Two, and true, confessions:
One: I was the author of our poll question that ran last week on the Classic Car News homepage. To refresh your memory the questions was: “A time machine has been invented and you can go back and have dinner with one automotive icon. Whom would you choose?”
Nine choices were offered. In alphabetical order, they were E.L. Cord, Zora Arkus-Duntov, Billy Durant, Harley Earl, Enzo Ferrari, Henry Ford, R.E. Olds, Carroll Shelby and Preston Tucker.
Two: I once accepted a publisher’s book-writing offer simply because it meant that I could have several conversations with Carroll Shelby. Personally, I really wasn’t all that much interested in the backstory of the rebirth of the Shelby GT500 by what then was known as the Ford Special Development Team. But as I wrote in the Dedication to that book, “It’s a phone call I’ll never forget. ‘Larry? This is Carroll…’ It was Shelby himself, calling to talk about…”
The book provided me with several opportunities to talk with Shelby, face-to-face and on the phone, including one time he called from an airplane. I told Shelby it sounded like he was in a small plane and he said he was. I reminded him his eyesight had deteriorated to the point he wasn’t supposed to be flying anymore and he said not to worry, he’d brought along someone who could land the plane if he had any problems.
Because I’d enjoyed such conversations with Shelby while he was alive, he was not my choice for my time machine dinner. My choice was Harley Earl, the was the first design director at General Motors, is credited with creating the first concept car and who led GM styling into the 1960s, and thus also had a huge influence over automotive design around the world.
I’d love to have been able to listen to him talk about his philosophy of design and how it evolved.
But while “Mister Earl” was my choice, yours was, indeed, Shelby, though only by a few tenths of a percentage point over Henry Ford. That really surprised me. Not that Shelby won, but that Henry Ford nearly won. Having read biographies of Ford and even of his wife, Clara, I’ve always believed that a dinner conversation with the man behind the Model T would have been far from stimulating.
I really expected that the people on the list challenging Shelby in this vote would be Enzo Ferrari and Zora Arkus-Duntov. As it turned out, Shelby drew 21.6 percent of your votes, edging Ford’s 21.2 percent. Next came Tucker at 13.8, and then Arkus-Duntov, father of the Chevrolet Corvette, at 13.5. Harley Earl was next at 10.1, followed by Ferrari (7.7), Olds (4.7), Cord (5.2) and Durant (2.1).
Personally, I think I’d enjoy hearing Olds talk about the early days of the motorcar industry, and whether or not he really opted for a gasoline-powered vehicle, his famed Curved Dash Olds, because it was closest to the door and thus the only car saved when the garage housing his cars, which included electric and steam-powered vehicles he’d built was considering for production, caught fire.
I’d also like to hear Durant talk about establishing General Motors, losing control and then regaining it, and also about his later years living in poverty over a bowling alley. Cord’s life story also is fascinating, as is Tucker’s, and it was amazing to carry a copy of Tucker: The Man and His Dream back in time and see how he responds to Francis Ford Coppola’s film.
P.S. — I have a third confession: I need to acknowledge inspiration for the poll question from Leon Mandel, late publisher of and my boss for a dozen years at AutoWeek magazine. From time to time, Leon would use his column to resurrect some automotive icon, purporting to offer a commentary on the current state of the auto industry through that icon’s eyes. Yes, they were flights of fancy, but insightful indeed.