Home Car Culture Cobras and Mustangs are sexy, but it’s trucks that keep Shelby American...

Cobras and Mustangs are sexy, but it’s trucks that keep Shelby American muscling along


Shelby Automotive may be known for its Cobras and Mustangs, and rightly so, but when it comes to Shelby Automotive as a business, its primary products are pickup trucks.

Blasphemy? Not really. Shelby American produces around 300 Cobras and Mustangs each year, but 80 percent of its business (read financial income) comes from the 800 or so Ford F-150 and Raptor pickup trucks it produces.

We use the word produces because Shelby American has gained status as an original equipment manufacturer, so extensive are the modifications it makes to Mustangs and F-150s, let alone its built-from-scratch Cobra business.

Shelby F-150s offer as much as 755 horsepower

Based since 1995 in Las Vegas, Shelby American is proud to be Nevada’s only automotive OEM. However, it also may be Las Vegas’ best-kept secret, so it recently invited local news media to tour its don’t-call-it-a-shop, it’s a factory.

When Carroll Shelby moved his company from California to Las Vegas back in 1995, he set up shop in a building adjacent to the new Las Vegas Motor Speedway, north of the city and across the street from the Nellis Air Force Base. In 2013, the company moved to a new location.

“Nothing is free is Las Vegas,” said Susan Rupert, consumer initiatives manager for Shelby American, “nothing but Shelby American.” 

Twice a day, Shelby American offers free guided tours of its museum and its manufacturing facilities. Visitors even get to participate in the tradition of signing their names to the factory walls.

That factory, museum and gift shop are located just off The Strip, not far from the famed “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, adjacent to Interstate 15 at Sunset Road. Though something of a best-kept secret, around 130,000 people visit the facility each year.

While that number might be the envy of many car museums, it represents only a tiny fraction of the nearly 43 million people who visit Las Vegas each year.

Current star of the museum-style display at Shelby American in Las Vegas is the original Super Snake Mustang

I bet many of those who take the daily Shelby American tours are surprised to learn that pickup trucks keep the lights on.

Shelby American president Gary Patterson admits that the company might not be in business without its pickup truck production. And Shelby American isn’t alone in that realization. It was the Cayenne sport utility vehicle, and later the Panamera sedan, that kept Porsche able to produce 911s and Boxsters and Caymans, and even to return to Le Mans, and seemingly all of the world’s sports and luxury vehicle manufacturers are adding SUVs to their lineup.

Take the Shelby American tour and you don’t see that many pickups on the lifts where the cars and trucks are built, but that’s because there’s a second Shelby American manufacturing center in Elkhart, Indiana, where most of the trucks are done. By the way, there’s also a Shelby American assembly facility in Austria, and there are Shelby modification shops in South Africa, France England, China and Dubai as the company expands around the world.

Shelby American is building a series of these special Mustang GT-S cars for the Sixt rental car company. The car behind the GT-S is a Mustang getting Shelby’s wide-body treatment

Empowering such expansion are pickup trucks. And don’t forget, even Ol’ Shel’ himself did pickup truck once upon a time. In 1989, around 1,500 Shelby (Dodge) Dakota Sport trucks were produced, compact pickups powered by 5.2-liter V8 engines instead of the standard 3.9 V6s. 

Now, Shelby American offers full-size Ford F-150 and Raptor pickups with as much as 755 horsepower, raised or lowered suspension (depending on the customer’s needs), revised brakes and many other Shelby upgrades.

With its Las Vegas location, Shelby American can use Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the Speed Vegas facility for on-pavement testing and development of its Cobras and Mustangs, and all sorts of Nevada desert for off-road work with its pickup trucks. Vince Laviolette, Shelby American vice president of operations and head test driver, said he’s flown Shelby Raptors as far as 60 feet in jumps as high as 8 feet above the ground, and landed smoothly and kept going.

P.S. — Don’t even consider such a stunt in even a Shelby Cobra or Shelby Mustang, although the desert location also works for testing cooling systems for Cobras and Mustangs headed to the Middle East and other extremely hot environments.

Who buys Shelby pickup trucks? Some customers are Shelby Cobra and Mustang owners, but many others are people who want a Shelby but perhaps can afford only one but also need the versatile capabilities provided by a pickup truck for recreation, work or both, Patterson said.

Carroll Shelby’s own Ford GT and an Oldsmobile-powered Shelby Series I among the cars on display at Shelby American

On the media tour of the Shelby plant, we noticed a Tesla plugged in for recharging. Is Shelby American working on an electric Cobra or Mustang?

“Carroll was always looking at alternative powertrains,” Patterson said. 

“We’re looking at limitations,” he added. 

Electric cars offer maximum torque at “0 rpm,” and amazing 0-60 acceleration, “but what happens after three laps (around a race track).”

Overcoming such limitations are what Shelby American is working on as it realizes the potential future need for a non-petroleum powertrain.

Someone was having fun in the Shelby American parking lot

Speaking of the future, the new football stadium that in 2020 will be the home of the Las Vegas (nee Oakland) Raiders of the National Football League is just a few blocks from Shelby American, and the company already is working on special events related to the football team’s arrival.

In the meantime, Susan Rupert said, the facility not only is open to tours, but for weddings, vow renewals, anniversary celebrations and corporate events. She noted that that BMW Canada recently held a corporate event at Shelby American.

Larry Edsall
A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.


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