Interview: Shelby Cobra Racecar Driver Allen Grant Talks Carroll Shelby, Beating Ferrari and Joining Baume & Mercier

Allen Grant, Shelby team racecar driver who helped clinch the 1965 victory that changed American racing history.
Allen Grant, Shelby team racecar driver who helped clinch the 1965 victory that changed American racing history.

It was just about a year ago that Baume & Mercier surprised the world with its unveiling of the exceptional Capeland Shelby® Cobra collection of watches. The timepieces were created in partnership with Carroll Shelby Licensing Inc. in Las Vegas, and they fast became true heroes – paying tribute to the legendary racecar driver and designer, Carroll Shelby and to his team.
This year, the brand unveils the second generation Capeland Shelby® Cobra watches, including the  Capeland Shelby Cobra 1963 Limited Edition Competition watches that pay homage to the brave drivers who made history in 1965. For several years, the team was winning races around the world but it was on the Fourth of July, 1965, that the team took their small Shelby Cobra cars with Ford engines that they had souped up, off to Reims, France, and came out victorious over Ferrari. The car guys from California stole the FIA International Championship of GT Manufacturers. The World Championship title changed the history of auto racing forever and put Carroll Shelby, Ford and America on the muscle car map.

 

Baume & Mercier Capeland Shelby Cobra 1963 Limited Edition Competition
Baume & Mercier Capeland Shelby Cobra 1963 Limited Edition Competition

The Baume & Mercier Shelby Cobra watches pay tribute to those brave drivers, who put their lives on the line to prove that American gear heads with supercharged muscle cars could out-race Ferrari – and do it in style.

Recently, I had the great opportunity to talk with Allen Grant – one of the Shelby team drivers who made the historic 1965 win in Reims, France. Grant’s story, his determination to prove himself as a great driver, is a story of passion and excitement. He drove with and against some of the finest drivers in history, including Bob Bondurant, Phil Hill, Dan Gurney and others — and stacked up as a legend in his own right.

Here, Allen Grant shares some of his stories and experiences — almost putting you right there in the 1960’s on the track with him.

“I was very mechanically minded as a kid growing up,” says Grant. “As a teenager, I had a group of friends who loved cars, too. We would work on them and modify them and then drive up and down the main street, looking at our cars in the department store windows and looking for girls. I had a 1950 Pontiac Catalina Coupe at the time, but once I drove a sports car, I was smitten. I finally found an AC Ace Bristol, and that was the car that got me really into racing. I had been a motorsports enthusiast since I was 16 years old and I had some fake ID to drive, but when I turned 21, I raced it, and in that first year, 1962, I won 12 out of 14 races.”

Of course, says Grant, he had heard of Carroll Shelby. Almost everyone had. By the time Grant decided to approach Shelby for work, Shelby already had a legendary reputation as a driver. “He had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated three times. He could drive like crazy and he had a bad heart. He would drive while popping nitroglycerin pills and having   pains in his heart. When the doctor finally told him he had to stop driving, that’s when he had the idea to bald the Cobra, and he had a passion that was unstoppable. That, plus a swagger and a great demeanor, and   you couldn’t help but love the guy. When he went to Ford to pitch them to provide the engines for the Cobra he was so persuasive that Lee Iacocca said ‘Give him what he wants and get him out of here before he bites somebody.’ He got the engines.”

Allen Grant at a Baume & Mercier event in New York recently
Allen Grant at a Baume & Mercier event in New York recently

So, says Grant, he hears of this young gear head in Venice, California, who had started his own team, was building his own cars and was winning races everywhere. “I wanted to be a part of it. So on my spring break from college, I drove to Venice, and I stood right in front of his garage doors so he would have to talk to me, and insisted on an internship with him. My goal was to prove to Shelby that I was the best racer there was, and when I had the opportunity, I did that. But first I had to get a job with him. He said to me that day, ‘I don’t need any more drivers, but I need a welder.’ I was a good mechanic and I had welding experience so at 22 years old I joined the Shelby team as a welder,” says Grant.

