SHELBY DE MÉXICO
I first was involved with Carroll Shelby in February of 1965. I was then an automobile parts distributor in Mexico and I knew of the high quality and improved performance that Shelby’s Cobra parts could provide for a Mustang. In Mexico, Mustangs had begun to be manufactured by Ford’s Mexican operation, Ford Motor Company, S.A.. Because of import restrictions only the base notchback model was produced – but there were still many parts that could be sold for these cars, including special tires, shock absorbers and suspension components; engine parts like camshafts, pistons, manifolds and carburetors; and tachometers and steering wheels for the cockpit.
I started dealing with Shelby American’s Parts Manager, Timothy Foraker. Tim had the task of selling and distributing Shelby and Cobra parts to Ford dealers in the U.S.A. and it was his responsibility to see that everything went smoothly. Since I was applying for the distributorship for all of Mexico, the proposition was attractive to him. After one year of distributing Cobra parts I became the largest single customer for Shelby American’s parts and accessories. My company was able to remain so throughout 1966, 1967, 1968 and 1969. In January of 1966, in order to have a special Mustang for demonstration, racing and sales promotion, I took a 1965 Mustang Hi-Performance notchback to Carroll Shelby and Lew Spencer’s Hi-Performance Motors in Los Angeles where the car was equipped with every possible special racing part that could be installed. Tim Foraker again helped me with the parts selection for this car. I left the car in Shelby American’s hands and when I returned one month later I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Carroll Shelby.
I met with Carroll in his office. The very first thing I took note of was his beautiful secretary who invited me to wait for him in the outer office. Although I was especially eager to meet him, the wait was worth its while, with such an attractive woman to look at. I recall that her name was Linda. Linda soon showed me into Carroll’s office and I was taken aback by its earthiness and simplicity. It was an extension of Carroll’s personality and intelligence. We became friends immediately and we had a long conversation. Carroll was very interested in learning how we distributed parts to the Ford dealers in Mexico; what our terms were, our shipping policies, how we approached the individual parts managers to convince them of the value of carrying the products and even what the most popular parts were. Carroll also provided me with valuable advice on how to best market the products.
After this conversation he said he would like to invite me to dinner at his house that evening. I arrived at 7 o’clock and was met two beautiful Swedish senoritas who were living there. They were students at UCLA and they kept house for Carroll and on occasion, prepared dinner. I could not believe my eyes, but we finally sat down at the table to eat – by candle light – starting off with a couple of Carroll´s Margaritas, followed by Swedish home-cooking mixed with chili, wine, some whiskey and topped off with Drambuie and coffee.
During dinner Carroll told me that he wanted to fly to Cozumel Island with some friends to skin dive the reefs of Palancar and visit the pyramids of Chichen Itza and Tulum. I responded that it sounded like an excellent idea and that I would be honored to be his host while he was in Mexico. His list of friends included Aurora VII Astronaut Scott Carpenter and his wife, Rene; Andreas Rechnitzer, Oceanographic Chief for North American Aviation; Chuck Nicklin of the Diving Locker in San Diego; Ralph Iseman of Human Research Worldwide; Charles Aquadro of Marineland in Hawaii; Taylor Prior, head of oceanography for the U.S. Government; Peter Gimbel of New York, best known for the photographs he took of the sunken ship, the Andrea Doria; Barry Galloway, Shelby American’s comptroller and financial wizard who was to coordinate everything. The date was set for March 3rd and the guests were to fly to Mexico City in Carroll’s private DC-3. There, everybody was to meet Shelby who would be arriving from Paris that evening.
Thanks to the President of Mexico, Adolfo Lopez Mateos, and my father, Agustin Velazquez Chavez, we were able to use the President’s house in Cozumel which was equipped with superb facilities which included a complete cooking staff. Don Pablo Bush Romero, a Ford dealership owner and President of the Acquatic Exploration Club of Mexico, also joined us as Guest of Honor. By now, Carroll’s «little party» had evolved into nothing short of a full fledged expedition.
The party was joined by Southern California sports car racer and Volkswagen dealer Johnnie Von Neumann who arrived in his Lear Jet with former racer Warren Rose, a friend and neighbor of Carroll’s. Rose ran a strong second to Carroll in a competition of chasing girls. Warren was the one whose company did all of the castings for Shelby’s wheels in his Buena Park foundry. At that time he owned a 427 Cobra which, to this day he regrets ever having to sell due to divorce. What he does not regret, however, is finishing second to Carroll for the affections of a lady Carroll sometimes regrets having won.
