Shelby’s Southern California legacy still in top gear
Shelby’s Southern California legacy still in top gear
Being in the right place at the right time.
For Carroll Shelby, it was all a matter of speed.
The champion driver turned performance car developer was certainly in the right place to make his name iconic: Southern California in the 1960s, where his crew of hot rod mechanics, fabricators and ingenious engineers turned Shelby Cobras, Mustangs and the like into both racecourse and street conquering machines.
“I think Carroll caught lightning in a bottle,” noted Aaron Shelby, a Dallas, Texas banker who serves on the board of his late grandfather’s now Las Vegas-based company and is co-president of the Carroll Shelby Foundation, the charity Carroll founded after his heart transplant in 1991 to aid families of children in need of donor organs.
“The timing of what he did with the Cobra and the Mustang’s success in the ’60s, and the team that he put together, it was the right players in the right positions at the right time,” Aaron continued. “He was able to make it all work, and he was able to play the politician between what the Ford Motor Company wanted and what his crew in Los Angeles wanted to accomplish, and make them work together as a team.”
Much of that story is recounted in the recent Oscar-winning movie “Ford v Ferrari,” in which Matt Damon plays Shelby at the time when Henry Ford II tasked the Texan’s Venice- and then LAX-adjacent shops with modifying his company’s vehicles – like the popular new Mustang sports car – to win races.
For proof that timing is still something of a Shelby thing, on Saturday, less than a week after “FvF” won Academy Awards for Sound and Film Editing, a special event tied to the movie’s home video release is being held from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. at Carroll Shelby Enterprises’ So Cal facility, 19021 So. Figueroa Street in Gardena.
Free to the public (though registration is encouraged at https://www.shelbystore.com/product-p/z31-ts-perf-lap.htm), the event will feature appearances by stunt drivers from the movie, a Le Mans pit stop virtual reality experience and displays of high performance cars, including vehicles that appear in the film.
Two of those will be provided by one of the Shelby legends who’ll be signing autographs, Jim Marietta. A car nut from the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, Marietta was 17 when he moved to L.A. at the start of 1965 to work as a mechanic and fabricator at Shelby’s fabled 1042 Princeton Drive Venice shop.
Marietta currently oversees the Ford and Shelby-certified, but separate, Original Venice Crew operation out of the back quarter of Shelby’s Gardena facility. The company dismantles and rebuilds 36 original, ’65 K-code Mustangs into continuation G.T. 350 Competition models. Many of the, well, original Venice crew members, such as Ted Sutton and Peter Brock, participate in bringing the cars as close to the more than half-century old designs as is possible.
You can buy one. Starting price is $ 250,000. This reporter may even possess first-hand knowledge that they can easily tear up South Figueroa at 125 mph in the middle of the day, brake safely and precisely, turn on the tightest of ratios and do it all repeatedly.
“Nobody is doing these Mustangs that built the very first car,” Marietta, who lives in Newport Beach, said. “Rhere are very few if any car companies – including Jaguar and Aston Martin – that can say ‘We’re building cars like we built 55 years ago and we’ve got the same guys building them.’ I checked it out and there just aren’t any around.”
Since he was the “kid” in the Venice shop in ’65, Marietta got tasked with unsexy stuff like working on an independent rear suspension system that Ford – which essentially funded and ultimately controlled Shelby’s company from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s – never used, due to its high cost.
Still, it was a heady time in swinging ’60s California, working for a guy Marietta recalls as an avid but easygoing boss.
“It was a free-wheeling kind of thing,” he said of the ’60s SoCal atmosphere tailor-made for developing performance cars. “Most of the police were relatively tolerant of the shenanigans that we did – and still do. You had The Beach Boys, Carroll Shelby, surfing, surfer girls and cars.”
The Venice crew was like a family, going out for lunch together and Friday night dinners at The Blue Whale on Washington Blvd. Some nights, they’d come back to the shop after eating and work for free, just fired up about what they were doing. On weekends, they’d take some Shelbys and their personal rides a dozen miles northeast and cruise the Sunset Strip.
