Carroll Shelby, John Edgar Ferrari 410S, Palm Springs, 1956

Carroll Shelby – The Edgar Ferrari and Maserati Years

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.

Ferrari 857S
Palm Springs, February 1956. Joe Landaker and Pete Vanlaw push the Edgar Ferrari 857S. Mrs. John Edgar in hat (center) watches at this car’s first U.S. outing.

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.

John Edgar, Jack McAfee
John Edgar and Jack McAfee at the sports car races in 1956. McAfee began driving an MG-TC for Edgar in 1950.

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.

John Edgar, Carroll Shelby
John Edgar and Carroll Shelby, 1957. They grew up in Ohio and Texas, and formed their sports car racing alliance in California.

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?

McAfee in the Edgar Ferrari 857S, Jaguar D-Type
Palm Springs, February 1956. McAfee in the Edgar Ferrari 857S (98), Pete Woods in Jaguar D-Type (700); far left, Shelby in Tony Parravano’s 410 Speciale (185).
Carroll Shelby in Tony Parravano Ferrari 410 Speciale
Palm Springs, February 1956. Shelby in Parravano’s 410 Speciale on way to win. (A frame from John Edgar’s 16mm movie camera footage.)

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.

John Edgar Enterprises race car hauler
Palm Springs, 1956. The John Edgar Enterprises race car transporter pioneered big-rig haulers. It could better 100 mph. The shaded observation deck topside was a cool place to be.
Edgar race car transporter
Edgar transporter interior included 4 bunks, kitchenette, liquor bar, and room for 3 cars.

“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.”

John Edgar Ferrari 410S
Joe Landaker works on the Edgar Ferrari 410S big 4.9-liter Lampredi V12 featuring 24 spark plugs and brute power.
Carroll Shelby, Edgar Ferrari 410S, Juan Manuel Fangio
Carroll Shelby drives the Edgar Ferrari 410S, originally built in 1955 for Juan Manuel Fangio.

“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 [email protected]#k with it,” I recall my father saying.

Carroll Shelby – The Edgar Ferrari and Maserati Years Continued

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  1. A wonderful piece on a great man – a true automotive icon. And one that will be missed.

  2. William…you mention the 410 being tired about the time it DNFd at Stockton Airport 1957. I happened to have been witness to that when I was a 19 year old course worker on the main straight.

    In the main event, Carroll simply took off and left everyone so far behind it seemed like a one-man race. For lap after lap he extended his lead, then as the car was flying down the main straight, the engine suddenly cut, and the car and driver came to a stop right in front of me, next to the snow fencing used to line courses in those days.

    I leaned over the cockpit from the left side (the 410 was, of course, right hand drive), and asked him what could have happened. He held up the shift lever, and in his wonderful Texas drawl, “Damned thing broke right off in my hand!.”
    And it certainly had, right to the base of the lever shaft. I helped him roll the car to an opening in the snow fence and into the paddock.

    I saw him a couple of years later, dominating the Vaca Valley main event in the Tipo 61 Birdcage. No question he could drive and win in everything.

    We’ll never be able to fully add up all that he did for American racing. Irreplaceable!!

    1. Thanks, David, for adding your recollection of Shelby’s broken shifter at the Stockton race on March 17, 1957. It nicely finds its place into the colorful mosaic of Shel’s racing during that period. In my article, though, I did not say the 410 was “tired” but rather “rapidly-getting-worn” which it indeed was at that point in the car’s very hard life. The 410’s brakes were becoming an issue and, obviously, the shifter had weaken to the point of failure. The car’s 4.9-liter V12 engine itself was still very strong, hence the performance you witnessed and was so impressive, even though the competition in that race was not the most challenging. Lou Brero’s D-Type Jaguar posed no serious threat to Shelby’s big Ferrari, but Lou drove his D-Type well and won that race with it after Shel dropped out. At the time, sadly, Brero had little more then a month to live. He died on April 21st following a racing accident at Dillingham Field, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii, and sports car racing and its enthusiasts lost a driver of great talent and popularity.

      1. William….thanks so very much for your comments about my recollections. I think I actually knew then that I was living through an extraordinary time. The drivers and machines and courses remain so vivid. The first race I ever attended – in my new MG TF1500 – was the last Pebble. And the following year, of course, the first Laguna. Our 23 year old son – a total gearhead – can’t imagine that I was there, seeing those fabulous races!

        I clearly recall reading about Lou Brero’s fatal accident. He was one of the guys I always followed, along with Merle Brennan in the manxtail Cooper and Bob Oker and Harry Eyerly’s amazing Crosley, etc., etc.

