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Iconic hot-rod company Shelby American driving in new directions

Known for souping up American sports cars, Shelby American is a company in transition to new vehicles, hot-rod parts and revenue beyond the modified Mustang.

April 13, 2013|By David Undercoffler, Los Angeles Times
  • A 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302, a 1965 Shelby GT350, and a 2013 Shelby GT350 convertible await their turn on the track during the 6th annual Shelby Bash at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, Nev. Shelby American is transitioning to new vehicles, hot-rod parts and revenue sources beyond just the modified pony cars for which is it known.
A 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302, a 1965 Shelby GT350, and a 2013 Shelby GT350… (David Undercoffler, Los…)

Twenty-one-year-old Taylor Dankel darts around a quick corner of the racetrack and buries the throttle.

The supercharged, 650-horsepower V-8 in his father's modified 2008 Shelby Mustang GT500KR lets out a guttural roar.

It's a scene that would have put a smile on the face of Shelby American's founder, Carroll Shelby. An automotive icon whose career evolved from chicken farmer to world-class racer, engineer and businessman, Shelby died in May 2012 at the age of 89.

Photos: Shelby after Shelby

But his legacy is everywhere on this windy day in Pahrump, Nev., about an hour outside of Las Vegas. Shelby Mustangs of every age and color underscore Shelby's rich history of hot-rodding one of America's most important sports cars, the Ford Mustang. Roughly 275 owners and fans of Shelby vehicles have traveled from around the country for Shelby American's sixth annual Shelby Bash.

This year's gathering is significant not only for the quiet sadness over Shelby's absence. In the wake of his death, Shelby American is a company in transition to new cars, hot-rod parts and sources of revenue beyond just the modified pony car.

Later in the day, Dankel got a firsthand look at one of those new products, hopping into all-new Shelby Focus ST for a few hot laps with test driver Gary Patterson. The small, front-wheel-drive car, based on the turbocharged Ford Focus ST, aims to pull in younger buyers and those who want a more civilized Shelby for daily driving.

He wouldn't give up his 2001 Mustang Bullitt, but Dankel came away impressed with the Shelby Focus ST.

"You get one of these smaller cars but still have the throttle response of a Shelby," Dankel said. "It was great around the turns, even with four people in it. It's really a fun car."

Although traditionalists may bristle at the Shelby name appearing on anything but a rear-wheel-drive sports car, the Focus ST and the recently announced Shelby Raptor — a full-size truck — have precedents in Shelby history.

"Carroll gave us the playbook," company President John Luft said at the opening night of the Shelby Bash. "We're just running with it."

In the 1980s, Lee Iacocca brought Carroll Shelby to Chrysler. That relationship produced oft-forgotten vehicles like the front-wheel-drive compact Omni GLH hatchback — which stands for Goes Like Hell, per Shelby's request — and the Shelby Dakota truck.

Shelby also had a hand in developing the first generation of a more modern American motor sport icon, the Dodge Viper.

The spartan Viper was some ways a modern version of the car that first put Shelby on the map as a builder of modified cars: The Shelby AC Cobra, a British roadster stuffed to the gills with a Ford V-8. Shelby built the Cobra after health problems forced an early end to his promising racing career.

A few years later, Shelby was integral in helping the Ford GT40 embarrass the world's fastest Ferraris in the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans with a 1-2-3 finish. During this time, Shelby's connection with Ford would also yield highly prized road cars, including the Shelby Mustang GT350, GT500, and street-legal versions of the GT40.

By the early 1990s, as the value of original Shelby Cobras skyrocketed, Shelby was caught in controversy. After he sold several Cobra 427SC cars that he billed as original 1965 versions cobbled together from long-lost parts — for hundreds of thousands of dollars — it was discovered that the chassis were in fact new. This meant they were worth far less than the true original Cobra 427 models.

After this kerfuffle, Shelby relocated his company from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. He focused his attention on building and selling the chassis and fiberglass or aluminum bodies of the Shelby Cobra, which the company still sells today starting at $80,000.

A decade later, Shelby and Ford rekindled their relationship, first with Carroll Shelby's input on the Ford GT supercar in 2004, a modern interpretation of the GT40. Then, in 2005, Ford introduced the fifth-generation Mustang. Shelby versions began trickling out in 2006. Models including the Ford Shelby GT, GT500 and GT500KR — the model Taylor and his father, Tom Dankel, brought to the Shelby Bash — were sold as pre-titled Ford products at dealerships.

The GT500 remains in production and now comes with a supercharged, 662-horsepower V-8. It's currently the only pre-titled car — meaning officially a Ford product — with the Shelby name. Ford pays Shelby a licensing fee.

The relationship benefits both companies because the Shelby model has a halo effect on other Ford products, said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research.

"You want a situation where people want to go into their Ford dealership to see a Shelby Mustang, and, 'Oh, by the way, the Fusion looks good. I'll buy that,'" Cole said.

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