Shelby American: Creating a Monster

post by
Preston Lerner
shelby american crew

Celebrate 60 years of iconic automotive designer and manufacturer Shelby American and watch the saga unfold from the men and women who lived it with the new book Shelby American: The Renegades Who Built the Cars, Won the Races, and Lived the Legend. The legendary shop didn’t last long, but it was a flame that burned incandescently before being extinguished by corporate politics. In less than a decade, it created a legacy that will be revered as long as cars still roar around racetracks. In this excerpt from the book, read about the fast-paced test driving that went on in the shop.

Ted Sutton had just created a monster.

Sutton was a resourceful young mechanic at Shelby American, the company Carroll Shelby had assembled in Southern California to build the Cobra. Engineered by motorsports savants and equipped with a 289-cubic-inch Ford V-8, the Cobra was the most fearsome sports car in the world, circa 1964. But Shelby wasn’t content with what he had wrought; he wanted something even more menacing. Sutton was assigned to play mad scientist. Performing surgery in a broad, red-brick building nestled incongruously in a blue-collar enclave in Venice, he retrofitted a standard Cobra with a big-block 427. When the conversion was complete, he did what any self-respecting twenty-five-year-old gearhead would have done: He climbed into the cockpit, cranked the ignition, and careened through the neighborhood, breaking the tires loose at every opportunity and sending gloriously obnoxious blasts of big-block bedlam out the straight pipes. When he got back to the shop, he heard his name being called. Mr. Shelby wanted to see him.

Gulp.

Recovering from knee surgery, Shelby hobbled down the stairs from his office. Sutton waited glumly, sure he was about to be fired. Instead, Shelby asked him, “Was that you that drove that car?” Sutton warily acknowledged that it was. “Well, how did it go?”

“It was just fine, sir,” Sutton said.

“Let’s see. You wanna ride along?”

Sutton explained that he’d pulled out the passenger seat so he could run the down tube for the U-shaped roll bar through the cockpit.

“Well, you can sit on the floor, can’t you?”

As soon as Sutton wedged himself into place, Shelby started slinging the Cobra through a nearby field in four-wheel drifts and winding out the 427 to redline as he blew past stop signs. Sutton hadn’t adjusted the brakes or swapped out the narrow tires and wimpy wire wheels that had been mounted on the car while he was building it, and it was only by the grace of God that there were no schoolkids or other pedestrians happening past as they skirted around a trailer park. As he desperately hung on, with one hand wrapped around the roll bar and the other clutching Shelby’s crutch, Sutton kept thinking that he was trapped inside a flimsy deathtrap with a certifiable lunatic. “I was absolutely purple by the time we got back to the shop,” he said. “To say he scared the shit out of me would be a gross understatement—I was truly afraid for my life. I just knew we were going to hit something or someone.”

Shelby killed the ignition while Sutton lingered in the car, drained and ashen-faced. “That’s real nice,” Shelby drawled nonchalantly before limping back up to his office.