Seven Questions for John Luft, President of Shelby American

Shelby American’s boss on moving to the center of town, cruising the coast and riding shotgun with Carroll Shelby through the Mojave


Muscle-car aficionados, rejoice: On December 1, Shelby American—the manufacturer whose sleek high-performance hot rods range from the 1966 Cobra 427 to the 2014 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500—is relocating from a five-building complex at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where it has been headquartered since 1998, to a 135,000-square-foot facility in the shadows of the Sunset Road overpass just east of Interstate 15. The man spearheading the move is John Luft, Shelby American’s president (handpicked by the late Carroll Shelby) and a lifelong exotic-car enthusiast.

What was the impetus for Shelby’s upcoming move?

Our business has changed. Back 15 years ago, we were a B2B [business-to-business] company. If you wanted to come buy a Cobra or a Shelby Series 1, you couldn’t buy it from us; you had to buy it from a dealer. And B2B doesn’t care where it lives. But then we evolved into a B2C [business-to-consumer] company, which was triggered by the agreement with Ford, which produced the 2007 Shelby GT500. That resulted in us migrating to a B2C type of business. When you’re a B2C business, the most fundamental rule is location, and we’re 18 miles outside of town. Also, Las Vegas is the top leisure and convention-destination city in the nation, and I’ll bet we get less than 10 percent of that activity. People don’t even know we’re out there.

How will the new facility appeal to Joe Public?

Our current gift shop is about 900 square feet; the retail portion of our new facility is 5,000 square feet. We are also tripling the size of what we call the Shelby Showcase—new vehicles and vintage vehicles. Part of that is we take people out on the production floor and let them see it, smell it, hear it—everything that challenges your senses as far as building a vehicle. Currently, we tour about 75 to 100 people a day, so I’d imagine we’ll have more than one tour a day now. While the tours are free, one of Carroll Shelby’s ongoing outreach [efforts] was the Carroll Shelby Foundation, so we certainly ask that [those who take the tour] continue to support the foundation in any manner they can.

Economic diversification is a hot-button topic in Nevada, and Shelby certainly fits that niche as the state’s only auto manufacturer. How could the automotive industry play a bigger role?

As we’ve seen out at the speedway, one often begets the other. For example, there are many automotive-related businesses that have circled around Shelby American just by virtue of us being in Nevada. We are without question the strongest independent performance brand in the automotive industry, and when you plant your flag for all to see, good, smart businesspeople just know to draft behind that strength. And frankly, we’ve already seen that at our [new facility]. I don’t want to mention who they are, because I don’t want to compromise their negotiations, but two companies already have said they’re moving within a few blocks of us. … As it did at the speedway, Shelby American will create kind of a hub of automotive performance, much like auto dealers do when they cluster in certain areas of town.

Have you always been a “car guy”?

I have. When I [became president] 3½ years ago, I was at an event, and someone asked me, “John, I see your background and your career. But what qualifies you to run Shelby American?” It was a good question. And I told him I started training for this job when I was 16. I grew up in San Diego and used to race up and down a street called Valley Parkway, and on Friday at 16 years old, you typically only had enough money for either a tank of gas to go street race or to take your girlfriend out. My girlfriend often sat at home on Friday nights.

What’s the most scenic drive you’ve ever taken?

It has to be Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica and across the Golden Gate Bridge to Fort Bragg. It was in a little Triumph TR-6. One of my horrible car stories is that before I was getting ready to go to college, I had a red ’69 Mustang Mach 1 428 Cobra Jet—great car, beautiful car. But I decided that I needed to be a sports-car guy. So I traded that in for a TR-6. That’s not a great car story. But that drive was beautiful.

In this issue, we detail the drive along Interstate 15 in the Mojave Desert. What’s your most memorable experience on that long, lonely journey?

In spite of the fact that there was never enough horsepower for Carroll, he always loved innovations, and new and green alternatives. So about five years ago, Ford gave Carroll a hybrid to drive for about a year or so, and one day he asked me if I wanted to ride with him [from Los Angeles] out to Las Vegas, so I did. We are driving through the desert, and he gets pulled over doing 125! [Laughs.] The officer asks Carroll, “Do you know how fast you were going?” And Carroll says, “I think I was doing around 100.” “Well, you were doing 125.” And Carroll looks at me and says, “You know, Ford tells me these cars aren’t supposed to be able go that fast!” Then the officer looks at his license and says, “Mr. Shelby, please slow it down.” It was one of those moments where, if I had to go to jail for driving over 100 mph, to have Carroll as my cell mate would’vebeen a privilege. [Laughs.]

When are we going to see a Shelby reality show?

Oh, they have beat down our doors for years and years. In fact, that only could’ve worked as long as Carroll was here, because you’ve got to have a personality that’s bigger than life. I remember when reality shows first started to become popular, and we told Carroll, “Hey, so-and-so wants us to consider doing a reality show.” He said, “Aren’t those the shows where everybody just hollers at everybody?” He wasn’t someone who wanted to get involved in that. So with Carroll checking out to that big racetrack in the sky, I really don’t see one in our future.

You’ve had quite the interesting career, working for such prestigious companies as Hilton Hotels and Disney. What attracted you to Shelby American?

I was recruited to start and develop the Carroll Shelby Licensing company, and spent the first 10 years [in Los Angeles]. As time passed, I obviously got more intimately involved with Shelby American, which had had a number of presidents in that division. During this last change [in 2009], Carroll wasn’t really feeling well, and he personally asked me if I would run Shelby American. He said, “Look, I don’t want to hire somebody new. I’d like you to go do this for me.”

