Carroll Shelby is a certified legend, not only within our Mustang universe where he is the top celebrity, but also within the racing community and the automotive genre as a whole. Among his many accomplishments, he was a successful race car driver in the '50s, created the legendary Cobra in 1962, turned Mustangs into GT350 and GT500 musclecars from 1965 to 1969, and won LeMans as a team owner in 1966 and 1967. That's not a bad resume, even if you don't count his days with Chrysler in the '80s and what he's doing today, including his renewed relationship with Ford to build GT500s and with Shelby Automobiles, a thriving company that churns out Shelby GTs, GT500KRs and Super Snakes, CSX Series Cobras, and a line of performance parts for new Mustangs. That doesn't include the fact that, at 85, he's the oldest surviving double-transplant patient, having received a heart in 1990 and a kidney in 1996.
By anyone's account, Carroll is a successful man. However, with success comes criticism and the need to protect what he has created. Even as early as 1968, he was astute enough to trademark "King of the Road" for the GT500KR before Chevrolet could grab it for a Corvette. In the '80s, Carroll found himself in a lawsuit with Ford when "GT350" was used on the '84 20th Anniversary Mustang. These days, it seems he spends more time in the courthouse than at his beloved Shelby Automobiles facility in Las Vegas. Recent wranglings include lawsuits with manufacturers of Cobra kit cars and Denice Halicki, widow of "Gone in 60 Seconds" creator H.B. Halicki, over the use of the name "Eleanor." Carroll has also been sued by Unique Performance customers who didn't get the cars they paid for when the company was shut down during a criminal investigation for title washing.
Carroll is also currently embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Shelby American Automobile Club, a national organization that has promoted Shelby and Shelby vehicles for the past 30 years. Unhappy with the way the club was being operated, he terminated SAAC's license to use his name and other trademarks when the licensing agreement came up for renewal earlier this year. SAAC has filed a lawsuit against Shelby Licensing, saying the agreement was "void and unenforceable because it was procured by fraud." In the following interview, Carroll provides his side of the story. You can find SAAC's views on the situation at www.saac.com.
We asked Carroll if he would like to clear the air on a number of controversial subjects, which have Web site forums buzzing throughout the Mustang universe. And he did just that on a Sunday afternoon in April.
Mustang Monthly: You just had your 85th birthday. How is your health these days?
Carroll Shelby: I'm doing as well as any 85-year-old with a heart and kidney transplant, and I look forward to getting up every morning and building some more Mustangs with Ford.
MM: Speaking of that, in your wildest dreams, did you ever expect to be building Mustangs in 2008?
Shelby: No, I didn't. I thought when I stopped building Mustangs in 1968 that performance was over in this country because of emissions and safety and all the things the government found necessary to straighten out. I went to Africa and spent most of 12 years there. I never dreamed I would be back with Ford to the extent that we are today, but I'm very pleased we are. I'm a lucky man that, at 85, I have such a wonderful partnership with Ford.
MM: Can you make a comparison between Shelby American in the '60s and Shelby Automobiles in 2008?
Shelby: It's the same philosophy I started with Shelby American when I walked into [Ford president Lee] Iacocca's office in 1962 to ask him for $25,000 to build two Cobra prototypes. A small company in partnership with a large company can sometimes do things a lot quicker. We're operating today in Las Vegas with the same philosophy we operated with back then. That is, we're partners with Ford. We can decide on a car and in three to six months we can be in business. But Shelby Automobiles couldn't do it without Ford. Particularly, Ford takes care of emissions and safety, which it has thousands of engineers working on. So we're doing the same thing we did 45 years ago. Even with some of the same people. They're old and wobbly now, but they're still great people.
MM: Obviously a lot has changed in the last four decades. One thing that seems to be popping up these days is trademarks. Is it more important for you to protect your trademarks today?
Shelby: Trademarks define a company's brand. Back in the late '60s, I started trademarking where I could. I couldn't trademark the shape of the cars back then. However, in the '70s that became possible. We've got the trademark now on the 289 Cobra and the Daytona Coupe, and we're working on the 427. And that would complete my ambitions as far as trademarks are concerned, so I can leave them in the hands of my heirs and Ford. About the only one we're having a fight with is Factory Five. And I hope that will be over in a few months.
