The cars we loved.
When most people think of Carroll Shelby and the various companies he headed, we think of tarted up AC Cobras, Mustangs or even a spat of Chryslers from the 80’s. In fact the Shelby name has been attached to many Ford and Chrysler performance cars of the last 20 years. Since 1964, Carroll has specialized in making good cars great. With regard to budgets, Shelby has offered varying stages of tune from dealer friendly Mustang enhancements to all out performance racing legends like the Ferrari beating GT 40’s of the 60’s. One thing Shelby Automobiles is not known widely for is their own car. You can only go but so far with a Mustang, after all for all it’s tuned up and dressed up goodness; it’s still just a low-cost pony car.
This could have been as good as any motivation for Carroll to step out and design, engineer and build a new supercar from scratch. Such an unprecedented step would lead to another, the use of a GM division sourced engine. The move was so controversial, that it caused the resignation of then Oldsmobile boss John Rock in 1996. The Shelby Series 1 was a swoopy low slung roadster in much the same vein as the original Dodge Viper, a project that Shelby was also heavily involved in. The overall design recalled not only the Viper, but Jaguar especially in the front.
Powered by a 4.0L DOHC V8 from the Aurora, in Shelby trim it made 320 hp. in supercharged guise. It was also available normally aspirated for about $20k less. The engine produced as much as 370 hp, but was detuned in the expensive process of trying to meet federal regulations. A lightweight aluminum chassis supported a 6-speed ZF transmission that was specially configured to connect with the engine that was mounted just behind the front axle.
The Series 1 had a nearly perfect 49/51 front to rear weight distribution. Race inspired independent unequal-length control arm front and rear suspension anchored by big 18’ wheels with special Goodyear Eagle F1 tires ensured an impressive 0.92g skidpad figure. In 1999, 320 hp was not much more than the typical Corvette. With a lower weight, the Series I did not need as much power as the ZR1 to produce similar performance numbers. The key to the Series’ 1’s 4.1 0 to 60 time was the use of lightweight carbon-fiber body panels.
On paper the Series 1 had all the ingredients to be a world-class supercar. A dealer network was established, but with only 15, they were scattered thinly. Production delays from the Las Vegas factory spurned rumors of trouble. Early cars were riddled with problems from faulty panels to minor issues that delayed customer’s orders. The delays eventually lead to price increases from 100 to almost $200k for supercharged models. A new owner (Venture Corporation) would eventually buy the struggling company and ramp up production. One of the first orders of business was to create a lightweight convertible top for the initial models that were completely topless, much like the first production Viper RT 10.
Once problems were ironed out, production resumed slowly, however too slowly for many angry customers who had placed big deposits that could have bought a new Camaro or Mustang. Eventually the media was able to get its hands on the elusive Series 1. Car and Driver’s general conclusion was typical: performance was impressive, but too many rough edges existed. The interior was comfortable and shielded most drivers from wind noise, but interior bits were clearly from the GM parts bin, giving the car a certain cheapness due to the less than ideal ergonomics of many GM products of the period. With no cup holders or much luggage space, the Series was a pure sports car. It succeeded in that respect, but did not offer the same value and refinement that comparable cars like the Corvette ZR-1 or Viper did. If fac,t the Series 1 had a slight kit car appearance, in part to it;s wide wheels not extending flush with the finders – as if a body was put on some regular production car.
Oddly enough, Venture Corp. flopped and Carroll Shelby was able to buy back the tooling and production components for pennies on the dollar. Unfortunately, because the car was federalized in 1999, the certification had expired. All cars in produced in 2005 were essentially 1999 models without engines and transmissions. The Oldsmobile sourced engine was out of production since the dissolution of Oldsmobile in 2004. In all only 249 cars were built with engines as noted by shorter VIN numbers. The Series 1 had the potential to be a great American sports car worthy of its considerable creator’s performance heritage, but instead may have soured many potential customers due to the protracted buying experience. Shelby Automotive seems to have learned its lesson and has stuck to making improvements to other maker’s cars – mostly Ford’s Mustang.