        Over the years I’ve amassed a rather extensive automotive library, among which are old, very rare, certainly famous volumes. Yet the book I return to over and over is “Sports Car Racing”, the story of your fabulous Dad, Tony Parravano, John von Neuman and the whole West Coast scene. I wonder how many enthusiasts today understand how they changed the entire car world in North America, and later in Europe, because of their passion and investment.

        Looking back, I see the period ’58 – ’60 as the pinnacle of the sports racer in America. The sheer range of machinery that showed at Laguna in those years – along with a drivers’ list that sounds like some kind of dream today – is staggering to recall. Of course, being a third generation Californian (San Franciscan at that), I can’t imagine the epicenter having been anywhere else. To be here then really was a beautiful, exciting dream.

        I honor your Dad, and wish you the best.

        Sincerely,

        David Berelson

  3. Great story, William! (Stories, actually.) I cheered Shelby on at almost all his races on the East Coast in the mid-Fifties, and championed his successful effort to perfect Ford’s then-troubled GT40 in the June, 1965 issue of Car and Driver (an article still quoted back to me by the Shelby American Owner’s Club). Great photos, too….

  4. what a 1st class texan all the way. shell was in beverly hills at david e. davis book signing yrs ago.
    had plenty of women around him. last time i saw him in person. love the pictures from the old days.
    thanks for sharing. youmust of had a fabulous childhood with your dad. keep sharing.

  5. Not so long ago I found myself thinking about how rare it is to run into people of my age (I was born in late 60’s) who really know what “Shel” was doing before he got involved with his Cobra project. I was amazed to find out that Wikipedia for instance did not say a word about his driving career (a little better now, but not that much). That’s why I was particularly delighted to find this article, and I think it does manage to draw a credible portrait of a man behind the legend and the people he was involved with. Thank You so much for sharing Your unique memories and amazing photos. Very well done!

    1. Kare: I’m so glad you made your comment about Carroll Shelby’s driving years. I’m also pleased to find the “Ferrari In Sweden” website, and 410 Sport # 0596CM, sister car to the 410 Shel drove, by clicking on your name. Thanks, and all best, W.E.

  6. We can thank God for great people like this that has developed great cars and racing to which we all appreciate today and will for years to come. It will be hard to find a new person that can will his shoes and do what he has done for cars and the industry of autos.Great racers have come and gone and only few names are remembered…this is definatly one of those names that will never be forgotten.His cars will help his history to live on. Hopefully one of our younger generation will come to stardome and shine like he has done and carry things to the next level.

  7. What a terrific piece of Sport Car History! Brings back vivid memories. I was blessed to have been there to observe most of these events alongside my Father Ted Brown. May they both rest in peace!

  8. William: Thanks for the great stories. I was present at many of the California races you refer to.
    That Shelby/Hill duel at Palm Springs in particular is one I have never forgotten.

    I was glad to be a part of it all too – even though I was a young teenager – it all
    made a strong impression on me – determined my goals, career and life ineterests.

    I became a mechanical engineer because I wanted to design and build race cars –
    and I have – as well as raced karts, motorcycles and cars.

    Best regards,

    Mike Savin

    1. Thanks, Mike for your comment. I refer SCD readers to your recollection of Bob Oker driving your father’s AC Bristol in a sports car race at Sacramento, California in September 1956, when few new what the car was (Tam’s Old Race Car Site – http://www.tamsoldracecarsite.net/MeachamBBOkerSacto56.html for a direct link to your piece) and how it impressed so many on that day back in the Fabulous Fifties.

    2. William and Mike….not to leave the subject of the moment – Mr. Shelby – but I had mentioned Bob Oker in my first message, and I easily remember that hot day at the Sac Fairgrounds where Bob, as usual, drove the beautiful 2 liter AC Bristol superbly, beating machinery of twice the displacement!

      And the AC, good as it was, would be transformed by Carroll into the truly great 289 Cobra. What a time we witnessed!

      1. David: That was quite a weekend. I’ve got some of it on film. I captured Masten Gregory, Lou Brero, Ken Miles, Bill Murphy, Richie Ginther, John Von Neuman in and out of the cockpit. The AC was running in E Production, 2 liter engines – and at the time, I don’t believe mods were allowed to suspension components in the Production classes. My films at Santa Barbara, especially, show lots of body lean – and probably not real good front end geometry. The car was good – and Oker was a phenomenal driver. I agree: Shelby definitely improved upon the original car.