MM: Can you explain why it's so important to protect your trademarks?
Shelby: Trademarks give you the right to build what you created and keep people from coming in and taking what's rightfully yours. My trademarks include the GT350, Cobra, GT500, King of the Road...As I said, I've been fighting for many, many years for the shape of my cars. And that's coming to a defining moment very quickly now. It's not a matter of profit-it's the heart and soul of any business. You see Ford, General Motors, and other companies fighting to keep people from using their trademarks and their products. It's like what's going on in the music industry now.
MM: That brings us to SAAC. You've decided not to renew their license to use the Shelby name. Can you explain why you made that decision?
Shelby: I appreciate the chance to clear the air on this because they're trying to create a cancer when there is no cancer. There are some good people in that club, such as the registrars. I'm not trying to stop them from doing what they do.
I and a few others formed the Shelby American Automobile Club as a nonprofit club in 1974. Austin Craig and Jim Wicks were running the club while I was in Africa. A year or two later, Rick Kopec and Ken Eber forced them out and changed it from a nonprofit club to a for-profit club.
I've been telling Rick for 15 years that I was unhappy with the way the club was run. They pick and choose who they want to work with. They don't even recognize the new Shelby Mustangs.
You know, we had a licensing agreement with them for several years. We only charged a dollar a year, which they admit they never even bothered to pay. I told them two years ago that I wasn't going to renew their license if they didn't start sending us their financial information since they've been using our trademarks on T-shirts and other merchandise. They've taken memorabilia, which they promised to return whenever I asked-even stating that in the Registry and several editions of their newsletters. They've been selling some of my stuff and not accounting for the money, such as canceled checks to Ken Miles and Dan Gurney that they sold for hundreds of dollars on eBay. They've been passing them out to their friends and letting them sell them. I told them they've got to send their financials to our licensing company, as they agreed to do in their contract. They refused because they know how much money they've made and they simply don't want that information to go public to the members.
They're charging $500 for the new World Registry. I'm not going to stop that, but I'm also not going to let them put the Shelby name on it.
I also don't like the way they put on SAAC conventions. I want to put on a convention for all of the Shelby cars, including the Dodges and the new cars.
Ford gave them the license for the SVTOA, and Ken got up and insulted SVT Mustang owners by saying, "Someday you guys may be able to afford a real Shelby." That's when I made my mind up that I was going to throw them out because they showed no respect to anybody. For years, Ken said, "We don't need Carroll Shelby." So I didn't renew them. And we're going to court.
Since we didn't renew their contract, some of the owners of the club have said some pretty mean things about [Shelby Automobiles' president] Amy Boylan and me. For example, they've drawn a picture of me with a suicide bomb around my waist and called me "The Devil." I'm not going to get down in the gutter with them, but I'm also not going to leave my legacy in the hands of people who would send out stuff like that.
The truth of it all is that it's really been all the individual vintage Shelby owners and fans who've been keeping the love for the brand alive, not two people who own a private club that's in business to make money off my name and my work. All the SAAC members over the years have been great and I hope they understand that I appreciate their loyalty over the years. It's the two owners that I have issues with.
I don't want a for-profit organization operated by people I don't trust, having my legacy. I want that to be in the hands of Ford and my estate.
Now, can we move on to something more positive?
MM: Well, first let's touch on another trademark situation that affects many of the companies that provide parts to Mustang Monthly readers. Some say you're trying to prevent people from building fake Shelbys by making it difficult for the companies that make and sell those parts, like GT350 stripes and emblems.
Shelby: All we want to do with our trademarks is make sure we're dealing with people who are straight-up and honest. A lot of times people will build a fake Shelby and then make parts that violate our trademarks. We don't ask for a lot of money. We have some licensees who only pay a dollar a year. All I want to know is who is making these parts and using our trademarks. I want people to be in the business, but I also want them to deal on the top of the table.
MM: What do you think about the Eleanor Mustang from the movie Gone in 60 Seconds? Was that good for the Shelby legacy?
