Carroll Shelby was one of the auto scene’s most beloved icons. During his storied career he achieved racing wins around the world including the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Sports Illustrated named him “Driver of the Year.” He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Shelby worked with Ford on such legendary vehicles as the GT40 and the Shelby GT350/GT500 Mustangs. Perhaps most importantly, Shelby exemplified American ingenuity when he took an underpowered English AC Cars sports car, stuffed in a high-power Ford V-8, and debuted his legendary Cobra, a car that went on to achieve legendary status in the automotive world. While racing and performance were in his blood, Shelby also had a great interest in cars and the environment later in life, and served as a juror for Green Car Journal’s Green Car of the Year award program until his passing in 2012 at the age of 89. In this piece from our archives, Shelby shared his thoughts with publisher Ron Cogan on hybrids, alternative fuels, and the roles of government and the auto industry in dealing with advanced vehicles and environmental performance..
This article shares an archive interview of Carroll Shelby conducted by editor/publisher Ron Cogan and is presented as it originally ran in Green Car Journal’s 2003 Special Edition.
Ron Cogan: How would you define performance these days, Carroll? You see a lot of advanced technology engines out there, and we’re doing a lot more with a lot less …
Carroll Shelby: “A lot more with a lot less what? Hell, no. Everybody is going for these bigger and bigger engines, six and seven liters with superchargers and turbochargers and 16 cylinders. And that’s fine. But at what cost?
“What’s going to happen is the same thing that happened in 1965. Then, the federal government and public opinion saw that seven liters in a 6,000-pound car hauling one person to work was pretty foolish. So, what happened? They decided to emissionize the cars and get into the safety aspects, which I think was a wonderful thing, although bureaucrats didn’t know very much about safety then. The automobile companies tried to explain to them what safety should be, and when the automobile companies try to explain anything, they explain it from their pocketbooks and not from what they really believe should be put into a safe car. They do as little as they have to…to interfere with their profits to the least extent.
“Instead of doing the things they did back in 1965 – choking engines up with all that (emissions controls) crap they put on them – they could have gone to compressed natural gas. They could have set up the entire infrastructure system at the time for what they spent over the next three or four years with all those regulations they put into effect. And we all know that it’s taken 20 years to get the Otto cycle (internal combustion) engine back so it performs decently.”
RC: So natural gas is the way to go?
Shelby: “Well, our big problem is imported oil. It’s causing so many financial problems … problems of us depending on antagonistic countries for our oil. It would seem to me that we’re not taking advantage of the two most obvious answers to this, which is compressed natural gas and hydrogen. Hydrogen works just fine in the engines we have now. It doesn’t give as much horsepower, but there are many ways to overcome that. Most of the cars would run on compressed natural gas – we flare off enough in Texas alone to power every car and truck in the United States – and we have hydrogen available to run in the same engines. Rather than depend on imported oil, why don’t we take advantage of these two energy sources that are here?”
RC: Where do hybrids fit in all this?
Shelby: “For 20 years we’ve had the potential for hybrid vehicles. All the technology is there, but why haven’t we gotten to that? It’s for the simple reason that they couldn’t make a profit building those things. Here we are now, finally, 20 years later just inching into the hybrid systems. Automobile companies are squealing and screaming all the way and building what I think are pretty stupid systems on these big SUVs that are picking up two or three miles to the gallon and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on it. And the Japanese have seen that this is what’s going to happen, so we’d better get with the system. That’s the reason, I think, that Toyota and Honda are leading the world right now in hybrids, which will lead us into fuel cells somewhere down the road ... but it looks to me like we’re still a lot of years away from that.”
RC: So what’s next?
Shelby: “We’re going to have all these federal mandates. One of the options that should have been looked at was, let’s form an automobile company that uses the technology of the future the same way that the federal government has gotten us into all these super, super airplanes. That’s the defense department spending the money to see that all this R&D is done, but we’ve never done that in the automobile industry. We’ve depended on the automobile companies to tell the politicians what they can and can’t do, which seems a lot of bull to me. If we had a small automobile company that would be government funded and would hire the people to use the technology we know is already out there, we could build something to show the automobile companies that it is possible, and then move into the mainstream much quicker than the way they’ve done it.”
RC: The government should develop advanced vehicles and then turn these over to the automakers to build?
Shelby: “Well, I’m saying that we’re never going to get there in the automobile industry as far as the environment is concerned with the system we have now. I don’t have all the answers, and anything I come up with is going to be very controversial anyway. Nobody wants to talk about it because the automobile companies, with their huge political impact in Washington, don’t want things like this to happen. They want things to go along just like they are.
“I’m not really criticizing them because in a capitalist system, profits are the only thing that the people who put the money up – the investors – care about. And that’s the motivating factor for them to invest their money. There has to be a better system in place to see that the environment is better looked after than it is in our political system.”
RC: Like what?
Shelby: “Let’s take racing. Let’s take performance. There’s no reason to think that if we wanted to have a racing program, like CART or drag racing, it couldn’t be done just as competitively with smaller engines and cars racing against each other in certain classes. If they were all hybrids now, you’d be improving the quality of the hybrids out there, and they’d be coming out a lot quicker than if the automobile companies weren’t fighting it. You could have all of these little Hondas that go out to the drag strip and all of these wonderfully intelligent young kids, 18 to 30 years old, who have all these Hondas and Focuses and all that going to the drag strip. What if they had to do it with hybrids? Would it be just as competitive?
“That’s the reason I get so frustrated. It’s my business. I’m building a Cobra now with 900 horsepower. You’ve got to do it to be competitive in the world as it is – profit centered – but I’d much rather be building something that I know is much friendlier to the environment, has rules and regulations that we all have to go by, and competes with the other competitors in something that is much more friendly to the environment. I don’t know … I’m frustrated about the whole thing, but at 80 years old, I know that I’m not going to change anything.
“It will be just like it was in 1966 if we don’t wake up in this country and see what it takes to build automobiles – to build a transportation system – that’s friendly to the environment. It has to be done, but it’s going to take a long time under the present system because the present system isn’t working … on a timely basis.
“I’m not trying to say I have any of the answers, I just know from living 80 years and watching the automobile industry that it has a long way to go environmentally. So many Americans, so many people all over the world – not half the number that are going to be using the automobile 20 years from now – and it seems so slow.”
RC: So after 80 years, Carroll, what’s next for you?
Shelby: “The things I’ll probably spend the rest of my life doing will be the things that are the least profitable, because I really feel that the environment is something that needs to be taken care of and it has to blend in with the automobile industry. That’s where the most fun is for me.”