With so many different personalities, the trip was as entertaining as it was successful. Most of the daylight hours were taken up by skindiving and exploring coral reefs. We dove on the sunken Spanish Galeon «Matancero» and found a number of gold crosses, one medal, a gold coin and a few other lesser items. We ate fish we caught and in the afternoons and evenings we divided into groups, some of which were serious and scientific and others which were unscientific but nonetheless serious.
Female tourists and local girls quickly became aware of our group. Everyone wondered how Carroll could maintain his pace of diving and swimming all day and dancing all night. A couple of the newest guests did some first-hand physical investigating in this area. Their results and findings went unpublished but their smiles gave them away. Their skimpy bikinis proved not to be offensive to the eyes, either.
The visits to the ruins were interesting and educational. Our group received an extensive tour of the ruins and of the Sacred Cenote (Natural Well). While visiting a cenote in the middle of the jungle we saw a manatee which was such an unexpected surprise that no one thought to take a picture of it. Thus ended eight of the most interesting and fun-filled days of my life. Carroll had a natural talent for mixing and entertaining a variety of people and the outcome was most enjoyable as well as rewarding.
The following years, 1967, 1968 and 1969, I became involved in a number of projects with Carroll. We converted the ordinary Mustang notchback, which was the only model produced in Mexico, into the special GT350 Shelby de Mexico. We added Koni shock absorbers, stiffer springs, aluminum wheels, performance tires, exhaust headers, fiberglass hood and trunk deck lid with spoiler, ’65 Thunderbird taillights and GT350 rocker panel stripes. Engines were modified with high performance cam and lifters, aluminum hi-rise intake manifold with Holley carburetor and a Cobra aluminum air cleaner. Interiors received tachometer, Shelby steering wheel and GT350 dash emblems. The cars were built in a variety of colors were instantly successful in Mexico. In 1967 we produced 169 cars. Production in 1968 was 203 units and 306 units were built in 1969.
In 1972, the similarity of the notchback and fastback bodies allowed us to convert notchbacks into fastbacks by using a fiberglass section which wrapped around the rear window and swept back to the rear deck lid and rear fender edges. A special tray was used behind the rear seat which conformed to the contours of this new body piece. This car was called the GT351 because it was powered by Ford’s 351 4V engine.
The concept of «Win on Sunday – Sell on Monday» was not lost on us. We started selling Shelby and Cobra parts in 1965 and we began racing a Shelby-equipped Mustang at that same time. Our first race car was the 1965 Mustang notchback that had been specially prepared at Hi-Performance Motors in Los Angeles. In the second half of the 1966 season we won the Mexico-Toluca Road Race and two events at the Mexico City Race Track. Our victories in 1967 and 1968 included several events at Guadalajara, Leon, Acapulco and Veracruz. Our driver was Carlos «C.S.» Sales who also won the Mexican Rally Championship two years in a row as well as the Costa Rica-Mexico Rally. Our chief engineer was Leopoldo Sales and he was able to coax 350 horsepower out of our 289 cubic-inch race engines.
In 1967 we also campaigned a 1967 GT350 Shelby de Mexico on the drag strip. Modifications to this car included a complete fiberglass front end and hood, fiberglass rear deck lid and quarter panels. The engine was prepared by Shelby Racing, Inc. and employed a Paxton super-charger. This car won practically every drag race it was entered in. In fact, sometimes we were forced not to race the car in order to encourage the
competition. When they saw us show up they packed up and went home. This car had a 390 H.P. 302 engine and was driven by Enrique Estrop and was maintained by him in his excellent shop, Refaccionaria Enrique, S.A.
By the end of 1968 we had gained enough racing experience to build a more drastic, faster and lighter race car. To this end we took one of the first 1969 Mustang notchbacks produced in Mexico and reproduced most of the body skin in thin glass. The hood, fenders, doors, rear quarter panels, deck lid and tail were all fiberglass. We designed the roll bar as an integral chassis member which helped to stiffen the entire car. It went from the front to the rear and we had to extend the roof at the back corners to cover the sections of the roll bar which dropped down to meet the frame. This change made the car better looking and distinguished it as a totally unique Mustang. Weight was taken out of every part.
With the help of Carroll Shelby, I was able to buy an experimental 377 cubic-inch engine made by Ford for racing. It was kept very hush-hush. This engine was dimensionally the size of a 302 but it was much lighter. It incorporated Gurney-Weslake aluminum heads and Weber carburetors; it produced 450 horsepower and would run all day at 7000 RPM. The brakes had special ducting to cool them and the entire engine compartment had ducting for the hot air to escape. This car was capable of 270 KPH.
