Shelby Series 1 - Reviews / Road Tests After two frustrating test sessions, Carroll Shelby's wonderful concept proves to be just that -- a concept.BY BROCK YATES, AARON KILEY October 2000
Hell being unavailable, we settled for Phoenix. Cursed by a midsummer heat sink featuring brain-frying temperatures, traffic jams reaching all the way to Indio, and enough smog to choke a Cape buffalo, the sweatbox Valley of the Sun was a measurement of our desperation.
But we were willing to go anywhere in search of our prey, a vehicular version of Nessie, a machine that for almost three years had eluded us, coquettishly appearing, then slipping away before our gimlet-eyed techies could determine if, in fact, it measured up to the claims of the legendary man whose name it bore.
The man is Carroll Shelby, indefatigable automotive icon and creator of the elusory machine known as the Shelby Series 1. From the moment we first reported on the project in July 1994, the car seemed cursed by production glitches that drove Shelby to the verge of apoplexy and, worse yet, threatened to besmirch a legend that spanned a half-century, centering on the Cobra and his great racing career.
And then Shelby telephoned last July. Finally, one of the first of the supercharged versions would be delivered from the Shelby American factory in Las Vegas to Firebird International Raceway at Chandler on the edge of the Phoenix sprawl.
Shelby's Series 1 idea had seemed brilliant: Mate an Oldsmobile 4.0-liter V-8 created for the Indy Racing League to a state-of-the-art chassis overlaid with a featherweight carbon-fiber body, and add a lathering of Cobra mystique. Brilliant, until it was determined that the IRL engine was too specialized for federalization, and rather than an anticipated 370 horsepower, the alternative powerplant, an Aurora production-based DOHC V-8, would pump out just 320 horses. Complicating that, intense internal opposition surfaced inside GM, reaching a peak when Oldsmobile boss John Rock, a major Shelby supporter, cleaned out his desk in 1996.
Early Shelby prototypes were not only anemic under the hood but were nearly 700 pounds over the projected 2650-pound target weight, owing to the inferior quality of carbon-fiber body panels and a heavy retractable top that refused to work properly. Yet the basic package, featuring a floorpan, rear bulkhead, and rocker panels fabricated from space-age aluminum honeycomb, plus sophisticated rocker-arm, coil-over suspensions front and rear, a six-speed transaxle (built by RBT in Austin, Texas), big vented disc brakes all around, and a 49/51 front-to-rear weight distribution, implied that the Series 1 had all the right stuff, at least on paper.
A modest network of 15 dealers was created, and about 50 early Series 1s fitfully drifted off the Las Vegas assembly line in 1998 and '99 amid rumors that the project was terminally ill. Many orders for the car -- about 225, some sources said -- had been placed and deposits of $25,000 taken against the car's declared price of $99,975. By September 1999, that sticker had escalated to $134,975, and now, due to unexpected costs of production, the price of the base model -- the one that is not supercharged -- is $181,824. (The supercharger package is expected to add just under 20 grand.) At 77, Shelby was battling health problems and was brought almost to his knees by the quality debacles and the threat of lawsuits from angry customers (see Upfront, June 2000).
Then late last year, Larry Winget, the owner of Venture Holdings Company, a $2.3 billion supplier of carbon-fiber body pieces to the global automotive industry, stepped in with financial help (a reported $10 million), plus technical and administrative assistance. Thanks to the infusion of capital from the firm based in Fraser, Michigan, the Series 1 got back on track. In the past six months, production has steadily ramped up to the planned two-per-day quota and toward a maximum build of 500 cars. Venture's body panels appear to be excellent, and thanks to Dura, the same firm that fabricates the Chevrolet Corvette convertible top, a light 37-pound workable top has been created. (It will be retrofitted to the topless Series 1s delivered to early customers.)
As the Car and Driver team probed into Phoenix's blast-furnace summertime, it appeared that a test of the car was about to happen. It was claimed that a freshly fitted Vortech centrifugal supercharger had recovered the missing horsepower and then some, so hopes were high for a satisfying introduction to a machine that had remained out of reach for nearly three years. But then came word from Vegas that electronic gremlins had appeared, forcing an all-night banzai drive to the Firebird track by Shelby PR director Gary Patterson and Series 1 chief engineer Mike Edwards.
The first sighting of the Series 1 shimmering in the harsh morning sun in its coat of PPG Centennial Silver generated a mild shock. The car appeared smaller, more graceful, and more compact than its photos implied. In fact, it is 169.0 inches long, two inches shorter than a Porsche Boxster and more than 10 inches stubbier than a Corvette.
The car produced an impressive 0.92 g on the searing asphalt of the skidpad at Firebird, a number probably limited by the 120-degree temperature. Subsequent attempts to hang out the tail for photographs revealed that any attempt to floor the throttle from a roll in second gear at 3500 rpm caused the McLeod Kevlar-based, dual-friction-pad clutch to slip helplessly. Clearly, a standing-start launch was out of the question. The remainder of the two-day track rental was a scrub.
