By William Edgar | Photographs Edgar Motorsport Archive
Carroll Shelby, as he himself would say, has gone horizontal. He died at age 89 on Thursday, May 10, 2012, at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, after pneumonia earlier this year left him weak and vulnerable to what eventually comes to us all. He knew I was writing this story and I was looking forward to telling him it was published here in Sports Car Digest. The article had been scheduled for posting on May 16, but my dearly loved friend for more than half a century did not live that long. With a salute to the memory of Old Shel, I dedicate this narrative and the images that illustrate it to Carroll’s wife, Cleo Shelby. – W.E.
Carroll Shelby was the rising legend I’d not yet met in February 1956, when I was a young guy and in Palm Springs, California. That was six years before he would make his first Cobra, and another half century until today when the Cobra’s golden jubilee is being celebrated with the newest Shelby creation, a supercharged 5.4-liter V8-powered Mustang called the “Shelby 1000” because, well, it has 1000 horses. So much has changed since those pre-Cobra Shelby years of the 1950s, and that’s where this piece is going—back to when he was wearing bib overalls and driving the livin’ hell out of foreign race cars.
The occasion in ’56 at that southern California desert resort was the weekend’s sports car races on the municipal airport’s old concrete runways and asphalt service roads at the base of snow-capped mountains. On Friday night, February 23rd, out on the south end of town, the cocktail lounge at the Palm Spring Biltmore buzzed with chatter about two new Ferraris that would face-off in the meet. One was a 4-cylinder 857S Monza that my father, John Edgar, had only a week before received by air from the Ferrari factory in Italy. The 3.5-liter tail-finned Scaglietti-body Spyder would be driven by “Big Jack” McAfee, who’d won the main here in 1953 driving an earlier Edgar team Ferrari, our ex-works 340 America. This US-race-debuting 857S was light, powerful and made wicked torque as early as 2,500 rpm, ideal for Palm Springs road race corners. Word was it could damn well beat the other, bigger, V12 Ferrari—Tony Parravano’s 4.9-liter 410 Speciale.
Smart bar bets said the Edgar Monza would finish ahead of the Parravano 410, even though the V12 car would be driven by Carroll Shelby. But we’d all seen this Texan win his first West Coast race the previous July at Torrey Pines in Allen Guiberson’s 4.5 Ferrari 375 MM. We also knew of Shelby’s brilliant race on a works 250F Maserati in Sicily, and earlier impressive Ferrari drives at Omaha and Sebring, and in “Scuderia Parravano” Maranello-built cars at Seattle, Oulton Park and in the Targa Florio. Except Parravano-owned machinery was sometimes light on race prep, and Tony himself had a habit of last-minute fiddling with them. It all stoked the fires of drama. From the Biltmore at one end of the Springs to the Doll House at the other, packed watering holes rang stridently with opinions.
Years later, Carroll would tell me that Parravano’s 410 was one of the best. “Tony and I’d gone to Ed Winfield and had the cams ground,” he said in a way that you knew made him feel good. In those days before he did his Cobras, Shelby was already looking for how to make a car better and go faster. The seeds were there and soil was fertile. As I see it now, it was almost inevitable that John Edgar and Carroll Shelby would, for a few short years in the 1950s, become a winning duo in sports car racing in America.
Back to 1956 and that Palm Springs February race day morning when I was 22 years old. I saw Shelby there in the paddock, tall, handsome, slack in how he stood and walked. He looked like a fighter ace fresh out of war. I could have gone over, introduced myself, but he was in another camp. Strictly speaking, he was the enemy. Our own Big Jack was going to show him the way—wasn’t he? My father watched both men, both set to drive rival Ferraris belonging to rival owners. Would it be Jack or Carroll, 857 or 410, Edgar or Parravano?
It was Shelby all the way, with McAfee second at the race finish, and that settled it. My father needed more Ferrari muscle than the 857S, or even the quicker 860 that he thought he was going to have from the factory in its place. What he wanted was a 410, not like Parravano’s 12-plug car, but the 24-plug 410 Sport that had been built expressly for Juan Manuel Fangio to drive in the 1955 Carrera Panamericana—a race that was cancelled. When the Fangio car’s transaxle broke in Argentina in January ’56, it was factory repaired and later in the year customer-sold to John Edgar Enterprises, to be raced by his new driver, Carroll Shelby.
But there were also Edgar-entered Ferraris that Shelby would pilot before the 410 Sport. In the eastern US, where McAfee drove our stable’s Porsche 550s in the spring and summer of ‘56, my father rented Ferraris from Luigi Chinetti for Shelby to drive, with three hillclimb wins in one of the “Indianapolis” 375 GP cars and a 500 TR victory at Brynfan Tydden. Shelby also won two races in New York with the 857S that was now being trucked around in the new Edgar 10-wheel super-transporter driven by Joe Landaker, a former Parravano mechanic who’d helped persuade Shelby to come over with him to the Edgar team. What developed almost overnight was a synergy between John Edgar and the winning Texan that could have been the book for a Broadway hit, I kid you not. The parties, the posh suite at the Plaza Hotel, the interplay with Chinetti and getting the 410 Sport flown to San Francisco where it would be met by Landaker and trucked to Seattle just in time to enter for Shelby in the Seafair race—it was all madcap stuff for a rollicking stage musical.
“The sports car racing we did, me driving, him paying bills,” Shelby said of my father not too long ago, “were some of the best times in my life. His, too. It wasn’t just John’s Ferraris and Maseratis, the finest money could buy, but also the way it all happened race after race. No team now would survive doing it the way we did. The parties alone would ruin any chance of winning today.”
Shelby in those times was easy-going, not at all the serious shaker-and-mover he got to be in his Cobra and Ford GT years yet to come. He partied along with my parents, and every race was an occasion to let loose and still not hinder his seemingly innate talent to win.
On August 10, 1956, when our 410 Sport arrived at San Francisco airport straight from Italy, Landaker and the Edgar team’s big red-and-silver rig were there to whisk the Ferrari to Bremerton, Washington and Shelby’s first West Coast drive for my father. The customized semi, with its hopped-up V8 GMC tractor, could top 100 mph, and Landaker was notoriously hard on the throttle. Also on board for Masten Gregory was the Edgar 857. At Bremerton’s Kitsap County Airport, considered the best airfield circuit in America, McAfee would drive our Porsche 550 to win the Under-1500cc race. In the main, Gregory’s 857 gearbox blew, but Shelby, in his first feature race drive of John Edgar’s 410 Sport, led from start-to-finish to win the Seafair Trophy on August 12th. The man and machine looked like a racing match flawlessly made. Indeed, it was the beginning of many wins for Shelby in our dual-ignition “four-nine.”
“That was the most solid Ferrari engine I ever drove,” Shelby has told me. “It was low-revving and had a lot of torque because it had a good stroke. The only thing was,” he said about the 410’s one drawback, “it had the accelerator in the center, and I was never comfortable in the car. Fangio wanted it there, and it would have been a hell of a job to move.” Landaker wanted to change it, but the brake and clutch pedals would have to be re-positioned, too. “We just didn’t want to fuck with it,” I recall my father saying.