Friday, January 21, 2011

Why are all those Shelby Mustangs and Cobras worth so much at Barrett-Jackson? The story of Carroll Shelby

For the better part of the weekend, I’ll have my TV glued to the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction in Scottsdale, Ariz. This is a similar to the Mecum auction held in Kansas City’s Bartle Hall earlier this month, but the eyes of the collector car world tend to focus on this big dollar dog & pony show.

One name that pops up regularly, both at our auction and the event in Scottsdale, is “Shelby”. It’s almost like every other car is either a Shelby Mustang, a Shelby Cobra, or some kind of fake Shelby (the experts like to call these “tributes”, “clones”, or “recreations”, but let’s just call a spade a spade here). And one thing you quickly realize when watching these events is that tacking that word to a car is similar to selling it with a briefcase full of money in the trunk. Shelby cars tend to bring the big bucks. But why? What makes a Shelby Mustang, for example, worth exponentially more than a basic Mustang? What is the appeal?

Well, for one thing, you’re not just buying a car. You’re buying a piece of the legend of Carroll Shelby. One America’s early performance pioneers, Shelby’s reputation has snowballed into that of an otherworldly deity of sorts. A master of self-promotion, Shelby has grown his success on and off the track into a cultural phenomenon.

In the 1950s, Shelby was a racer. He was good enough behind the wheel to find success in sports car and open-wheel racing. His crowning achievement as a driver was most likely his 1959 win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans driving a Maserati.

But Shelby’s real claim-to-fame came as a car builder. It all started in the early 1960s, when Henry Ford II made it his personal quest to dominate Ferrari on the racetrack. Ford tried unsuccessfully to purchase Ferrari, and the negotiations between Ford II and the dictatorial Enzo Ferrari fueled a fierce rivalry.

The Ford GT40, which competed against Ferrari at Le Mans, was a trouble-prone machine with plenty of hidden potential. Early on, Ford could not beat Ferrari, despite their best efforts. But when Carroll Shelby was hired to iron out the kinks, things changed dramatically. To Ford’s delight, Shelby transformed the GT40 into one of the most formidable machines ever to hit a race track, virtually obliterating the competition from 1966 to 1969.

Meanwhile, Shelby was working on the car that would seal his name in racing lore—the Cobra. Shelby wanted to build a car that would be competitive with Corvettes and Ferraris in the GT III class of the FIA.

A small two-seater built by the English company AC Cars, became the target of Shelby’s ambitions. AC had lost the contract to put the modest six-cylinder engine built by Bristol into their little sports cars, so Shelby used this opportunity to use them for his own demented purposes. Ford’s lightweight new 289-c.i. V8 was eventually selected to power the newly named Cobra, and after struggling through a few teething problems, the feather light sledgehammer became a fierce competitor on the track.

In 1964, a 427 was fitted into a Cobra racecar, and Cobras eventually won at nearly every significant venue, beating out Ferrari for several championships along the way.

All of the success with the GT40 and the Cobra led to the construction Ford-contracted Shelby Mustangs to run in the SCCA B-Production Class, as well as a line of beefed-up Shelby Mustangs for the street. Shelby Mustangs were built up-to the 1969 model year, and these are the cars we typically see during these collector car auctions.

In the following years, the Shelby name has been applied to more than just Mustangs. In the 1980s, Chrysler made several cars that had vaulted Shelby performance enhancements. Even the Dodge Viper benefited from Shelby's influence. Shelby American has also made their own cars over the years, including later-model iterations of the 427 Cobra.

But in the end, it is Ford’s Pony Car that is still associated with the Shelby name. Even today, Ford’s Shelby GT 500 and GT 500 KR not only have stripes and styling cues that hearken back to the original Shelby Mustangs, but Ford claims that the man himself had a say in some of the performance aspects of the car.

At 88-years-old, and in spite of health problems that have included a full heart transplant, Carroll Shelby continues to be the face for Ford’s extreme performance cars. And judging by the response his cars received at the auction this weekend, the Shelby name will be synonymous with top dog Mustangs for years to come.

The slideshow below has all kinds of pictures from Shelby's racing and product history.  Many are from the Ford Motor Company media archives.  You've seen some, maybe not others, but they're all pretty interesting.  One thing's for sure, Carroll Shelby has posed by many a car in his day.  Enjoy.

Portions of this article previously published on the Examiner.


  1. Not to be forgotten: Mr. Shelby's brief work with Chrysler in the early '80s resulting in this car among others.

  2. No it's not my car, although I am acquainted with it and the owner, through HPAC, the Kansas City Chrysler club.

    I wish it was my car!