Shelby: If you watch the movie, you'll see that Nicolas Cage called it a Shelby GT500 several times. I've been told that it was eight times. Well, let me go into a little detail.
H.B. Halicki, the creator of Gone in 60 Seconds, told me that he was leaving the rights to his brothers. But his wife sued them and took the legacy for herself. My lawyers applied to the United States Patent & Trademark Office and I was granted the rights to the "Eleanor" trademark for vehicles, and my licensing company licensed it out to some people [Unique Performance] who wanted to build Shelby GT500s from old Mustangs built in the '60s. The Shelby GT500 is my car. No one is going to call my car "Eleanor" without my permission. But H.B. Halicki's wife sued me, and I spent a lot of money on a lawsuit. The judge threw it out on a summary judgment, which is being appealed.
Now she has sued me again, even before the appeal is over. She claims she somehow got new rights to my car and my trademarks from Disney. It's the damndest thing, but I guess the legal process works in very strange ways sometimes.
Some people just like to sue, and I guess I'm what some lawyers call a "deep pocket," but I'll fight all these frivolous lawsuits to the end.
MM: You seem to keep getting caught up in lawsuits. Is that just a matter of you being in business and so successful?
Shelby: Like I said, there are some people out there who will knowingly rip you off, and others who will sue you for just about anything, and there are so many lawyers now it's scary. You see, I'm 85 now and I want to get all of this cleaned up so I don't leave my children, my wife, and my company fighting these battles for the next 85 years. I'm doin' my best.
MM: Can you talk about the situation with Unique Performance, which was building GT500E and other Shelby continuation cars? As you know, they were shut down under accusations of illegal title washing.
Shelby: Since there's an ongoing investigation about what Unique was doing with those cars, I can't say a whole lot, except that I was never a part of the contracts of the people who bought the cars. And I never accepted a dime for any of these cars until they were delivered and the customers said they were satisfied. I hope everyone who purchased a car will still get it.
MM: Last year The Carroll Shelby Children's Foundation was criticized for not giving out enough money. You responded by saying that you were trying to make sure that the foundation was endowed.
Shelby: A national article was published that said we're not giving any money away that came from cars we sold at auction. But the simple fact of it is, my goal is to build an endowment for the Foundation that will help people long after I'm gone. When it comes right down to it, my Foundation isn't doing anything different than places like colleges that build up their endowment funds with billions of dollars for future use. I'm not there yet!
When I had my heart transplant in 1990, there were two boys, one on each side of me, one 12 and one 15. They both passed away waiting for a heart. I had about two weeks to live so I told the Old Man upstairs that if I got a heart that I was going to try and help people who needed transplants. I formed my foundation after I got out and put $100,000 in it. Three days after I signed the papers, I got a call from my friend Chris Schenkel who said there was a baby girl in Indiana who needed a heart transplant or she wasn't going to live. I went to the bank and borrowed the money to put a heart in her. She's 17 now and one of the 12 kids picked to be on the U.S. Olympic ice skating team. And we've given out money to great kids and worthy causes ever since.
The last three Shelbys auctioned went to other charities to spread the wealth. So I'm financing my Foundation myself. When somebody sends me their glovebox, I sign it for $250, which goes straight to the foundation endowment. I hope to leave it with enough money that my estate doesn't have to keep putting money into it after I go horizontal.
Right now, I'm also helping the Northeast Texas Community College in my hometown of Pittsburg, Texas. They came to me and said they'd like to put my name on a school to teach auto mechanics so the kids can earn $25 an hour instead of $7 an hour. I'm going to take about 100 kids a year and help pay their tuition.
MM: Recently, Shelby Mustangs have sold for big money at the major auto auctions. What do you think about the current values of your older cars?
Shelby: The prices of those old cars have gone up and down for the last 30 years.
I was offered $23 million last year for my number one Cobra. I'm not going to sell that. People ask why I sold my Daytona Coupes for $4,000. I even had to finance the one I sold to Bob Bondurant. When I bought it back for $20,000 a few years later, I sent him a wire saying, "Yeah, you missed $16,000." Then he sent me one not long ago saying, "One of them just sold for $10 million. You think I was dumb 20 years ago, how dumb do you think I am now?" Eyes in your butt are always 20/20.
