Memories of meeting the cowboy supreme Mr Shelby

| 14 May 2012

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.