Although perhaps best known for shoehorning a small-block Ford into a British roadster to create the Cobra, Carroll Shelby's first foray into the world of automotive multiculturalism involved an even more unusual conjoining. Perhaps it stemmed from a desire to rise above his roots as an erstwhile chicken rancher, but he always had a thing for those European road-course race cars. Especially when he could beat them at their own game--which he did with remarkable facility, while irreverently dressed like a cowpoke in a pair of bib overalls, with a nitroglycerin pill tucked under his tongue to stave off a heart attack.
Before there were ever Shelby Cobras beating Ferraris and winning the World Manufacturers Championship, this temperamental Texan stomped the poultry manure off his cowboy boots and built another car to take on the Europeans. On the surface, it was an exotic "sport car" (Shelby's term, which he preferred over "sports car"). Underneath that sensuous Italian skin, however, beat the heart of America's sports car. Called the Scaglietti Corvette (the "g" is silent, if you no speakaduh language), only three were ever built, making it rarer--albeit less successful--than the Grand Sport Corvette. How this exotic bird took flight yet was later shot down from two different directions serves a telling reflection of the times.
The project started out with two fellow Texans, Jim Hall and Gary Laughlin, who both owned Chevy dealerships. Shelby and his cohorts leaned on their connections with the GM brass to acquire a trio of '59 Corvettes--but without the fiberglass bodywork. These were sent to the car's namesake coachbuilder, Carrozzeria Scaglietti, in Modena, Italy. Over the next two years, they were fitted with a custom-tailored Italian suit, as form-fitting and stylish as an Armani, but made of aluminum. The shape was inspired by the Ferrari Tour de France, since Scaglietti was already a coachbuilder for Ferrari, having fashioned the GTO and the pontoon-fendered Testa Rossa. That connection would ultimately contribute to the car's downfall, however.
The result was an extraordinarily striking exotic, one that wowed the likes of GM Vice President Harley Earl, Chevy General Manager Ed Cole, and Corvette godfather Zora Arkus-Duntov. Yet their superiors were not so enamored, largely because of a corporate dictum prohibiting racing sponsorship. And Enzo Ferrari reportedly pressured Scaglietti to abandon the project as well. (No surprise, then, that a few years later, Shelby would utter that memorable line after losing to Ferrari in the '64 racing season, "Next year, Ferrari's ass is mine!")
Shelby bitterly recalls how the axe fell: "I was living in Italy at the time, and the cars at Scaglietti were just about done. Ed Cole woke me up with a phone call at two in the morning, and told me to forget the whole thing. He got his ass chewed out by GM management and was told to drop the project."
More's the pity, as the stillborn design would have looked utterly at home on the road courses of Europe and the swanky boulevards and country clubs of America. Undeterred, Shelby eventually got even by partnering up with Ford to produce the winning and legendary Cobra. Yet he probably still longed for that lovely Italian coachwork, often griping about the uneven, misaligned aluminum Cobra bodies from AC Cars, stating that, "They looked like they were made by a bunch of winos under a bridge with old beer cans."
The sports-car world's loss is the collector's gain, as these three ultra-rare Scaglietti Corvettes are highly valued by automotive aficionados as the exotics that could've been. No surprise that Hall's car--after stopping wine-sipping spectators in their tracks at such tony concours events as Pebble Beach, Santa Barbara, and Newport Beach--sold at auction in 1990 for nearly a half-million bucks. This sum was a world record at the time for a Corvette crossing the block (even though it didn't even remotely look like one).
Laughlin's went to a large collection in Japan. The third one, shown here and referred to as the "Shelby Car," is generally considered the most attractive of the three, in part because it didn't have the Corvette's chrome "teeth" in the grille that Laughlin insisted on for the first car in order to pander to GM management. Since Shelby was a race-car driver and not a well-heeled car dealer, he bailed on the purchase. ("I was so tight, I could squeeze the s**t out of a Buffalo nickel," he once admitted to me, when I was in his employ for pauper's wages in the hopes of fame and fortune.) It passed through the hands of several wealthy owners before ending up at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Since founder Bob Petersen and Carroll Shelby were longtime friends, the site is a fitting place of honor for the car, and the location of our shoot.