Much of Shelby American’s management are fairly tenured—they’re 10-, 15-year-plus type people. And they are all best in class in what each one happens to do, from sales to operations to production. These guys have been there … through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. So it wasn’t as big of a challenge as some people would think. I often refer to it as, imagine if you got to take over an orchestra, and you had tremendous talent first-chair in every section. All that’s needed is a conductor to create a symphony. I took great talent and just put them together, and we created a symphony.

Obviously, Shelby American is a high-end automotive manufacturer. So how has the recession impacted the company?

We adjusted to the economy, so the days of Shelby American building 7,000 vehicles [a year] are long, long gone. There was that one production run in 2007 and 2008 where we built 6,500 Shelby GTs, and that’s really outside of our core [business philosophy], because we’re a niche manufacturer; we build collectible vehicles. So we have settled into the fact that our sweet spot in manufacturing is 300 to 500 cars a year. That keeps them collectibles. That keeps the value up. That keeps our business model at a very even, consistent and profitable flow. And that works well with our partners at Ford, too.

What are the benefits of being an automotive manufacturer in Nevada?

Well, certainly, our competition is very slim! [Laughs.] It’s an interesting story, because you wouldn’t necessarily think that an automobile manufacturer would live anywhere but the West Coast or Detroit. But the advantage is that Las Vegas is vibrant, and it’s a city of risk-takers. And Carroll’s mantra his entire career was taking risks. If there was ever a personality that fit the Las Vegas theme and attitude, it was Carroll Shelby’s: Take risks, roll the dice. I can’t begin to tell you how many times Carroll told me when we would make a decision and I would caution him on it—“OK, Carroll, but that’s a real big commitment”—and he looked at me and said, “This is not the first time I’ve pushed all my chips to the center of the table.”

Given Carroll’s racing background and the high-performance nature of his hot rods, it seemed like a no-brainer that the company would be heavily involved in the auto-racing game. However, that only happened for a short time during the company’s infancy in the 1960s. Why?

It’s actually a pretty simple answer: It’s a matter of cost. Carroll used to tell me that the cost to run an entire race season back in the ’60s was about what it would cost to enter one race today. Racing is an expensive sport, and only the strong—those with a strong financial backing—survive.

If NASCAR came to you tomorrow and asked you to design a stock-car compatible engine, how would you respond?

Well, NASCAR’s standard engine is probably one of the lowest-powered vehicles we offer! [Laughs.] In our lineup, we go from 662 horsepower up to 850 to 1,000—our current Shelby 1000 track version is 1,200 horsepower. We would obviously take the best of what we currently do. So we would take our great partners at Ford Racing and we would pick from their performance bin, and then of course apply what we do, which is the Shelby magic—we’d sprinkle it with that Shelby dust that just gives it that performance feel and performance sound, and see if we could put it out there and [beat] a Toyota or Chevrolet.

Let’s say you could drive any vehicle out of Shelby’s warehouse today and never have to return it. Which one are you driving away?

That would have to be a Shelby 1000—it is the best of the best. It’s got Bugatti power; it’s a Bugatti-comparable performance vehicle for about one-tenth of the price. The fact that you can get more than 1,000 horsepower, and our price out the door winds up being around $200,000—it’s a great car, it’s got a great sound. … It is that rare-aired Shelby. We never wanted the car to be the low-cost leader, and we knew it would never be in every garage. It’s just that collectible.

What color would it be?

I’d have to go with “resale” red—performance red or candy red, which Ford puts out today. If you’re going to have a car that’s the biggest one on the block, you can either be subtle about it and stay below the radar, or scream it from the mountaintop. And I’m kind of a scream-it-from-the-mountaintop guy.

Favorite non-Shelby ride?

Chrysler did a great job on the [new Dodge] Challenger. When I look at the Challenger and I squint my eyes, I see that movie Vanishing Point that I saw years ago, where a Challenger drove from one end of the country to the other—it was one big chase movie. That’s when I fell in love with muscle cars. If you squint your eyes today, you can see that ’60s vintage Challenger in the new Challenger. It hasn’t performed well, but if you want to look good, that’s probably one I’d have.

What’s the most memorable or important piece of wisdom Carroll ever shared with you?

There are several, but you’d have to censor them! Every day it seem liked there would be a new philosophical gem that he would pass on. But I remember one time he asked me to call this one collector who had some Shelby vehicles and was trying to coordinate a meeting with Carroll. So I called the guy and I called the guy and I called the guy, and I finally got back with Carroll and said, “Look, I’ve called this guy several times, and I’ve left him message after message after message.” And he said, “Well, John, what you need to understand is, you just can’t bother those billionaires. They’re quirky.” That’s probably the last time I called a billionaire.

What’s the most significant life or business lesson you learned working for Disney?

Don’t fight all the battles; just fight the ones that you can win. Because in business, there could be a battle every day, and if you want to rattle your sabre every day, you can. Or you could pause and just fight the ones that are worth fighting and the ones you think are important enough to win.

Read more interviews from Seven Questions.

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Suburban life in the 1980s meant that the city bus did not run to my Tucson neighborhood. The closest store was several miles away. Kids didn’t have smartphones. Or email. Atari was initially bitchin’, but eventually—not immediately!—Pong got boring.