When I met Jim in March of 1984, he was down on his luck, to say the least. Instead of a Spitfire or Jaguar, Jim was driving “Truck,” a venerable (dare I say beat to hell) ’60s era Ford Ranchero. Jim was very loyal to that car/truck hybrid, especially because he could get commercial plates allowing him to park in yellow loading zones in San Francisco’s notoriously impossible to park in commercial areas during the workday.
But it was another kind of Ford that he was truly in love with … and heartbroken about: the Shelby Mustang GT350. I never got to meet Jim’s Shelby. In fact, I believe he had two Shelbys, both made in 1966, both with the vanity plate: “GORT,” after the robot in the classic ‘50s sci-fi movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Jim’s aboslute favorite movie of all time.
It was that second Shelby that Jim told me he had to sell to pay his lawyer’s fees after the gun bust in 1983 and, as he put it, “Keep my ass out of jail.” He had no choice, but you could tell he pined for that car, which he had so perfectly customized for himself. I’m still getting the details about just how tricked out Jim’s Shelbys were, but here’s what I know so far: custom British racing green paint job, Boss 309 engine, Hurst shifter, Recaro seats, and a Nardi wooden steering wheel.
Here are a few of Jim’s own recollections about both of his Shelbys from that ever-useful Rodder Journal article:
“And, later, a couple of GT Shelbys, one ran 12.50s with a Boss 302 we swapped in. Spectre Racing built the engine. ‘We put a 4.11 rear in that street Shelby’ — and in a high revving Marshall stream-of-thought commentary — ‘and John Wasserman, the (San Francisco) Chronicle’s (performing arts) critic bought a Boss 429 from S&C Ford just about the same time as I bought my Boss 302. They were both stolen within two days of each other. Inside job. Yeah, I beat Steve McQueen in that Shelby when he was here to make “Bullitt.” Smoked him.’ ”
Dutch Mandel has this to add about Gort and Shelbys in general: “That is no ordinary Mustang. At the time the Shelby GT350 was one of the most powerful production cars of the day. It was a car that Texas race driver and entrepreneur Carroll Shelby built up with the assistance of Ford Motor Co. to kick the ass of Chevrolet’s Corvette on the race track and on the street. The car was popular enough that even the Hertz rental car company got into the business of renting these cars… for a while. The black and gold Hertz GT350s quickly became parts cars for race drivers who would rent them, take them to the track, pull the engine and put them in their own race cars, race ‘em for the weekend and put the engine back in the rental. Needless to say, Hertz caught on quickly.”
Famed rock photographer Andrew Kent met Jim in 1968 at the Hollywood Bowl at an Odetta and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott concert and they became great, lifetime friends, bonding over guns, music, fast cars and Triumph motorcycles.
“For a time, Jim was one of my closest friends and without a doubt is the craziest person I ever met. He was unique among all men. That Shelby was fast like hell. I remember we used to drive around San Francisco and it was amazing how fast he could get it going. We’re driving in the Mission and within one block he had it up to 110 mph, the sound of it on a city street, can you imagine!
“I gave up touring and moved from LA to Sun Valley, Idaho in 1978. I was always bugging Jim to take a road trip to come and see me. Finally, he did. It’s a 14-hour drive from SF and he shows up and along the way the car’s thermostat started acting up, running a little bit hot, a little bit cold. I mean the car lives at sea level and now it’s at altitude … I didn’t think it was any big deal, but Jim goes absolutely bonkers. He goes to every mechanic in the area to try and get it right. Nothing works.
“The next day he gets in the Shelby and drives all the way back home. He was supposed to stay a week. But that was Jim.”
It certainly was. Jim had a unique way of summing up to me his tumble from the pinnacles of success he knew in the ’60s and ’70s: “You’re always on the mountain when you fall.” Or apparently when your Shelby’s thermometer goes on the fritz.