As mentioned at the outset, underneath that glorious shape are sturdy C1 Corvette mechanicals. After all, during the late '50s the Chevy V-8ûpowered Scarabs were thrashing Monzas and the newest Ferraris on the racing circuits. No high-strung, 12-cylinder tuning nightmare here. Right from the get-go, the Chevy V-8 was cheap and easy to build, with a thin-wall iron block, interchangeable (left to right) iron heads, and an intake manifold that acted as a valley cover, with stamped rocker arms on pressed-in ball studs. And the water pump did double-duty as a front motor mount.
Seeing its obvious advantages, race teams replaced the Jaguar's twin-cam six in Listers and the D-Jag with the new SBC. And in Ferraris and Maseratis, it stepped in for fours, sixes, eights, and even twelves. It was also Shelby's first choice for the Cobra, but when the Bow Tie wasn't available, he settled for the Blue Oval instead.
Rather than being fitted with finicky Weber or Dellorto carbs, the 283ci Chevy V-8 was topped by a prized (if occasionally problematic) Rochester fuel-injection system, and pumped out 315 horses. Its exhaust has that ample American note--loud and proud--as you blip the throttle through a four-speed Borg-Warner T-10, its gears stirred by a Hurst shifter. It's interesting to note that the second and third cars initially had a pair of four-barrel carbs, but were later fitted with fuel injection, and their stock Powerglide automatic transmissions replaced with the four-speed setup.
For safety's sake, the factory fuel tank was replaced with a comp-grade fuel cell. The rest of the chassis used a stock setup, drum brakes, and a live-axle rearend. While not sophisticated by today's standards, the aluminum body shaved off 400 pounds, requiring some spring adjustments but giving the Scaglietti a significant power-to-weight advantage. Also, the mechanical fuel injection was a newer, more refined 1961 version--all pretty heady stuff back in the day.
As was that curvaceous custom body. Franco Scaglietti was known for doing short production runs of hand-fabricated bodies, rather than the volume production of better-known coachbuilders such as Bertone, Pininfarina, and Zagato. His shop employed the old-school technique of hammers and dollies, shaping and sculpting the bodies purely by eye and touch. Italian artisans painstakingly pounded out the panels by hand from flat sheets, using wooden mallets and sandbags or wooden forms as molding surfaces. This shop never knew the aroma of styrene from fiberglass resin.
While certain design elements such as the side louvers echo ones seen on Ferrari's Tour de France sports racer, not all of the form was fashioned for aesthetic reasons. The fastback shape and recessed rear panel have a functional aspect, directing airflow with a minimum of turbulence--somewhat similar in concept to the inset Kammback tail of the '64 Cobra Daytona Coupe.
Laughlin, Hall, and Shelby had to decide just what form the Corvette-based car would take inside. All three were tall Texans, standing six-feet-plus, and for them the factory Vette was cramped and uncomfortable, with a large steering wheel placed too close to the driver, non-supportive seats, and a bulky center console. Their approach was a mÚlange of the Ferrari GTs' virtues and the practicality of Corvette.
As a result, the interior was a spaghetti western of sorts, combining familiar American components such as Stewart Warner gauges; a T-handle parking brake; and a Corvette shift knob with classically Italian touches such as a crackle-finish dash; a Nardi wooden steering wheel; bolstered, camel-colored leather seats; and high-zoot door hardware. Exterior touches also manifest a distinctively Euro flair, including a pair of Ansa exhaust outlets and Borrani cross-laced wire wheels. Fittingly, the car's logo combines Scaglietti's rectangular logo and the Corvette crossed-flags, literally emblematic of the car's brief yet romantic Italian-American pairing.