Authors; Art Evans with Carroll Shelby
Publisher: Car Tech MN
Length: 255 pages
Price; $34.95 (US.)
Review by Wallace Wyss
Time was, back in the old days, before the internet, families collected glossy prints of old family photos in albums. This book is meant to be sort of a photo album. And in doing that, it does a good job of not only chronicling one man’s life but coming in heavy on nostalgia for a time gone by, when there was a certain innocence in racing. Shelby’s life was one lived so large that you can’t have all the words and all the pictures about his life in one little book (well, maybe if it was 1000 pages and two volumes) so this book settles for having some of the interesting pictures and very few words, as if you were invited to the Shelby family’s homes and shown the family photo album.
Now truth is a lot of Shelby books these days are written by authors who were in diapers when Shelby created the Cobra. Everything they know about the car and its creators is second hand. But in this case, the writer, or more properly, the man who is the curator of the pictures goes back several decades.
Art East, was racing in ’55 when Shelby was racing, and he maintained a friendship with Shelby for more than 50 years, so when it came time to do such an album, Shelby was available to contribute pictures from his own family album. The author worked on the book with Shelby right up until the time Shelby became too incapacitated to work on it anymore, but Shelby still directed family members to help Evans because he wanted to see it reach print.
There was already a huge 700-page plus biography on Shelby out there on the market but Shelby knew not everyone wants such a big book. Some are content at looking at pictures, for a more light and breezy approach to the subject. The most interesting part of the book is the early pictures, many of which we have seen in other books, even that one of Shelby as a kid in a pedal car. It also shows Shelby when he was an itinerant race driver, always looking for another wealthy patron who could buy a competitive car which in those days were all foreign made, usually British or Italian.
We see Shelby at races on air force bases; at Pebble Beach (when they raced on a road winding through the forests), then his “discovery” by foreign automakers where he is racing in Europe against Europe’s best, driving Ferraris, Maseratis, Astons and Porsches.
A little bit of the Shelby legend emerges here and there; like his wearing locomotive engineer’s overalls, that happened because Shelby was late getting to a race, but he shows up, races in the overalls and gets more attention than the winner, so decides to make that his trademark.
There’s only the occasional hint, like a dark shadow, of the dangers of racing, a shot of a severely shortened Maserati, a wrinkled Austin Healey that Shelby flipped five times in the Carrera Panamericana. It really is amazing how many times Shelby crashed and walked away.
Obvious is Shelby’s affection for other drivers, with many shots of him and a young Sterling Moss, a young Phil Hill, and his really bosom buddy (and even room-mate) Masten Gregory.
GLIMPSES OF A PERSONAL LIFE
Shelby’s personal life gets a spotlight thrown on it here and there, what with five wives (maybe more?) There’s pictures of him with his first wife; Jeanne, the mother of his three children (and a great family shot where he doesn’t look the same as he did later. Evans doesn’t explain he crashed a few years later and had plastic surgery to re-attach his nose). Then there’s shots of Shelby kissing race queen Jan Harrison several times. Now here I have a bone to pick with East’s embarrassingly juvenile captions about “many kisses later.” We get it, Art, such is the stuff of high school yearbook inscriptions. She divorced him after one year of marriage; just before he hit paydirt with the Cobra. Ironically I remember seeing her on TV in the Fifties, so it’s ironic that Shelby and I both took note.
The pictures, in chronological order, show glimpses of Shelby’s future business career as an automaker such as photos of projects tried and abandoned; his Listers powered by Chevy, his Scaglietti bodied Corvettes done in Italy.
The first hint that Shelby had a future as entrepreneur in the inclusion of his Shelby School of High Performance Driving brochure. (Ironically there is a shot in the School publicity of an instructor, Pete Brock, a young man then who figured large in the Shelby legend later on).
One of the best pictures, bar none, is the one of Shelby after he won at LeMans in ’59, champagne bottle in hand, sitting on the Aston Martin he drove to victory. It’s too bad Evans doesn’t give each photographer a photo credit below his picture. The photographer’s names are all crammed together in a paragraph on an acknowledgement page where I would prefer to see such great memorable photographs credited on the page where the picture is. It might have been the photographer’s greatest picture and he gets no credit by the picture, leaving you wonder who that great lensman was.
The book has some narrative but then, under the pictures, Evans reverts to a pseudo hand-written script as in a photo album (a very cornball ‘50s style type font I might add).
The Cobra’s gestation is shown here and there, the first Cobra ever made; how it’s driven in polished-out form at Willow Springs, then its first race against the Corvettes (it lost that first race but for years afterward it dominated the Corvettes). Then there’s a quick segue into the big block Cobra, showing the prototype that was leaf sprung, and damn near uncontrollable. Then there’s brief pages on the Daytona coupe before Evans introduces us to the GT40.
That’s where one of the book’s greatest pictures is, as well, one of Ken Miles and Shelby at LeMans in ’66 with a GT40 Mk. II. Miles was an English driver Shelby had raced against in the Fifties but who eventually became his most valuable development driver.
Evans goes into the Shelby Mustangs briefly (mistaking a ’66 for a ’65 in one picture) and then gives the Dodge Shelbys three pages though most Ford fans would prefer he leave those out, except of course for the Viper, one Chrysler car that channeled the spirit of the 427 Cobra in that it was a no-apologies road terror.
Though Shelby for more than ten years made replicas, oddly Evans avoids using the dreaded word “replica.” He introduces the subject by saying Shelby tried briefly to say he had found some old uncompleted Cobras he was building but quit those when the DMV investigated. Evans does show that Shelby moved construction of cars to Nevada and there advertised them with new SN sequences so there was no longer a pretense these were uncompleted cars started in the Sixties. (Still those first few he first announced and sold will no doubt come up at auctions in the future; leading to the subject being plumbed again…)
The book also shows a few of his duds, cars that didn’t make it. He leaves out the mid-engined Lone Star completely. There’s a couple shots of the Toyota 2000GTs he ran for Toyota and one shot of the Indy turbine car he pulled from the Brickyard days before the race. There’s only one picture of his failed attempt at building a totally “modern car” (not a copy of something he’d done before) that almost broke him financially –the Oldsmobile-powered Series I, but no explanation of why it failed (If you’re interested, I hereby refer you to Eric Davison’s book on that, entitled Snake-Bit)
The book nears the end showing Shelby in Africa; but offers no explanation of what drew him to the Dark Continent, then shows Shelby in his final years, when he had a new contract from Ford that saw new Shelby Mustangs being made in the new century.
All in all, this book is a pleasant enough trip down memory lane; and, even being the author of three Shelby books myself, I learned a lot and came to appreciate the man’s accomplishments even more. I can safely say if there hadn’t been a Carroll Shelby, American race drivers and American-built race cars would never have gained much of a foothold in Europe.
So, though I felt cheated on the skimpiness of the written information (though I myself don’t want to wade through a 1,000-page book), I feel Evans did a good selection of photos and you have to know that, if it hadn’t been for Evans and Shelby being personal friends, we as fans might have never been able to see some of these pictures. Count me “in” and count this book as a “keeper.”
Wallace Wyss is the author of SHELBY The Man, The Cars the Legend, a biography available direct from the publisher Enthusiast Books at (715) 381 9755.