Thoughts of Carroll Shelby

by Rick Kopec (5/20/12)

—and the Lingering Fallout

Rather than sit down and fill a page or two with my impressions of Carroll Shelby and how we interacted over the years—as everyone else in the automotive world seems to be doing—I am comfortable to let things marinate just a bit. A little time allows you to see through the emotional fog that surrounds someone’s passing. Everyone with a computer wants their thoughts on this subject to be printed on a screen for others to read. That may just be today’s normal. I think this is the Internet equivalent of people leaving candles, poems, notes, pictures, teddy bears and other bits of memorabilia on a lawn or stuffed into a chain link fence as some sort of instant memorial. I'm not sure just when that began. Some say it was with Lady Di’s death but people were leaving things at the base of the Vietnam Wall long before that. It's a way of injecting yourself into the scene. We are apparently no longer willing to sit back passively and read an obituary or to just sign a memorial register. We feel the need to become personally involved. Andy Warhol saw this coming back in 1968 when he said; “In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

Carroll Shelby 1923-2012I was asked by another publication what effect Carroll's passing would have on SAAC. It wasn’t something I had been considering at this point, but it did prompt me to clarify my thinking on the subject. The answer to this question is, not much that I can think of. Shelby was always there from SAAC's beginning. We didn’t invent him. Everyone just took his presence for granted but was, nevertheless, excited to see him in person. We have held a convention every summer since 1976. We always invited Shelby and he would attend when his schedule permitted. In 37 conventions, he was able to join us at 20 of them.

When Shelby launched the CSX4000 Cobras in 1992, it was exciting to see him back in the Cobra business—much like watching a retired baseball legend on Old Timer’s Day. The difference was that instead of taking a few swings and trotting around the bases, Shelby started an entire new team to play in the league. Was that good for SAAC? That wasn’t our first thought. It brought renewed publicity to the cars, and it was inevitable that the new cars would be compared to the old ones. Where did they go to find the old ones? They came to SAAC. Most of the “new” Cobra owners wanted to mingle with the original cars and their owners. Hey—we’re all one big family, right?

Well, yes… and no. Owners of original Cobras tend to be a discriminating and sometimes persnickety group. While not shunning the CSX4000 owners like lepers, it took them time to warm up to these cars. When the owners of original Cobras realized these new cars were not going away, most resigned themselves into accepting them. The tipping point came when the original Cobra owners realized that their cars would not be overshadowed by these newcomers. The popularity of the originals increased steadily and their values rose in direct proportion—mostly because everyone understood that there would never be any more original Cobras than were produced between 1962 and 1967. The law of supply and demand dictated that because the supply was finite, values would remain high. The new Cobras continue to be built because there is a demand for them by enthusiasts who could not afford an original. Currently the production of CSX4000s outnumbers the originals by almost two-to-one. Every CSX4000 produced insures that the value of the originals will remain high because their supply is, so far, infinite.

In 2005 Shelby reignited his association with Ford and the GT500 was brought back to become part of the automotive landscape. Initially they did not have much of an effect on the "original" Shelbys. Publicity from the new cars surrounded the “originals” just as the CSX4000s had affected the original Cobras. A magazine could hardly keep from comparing the old with the new and, once again, when they needed an “old “ Shelby they turned to SAAC. The two generations of cars were similar in concept but very different in execution. Technology had changed, so they weren’t considered competitors. A lot of the owners of the new cars didn't know very much about the originals—other than what they read in magazines. The originals came from a time before most of them were born. They saw them as sharing a name but were otherwise completely different animals. Owners of the new cars just didn't have much of an affinity for the old cars—whose owners seemed ancient. However, the original cars were the roots. They were where it all started. The new cars just didn’t pop up out of nowhere. Some new owners got this; but not all of them.

Carroll Shelby was capable of changing, like a chameleon (going from Ford to Chrysler to Oldsmobile and back to Ford, for example), and each time he did he attracted a new generation of enthusiasts, eagerly following behind him. He was an automotive Pied Piper. But like distant relatives of the same family, other than sharing a name, they didn't have all that much in common. And another interesting fact was that the various owner and enthusiast groups were different generations. They didn’t seem to realize that it was the same Carroll Shelby who had produced each variant of cars with his name on them. Owners of Shelby Dodge cars seemed not to realize that the same Carroll Shelby had created the original GT350 Mustangs and Cobras. And Shelby Series I roadster owners weren’t always aware that the name on their cars described the same guy whose name appeared on the Shelby GLHS. It was as if all of these owners were wearing special glasses that only allowed them to see Carroll Shelby through the lens of their own cars.