        I wish I could upload some stills captured from the above films to illustrate, and share my portraits of the drivers just named.

  9. Mike…how I’d love to see that footage, or even stills from it! Speaking of the unforgettable Bob Oker, didn’t he also shock competition at the wheel of Lew Spencer’s ridiculously fast Morgan?

    I can’t help adding a bit of color about an event that I’m sure but a handful of people saw or remember……I spent a year and a half at a specialized international trade college in Mexico City in ’59-’60. While there, I was surprised to see a notice for a sports car race outside the Capitol at a circuit called Valle del Bravo.

    John and Josie brought their von Neuman stable down (about 2500 miles from Socal!), and also racing that day were two extremely fast teenage kids by the name of Rodriguez. John won – and I seem to recall that Richie Ginther was there – but the buzz was all about those brothers. We were entering the ’60’s….

    1. David:

      Nope. Oker didn’t drive Lew Spenser’s car. He did go on to drive Aston Martins
      for Joe Lubin, Maserati 1500, Cooper Formula Jr, Ferraris, Cooper Monaco. He drove
      Jim Firestone’s Frazer Nash several times. One big win for Oker was Riverside big-bore
      event: 1958 United States Grand Prix for Sports Cars, Oct 12, 1958. The car had been
      Stirling Moss’ factory car.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1958_United_States_Grand_Prix_for_Sports_Cars

      Neat that you were present for the Mexican race. I well remember reading about it
      in MotoRacing Newspaper. Gus Vignole introduced the Rodriguez brothers to readers
      in Southern California in his report regarding that race. The brothers’ father later blamed
      Gus for the early deaths of the two. I remember seeing Ricardo driving his Porsche
      Spyder at Riverside not long after that. I was jealous! Ricardo was 17 at the time –
      I wasn’t going to be race-legal until I was 21.

      David: Give me a way to contact you (e-mail address) – and I’ll send you some stills
      from the aforementioned movie footage).

      Best regards,

      Mike Savin

      1. Mike….thanks for correcting my memory re Spencer’s Morgan. Did know about Oker’s other drives. And how come no one seems to talk about Sammy Weiss, whose drives in the 550’s and RSK’s were superb. Another sad loss.

        You’re really kind to offer stills of your movie footage….gratefully accepted!!

  10. Are you related to Richard Cole ? Please let him know I’m trying to find him, it is very importent, it has to do with his hospital stay and what happend to him. Please let me know if he is okay, and if he is willing to talk to me – I need to share something with him that he may want to be involved with. I pray that he is ok. He can google my name, or find my site on facebook, my main website is for contact visits for our guests.

  11. Thanks for this. In ’65 when he was pushing his book, The Cobra Story, he told me he had never raced a car he owned. Does that square with your knowledge of him?

  12. Hi, William,
    Your usual great and highly detailed job of reporting, adding in your knack of imparting the excitement of the time. One little thing, probably the result of research, not yours; the first picture of Carroll Shelby in the GP Ferrari at Giant’s Despair in 1956 was mine, an amateurish snapshot, at best, but with a pretty good camera of the time, an Exacta. As you know, Pete Vanlaw and I tagged along with the John Edgar crew through Giant’s Despair, Brynfan Tyddn and Beverly, MA in the ’56 season. One of the most memorable adventures of my life, looking at it 60 years later. Keep up the great work!
    Earl Gandel

  13. I knew a fine professional photographer in South Georgia named Bill Edgar.
    Great era of racing. What did your father get out of sponsoring the most expensive race cars on earth in amateur races? As you know the long running joke in racing asks the question: how to make a fortune in racing? Start with a large fortune is the answer. I’ve seen dirt track races where the winner had to buy a loser gas to get home because he had spent everything on the car.

  14. I was nine years old when my father took me to the 1957 race at Dillingham Field on Oahu. A few days later I saw the Ferrari #98 at a garage in downtown Honolulu.

  15. Palm Springs was my introduction to sports car racing. I started in 1952, still in High School. I immediately said: that’s it. And it was for the rest of my life. Clark Gable was the course marshal in that first one. By the time I was there opening day of Riverside, in 1957, I went in my first Porsche Speedster. Then another Porsche, and finally, a Mercedes 300SL Roadster – thought I had gone to heaven. I’m very thankful for sites like this, that bring back so many wonderful memories. Glad I was there from the beginning of so many great drivers careers, Gurney, Phil Hill, Masten Gregory, etc. The development of all those great cars. What a fantastic time that was. Many thanks. Terry G. Smith