Yet a top-gear run across Arizona's stifling desert revealed a machine with resolute structural integrity that effectively damped out chassis vibrations and offered flat, precise handling, at least within the limited range of the engine's rpm. Cockpit turbulence, even cruising at 110 mph, was minimal. But for drivers taller than five feet ten, the seat positions the eyeballs in a direct line with the top of the windshield, although an optional bucket will move the unit back and down an inch. This is an absolute necessity for taller drivers.
The rack-and-pinion steering was firm and precise, but the transaxle linkage felt gravelly and somewhat vague when compared with units found on current Porsches and Ferraris. Perhaps this was due to the fact that our test car was a late preproduction prototype built a year ago, so gearbox smoothness should improve. Pedal position, offset to the left in a cramped footwell, demanded attention to shifting lest the clutch be confused for a dead pedal. Overall, the fabrication level seemed excellent, with only a slight wobble in the driver's door revealing anything but a creditable level of fit and finish. The instrument panel, coated with a laminate of carbon-fiber trim, revealed some obvious GM pieces, including the air-conditioning controls and a tachometer-and-speedometer unit that has been artfully modified from its original application in a Pontiac Firebird.
The Shelby Series 1 is a pure sports car. This will surely prompt the Jim Healeys of the world to kvetch about the absence of cup holders and a luggage compartment. (Travel tip for Shelby Series 1 owners: Don't bring more than a toothbrush and a spare pair of Speedos.) Our machine did come with such amenities as power windows and steering, air conditioning, and a CD/cassette stereo system, all of which boosted its curb weight to several hundred pounds beyond the design weight. Alas, testing woes to come would prevent our measuring its curb weight.
By the time our blast across the desert ended, the thermometer had bubbled past 120 degrees (although the car's engine ran at normal temperatures throughout the ordeal), and a misaligned engine pulley had developed an agonizing screech. Worse, the left-rear Goodyear P315/40ZR-18 radial had ingested an ugly-looking metal screw, postponing further testing. As we lifted off the ground from Phoenix with the Delta Airlines in-flight stereo appropriately playing a score from Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Firebird, repairs to the Series 1 were under way at Las Vegas to permit further evaluation at a drag strip in Palmdale, California
Four days later, with temperatures in the 90s, the silver Series 1, this time equipped with a different cera-metallic clutch, made only two passes before frying a piston. Then, another supercharged Series 1 car, this one liveried in black and waiting in the wings, was hauled out. It recorded an impressive 0-to-60 time of 4.1 seconds and a quarter-mile pass of 13.0 seconds at 112 mph. Those times might have been bettered had not the same clutch maladies then disabled this car, and once again our testing ended prematurely.
The general impression left by these two rapid but flawed machines was simple: The Shelby Series 1 is essentially a superb concept but remains a work in progress. When all the bugs are worked out, we're eagerly awaiting another call from the man whose name is on this interesting but still unproved sports car.
Highs: An intriguing but frustrating package that refuses to reveal its full potential.
Lows: A ragged arrival on the scene. Zero luggage space. Iffy General Motors heritage.
The Verdict: A promising work in progress from a legendary piece of work.
It's hard not to like a car with 450 horsepower, a race-derived pushrod suspension, big tires, and a roadster body, but because I'm six foot five, I'm prepared to make an exception. Along with a cramped cockpit, the Series 1 has pedals crowded off to the left, a seat that feels too high, and a shifter with a vague and uncooperative action. Still, the kicker has to be that $200,000 price. I'm just back from the introduction of another roadster with a similar price -- the Ferrari 360 Spider, a car from a company almost as legendary as Shelby's. For that money, they give you a 395-horsepower V-8, but it's packaged in voluptuous Pininfarina bodywork and capped by a fully automatic convertible top, and it accommodates my lanky frame comfortably. It's no contest right now, but perhaps when Shelby's Series 1 has been properly developed, I'll review the choices again. -- Barry Winfield
This car is cool, or it would be if I'd built it in my garage on weekends. It has study-hall-drawing-come-to-life styling and therefore looks like something I might have built at home as a teenager, had I the resources or the resourcefulness. The thing is Frankensteined out of lots of production GM parts, as I'd have done it after a zillion trips to the local junkyard. One sits on this car rather than in it, as in most home-built rods with tuck-'n'-roll bench seats. And finally, it blows up every time you try to drive it -- just like the '66 Mustang project car I worked on at age 15. Nevertheless, I'd be as proud as hell to ride around in it -- if I'd built it myself. As it is, with a Looney Tunes $200,000 sticker, I don't care whose name is on it, I ain't drivin' it without a bag over my head. -- Frank Markus