SAAC is a niche in the world of Shelby cars. We have always tended to concentrate on the cars and not the man because, to be honest, he moved to other projects over the years and only came back to the "original" cars when it suited him or furthered his goals. That's not a pejorative; it's just the way things worked out and we understood it. We needed to operate the club and keep it moving forward without relying on Carroll Shelby. If his fortunes or interests changed, we didn’t want to be left hanging out on a limb. It was necessary that we maintained our independence. Otherwise, we would have been perceived as shills for him and whatever project he was involved with at the time. When our paths intersected, that was great. But we had to be able to operate on our own. The last thing SAAC needed was to use Carroll Shelby as a prop.

Like a comfortable nest, Shelby came back to the cars that gave him his start whenever he needed to get in touch with his roots. But he would just as quickly move on again when he sensed a change in the wind or a new opportunity. The point is, he knew SAAC was always there. And always would be, because at some subconscious level, he understood that it was all about the cars.

So, now he is gone. Like everyone else, we are saddened. But we are not shocked. His last few months were spent in hospitals as doctors attempted to stabilize him and prolong his life, because that's what they are trained to do. They were fighting a losing battle and probably sensed it. When you live 89 years, it means that you have lived through a lot. There were ups and downs, and Shelby had his share. Some say more than his share. Like everyone, we try to remember the good times through it all. That's only human nature.

If his cars are an addiction, Carroll Shelby was the facilitator. He may be gone but his cars are still here. We are still addicted.

Part II

One of the more curious upshots of Carroll Shelby’s passing is the swiftness with which the cockroaches have come scuttling out from under the molding to exploit the fact that there will never be more autographs given by Carroll Shelby than there are right now. It took less than 48 hours before autographed items—glove compartment doors, sun visors, various car parts, books, magazines and pictures began appearing on eBay. One vulture offered a 1967 Shelby brushed aluminum dashboard piece, which fits above the glove box door, for a buy-it-now price of $6,000. The word despicable comes to mind. Others are not fit for print.

The selling frenzy will, hopefully, not be matched by a corresponding buying frenzy. A long life in the public eye meant that Carroll Shelby signed literally thousands of items. When he realized he could receive payment from poster manufacturers, he signed them by the thousands. He was able to sign 250 posters in an hour. I know because I watched him one day.

What is an autograph? It is tangible proof that you actually met someone. Usually someone famous, talented or in a position of power. Photographs serve the same purpose but a camera is not always available and a third party is required to snap the picture and the circumstances have to be just right. With an autograph, all you need is a pen and something to write on—and the opportunity to come face to face with the famous person. Movie stars, entertainers and sports figures were probably the first ones besieged for their signatures. Their glamour, their charisma, and the excitement that surrounded their public appearances was usually enough to make an otherwise average person weak in the knees, tongue-tied and as embarrassed as a pubescent teenager. The goal is to get some evidence documenting the meeting, however brief. This has always been the case with Hollywood stars but it is something of a more recent phenomena with politicians. In the presidential elections of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, I don’t recall seeing people push things to have signed at John F. Kennedy, Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan when they worked the crowds.

Most famous people were happy to be recognized and honored to be asked for their signature. Some saw it as the price of fame. But not all. A handful were not agreeable to invasions of their privacy by strangers, even when they were out in public. Most notable was probably Paul Newman. The story goes that he was in a restaurant in New York City and people were coming up to his table as he was trying to eat, asking for autographs. He gave them but became increasingly annoyed. At one point he excused himself to go to the men’s room and was standing at a urinal when someone came in, saw him, and held out a cocktail napkin and pen and asked for his autograph. He later said that, at that point, he decided not to sign autographs any more. When asked he would simply shake his head and say, “I don’t give autographs.” He stuck to this policy but would, on occasion, sign things that were sold for charity. Although he was in the public eye for a long time (he passed away in 2008 at 83) his autographs command a premium by collectors because there are so few of them.

Carroll Shelby, on the other hand, was happy to sign just about anything that someone put in front of him. As a result, his signature is so plentiful that seeing the recent outbreak of on-line auction items signed by him being offered at stratospheric prices makes absolutely no sense. And what would make even less sense is if someone was actually stupid enough to pay those prices.

Autographs are also things that some people collect as a hobby. They tend to specialize in certain categories (political figures, baseball players, movie stars, race drivers, etc). In this sense they are not meant to be mementos commemorating a meeting because they are bought and sold as a matter of course. And their values are dependent on the law of supply and demand. General George Patton died as the result of an automobile accident in 1945. Had he lived a much longer life he would have signed many documents, letters, memos and cocktail napkins and his autograph would not have the value it does today. Carroll Shelby, by comparison, turned his autograph into a virtual cottage industry once he realized that almost every owner of one of his cars desired his signature—along with a ton of people who only wished they were owners. As a result, his autograph would be described as “common” and valued accordingly.

