Remembering Carroll Shelby with Neil Cummings, CEO Shelby Licensing

Since Ford v Ferrari hit theaters on November 15th, the film has earned 20th Century Fox $225 million worldwide and received four nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Of the nominations, it won Best Film Editing and Best Sound Editing. In Oscars history, no racing-themed movie has ever been nominated for Best Picture, let alone won the award. 

Director James Mangold with Matt Damon in character as Carroll Shelby | 20th Century Fox

Director James Mangold said that the film at its core is about the kinds of friendships we make working together. “The racers in the movie accomplished things no one would ever accomplish again and changed the world of racing.”

Neil Cummings, Carroll Shelby Licensing CEO, said he has always thought about the story as a movie. “I always thought that the most important effect of any movie would be to make America aware of the Shelby phenomena, what he accomplished, winning championships, and his whole rags to riches story.” 

Cummings, a business trial lawyer at the time, said he met Carroll Shelby in 1991. “When I met him, I didn’t know the extent of who he was. A client introduced me to him because they thought I could help him with a lawsuit.” 

Daytona Coupe at Shelby American Open House

Following Shelby’s 1965 World Championship victory with the Daytona Coupe, Shelby was already working on a second-generation Cobra featuring the 427 engine, and assigned a block of 100 numbers to the model to meet FIA Homologation requirements. 

However, not all 100 cars were built, because Shelby’s attention shifted to the development of the GT40. 

The lawsuit followed an article published by the LA Times, “The Heart of a Gambler.” According to Cummings, the story misquoted Shelby, and offered the impression that Shelby would finish the cars he started in 1965 and build the last of the Cobra sports cars on cobwebbed frames and parts he had hoarded for 27 years.

The wrongful claim allegation made by Brian Angliss, who assumed control of AC Cars in 1986, claimed that Shelby asked him to remanufacture a batch of Cobra chassis and ship them into the United States labeled as “washing machine parts.” 

“That’s not what Carroll said, that’s not what the story was,” Cummings said, adding that Shelby was always open and honest about the fact that he had the 43 cars subcontracted and built by McCluskey in 1991 and 1992. 

“One of the things that upset Carroll was that AC Cars was taking all the credit for the Cobra, when the chassis that AC provided was not a racing chassis and required significant design modifications. Shelby was the original manufacturer of record of every single car.” 

Thus, Shelby retained Cummings to represent him and sue for slander. Cummings said the key was to get Angliss to reiterate under oath in a deposition that the plan was all Shelby’s idea. Shelby had a mutual friend with Angliss who “recorded a conversation of Angliss admitting the whole story was his idea, and he was upset because Carroll said no to his idea, and the recording was legal because it was Texas.” 

Cummings said the whole thing fell apart after he sent Angliss’ lawyer recordings of both conversations. 

“Carroll didn’t want any money — and we could have hit that guy for millions of dollars — but Carroll got what he wanted. AC Cars signed a written statement acknowledging that Carroll Shelby created the Cobra from day one, that it was his idea, and he did everything involved with racing the Cobra to building the Cobra, and Shelby American was the manufacturer of record.” 

Shelby’s legacy with the Cobra was secure from that point forward, but Cumming’s work was not finished. Next, Shelby wanted to take on Ford Motor Company to get the intellectual property rights back to use the “Cobra” name as he reestablished his brand. 

The Angliss case gave Cummings an in-depth history lesson on Shelby and the Cobra. In handling the situation, he came across a contract that Shelby signed in 1965, where he sold the Cobra name to Ford for one dollar. 

“Carroll said that ‘Henry the deuce told me I could use the Cobra name anytime I wanted for my life. You know that was mine.’ But Ford’s position was that the name belongs to Ford because he sold it to the company for a dollar,” Cummings said. 

Cummings added that Shelby had a strange tendency to do some very unpredictable things, and thought he would never have an issue because he was working so closely with Ford at the time. “On one hand, he was like a riverboat gambler, and you never knew what he would do next, but also very, very sophisticated in terms of negotiating, but on the other hand, he was so trusting.” 

