Texas®

The current automotive landscape has way too many vehicles trying too hard to be everything for everyone. And in doing so they compromise on some things, ignore other things, and become identity-challenged bland-mobiles. The Shelby GT500 is none of that, and plenty more.

Words that should never be used to describe this Mustang-based 2011 Shelby GT500:

  • Subtle
  • Reserved
  • Bland
  • Boring

The Arrest Me-red, two-door arrived at the house on Monday, announcing itself a couple of blocks away with a hearty, lion-esque roar. Complete with white Le Mans stripes, flared fender wells, hyper-aggressive aerodynamics, carbon black wheels and a heavenly short throw shift knob at the pleasure point of a manual Six Speed, the Shel had the road presence of a professional wrestler fully engrossed in his “What are you looking at, Punk?” rant.

It almost had an aura around it.

What is a Shelby? Or more appropriately, who is the man that inspired this poke in the face of mediocrity? Carroll Shelby: A failed East Texas chicken rancher, speed merchant, successful racer, one time fighter pilot instructor, longest surviving double-organ transplant recipient, genuine American icon and the best natural salesman the world may have ever seen. That’s all he is.

After becoming a fighter pilot instructor during World War II, Shelby went home, got married, and started raising chickens on a ranch while racing on weekends. The weekend activities revolved around the now ghostly vapors of old race tracks that used to dot the countryside around north Texas and throughout the South. Many of those legendary old tracks have been swallowed up by suburban sprawl or lawyered out of existence, but in the early 1950’s, the racing world revolved around north Texas.

This was a time of legends, time of men like Hap Sharp and Jim Hall, who’s oil fortunes gave them opportunities to race anything, anywhere. There was also Lloyd Ruby, who is considered one of the greatest American racers ever, and AJ Foyt, a man that could drive, break and fix anything with an engine. It was a time of no seatbelts, leather helmets, and no one talked about NASCAR outside of the South East, and Road Racing was king.

In that past world, the foundation of what would later become a formula for success was laid when Carroll Shelby started racing someone’s car for them. It was a MG that had been outfitted with a small block V8 Ford. It was small, light, nimble and had more motor than most could handle. Carroll drove with such abandon and determination he very rarely lost and eventually earned a chance to drive another light, Anglo-American mutt; a Cadillac-powered Allard. It was this car that made him. His success in races around North America in the CadAllard propelled him to drive “Bird Cage” Maserati’s Ferrari’s, and eventually to win the most prestigious race in the world, The 24 Hours of Le Mans, driving for Aston Martin.

At the same time, as he became one of the most famous drivers in the world and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and pretty much every magazine in America, there was a ticking time-bomb ready to go off. Shelby’s heart was dying. Today, we would probably be able to just take a pill and go on, but in those days, a faulty ticker ended racing careers.

A masterful opportunist, he parlayed his celebrity into Gillette shaving commercials and also joined up with Jim Hall to import European race cars to America via Shelby-Hall Race Cars, located in Dallas. It didn’t last very long as Hall was racing Formula 1 and Endurance racing in Europe, and Shelby wasn’t exactly a man easily given to an office job.

Shelby got hold of a light aluminum British race car called an AC Bristol and found out the company had lost its engine supplier. He managed to convince them to send him rolling chassis of the little race car by telling them Ford was going to supply him engines. Of course, Shelby then had to convince Ford to actually supply the engines to him.

At the time, Lee Iacocca was a rising star at Ford, and as legend has it, the master salesman Iacocca was bulldozed by another like him, and was reported to say, “Someone give this guy an engine before he hurts someone.” The Shelby Cobra was born.

The Cobra formula was a light and nimble British car, big friggin’ engine. It worked (Note: I will explore this later in another article). The Cobra beat all comers and became a legend of its own, spawning the Pete Brock-penned Daytona Coupe Race car, which put Shelby back in the winners circle at Le Mans as a manufacturer, embarrassing the Ford factory team attempting to win the race with their new super car, the GT-40. After the Daytona soundly beat the GT-40 in tests, Ford made a deal with Shelby to take over the GT-40 team. But as a part of the deal to bring him in, the Cobra had to die.

Out of the ashes of the death of the Cobra and the now legendary friendship between Shelby and Iacocca grew the Shelby Mustang GT350, GT500 Program. When the Mustang was introduced in 1964, Iacocca knew he needed a performance package on what was initially an underpowered grocery-getter, but politics at Ford and an industry wide self-imposed ban on direct involvement in auto racing gave Shelby the ability to become the Ford racing proxy.

Original Cobra production was only around 1,000 cars. Six Daytona Coupes, and 20,000 Shelby Mustangs made it to the track and to the road, but a combination of his sponsor Iacocca being fired by Ford, the spike in oil prices, falling sales and that pesky now-faltering heart forced the end of the Shelby Mustang in the early 1970’s.