“We were working on, at the time, the GT40s, the Daytona Coupes, the 427 Cobras, the 289s and the Mustangs and a couple of others,” Marietta recalled. “We were so crowded that we had the Mustangs parked in the only roll-up doorway. When somebody wanted to get a car out, we had to quit working on our car, push it out in the street, let them get out and put our car back in.”
The Ford-financed move from Venice to the Airport increased their workspace from 10,000 to 35,000 square feet. Everyone wore white uniforms. Marietta’s current crew does, too.
That was just one of uncountable, attention-getting touches that master promoter Shelby came up with to put his, and his high-quality vehicles’, name out there.
“He was an entrepreneur,” noted Nate Adams, who with producing partner Adam Carolla directed the now-on-Netflix documentaries “Shelby American” (biopic) and “The 24-Hour War” (about the Le Mans race where Shelby Fords finally beat the hated Ferraris). “Once he was done racing, he immediately started to do something else. When he raced in Europe, he just had the idea of putting a big American motor in a small European car. He was like a producer, he’d make up stories but he’d get things done. And he let people do what they needed to do.
“And he was very charismatic,” Adams added. “Even the people he may have screwed over still liked him.”
Indeed. Although you wouldn’t know it from “Ford v Ferrari’s” peculiarly celibate presentation, Shelby was married either seven or 10 times, depending on how one defines the term and certain legal legitimacies. His three children — Sharon, Michael and Patrick — were all from his first wife, Jeanne.
“I met quite a few of his, I’ll just say, lady friends,” said Patrick’s son Aaron, who grew up in Southern California while his dad was running Carroll Shelby Wheels out of the Gardena location. “Sometimes I knew they were wives, sometimes it was hard to know if they were really a wife or just a girlfriend. As a family, we liked some more than others.”
When Carroll’s race driving career was cut short by the heart condition that stalked his whole life, he returned from Europe, divorced Jeanne and headed to California.
“Carroll wanted to stay in the car business,” Aaron said. “Southern California was where the hot-rodders were doing fun things at that point in time. That piqued his interest, and I think he had some friends from the racing world that lived in Southern California and they all convinced him that that was where he needed to go. That was when it started, 1960, and he just stayed there from then.”
Shelby bought the Venice shop from fellow racer Lance Reventlow in 1962, and kept some of the previous owner’s crack mechanics on. According to a timeline provided by a p.r. representative, the company relocated to the LAX hangars from 1966 through late ’67, Shelby American’s racing team operated out of a spot near the Torrance Municipal Airport in 1969, the Carroll Shelby Wheel Company opened in the Gardena headquarters around 1975 and, when Carroll came out of his semi-retirement to help his old pal and former Ford executive Lee Iaccoca revitalize Chrysler, he worked on Dodge muscle cars at a shop in Whittier from 1986 to 1990.
Test drives were conducted at Willow Springs and the defunct Riverside International Raceway.
From 2005 until his death at 89 in 2012, Shelby re-partnered with Ford on modern editions of the pony cars. And to the end, he loved living – and driving – in L.A.
“He probably shouldn’t have been driving, but he took over my dad’s rental car and drove us from Bel Air into Los Angeles,” said Aaron’s cousin Stephanie Shelby, who’d come out from Texas to see her grandpa since childhood and specifically recalled one of those final visits. “It was a wild ride but, I mean, he was Carroll Shelby, still drivin’. He could weave through the hills of Bel Air like it was nothing. He knew where he was going whether he could see or not. It was amazing. He would drive like hell even then, even into his 80s.”
The place and the man were as one.
“What he did in Southern California was a bit unique,” Aaron said of his grandfather. “There were other people doing similar things. But the quality of engineering and those hot-rodders that he brought on could only have been found in Southern California at that point in time.”