In 1994, Cummings was able to facilitate an agreement that gave Shelby the license to use the Cobra name on all the ’60s-era cars, and together with Ford, Shelby was able to go after the businesses using his name to sell replicas of his vehicles. 

Later in 1997, Shelby approached Cummings to build his licensing company. 

“To really represent somebody in a business context, and to negotiate intellectual property rights in contracts, you have to understand the law and what your rights are,” Cummings said. He added that what he brought to the table was the litigation experience and understanding of what courts could and could not do, as well as a business mind. 

Cummings’s relationship with Shelby transitioned from lawyer to business partner. 

Over the years, Cummings says he was always engaged and constantly protecting the Shelby brand. 

“It’s not always easy to overcome. We are expanding into Australia, New Zealand, and just recently, we learned a couple of individuals had registered the Shelby trademark for building vehicles over there,” he said. Cummings added that the people holding the trademark gave up pretty quickly, but the situation is common. 

Around the time Cummings took over Shelby’s licensing, he also received several movie scripts from studios looking to tell the Shelby story. 

“I think the main challenge that everybody had in writing a script about it was picking out the right era, because Carroll did so much as a racer, to building the Cobra and Daytona Coupe.”

“The brand today, I think, is stronger than ever. It’s hard to evaluate numbers-wise. Because who could really do that?” Cummings said.  

“People would see the name Shelby and ask if it belonged to a man or a woman. But I think they did a good job of picking out a good era to focus on for the movie.” Cummings added that since the movie release, he has seen an increased awareness of the Shelby brand and the Shelby story, as well as an increase in the number of people who buy merchandise.

“I think it’s so important that people hear this story and see the story because it is a true story. It was more difficult than even portrayed,” Cummings said. 

During the film’s production, Cummings heard lots of rumors about how Christian Bale and Matt Damon approached playing their respective roles. “I heard Christian Bale went about it in a very deep way and spent hours researching and talking to people that knew Ken, really trying to understand who he was. Then I heard Matt Damon did not do the same research and took an approach that was more like ‘I’m not going to try and play Carroll Shelby, I’m going to be Matt Damon playing Shelby.’” 

Movie car used in Ford v Ferrari

Cummings admits the rumors made him skeptical going into his first screening of the film. Despite his preconceived bias against Damon, he was thoroughly impressed with his performance. 

“He nailed it. He captured the complexity of Carroll and the genius of how he was able to understand the corporate side, understand the grease monkey side, and bring them together to accomplish an objective. No one can be Shelby, but Damon did a great job capturing the Shelby persona and didn’t overdo it with the Texas accent.” 

Cummings said he never knew Miles, and couldn’t know how accurately Bale captured him. “I know Carroll was very appreciative of Ken Miles and felt bad about what happened, but he never dwelled on it with me.” 

Cummings remembers a night at the Bel Air Country Club when Shelby told him he didn’t care about himself or how he would be portrayed in any movie, all he wanted was for the film to be fair to Ken Miles. 

It struck Cummings as a significant moment. 

“Shelby was this larger than life guy; he didn’t kiss anyone’s ass; he could be very critical. At the time, I didn’t know what had happened, and Shelby seemed almost intimidated by his memory. I couldn’t figure out why, but I think we all know now.” 

Inside OVC Shop at Shelby American

“Most of the years I worked with Shelby, he didn’t have a lot of money, despite always presenting the appearance that his company was well off and successful,” Cummings said. He added that Shelby always gave up too much in the interest of accomplishing his objective. 

“The movie does a good job showing what they were up against, but they were up against more than what’s shown. I think what was great about the movie is that it shows the most important thing to Carroll were his relationships and the chaos of winning, of course, but he wanted to be true to his friend.”

The director of the Oscar-winning film emphasized the movie took place when Shelby, Ken Miles, and the Shelby American team weren’t legends yet. “They were just a bunch of racers, and they’re legends now because of the actions that they made together.” 

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About the author

Nicole Ellan James

As an automotive journalist and avid car enthusiast, Nicole Ellan James has a passion for automotive that is reflected in every aspect of her lifestyle. Follow Nicole on Instagram and Facebook - @nicoleeellan
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