My Car Quest

January 31, 2023

The Many Faces of Carroll Shelby

by Wallace Wyss –

As a biographer I wrote my first Shelby book back in 1977, “Shelby’s Wildlife the Cobras and the Mustangs”. It sold 50,000 copies.

I got to know Shelby, who wrote the forward, meeting him to ask questions about his career at his nondescript office in Playa del Rey and later at his memorabilia-filled office at the racing tire shop in Gardena. That second location was one more for the public, full of cowboy memorabilia and some racing gear and even a rifle of sufficient caliber to bring down an elephant. I remember a display of types of barbed wire–who would care about that but a real rancher, which he indeed was.

Carroll Shelby - Wyss Art

In this portrait of Shelby–set in the year 1965– I clothed him in the Pete Brock-designed team shirt. The painting has an interesting back story. I painted it on black paper that was not liking the paint and the paint began flaking off immediately as it dried, but each new crack in the paint “aged” Shelby more, so it gradually looked more like he looked that year.

When no crowd was around he was surprisingly modest. It’s only when he had a crowd he’d crack jokes and become more animated as he took over the show. When I met him, he was already being re-imaged by Ford as a businessman and wearing a suit. So I missed that hayseed just-off-the-farm impression he cultivated in the early Cobra days because he knew it got more attention than the rich swells like Lance Reventlow.

Shelby was a man of contradictions: living in a home in Bel Air, a lofty area above Beverly hills in location and altitude, and playing golf with people like Baron Hilton. Yet other times I’d see him in Gardena hosting a Shelby club gathering, cooking some of the food himself. Then there was Shelby the chicken farmer, Shelby the thoroughbred horse breeder, Shelby the WWII pilot, Shelby the African safari leader, etc.

Shelby in Palm Springs mid-'50s-Wyss Art

In the beginning, when Shelby was an “amateur” racer, he drove rich guys’ cars for fun (getting paid under the table). Here he is in a Ferrari in Palm Springs. He later rolled that car. The early pictures I don’t like for reference as much because to me, in that time period, there’s still too much of a “wet behind the ears” look to him.

I’ve tried a couple times to capture him in oil on canvas but I’ll leave it to the public to determine if I did so successfully. Two of the portraits show him in a cowboy hat, and he did wear those at the track, even at the 24 heures du Mans, though a humorous footnote is that during the ’60s at LeMans he employed a head mechanic who wasn’t imitating him but whose first name by sheer coincidence was Carroll and who also was in the habit of wearing a cowboy hat (Carroll Smith). Shelby tolerated it but the last thing he wanted was a whole crew of Shelby look-alikes!

I have found pictures of Shelby taken in the pits at race tracks and the best ones show him conferring with drivers like Dan Gurney and Phil Hill–drivers who coincidentally, he has raced against himself when he was still a race driver. Those images are indelibly inked in my brain–him warning the drivers, now in his employ, in no uncertain terms not to push the car so much that it breaks, though we all know racers absolutely hate having to throttle back.

Maybe why I haven’t done an “in the pits conference” painting so far is some viewers might be so curious as to what Gurney, Foyt, Bondurant et al looked like back then that they will lose interest in Shelby. And I didn’t paint any pictures of him from recent decades. Oh, the smile was still there but it’s hard for me to reconcile the older Shelby with my memories of the tall Texan who strode into International racing in the ’50s and ’60s. I choose to remember him in a certain way and a certain time period.

Carroll Shelby and Phil Hill

This black and white Ford publicity shot showing Shelby at LeMans with Phil Hill almost shows them as friends, which they were, and equals, which they weren’t, because at that point in time, Shelby ran the team and Hill was one of the hired drivers. In a painting of Shelby with one of his drivers I’d have to think about what what their expressions say about their relationship.

I’ll know after January 9th, when my portrait of him in a race car–in his ’50s uniform of pudding bowl helmet and his chicken-pluckin’ striped overalls–comes up for auction at Mecum Kissimmee. Maybe the cowboy portraits invoke more memories but you hafta know, he wouldn’t have gotten Ford behind him on the Cobra if he hadn’t first established the reputation of being a world class race driver. He showed the Europeans American drivers could do it–especially at LeMans in ’59 when he won for Aston Martin (with co-driver Roy Salvadori).

In the past I only painted portraits of the cars–the Shelby Mustangs, GT40s, Cobras–but I have a feeling, as Shelby fans learn more about his life, they’ll be interested in the man and the drivers he nurtured – guys like Dan Gurney, Bob Bondurant and many others. We know about the cars of Shelby-American, every little detail. Now, I think, we want to know about the people…

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

Wallace Wyss art

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is a Shelby biographer who was invited to visit Shelby-American in 1965 where he was introduced to a car called the 427 Cobra. Wyss pledges to provide a vintage copy of his bio of Shelby entitled SHELBY’S WILDLIFE: The Cobras and the Mustangs if they place the winning bid on either of his two Shelby-themed works being auctioned at Kissimmee Jan. 9th, even if it has to be sent post auction.

Carroll Shelby - Wyss Art

Summary
The Many Faces of Carroll Shelby
Article Name
The Many Faces of Carroll Shelby
Description
I got to know Carroll Shelby, who wrote the forward to my first Shelby book, meeting him to ask questions about his career at his nondescript office in Playa del Rey and later at his memorabilia-filled office at the racing tire shop in Gardena.
Author

Comments

  1. Wonderful paintings Wallace ! Quite the job capturing a man in constant motion.

Speak Your Mind

*