Carroll Shelby’s name is among the most recognized in the automotive world, among enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike. And his story is larger-than-life legend, as is the man himself.
Indeed, over the past 50 years, few people have left as great a mark on both the auto racing and business scenes as he has.
The Shelby name is synonymous with high-performance – from the very first AC Cobras of the early '60s to the just-revealed 2011 Shelby Mustang GT350. And he just keeps on going.
Shelby was honoured in Toronto, before the opening of the Canadian International AutoShow, at a gala reception amidst more than 40 of the most significant cars associated with his long career.
They included a super-rare Cobra Daytona coupe and an equally scarce Ford GT40 Mk. IV Le Mans racer.
The man himself acknowledged that this may be the greatest assemblage of those cars that he has experienced in his lifetime.
The packed event, at which Shelby was inducted as the first International Member of the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame, was a star-studded private affair with more than 500 guests.
David E. Davis Jr. of Car and Driver and Automobile magazine fame was the master of ceremonies and raconteur, and such racing notables as Bob Bondurant and Canada's own Eppie Wietzes were there to pay tribute to the man.
The good news for those who weren't there is the cars remained on display for show attendees to see.
As has become the trademark of the show's classic car collectionsthe vehicles are spectacularly displayed. While every car is significant in its own right, the two biggest stars in the exhibit are showcased on raised platforms.
The Daytona coupe is one of just six built. Collectively, they won the World Championship for GT cars in 1965 – beating Ferrari on its own European turf. This car was driven by Bondurant and Dan Gurney to a class win at Le Mans in 1964.
Shelby had contested the championship earlier, but while the Cobra roadsters accelerated ferociously, they were aerodynamic bricks compared to the sleek Ferraris and simply couldn't match them for top speed.
Shelby's solution to that problem was to re-body a few cars on the same chassis, which was permitted by the rules. He assigned a young, jack-of-all-trades employee, Pete Brock, to design the bodywork and the rest of the tale is racing history.
One of the five sister cars to the one on display sold at auction a couple years ago for $7.5 million (U.S.).
At the other end of the display area is one of just seven Ford GT40 Mk. IVs, which were built to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
This one was driven only once, at Le Mans in 1967, by Mario Andretti who crashed it heavily. The ensuing chain reaction took out two other Mk. IVs, leaving Gurney and A.J. Foyt to soldier on to the end without the support of other team cars.
They did, and they won, after which Ford, having proved its point with back-to-back Le Mans wins, withdrew from international racing.
Shelby had not been heavily involved with the GT40 program in the beginning but after two embarrassing years without any major success, Ford brought him on board to both develop the cars and manage one part of the racing team – the part that achieved a one-two-three finish with a Mk. II version in 1966 and repeated the win in 1967.
Other cars on display cover not just Shelby's career as a manufacturer but as a race driver, beginning with an MG TC, typical of the first car he ever road-raced.
He followed with a Jaguar XK-120 and a Cadillac-engined Allard J2X. That was his first taste of what a big American V8 could do in a lightweight British sports car – an idea that paid big dividends for him later.
Early in Shelby's career, Donald Healey recruited him to help set a series of world speed and endurance records in Austin Healeys at Bonneville. Subsequently, he drove an Austin Healey 100S in the Pan-American Road Race in Mexico, crashing heavily and breaking several bones. Commenting on a facsimile of that car in the auto show exhibit, Shelby said he still suffers the effects of that crash.
Of course there are Cobras galore in the exhibit: 260s, 289s, 427s, FIA-spec cars and even the one-off experimental flip-top designed to do battle with Chevrolet's Gran Sport Corvettes if that duel had truly materialized. Chevrolet withdrew before it did.Among the most significant cars in the exhibit is CSX2002 – the second Cobra built and the first works racer. Now painted red, it was originally Cobra blue when it was driven by such notables as Gurney and Ken Miles.
With the help of Shelby and Ford Canada, that car was later acquired by Chuck Rathgeb's Canadian Comstock Racing team, where it was driven with great success by Wietzes. At the reception, Wietzes described how he defied Shelby's orders not to beat his own works cars by doing just that.
Another key car in the display and in Canadian racing history is Comstock's Ford GT40, which was driven by Wietzes along with Craig Fisher. Finished in Comstock's original white with green livery, it brings back fond memories for those of us who were there. Unfortunately, a second Comstock GT40 crashed at Sebring, killing Canadian driver Bob McLean.
Beyond the Cobras, there is a whole room full of Shelby Mustangs and an autographed 2011 Shelby GT500, donated for a charity auction at the gala by the Toronto Ford Dealers Association. It sold for more than $100,000.
Another area pays homage to some of Shelby's other projects, including Dodge Vipers and an Oldsmobile-powered Shelby Series 1 sports car.
In short, there's something of interest for everyone. As Tom Tonks, the auto show's general manager puts it: "The exhibit itself really is a moment in time – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these cars together."