During that time there was a special, all-out racing class, «Libre», which permitted every possible modification to a production car. We built this particular GT350 race car for this purpose and with it we totally dominated high speed road racing in Mexico. We won the most prestigious racing event in Mexico (prior to the Mexico City Grand Prix). This race was of particular difficulty because of the narrow, winding roads between Mexico City and Cuernavaca. We took First Place. We also placed first at the Valle de Bravo-Bosencheve Road Race, the Leon Guanajuato track, the Guadalajara circuit and the Acapulco Road Race. Our driver was Juan Emilio «Oso» Proal and our chief mechanic and engineer was Alfredo «The Wizard» Tame Badia.
Carroll Shelby and Siffrein «Zeb» Vass honored us by attending several races. Zeb, who was the comptroller of the Ford Division in Detroit, was appointed in 1967 by Henry Ford II to be President of Ford Motor Company, S.A. – Mexico. Zeb attended most of our races after that, including the one that was the farthest away from Mexico City – Acapulco. We celebrated after every victory – and there were lots of celebrations! Besides campaigning the 1969 «Libre» car in 1970, we prepared and raced a 1970 stock 351 cubic-inch L.P.O. Mustang. This car finished 1st 18 times in 23 races held in Mexico that year. The most notable wins were at the Monterrey race track, the Veracruz Circuit, the Guadalajara Circuit, the Valle de Bravo and Mexico Cuernavaca Road Races and the Mexico City Race Track. This car was driven by Guillermo «Memo» Rojas and the chief mechanic, responsible for its reliability record, was Manuel San Emeterio. By this time Zeb Vass was President of Ford in Mexico and he had become one of my dearest and closest friends. I think I will always remember and appreciate the fact that it was Carroll Shelby who first introduced us. Zeb was an inspiration as important to me
as Carroll, both in business as well as outside of it. He was a very serious and scientific man in business, and much to my delight and amusement, was a very serious girl chaser. When he saw one that filled his eyes with a lust for life he would say, «I deal from strength.»
I would also like to acknowledge the help, advice and good will given to me by Phil Remington and Al Dowd who, even though working 18-hour days in Shelby’s racing program, always found the time to help us by supplying drawings, parts and advice. Their assistance helped make our cars finish, and races are won at the finish line. I would also like to acknowledge the assistance given to me by my good friend Lew Spencer, a man I very much admire as Carroll’s loyal friend and right hand.
By the end of 1971 my involvement in automotive activities with Carroll Shelby ended, since Carroll had stopped manufacturing cars and parts. Also, the philosophy of the Big Three automakers in the U.S. had changed and they had decided to get out of racing (publicly, at least). This course of action changed racing very much in Mexico and we decided that this would be a good time for us to get out of the ebbing racing scene. We took a 180-degree turn and concentrated on luxury automobiles. Our most successful model was the conversion of a 1972 Ford Galaxie to a Continental Mark II, which included oval opera windows in the sides of the roof, tire hump on the trunk lid and a special grille and ornaments. This conversion was so successful that I later discovered several coach builders in the United States had copied it. It also brought me the anger of Ford Sales Manager Mr. Royal Kelly, who accused me of making «bastard Continentals». He ordered me to cease production and in 1973 we did. Nevertheless, the image of the Galaxie in Mexico benefited immensely by our car’s change in looks and increased prestige, and the main benefactor was Ford Motor Company, S.A.
My favorite car of them all is the 1969 Shelby de Mexico GT350. I currently own three. One has a Cobra 289 racing engine which I bought from Shelby American; one has the 377 cubic-inch experimental racing engine which I kept from the racing car, and the third has a 302 engine which has been built up with all the special parts we installed back in those days. They all have special suspensions and are the light body versions made in Mexico by Ford. They weigh less than a standard Mustang and because of this they handle exceptionally well.
I have had some fast cars in my life and some luxurious cars. I consider myself a good driver but I doubt if Carroll would agree with that opinion. After having dinner with him at his house one evening in 1969, Scott Carpenter loaned me his 427 Cobra and I lent him my 1969 GT350 Shelby de Mexico. I had wanted Scott’s opinion on how the GT350 drove. We were to meet again the next day for lunch. When I arrived I could not find the words to explain how I had smashed the rear fender of Scott’s Cobra while backing up to park it. Even if I could have found the words I doubt if anyone would have believed me.
But the past is the past. To this day, my generous friend Carroll Shelby continues to lend me cars when I visit the Los Angeles area. I usually get the fastest Shelby Charger turbo he has and it comes with his advice to «drive the car, have fun, and don´t let the car drive you.» I take his advice and have, on occasion, been stopped by the Los Angeles police but I am always able to explain my way out of any trouble. Maybe that’s because they see Carroll’s name on the registration. I have not visited Carroll’s house lately, but from what I hear it looks like an annex of the Swedish Embassy in Los Angeles. Some things, they never change.