The Shelby autograph scene was fairly calm, if somewhat disorganized, until SAAC-8 at Dearborn in July 1986. It was at that event that somebody in the swap meet offered Shelby a seat at a table so he could sign items for people without having to stand in the center of a large crowd and hold things in one hand as he signed. At that point mostly personal items like the owners manual for your car, a picture of you and Shelby at a past convention, or a photo of your car were presented for a signature. But once people who hadn’t the foresight to bring something personal to have signed saw the opportunity to get that autograph, they grabbed whatever was handy. We stood off to the side, and saw a guy with a swap space give his 12 year-old kid 5 hats to get signed (Shelby was a sucker for young kids). When the kid brought them back to the table, his old man put a price of $20 on them (the unautographed hats sitting next to them were $5). That struck us as unseemly.

Shelby had his heart transplant in 1990, and by the time SAAC-16 at Charlotte rolled around in 1991, his newfound energy and new lease on life prompted him to attend. One of our concerns was that it was pretty much assumed the weather would be hot and humid at that time of the year, and Lew Spencer had warned us that although Shelby’s health was great, he could not tolerate heat very well. We envisioned him walking around at the track and being besieged by hundreds of attendees who all wanted that now-famous signature. We thought it might be better to schedule a specific time and place where he could sign things for a limited period. Otherwise people would keep after him all day and all night.

It was Howard Pardee who observed that at basecall card shows they invited some of the more famous players to attend; genuine legends like Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays. They charged $20 or $50 for their signatures and sometimes had special stipulations, like no bats or balls because they were difficult to sign and took too long. Shelby had just announced the formation of the Shelby Heart Fund and we saw a potential connection. We could set a modest price for his autograph ($5 seemed appropriate) and turn the money over to Shelby, who would pass it along to his charity. We scheduled a 3-hour autograph session in the afternoon on Saturday and set up a couple of tables under a canopy, with a large fan pointed in Shelby’s direction. This appeared to be the perfect way to handle it because it was clear that the autograph hunters were getting out of control. A specific session with a starting point and end point would, we thought, eliminate Shelby’s being hounded during the rest of the convention. That, of course, turned out to be one of the more naive assumptions we ever made, but our intentions were commendable.

After watching him sign stuff for an hour, I determined that he could sign 100 things. It was more than just a quick signature; everyone wanted to talk a little, ask a question, show him a photo of their car or even get their picture taken with him. Shelby especially didn’t like signing t-shirts (although he did) because it took two people to stretch them tight so his signature looked the way it should. At some point I would ask him how much longer he wanted to keep signing. He would look at his watch and say something like, “An hour and a half.” The line would stretch almost out of sight, and I would walk down the line counting until I got to the 150th person. Then I had to tell everyone beyond that point that they were out of luck. The line ended here. This was one of the more unpleasant jobs I’ve ever had at a convention. Some people came to the convention with the goal of getting his signature on something and they didn’t like hearing “no.” I would stand at the end of the line waving people off as it neared the canopy. When the last person got his autograph, Shelby looked up and saw no one else in line. He smiled and said, “Well, that worked out just about right.” He never realized that I had been at the end of the line, shooing people away.

Once the Shelby Heart Fund was organized, they took over the autograph table and we were more than happy to let them. Running the convention was difficult enough as it was. The price escalated from $5 to $10 to $20, but that seemed not to shorten the lines. They would determine, in advance, how long the signature session would last. If it was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. people would start assembling in line at 7 a.m. The solution was to sell tickets in advance. That way nobody would have to wait in line only to get shutout when time ran out. An autograph session became one of the central points of whatever event Shelby appeared at. The price continued to rise over the years, almost in direct relation to the diminishing of Shelby’s health. In his waning days he was receiving $150 for a signature on paper, photographs or programs and $250 for car parts like sun visors, glove compartment doors, air cleaners or model cars. If someone wanted their dashboard or the inside of their trunk lid signed, special arrangements had to be made and the cost was $500 or more. Not as spry as he once was, Shelby found it difficult getting in and out of cars or twisting his body to allow him to sign in difficult locations, so they happened less frequently.

The other upshot of Shelby’s passing is the possibility that it will be responsible for Cobra and Shelby prices suddenly jumping. Observers of the passing scene seem to be waiting to see if it creates a bubble. The clues will be easy to read: a substantially increased asking price and the mention of Shelby’s name in the advertisement—as if anyone reading the ad needs to have someone connect the dots for them. There have been a few occurrences of higher than normal advertised prices already, but not enough to create as a hard trend. A handful of avaricious and opportunistic sellers can’t really drive the market unless there are a large number of buyers willing to drastically over-pay just because they must have a Shelby or Cobra “right now.”

An abnormally large number of cars coming on the market—even at higher prices—will send a message that Shelbys are plentiful. According to the law of supply and demand, an increased supply will result in a softening of values. In short, too many people putting their cars on the market because of Shelby’s death will result in keeping values low. This is the law of unintended consequences. Will it happen? We shall see.

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