Design at Shelby American
Peter Brock’s former career as an automotive designer with General Motors was never too far from his first love of racing. When he departed GM in ’58 he was deeply disappointed that the AMA’s ban on racing had killed all incentive for competition within GM. Now of legal age to race with the SCCA, he packed up his Cooper Climax race car and headed west to California intent on making it as a professional racer. In Hollywood he hooked up with Max Balchowsky of Ol’ Yellar fame. During the day he worked for Max at Hollywood Motors chasing parts, sweeping the shop and learning the arcane secrets of speed from one of California’s best tuners. At night he used the shop’s resources to work on his own race car.
Hollywood Motors was race central for many of the southland’s top racers in the late ‘50s. One of those who visited often was the gregarious Texan, Carroll Shelby, who was winding down an illustrious driving career due to a bad heart. Shelby was looking for a race related business to start and knew Max was a talent. Like so many others in that era Shelby had dreams of building his own sports car. Max didn’t need or even want a partner though, so that potential joint venture never jelled. Ultimately, in 1961, Shelby decided he’d start a driving school. Through a fortuitous set of circumstances, Brock was literally standing nearby when Shelby needed to choose who he was going to hire to instruct at his school. He thus became Shelby’s first paid employee. Brock is careful to explain that Shelby’s first real employee was Shelby’s girlfriend at the time; “Joan was the real brains behind Shelby American. It never would have made it off the ground without her”.
Brock, with racer friend and mentor Ken Miles, developed a curriculum that soon became known as the Carroll Shelby School of High Performance Driving. Brock had hoped his position with the school would lead to a seat on Shelby’s race team when the Cobra’s production line began but that program grew so quickly that Shelby soon had every top driver in the world standing in line to drive. Brock continued to instruct at the school and when it became successful enough he hired an assistant named Bob Bondurant. Shelby lost interest in the school when his commitments to Ford became priority number one so when he closed the school, Bondurant asked Shelby if he could take it over. Bondurant went on to make the school the great success it is today.
Back in ‘62 when things were getting started at Shelby’s, and the Cobra race program was just underway, Brock couldn’t hold back his continuing desire for design. He dove into the entire design image of Shelby American. He designed the race car liveries, the details that made a Mustang a GT350, the company’s logos, shirts, even wrote and shot the ads for the Cobras and GT350s… even the company business cards. Then, unexpectedly, there was the sudden opportunity he’d dreamed of… to get back into race car design. Shelby had dreams too; he wanted to take the Cobras to Europe and race against Ferrari. He realized the Cobra roadster would be too slow on Europe’s faster circuits so he casually asked if Brock might have a solution to the dream. Brock explained that the cheapest “free” horsepower was available in superior aerodynamics. He convinced the skeptical Texan that a new body for the Cobra roadsters could raise its speed and make it competitive with the world’s fastest GT, the Ferrari 250 GTO. The result of Brock’s efforts was the World Championship winning Daytona Cobra Coupe.
There’s no doubt the Daytona Cobra Coupe is the car with which Brock is most often associated. However, other less known vehicles that were also built during that time, have as much appeal as the famed Daytona to those who know the history. Cars like the Shelby/DeTomaso P70 sports racer, the still-born Type 65 427 Cobra Coupe for Le Mans and the beautiful Lang Cooper and Nethercutt Mirage.
The first USSRC racer designed by Peter Brock in 1963 was the super lightweight Nethercutt Mirage. Commissioned by SoCal racer Jack Nethercutt, just before the trend toward downforce aerodynamics pushed the sport into the Can Am era, the low frontal area Mirage was the last of the light weight/low drag road racers. Powered by a small aluminum Olds V8 the Mirage had one of racing’s first monocoque chassis that even featured ultra light, riveted, sheet-metal wheels! Since it was being built by a small but dedicated group of volunteers the project moved very slowly. When it was finally debuted, two years late in 1965, the Mirage was already obsolete.
The DeTomaso P70 was a project rich with cultural experience as Brock worked directly with the master Italian craftsman, Medardo Fantuzzi himself and his team of old world body artisan’s in their small shop in Modena, Italy. “I was used to working in California and Detroit where we used fabrication equipment similar to that used to build aircraft. In Italy there were young apprentices banging out sheet metal over tree stumps and using giant welding torches that had handles so big they looked like they were from old bathtub faucets. I loved every minute of it! There wasn’t anything I could describe that they didn’t immediately understand and build for me; the culture was wonderful. It’s where I gained my love of Tortellini, Balsamic Vinegar, Lambrusco and the Italian people in general.” Peter recalls.
“The Type 65 project got really screwed”; Brock shares. He had created the new design to run at Le Mans in ’65 in case Shelby wasn’t awarded the GT40 project from Ford. Since no contracts had been signed by the time the new coupe had to have been started, the project was given the go-ahead but instead of going to Modena, Italy, where the five Daytonas had been built, a Ford accountant was given the task of taking the drawings to Europe. “He probably knew the GT40 contract was going to be awarded to Shelby and no doubt had been given instructions to somehow “lose” the drawings so the car wouldn’t be built”; says Brock cynically. “Consequently the Type 65 drawings for a 427 Coupe were contracted to a totally incompetent shop in London where it never was executed correctly. It could have been a stunner.”
The Lang-Cooper came about in ’64 when a King Cobra sports racer that Craig Lang had bought for his friend Dave McDonald to drive was crashed by another driver at a race at Kent, WA. When Shelby called Cooper to have a replacement car sent over, Cooper said he could send another chassis but he didn’t have any bodies available. Brock was asked to design a body to go with the new chassis. The car was completed, but then, before McDonald had a chance to drive it he was killed in a crash at Indy. Lang sold the car and lacking its full development it had a lackluster career resulting in its early demise and abandonment to a southern junkyard. After an attempted restoration in the mid ‘90s, a Swiss collector, now a good friend of the Brocks, purchased the car and hired them to manage its restoration. After three years of in-depth restoration, with Peter’s critical eye on resolving the problems of the car’s unfinished development, the old racer is in better condition than it ever was and is currently being vintage raced in Europe.
With the success of the Cobra program in 1965 and Ford’s takeover of Shelby American for the GT40 program, Brock was out of a job, at which time he formed his own company, BRE.