Because Grant also had some college education, he did double duty, working in the office on the phones, selling cars and doing some designing. When Coventry Motors called and asked to buy a racecar, Grant spoke up. He offered to sell a car to them provided he got to drive it and got to modify it. Grant and his close friend George Lucas (yes, the George Lucas of film fame today) had not only worked on other cars together, but also raced together. So when the opportunity came, he called his friend Lucas to help him build the racecar. (Interestingly enough, years later when George Lucas   co-wrote and directed the movie American Graffiti, many of his insights were real-life experiences and the character of the hot rodder with the bright yellow car was modeled after Grant.)

George Lucas riding with Allen Grant in the Coventry Motors Cobra (Photo courtesy of Allen Grant.)
George Lucas riding with Allen Grant in the Coventry Motors Cobra (Photo courtesy of Allen Grant.)

“Because I was going to drive this car in a race that the Shelby team was also racing in, I wanted to be sure I was noticed. So we painted the car DuPont Yellow Tinting and put horizontal stripes on it,” recalls Grant. “Remember, my goal was to show Shelby that I was the best driver in the world so that I could drive for his team. When the race day came, I was going against the factory and I had never driven at Riverside before. But I knew Gurney had driven it many times and knew it like the back of his hand, so my plan was to follow him real closely and then pass him, and I was doing good, too. But then Bondurant tapped me and spun me out. I was so mad; I had lost some laps, but I just got back in the race and drove like crazy. I came way up from behind and it was close. On the last lap I fell short by a couple of seconds and to me second place is first loser.   I wanted to punch out Bondurant, but it turned out that in the end, I had gotten so much attention because of how fast I drove to catch up that I proved I was a good driver. So in 1964, when Shelby decided to go to Europe to kick Ferrari’s ass, he asked me to go as a driver. I told him I would as long as I could build and modify my own car. He was fine with that and then at the race at Reims on July 4, 1965, we won the world championship. It was pretty incredible.”

After the big win in the champagne region of France, the Shelby team brought their cars home and continued to race. Shelby also worked with Ford on its new GTs, changing the aerodynamics and adapting the cars and winning races year after year.

Reims 12 Hour Race, Reims, France, 1965. Two Shelby Cobra coupes cross the finish line together.
Reims 12 Hour Race, Reims, France, 1965.
Two Shelby Cobra coupes cross the finish line together.

“It was an exciting time. It was different then, the cars were different then,” says Grant. “It was all about the muscle car, the driver, and how he handled the car. Back then at Lemans for the 24-hour endurance races we had two drivers. Today they use four drivers. Back then we didn’t have comfort seats or gear to protect the head or the neck. We didn’t have cools suits, seats that held you in place, power steering. We had to brace ourselves going around the corners at 165 miles and it was tough. It’s still tough on drivers today, but it’s a lot safer. “

Shelby Cobra
Shelby Cobra

Indeed, those early drivers were the pioneers who paved the way and built the history of American racing. It makes perfect sense, then, that the new line of Baume & Mercier Capeland Shelby Cobra watches would honor those brave drivers.

“I’m really proud to be a part of the Baume & Mercier Shelby American team, too,” says Grant. “I’ve been so impressed with them. They are so professional and they do everything right, every detail is considered. It just reminds me of Carroll Shelby when he was young. It is so exciting to wear this watch.”

The new Capeland Shelby® Cobra a 1963 Limited Edition Competition watches are powered by the self-winding caliber Valjoux 7753 that offers chronograph, date and 48 hours of power reserve. Built in stainless steel, each features a striking jet-black dial and recalls the yellow-striped racing color code. Each also features the unique Cobra snakehead logo that has been interpreted in all its glory as the seconds’ hand of the chronograph. The case back is engraved with the words “One out of 1963” – referencing the number of limited-edition pieces and the year that saw the birth of this car. The watches are sold in a special presentation box with a miniature model of the Cobra 289 Sebring CSX2128. Retail price — $4,500.

The two newest generation Capeland Cobra watches.
The two newest generation Capeland Cobra watches.

 

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