When I got the Automobile Executive of the Year award recently, they asked me about my favorite car. The first thing I told them was that I'm not an executive, I'm a hot rodder. But I didn't realize that I've built 165 different prototypes. Some of them have been successful but most of them haven't. I never worry about what happened in the past; I'm interested in what we're going to build next.
MM: You had success in the '60s and now you're finding success again. That has to be satisfying.
Shelby: I don't think of myself as a successful person the way some people do for the simple reason that it's always up and down. You may be on top right now but I know that something could happen tomorrow and I'd be at the bottom of the heap again.
It's like when I went to Chrysler. I asked Iacocca, "What do you have that we can work on?" He told me they had a 90hp 2.2 with a four-speed cable shift. I got so much crap building those little hot rods-the Chargers, GLHs, and all that. But, you know what? I had fun doing it. We wound up with 750 hp in our little GLH drag car. I've got a GLH with 425 hp that I still enjoy driving.
I'm probably going to build some powerful pocket-rockets with Ford now. Those things are going to come back because of the price of fuel. Right now, I've got some V-6s over in my skunkworks and you'd be surprised how much horsepower we're getting out of them.
The thing I miss more than anything else is not spending time with the guys in the R&D department. I've got a little desk over there and what I really want to do until I go horizontal is sit around with those guys and dream up something. If it doesn't work, it's not the end of the world because we'll come up with something else the day after that. With Amy Boylan, Jim Owens, Gary Davis, and Gary Patterson, we've got the same kind of spirit that we had 45 years ago.
MM: How are things going at your new club, Team Shelby?
Shelby: Team Shelby is growing like crazy. They told me the other day that they've got more than 2,000 members already. How long has it been, four or five months?
MM: They started accepting memberships three months ago, in January. Do you see Team Shelby becoming the protector of the information for the '60s cars?
Shelby: Yes. I want the registrars to keep on doing what they're doing.
MM: I was out at Shelby Automobiles last summer and the whole place was a hubbub of activity, from building cars to marketing meetings.
Shelby: Were you treated with dignity?
MM: Yes. Even though I was with Jerry Heasley they treated me nice.
Shelby: Even with Jerry? That's a miracle.
MM: Where do you see Shelby Automobiles in five years?
Shelby: We've just come out with the KR. I'm working closely with the top people at Ford. I want to stay small. I want to build cars that help sell more Fords at decent prices. The plan isn't together but I'm fighting to bring back affordable performance. You can't just keep going up and up in prices.
MM: Especially with fuel prices the way they are now...
Shelby: That's right. And we're in a horsepower race started by the German car companies. They ain't going to win it. I've got 1,000 hp on a dyno right now, and I'll go there if I have to. I think that 300 or 400 hp is all anybody needs. But in order to get a car in the magazines, in order to create a market, you have to do something outlandish. General Motors is going to do something outlandish...
MM: We just heard Chevrolet is coming out with a 550hp SS Camaro.
Shelby: That's true. But I'm going to be ready for 'em. You know, we build much better cars now than we did in the '60s. That's the reason I'm surprised that these old cars keep maintaining their values. Some people are selling the old ones and buying the Super Snakes with 750 hp.
MM: The older Shelbys continue to be nostalgic to people who were young back then and couldn't afford one or maybe owned one and sold it.
Shelby: Those cars went pretty good in a straight line but they didn't stop and didn't go around a corner. Cars are 10 times better today than they were back then. I've got 50 of the old ones and I never drive them. They're in the museum at Shelby Autos.
In fact, I drive a Ford Edge. However, the other day I took a Super Snake out with Amy and I had a lot of fun, but I think she had to change her pants when we got back because I can't see very well. I looked down and said, "How fast we going?" She said, "160." I said, "Oh, I better slow up."
Amy is doing an excellent job of pulling everything together. Shelby Automobiles is in a place where we can build things for many years to come. I'm having more fun than I've ever had in my life.