The Legend of the Shelby Mustang is a fascinating one, indeed. I can not think of any other car that has become a legend unto itself, blending its own history and that of the man who inspired it, along with some fanciful inaccuracies (some coming from Shelby, himself) into a story all its own. It has become a movie character (Gone in 60 Seconds), an object of desire as well as abuse. At any event where Shelby is present, there are usually dozens of children who have been named after him and people who approach him, as well as the car, with a blending of respect and fear.

There has been more ink devoted to this car and man amalgam than any other I can think of, and I have written for many magazines, and I’ve even consulted on a couple of books on both principals.

A few years ago, that faulty ticker was replaced and Shelby is now one of the longest surviving heart transplant recipients. Later in time, he needed a kidney transplant, as well. He has also founded the Carroll Shelby Children’s Charity, which raises money for kids in need of transplants.

These days, his health is said to be not-so-great, but remember that he is well over 85 now and has been married at least 6 times. This man has jammed more life into one than most could possibly imagine.

When Ford and Shelby decided to get the old band back together with the current Shelby GT500 they had a lot to live up to, some of it even fact-based. The decision was made early on that there would be no muddling of this legend, and Ford came out of the box with a loud, brash, thirsty, powerful, no-compromise car of unequaled, swaggering bravado.

It arrives like Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now with a blast of Wagner, and the smell of Napalm in the air. It has a supreme confidence in its stance, letting no one assume it is anything but a serious chunk of car.

The exterior is garish with almost obnoxious sculpted, aerodynamic wings, splitters and curves over big Goodyear racing tires mounted on black powder-coated wheels which give-off a no-nonsense curb appeal. The tail has a high mounted wing, but it’s what is under the other end that counts. The engine. And what an engine it is. A 5.4 liter, four valve V8 lurks under the hood and where most would consider that enough, the Shelby has a SuperCharger to boost an astounding output into the realm of HOLY CRAP! 550 Hp and 510 foot pounds of torque.

All that power results in a snarling beast of aural wonders that make you want to roll the windows down and drive through the Addison Airport Tunnel, over and over again, just to enjoy the roaring sound. The six-speed manual is effortless and really is amazing at dropping all those buckets of power to the ground.

The interior is rather amazing in its own right. Combining “retro” styling that is needed to complete the muscle car redo, combined seamlessly with modern expectations like satellite radio, Sync-integrated GPS, along with every other desirable option in the catalog. One that I personally like is the high-mounted PowerPoint, at the center top of the dashboard, where you can easily plug in a radar detector (yeah, you’re going to want one of those).

This is a far cry from the utilitarian interior one got in the 1960’s Shelbys, but one thing remains – this is not a car for the timid.

On the center console, next to the shifter, there is an understated little button. When pressed, the button turns off the traction control. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON’T TOUCH THAT BUTTON!

The traction control on the Shelby GT500 overpowers its own tires quite easily, with the happy, little, unassuming button deployed, an average driver is in a whole bunch of trouble where enthusiasm is defeated rather quickly by the reality of kinetics. It is way too powerful for anyone without at least as much high-performance driving training experience as I have.

The old school rear-end on this beastly car gets upset rather easily by bumps inconveniently placed at the apex of corners, and the super-tight suspension makes attempting to drink coffee while driving make you look like an ill-advised, near-sighted epileptic trying to exercise with a shake weight.

During the course of week, the $55,000 Shelby GT500 was gulping high-octane like a kid with a garden hose. While running all over north Texas, I came to a couple of conclusions: It’s a brash handful of a car, not for those who fancy themselves in any way environmentally minded, but in a time when so many cars muddle their way to mediocre, the Shelby is one of the most satisfying, over-the-top ways to consume fossil fuels in a multi-sensual, true muscle car experience there is to be had.

And yes, it is just the sort of thing that should have a name like Shelby.

The ads are fantastic: In slow motion, a Jeep crawls over rocks to the deliberate cadence of a drum beat while the deep, resonating voice-over talks about rebirth, America, pride and the toughness of spirit – both of the people who build it as well as the vehicle itself. When one watches the ads they stir a patriotic, do-anything feeling and classic American definitions of rugged individuality.

This isn’t some advertising executive falsely claiming that the vehicle has abilities it simply doesn’t have; this is simply a very good use of branding for a very, very good off-road truck.

As a matter of fact, the Grand Cherokee Laredo is one of the few SUV’s in the market that is truly a SUV. Most of the vehicles in the market are “sortas,” as in the way it’s sorta a truck and sorta a car, but mostly a station wagon with ground clearance. The Cherokee is not one of those, as it really does everything well. From yeoman people hauling, to the go-anywhere abilities that “sortas” dream of, the Laredo manages to pull it all of well.

Its on-road manners are pretty much flawless, and the interior is beyond excellent. The GPS/Entertainment system looks a bit dated, but sounds great, none the less. Optional leather and high-end interior trim has lost the chunky old-school-Chrysler-parts-bin feel and look. All in all, the truck is a very modern machine worthy of not just a glance, but serious consideration for purchase.

