My Car Quest

August 10, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Shelby Cobra: My Times with Carroll Shelby

AUTHOR: Chris Theodore
PUBLISHER: Veloce Publishing
BINDING: Hardcover
ILLUSTRATIONS: color and black ad white
PAGES: 160
PRICE: $60 USD

Review by Wallace Wyss –

This book, written by a former Detroit based automotive engineer, is a “tribute” book, that is to say highlighting all the achievements of a person but makes no attempt to thoroughly dissect the failure of some of the business ventures that didn’t pan put.

Shelby Cobra Book

But the book is useful, throwing light behind the-scenes of the Detroit auto industry, showing how some proposals start on a whim like Theodore sketching a modern Ford GT while bored at a meeting led to a multi-mlllion dollar investment in Ford bringing back the Ford GT. I was particularly interested in Theodore admitting that an automaker will green light a car like the Ford GT of ’05 & ’06 even when they might lose money, just to buoy up the image. (He doesn’t make enough of how broke Ford was at the time, which makes getting a 200-mph car in production all the more laudable…)

Theodore didn’t meet Shelby until Shelby was already 65 years old (Shelby died n 2012 at the age of 89). But he still met Shelby when, despite a heart and kidney transplant, he was still sharp minded, and able to advise on projects like the rebirth of the Ford GT and Shelby Mustangs.

Shelby Cobra Book

The author was clearly awed by the legend that Shelby carried with him: World War II aviator, rancher (breeder of specialized cattle), factory owner (mag wheels) Le Mans winner (for Aston in ’59), and on and on.

He lists a lot of traits that any businessman could learn from like Shelby possessing a never ending curiosity to investigate new ideas, even engine designs that could if they succeeded, could throw out the internal combustion engine as we know it.

I happened to have written a book on the ’05-’06 Ford GT but Theodore confirmed that Shelby, as sick as he was at the time, did indeed consult on the Ford GT, driving various mules and participating in the introduction of prototypes.

Shelby Cobra Book

There are the obligatory earlier Shelby pictures but there are so many books with those, you’re glad Theodore doesn’t try to repeat earlier Shelby history that much.

The book spends the most amount of pages on a design for a modern day Cobra introduced by Ford as a show car only. Alas, though Theodore reveals that the car he worked on for several years was fully developed mechanically, which is far from the usual in concept cars, it was canned. Many concepts are not drivable and just pushmobiles. In a twist of irony, years after the car was shot down for production, Theorore reveals that he happened upon a mention of Ford donating it for a charity auction that could benefit the maintenance of the original Henry Ford estate which is open to the public.

He borrowed money on his two homes and buys it, though it has been rendered “undrivable” by Ford engineers. But what one engineer can do, another can un-do and Theodore has since made it drivable though licensing it could be a challenge. Few Detroit engineers or designers ever get a chance to buy the very concept that they spent years working on. This car is doubly significant to Theodore because it is a running souvenir of his working with Carroll Shelby.

He almost completely skips over the Shelby series I, the Olds-powered two seater that was a market failure but does hint that Shelby, at his advanced age and medical condition when that car was developed, wasn’t ready for the complicated requirements to make a modern car, a whole different world than the kit cars Shelby was making which can ignore modern requirement for air bags and such because they squeeze through a loophole originally created for VW dune buggies.

The untold story of that late venture by Shelby should be added to a future edition because though Shelby lost $2 million he saved his remaining millions by selling the company to an oriental food company (!) and then buying it back later for pennies on the dollar. Business students should study that as a Hail Mary procedure that worked.

Shelby Cobra Book

There’s lot of pictures you don’t usually see, like chassis. That’s because an engineer wrote the book.

The pictures include design renderings, line drawings and photos of prototypes being unveiled, a good mix (I still lobby with an automotive art society in favor of designer renderings to be called “fine art” but the prevailing attitude is that they are merely work drawings on their way to developing a product). The price of the book is $60 and it’s a small book for that price but I may be judging on past car book prices. Maybe they are all going up in price and $60 is the “new normal” for a 160-page book.

In sum, I am glad this book exists though it’s a tad heavy on hero worship, like asking an Elvis fan to write an objective bio on Elvis. But I would still recommend it as a gift book for a young auto engineer, or beginning car designer just starting out to see how decisions are made. Some projects are “green lighted” as a result of deep research, some on a whim and some because it would generate good publicity for the brand.

But mostly it’s a book on how a man (or woman) with a strong personality but short on actual education can choose the right team to carry out their plans. Most of the time, Shelby chose the right team (such as when he started to build the Cobra he took over the Scarab shop and inherited two ace fabricators). Maybe because I am on the far side of 50 myself (I keep celebrating that 50th birthday over and over again…) I believe those with long experience can on occasion fly a flag that others can rally behind. The continued existence of Shelby vehicles in Ford showrooms proves that. Shelby’s inspiration lives beyond him.

Ironically at the end, Theodore adds an epilogue, predicting autonomous cars will be taking over by 2050 and self driven cars will be relegated to racetracks much as thoroughbred horses are relegated to now. So this is truly a book about the last hurrah of high performance cars written by someone who helped create some of the most memorable in what he now views as a golden era…

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

Wallace Wyss

 
 
THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is the author of three books on Shelby and his cars. He reports he is writing a children’s book on Shelby and would be glad to talk to publishers. He can be reached at Photojournalistpro2@gmail.com

 
 
 
 

Shelby Cobra Book

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BOOK REVIEW: The Last Shelby Cobra: My Times with Carroll Shelby
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BOOK REVIEW: The Last Shelby Cobra: My Times with Carroll Shelby
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The author lists a lot of traits that any businessman could learn from like Shelby possessing a never ending curiosity to investigate new ideas.
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