An Amazing Small Shop

Shelby-American, 1042 Princeton Dr, Venice, California

Between 1962 at their founding and 1965 there couldn’t have been more than a few dozen employees, including the bookkeeper and publicist. And yet, in 1965 they won the World Manufacturer’s Championship for Sports Cars, beating the likes of Ferrari and Jaguar.

The key was the people. From the mechanics, to the fabricators, to the world-class drivers.

And the circumstances.

Carroll Shelby was a world class driver. I do believe the opinion of one in the wonderful documentary Shelby American on Netflix, that he was the most talented driver who is hardly mentioned. Look at his win ratio, culminating in his victory at Lemans for Aston Martin in 1959.

But he had a serious heart condition, unbeknownst to his racing sponsors, even during his latter racing career. So serious that when racing and he felt chest pains, he would slow down for a few laps and take a nitroglycerin pill. By his own admission as told by a doctor, he had an estimated 40 heart attacks during his adult life.

He knew that his racing career was over. But during that career he had been slighted by Enzo Ferrari, and he never forgot it.

He wanted to beat Ferrari at his own game. He always wanted to build his own car and found an opportunity in the UK’s AC Cars. They had just lost the supplier of their engine and needed an engine to continue making the AC Ace.

As it happened, Lance Leventrow was making a successful racecar, the Scarab, but was learning the old axiom in how to make a small fortune in auto racing. You start with a large fortune. He got in trouble with the IRS who got tired of his deductions and loss statements. He was funding his operation from his inheritance in the Woolworth fortune.

At the time Lance decided to get out of the car building and racing business, Carroll was deciding to get into it. And Lance already had a turnkey operation at 1042 Princeton Drive. Carroll not only took over the facilities, but some of the people. One of them, Phil “Rem” Remington, would prove to be essential to his success. He was so critical that Carroll admitted that he couldn’t have succeeded without him.

Phil was called a “fabricator” but he was far more than that. He came to the automotive age in the late 40s at the Southern California dry lake beds with hot rodders who would become world famous names, like Phil Hill.

Rem was more than a fabricator, but an engineer. In an interview, Shelby said that the Cobra ended up very different internally from the AC Ace from which it originated. It was Rem that made that change. He was critical to Ford’s GT 40 program. He kept refining it, from the aerodynamics to the brake system, to something small like the “Gurney Bubble”.

The latter is the stuff of lore among the sports car racing fans. Dan Gurney, at 6’4”, had a very uncomfortable fit inside the 40” tall GT 40. So, Rem fabricated a small bubble in the roof so his head wouldn’t hit the roof.

The best description of Phil Remington’s importance I read was that Shelby had the visions and Remington made them a reality.

Then there was Ken Miles. In the movie Ford v Ferrari, he is portrayed as a hothead. But according to Allen Grant, one of Shelby’s drivers, he was an English gentleman who, when angry, would refer to his co-workers as colonials. Mark Donohue, who drove for Roger Penske and is perhaps best noted for driving the all-conquering Porsche 917-30 in the Can Am series, is said to be the first driver with an engineering background. I am not sure if Ken had a formal engineering education as Donohue, but he is the one who sorted out the Cobras and GT-40s while driving them, usually at the old Riverside racetrack.

Peter Brock, known for designing the Cobra Daytona Coupe, was working at GM where he read of the pre-WW2 work of Reinhard von Koenig-Fachsenfeld in vehicle aerodynamics. Shelby decided to take the Cobra racing internationally and knew on the long straights of some courses, he couldn’t keep up with the Ferrari 250 GTO. The Cobra roadster was fast but had the aerodynamics of a brick. Brock convinced him with a radical aerodynamic body on the Cobra he could probably do it. Shelby said to try, but all he could allocate was $3,000 and a wrecked Cobra with intact frame.

Brock and some others got to work and in a matter of a few months had a car ready for Ken Miles to test. Right off at Riverside, it was 25 mph faster despite weighing more. Shelby named the car the Daytona because of the upcoming race.

In 1965, just 2 seasons from starting, the FIA Cobra roadsters and coupes took the World Manufacturer’s Championship. That same year, a Cobra Daytona Coupe won the GT Class at Lemans.

12 Hours of Sebring 1964. Driver Bob Bondurant in his 289 FIA Cobra Roadster.

 By 1965, Ford, having lost all of their GT40s at Lemans due to breakdowns, wanted Shelby to take over the program. That, and make the Mustang into a race car. He eventually converted about 30,000 of them but for all of that, he needed a bigger facility, so he used a hanger at Los Angeles Airport. With that, the little company changed to about 250 employees. With the added pressure, the atmosphere changed.

But that is another story.  

That little company had a heart and soul that no company that I’d ever known or seen around racing had. It was something that nobody was paid a lot of money. Nobody gave a shit how many hours they worked. Just get it done. There’ll never be another little company like that.

—Carroll Shelby

More about Shelby and his Cobras here…

More on Phil Remington here and here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Good Stuff, SoCal, Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s