Jeep has always been the special brand in the Chrysler stable, having gained its reputation from its origin with the US Military, and later as the go-to choice of outside-the-box thinkers and doers. Recently, Chrysler has been lurching like an addict from crushing debt, to a return to stability, then stepping into the abyss, crashing, rebuilding again and becoming the first of the big three to slip into bankruptcy.

The doomed marriage to Mercedes Benz, then to private equity company Cerberus left Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge cratered with issues worthy of a trailer park after a tornado went through the community. Now firmly in the hands of Italian car giant Fiat, Chrysler is again fighting its way back from the brink.

Really, Chrysler has had enough drama and intrigue over the last 30 years to qualify as an Eugene O’Neil or Tennessee Williams classic. The characters have been fascinating. From Lee Iaccoca, to Bob Lutz, to the man brought in by Cerberus to lead the place, Robert Nardelli, distinct characters have been in great supply.

Nardelli, a CEO from outside of the auto industry, was intended to be a master-stroke that would shake up the norms and get the floundering company back on track. One problem, however: The ship was already under water, and the new captain was only available for the job because Home Depot had fired him for almost submerging the giant home improvement retailer.

At Home Depot, Naradelli oversaw the explosive growth of big box retailing, opening Home Depots all over the place, yet seemed to forget a couple of things along the way. At the time, he wrote best selling books, was featured on 60 Minutes and Forbes as some kind of business wunderkind. At the same time of such fanfare though, the company had reached a crisis where their growth arc was simply unsustainable, and their employees began quite literally hiding from customers. Naradelli became the poster child for shareholder revolt over arrogant overpaid CEO’s as a result of this equation.

In fact CNBC once referred to him as the “Worst CEO in the history of American business.” It was said that he gained this distinction for managing to suck the entrepreneurial spirit out of Home Depot and its generally welcoming employees.

The Depot had forgotten the main reason for its success: Price and service. Eventually, things got so bad that Naradelli was dumped, as the entire business model had to be shifted back to focusing on customer service, and not rapid, fruitless expansion.

The reason this story is worthy of note is this: Someone at Home Depot forgot the fundamentals of their business model and ultimately, the shareholders, employees and customers paid the price. During Naradelli’s tenure at the Chrysler wheel, not only did the debt load, gathered long before he showed up, swamp the company, but one of the stupidest things to ever happen in the industry occurred at Jeep.

During an austerity program at Jeep, someone decided that the best way to get warranty costs under control would be to cancel the warranties of owners that used their Jeeps as actual, multi-functional Jeeps (crazy, right?). Jeeps which had minor rock scrapes on skid plates, or even after-market wheels installed were finding their coverage for mechanical defects eliminated, where they had been available prior to these changes.

Now think about that; the people most affected by this were the embodiment of Jeep’s commercial, rugged image. They were – if you will – the evangelists spreading the word of Jeep by using the “trucks as trucks.” I’ve even heard of a warranty being canceled for “Severe Use,” due to mud and rocks being found under the truck when it had brought into the Jeep dealership. Well, DUH! It’s a JEEP.

Now, every time I see those great advertisements, touting the steel skid pad as it scrapes across a rock, or touting the off-road toughness of the brand, I have the same thought: “Well there goes your warranty oh, Jeep owner”

Now that Fiat has taken over Chrysler and Naradelli is safely away from the business world again, I’m sure the Italians understand that the last thing they need to do is alienate the people who have already purchased their products.

In many ways I am more comfortable with the place Chrysler and Jeep finds itself in now, that the ship is being steered by the people who have brought us such great, spirited vehicles from Europe. They do “get it” when it comes to the passion a Jeep owner has for his or her Jeep.

The 4×4 variant is really the only way to go because, really, buying a two-wheel drive Jeep is kind of like dancing in scuba flippers – missing the point. Pricing ranges from the low $30’s to mid $40’s for the top-of-the-line, loaded Overland Edition. This is on par with the competition, and our tester was juiced with the 360hp 5.7 Hemi V8, which is, like any Chrysler Hemi, exuberant when it comes to fuel usage.

It’s funny how things tend to go, though. Under the skin of the Jeep flagship vehicle is a variation of Mercedes M class chassis, left over from before they exited the picture. It’s a very stable, sturdy foundation and will bridge the gap far into the future.

The Grand Cherokee Laredo provided to Any Driven Sunday is really one of my personal favorites over the last few months. Well mannered on-road and quite capable off, at the same time I drove the Jeep, I also had the chance to drive a new Toyota 4Runner and Ford Explorer. These are the three drivers in this market, defining what the mid-sized SUV should be, and how they should work. If I was looking to purchase one for myself, each has the equation solved slightly differently

If my primary driving was going to be on-road only, the Explorer might be the best choice, actually. With more off-roading, it might be the 4Runner, but that’s really splitting hairs at this point. If I wanted one that does both the best, well, the Jeep could definitely be the right choice. It truly is a personal choice and if you are in the market, please make sure you take the time to look at each of these choices.