hand back, he didn't let go and started chatting about the sculpture. It seems he wasn't entirely convinced about it as "art", but he loved the engineering of it.

I didn't say much because I was rather in awe of him. It's no exaggeration to say that his very name embodied something huge in the same way as Ferrari does. It means power and victory, but it also means more, bringing with it a maverick element, a hint of punk rebellion and usurping of the established order.

For a car-mad lad brought up in England it was hard not to view Shelby as a cowboy. An actual cowboy, riding into town on a horse and telling people in that Texan drawl to get off their horses and drink their milk.

But John Wayne didn't quite fit the bill: too straight. Bret Maverick didn't quite either because he was too jokey and didn't have the required menace to be Shelby. I never did find precisely the right cowboy to paste my mental picture of Carroll Shelby on to, but imagine a chattier Lee Van Cleef in John Wayne's body and you're getting close.

We didn't talk for long before he was dragged away, but long enough for him to tell me that the 1959 Aston Martin Le Mans victory was riven with friction, that there was no point in making American cars to European ride and handling standards because the Yanks could never accept it culturally.

It wasn't the last time I spoke to him though, in fact I interviewed him twice after that. When I did I got a very different man.

First, he hit me with the charm – he was overflowing with Southern charm until you upset him – astonishing me when he came to the phone by instantly remembering me from a five minute chat possibly five years earlier: "You're that guy I met at Goodwood aren't ya?"

What came next was another side of the man, a slicker, PR-savvy media manipulator whose every response was deliberate and measured. It didn't stop him speaking him mind, of course, but some of the pugnaciousness, some of his naturalness was subsumed by the businessman in him.

To understand the greatness of Shelby, you have to consider how few individuals make a name for themselves that can rival that of major motor manufacturers. He may have had many issues with many people over the years, but nice meek guys can't ever achieve what he did.

As well as the cars, he has left me a few memories – probably only 10 minutes worth in total – to treasure. My only regret is that I have never bought (and now can't find to buy) my favourite T-shirt, Doug Rhodes' superb effort that bore the slogan: "Isn't Carroll a girl's name?"

Safe onward journey Mr Shelby, sir.

Comments

Chris Martin

James, I am sure you know it is always a risk to meet your heroes, it could be a disappointment, but it sounds like in Shelby's case you knew what to expect, and got both sides of the legend.
As you say, when an individual can have a name that outranks major manufacturers, he truly has left his mark.
Although he never missed a chance to cash in on his own heritage (and why not) and would have sued every one he thought was ripping him off, I am sure he was secretly flattered that there are now many times more Cobra replicas than originals.
Now he has departed, it would be nice to think he could be getting into a healthy argument over at St Peter's Bar & Lounge with Enzo and Colin.

Chris M.

 

Pre 80s TVR

He will be a sad loss to the motoring community, I'll bet there are an awful lot of stories about him that have never been told.

I have the T-shirt James mentioned, I will search it out and and wear it at the Silverstone Classic. I once wore it around the Indy museum while all my English friends kept thier distance in case I started a riot...

Oliver.

TVR Car Club Pre80s Editor

Don Callum

The DBR1/2 was one of the nicest-looking sports racers of all time imho, terrific photo containing many legends.
RIP CS

julianem

I'd love to have met him. Just for a minute or two. His charisma must have been fantastic.

I've owned a '69 Mustang since 1978, not a Shelby alas. They always were pricey even back then, but on holiday in Florida in 2006 Hertz were renting GT-Hs again. His signature was on the dash with the production number. I parked mine - 1 of six - out front at Biff Burger in St Pete at the Friday night cruise and despite the complaints over the Tannoy at "late models in the show area", a sizeable crowd soon gathered and just stared at the legend reborn.

Such is the clout of Carroll Shelby to the down home American car nut.

I echo your moving tribute - safe onward journey Mr Shelby, sir.

59Impala

I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times when he was over here in the UK, he was always very friendly and courteous.

And I do have that T-shirt, when I've worn it in the US people have always liked it especially the Chevy guys.

James Elliott

How come everybody has got that blessed T-shirt except me?

Group Editor, C&SC

Nuno Granja

Good text about a good men.

I'm glad that the legend, stays a legend when the chat is face to face...

thanks for sharing

madonneexavier

Even I didn't get the t-shirt. :( :( :(

 

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