Homegrown Horsepower

Las Vegas’ Shelby American expands its iconic brand

Gary Patterson is a car guy. Ask him about his first car—a 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1 that he bought when was 16 years old and still owns—if you need proof of that.

“I wanted the big motor and the shaker hood scoop,” Patterson says with a grin, reciting the car’s serial number from memory. “I mowed lawns for many years and saved my money. My parents were concerned that I’d hurt myself.”

Or just take a stroll with him around his office, which is the headquarters of Shelby American, a sprawling industrial complex near the Las Vegas Motor Speedway that’s part museum, part retail store, part speed shop and part factory. It’s the kind of place where conversations are interrupted by the muscular, soul-stirring sound of a 700-horsepower engine being tuned in the next building. It’s hard to imagine a better place to put in the hours for a car guy like Patterson, who is the vice president of operations and the company’s official test driver.

Shelby American is the manifestation of Carroll Shelby’s lifelong love of racing. A former chicken farmer from Texas, Shelby rose to fame as a sports car racer and builder. His racing career was actually only nine years long, curtailed in late 1960 by a heart condition. His real notoriety is due to the cars he built since then, particularly the Shelby Cobra.

In 1962, Shelby wedged a Ford V-8 engine into a two-seat AC Ace sports car imported from England to create the Shelby Cobra, a car that weighed less than a Corvette and gave Ferrari fits on the racetrack. It is perhaps the most iconic, and copied, sports car ever made. The prices for an original Shelby Cobra are beyond stratospheric—the first model ever made, CSX 2000, resides in the Shelby American museum right here in Las Vegas and is reputed to be worth more than $23 million, making it one of the most valuable cars in the world.

Because of increasing regulations and rising fuel costs, Shelby got out of the business of manufacturing cars in the late 1960s and started consulting with automakers on special projects. One such collaboration resulted in the Dodge Viper, Chrysler’s answer to the Chevrolet Corvette as the only true American sports car.

Shelby moved his operation from California to Las Vegas in 1996, making the complex the only auto manufacturing facility in the state. The company also resumed building Cobras. You can still buy an original Shelby Cobra today, built in Las Vegas with a hand-formed aluminum body imported from England, if you’ve got $135,000 to spend, although you’ll have to install the drivetrain yourself.

In 2004, Shelby once again partnered with Ford to build high-performance Mustangs, and in 2006 it revived the concept of building muscle cars for the rental car company Hertz, cranking out 1,000 GT-H models—the “H” stands for “Hertz”—in 2006 and 2007. In early 2010, Shelby re-created the Shelby GT350 Mustang, 45 years since the original model debuted.

Shelby himself, now 88 and living with a transplanted heart and kidney, still has daily input into the business that bears his name, says Shelby American President John Luft. “He does not miss a beat. I hear from him every day, sometimes three times a day.”

When the economy was humming, building cars was enough, says Luft. But when the recession hit, luxury items like ground-pounding Mustangs were one of the first things to go for many consumers. “A typical Shelby is not your commuter car,” Luft says. “It is the car you aspire to own, you avidly collect.”

So the company opened a parts division and a speed shop where customers can have their car tuned by Shelby-trained mechanics, no matter the brand. Enthusiasts who can’t quite make the $35,000 nut—not including the cost of a new Mustang—for a GT350 can add accessories as they can afford them. “We’re not living and dying by building cars,” says Luft.

Meanwhile, research into coaxing ever more horsepower out of street-legal vehicles continues in what has to be the ultimate garage in Las Vegas, perhaps the country. Everywhere you look are brand-new Mustangs waiting to be turned into Shelby GTs, Cobra bodies in various states of completion, go-fast parts and people who live for speed.

Patterson, in fact, is personally testing a Mustang that makes more than 1,000 horsepower. It may or may not go into production, he says.

“I still want to know how fast something will go,” he says, grinning yet again.