The Countdown Rally – My Report

By David Love

What can I tell you about my involvement in this year’s Countdown? Absolutely nothing!

For some strange reason I thought the Countdown was on the 1st of September so I arranged to be on holiday after that. So for the first time in many years I wasn’t standing out in the middle of nowhere thinking I was in the wrong location as headlights head towards me then turn away only to reappear in 5 minutes. It’s quite scary standing in the dark watching a faint glow bobbing up and down from side to side getting closer only to discover, with relief, it’s only some drunk with a head torch heading home from the pub.

I didn’t totally forsake Motorsport on the day of the rally I just switched to a different type.  Many of our older readers will be familiar with the name of Carroll Shelby, he of the Cobra fame and winner of the 1959 Le Mans with Roy Salvadori in an Aston Martin DBR1. His company Shelby American has a small museum that has a daily tour so I decided we should go. Especially as it was free. I didn’t really know much about him other than the Cobra connection but I knew there were cars in the museum so that was good enough for me. I thought that there would be half a dozen or so people for the tour but there were over 30 there. Shelby was a Texan who loved to race but it was discovered he had heart problems and had to give up racing, so he turned his hand to preparation. In the early 60’s he had the idea that a V8 in a lightweight sports car was the way to go and he chose the AC Cobra. As he had contacts in Ford he went to see the CEO Lee Iacocca and persuaded him to part with some engines and money to develop the car so they could “beat the crap out of those Corvettes”.  Shelby still owns the original show Cobra, which was on display. Several years ago he turned down an offer of $23,000,000 for it, guess he can’t have been short of a bob or two! When it was new he kept respraying it different colours to make people think he had several cars. There were six Cobras of varying ages on display; one was unpainted with a polished aluminium body and worth around $2,000,000.

Next up were the Mustangs, the first of which was a 1965 GT350 in white with a blue strip, a reversal of the traditional Shelby colours. Shelby was so successful with the Cobras that Iacocca asked him to improve the Mustang which at the time was considered a “secretary’s car” and was no match for the Chevrolet Camaros and Dodge Chargers in racing or even in new car sales. Once again Shelby worked his magic and the GT350 became a success in the showroom and on the racetrack. Rumour has it that at one meeting between Ford and Shelby when they were arguing about a name for the car that Shelby, looking out a window, asked how far away the next building was. “About 350 feet” was the reply. “Alright” said Shelby “We’ll call it the GT350”. Even Hertz ordered 1000 for their hire fleet painted black with a gold stripe and a 306 bhp V8. They took delivery of 200 on 1st January 1966, all of which were hire out in advance, unfortunately due to ice storms 40 cars were written off in the first weekend.

That made them cut back on the order. There are stories of these cars being used on drag strips and having heir V8s stopped for 6 cylinder engines by hirers. In 2006 Hertz had Shelby produce a Mustang GT-H to celebrate the original one. This time they kept a closer check on the cars, even installing GPS trackers in them.

In the same area was an immaculate lone GT40, light blue with red flashes on the front wings. It even had Caroll Shelby’s signature etched on the door handles and headlight covers. Because of his success with Ford products, Shelby was called upon to help develop the GT40 and in 1966 he entered 3 cars in the Le Mans 24-hour race. One of his GT40s failed to finish but the other two finished first and second. His GT40s also won the Dayton and Sebring races that year. I don’t know if this was the winning car from Le Mans, our guide didn’t seem to know a lot about it, but if it wasn’t it was a pretty accurate replica.

The next section almost looked out of place as it contains what looked like three run of the mill 1980s Dodge vehicles. There was a Charger coupé, a Ram pick-up and 4 door hatchback but all was not as it seemed. In the late 1970s Lee Iacocca moved from Ford to Chrysler and he decided he that he needed to inject new life into the ailing Dodge brand and who better to do that than his friend Carroll Shelby. After helping him improve the cars with modifications that could be carried out on the production line for a few years Shelby decided it was time to produce a car worthy of carrying his name and for that he chose the 1986 Doge Omni GLH hatchback. To Chrysler the GLH stood for “Goes like hell”. They’d taken the largest engined model in the range and stuck a turbocharger on it. I think it was a brave choice because over here the Omni was known as the Talbot Horizon, if you can remember it I’ll be surprised as it was totally forgettable. Iacocca wanted a car that could eat the VW Rabbit GTi, which was a top seller. Even after turbo charging the Omni it still didn’t match the Rabbit. Shelby built 500 cars at his own factory/ workshops replacing suspension, brakes and fitting a larger turbocharger to give 171bhp. He called it the GLHS (Goes like hell…. and Some More). He wanted to call it the Shelby Coyote, in Texas coyotes eat rabbits but A. J. Foyt had already claimed that name. The production run of 500 sold like hot cakes leading him to produce the Shelby Charger and Shelby Ram.

By now we’d reached the doorway that led into the Cobra shop, here they still build new Cobras, there were six in build. Two of them were almost complete and looked fantastic in Shelby blue with a white stripe. They come with either fibreglass or aluminium body and are sold as a rolling chassis without engine or transmission. This means that Shelby can avoid the expense and red tape of having to pass emission and crash testing. Once completed the cars are shipped to the selling dealer who installs the engine and gearbox. They are essentially kit cars but they come with genuine Shelby chassis number and plate. An interesting note is that the aluminium bodies are handmade in the UK and the completed car costs from $160,000. Ouch!

Next stop was the Mustang shop, which contained 21 two post car lifts and each one had a Mustang on or parked between the posts. All the cars appeared to be in the process of being modified, which now seems be Shelby American’s bread and butter. They don’t modify cars to sell and only produce them for development and demonstration purposes. If you want a Shelby Mustang you first have to buy a normal car from a Ford dealer then bring it to Shelby American for them to work their magic. They never say that they modify the cars; they always say they build Shelby Mustangs which is true as they seem to change every mechanical component and rebuilt them with different body panels. This as you can imagine involves parting with a goodly amount of cash. To build a Shelby Super Snake from a standard V8 you need at least $34,000 after you’ve bought the standard car. This will give you over 700bhp with up rated brakes, suspension transmission and pretty wild body kit with new bonnet but will invalidate the Ford warranty. To get this kind of power they fit a 3.6 litre supercharger on top of the engine hence the need for a new bonnet! If that not enough power they’ve just developed an engine producing 1000bhp!!!! A snip at £149,995 plus the base GT500, well it is compared to a Veyron.

We returned to the museum and a close look at the 4 modern Mustangs there. The engines are pure works of art to look at and list to. It’s obvious that the modifications use top quality components but you do pay for them. They did have a 6 month old 750bhp Super Snake convertible for sale at $99,900, which had the full option list fitted including 3 gauges fitted into the A pillar at eye level.

The tour lasted an hour and a half but it seemed more like 10 minutes and when it was over I spent another 30 minutes looking round the cars again. The cars in the museum only scratch the surface of this amazing man’s enthusiasm for motor sport and fast cars. He died at the age of 89 earlier this year but left behind a great heritage.