A 6-foot-tall photo of Carroll Shelby looms large over the entrance of the Shelby American Collection. He’s a rockstar in American car and racing culture, and museum president Steve Volk wants visitors to know that.
“He put American cars on the map, by winning and showing what an American car can do,” Volk said. “He had a band of hotrodders. The Shelby American guys were really California hotrodders. They performed miracles.”
Stepping into the museum is stepping back to an era when muscle cars were king, when gas sold for 32 cents a gallon and plenty of people could change their own oil and spark plugs. But the culture in the world outside is leaving these glorious relics in the dust, as more people turn to ride shares, driverless cars are on the horizon and home mechanics practically need a computer degree to work under the hood of modern cars. Car culture is, if not in decline, becoming more niche.
The collection of classic Ford GT40s, Shelby Mustangs and Shelby Cobras parked at the end of a nondescript cul-de-sac in Boulder’s Gunbarrel neighborhood is the largest of its kind anywhere. And they are all real — no kit cars or replicas. Display cases contain Shelby-inspired toys that share space with books and other memorabilia. A large wooden cobra is coiled atop one case. The smell of tire rubber hangs in the air. A yellow dog named George greets visitors at the door.
Row after row of mostly vintage cars, many of them bearing long number- and letter-laden names decipherable only by gearheads, compete for attention. One is worth more than $30 million. Two of the three Ford GT40s that won 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, the subject of the film “Ford v Ferrari” that opens Thursday, are usually on display, although one is currently out of state.
Volk considers his own unrestored blue 1964 Shelby Factory Team Cobra CSX 2345 289 FIA Roadster to be the jewel of the collection. Some of the cars in the museum are restored, but Volk has left his Cobra just as it was when it rolled off the race track for the last time in 1965, paint chips and all.
“That’s been a trend,” Volk said. “People started to realize in the last 10 years that you can meticulously restore a car, but the cars are original only once.”
Volk started racing vintage Shelbys in the 1980s and considers himself more of an enthusiast and collector than gearhead. He started the museum with a group of like-minded friends and struck up a friendship with Shelby, who died in 2012.
“Ford v Ferrari,” explores the infamous rivalry between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari in the context of the triumph of GT40 designer Shelby and legendary driver Ken Miles at 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, a race considered a holy grail moment in American racing.
Volk said the “Ford v Ferrari” filmmakers asked to borrow some of the cars at the museum to use in the movie, but the museum declined — more or less politely
“There was no way in hell we were going to allow that,” he said. “The movie uses all reproduction cars.”
(The museum did allow one of the Shelbys used in the race to leave the museum for a tour related to the movie.)
“Ford v Ferrari” is not the first film to take inspiration from Le Mans, an epic challenge that tests the engineering of vehicles as they attempt to race for 24 hours without mechanical failure. In 1971, Steve McQueen made “Le Mans,” about a fictional version of the race. That same year, the big-engine muscle cars that Shelby helped create inspired movies like “Two-Lane Blacktop” — an arthouse classic (about $40 on the Criterion Collection) — and “Vanishing Point,” an existential meditation cast in a 48-hour cross-country car chase.
Car culture on the rocks
Carroll Shelby’s racing triumphs, according to Volk, were a huge moment in American car culture and ushered in the era of the muscle car — cars like the Ford Mustang, with big V-8 engines, that went really fast, got bad gas mileage, handled poorly and were easy for a backyard mechanic to work on with a set of basic tools. Contemporary cars are more meticulously engineered and harder to tinker with.
While U.S. Department of Transportation statistics show nearly 90% of people over age 15 are drivers, ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft are allowing more people to hang up the keys. A Pew Research poll earlier this year showed 36% of U.S. adults say they have used a ride-sharing service, up from 15% four years earlier. A 2016 study by the University of Michigan also showed a steep decrease in the number of licenses issued to young people between 1983 and 2014.
Drivers now often lease cars instead of owning them outright. Driverless vehicles are being tested and could soon be a navigating Colorado highways outfitted with sensing technology intended to remove some of the risk of driving. The 2017 dystopian superhero film “Logan” featured a scene with automated semi-trucks speeding down a highway. Three months after the movie’s U.S. release, Uber and Otto, a self-driving truck company, set a world record hauling Budweiser beer 132 miles from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs in an autonomous semi.
Does all of this innovation and change signal America’s love of cars and driving is waning?
Volk says the answer is no, at least not in terms of interest in classic cars. The Barrett-Jackson auction in Flagstaff, Arizona, draws hundreds of thousands of attendees every year, and five or six other auctions are usually happening around the same time, he said. SEMA, an auto trade show in Las Vegas, isn’t open to the public but draws about 70,000 buyers from around the world every year, according to its website.
“There is a tremendous resurgence with young kids,” Volk said. “You can see it here, kids who have a profound interest in these early cars, working on them and restoring them. I don’t think American car culture is dead by any means.”
Sammy Celico is 18 and has volunteered at the Shelby American Collection since he was 11. Celico said he has loved cars for as long as he can remember and got his dad to start working on them at their home in Lafayette. Although his perspective is limited by his youth, he says car culture is strong in Boulder County, although new cars are harder to work on than older models. He added that he wouldn’t say his generation is less hands on, but likely more into tech than cars.
“The life is still there,” he said. “You just have to go look for it, like any passion or hobby.”
Lately, he has been working on an old Jeep he picked up, replacing spark plugs, gaskets and the like. He’s also had a Mercedes-Benz and bought a Mustang, but sold it to a friend who also works on cars.
“All my friends, if they don’t work on cars, I make them work on cars,” Celico said. “I sold my friend the Mustang Cobra I had and he’s since turned it into something beautiful. He works at Starbucks and he doesn’t make that much money, but it’s his passion.”
You’re a jerk who’s too into your car.
Mechanic Jason Curran’s Boulder shop, Gene’s Automotive Repair, closed in 2018, and his new shop, Curran’s Garage, specializes more in people’s “toys,” like motorcycles, than general car repair. Curran, 48, said it’s possible the peak of America’s love affair with the automobile has passed, and he has made note that people who are enthusiastic about motor sports and cars in general are skewing older. He also sees the hobby sliding into higher income brackets.
“Some of it is cultural, in that a lot of young people get involved in socializing and interacting with the world through their phones and their computers,” Curran said. “It doesn’t leave a lot of room for getting into cars. I don’t think that it is everyone but it is more and more.”
Curran said one reason, as far as he is concerned, is the rise of the sport utility vehicle — a “jacked-up station wagon,” he says — as a status symbol as opposed to something sexier like a muscle car. He added that people’s memories of the muscle car tend to be better than the reality of those vehicles, which didn’t handle corners all that great (which is what made them fun).
“For example,” Curran said, “a new Toyota Camry, the most boring car you buy, is faster than a 1969 Mustang, no contest.”
He sees car culture becoming more of a niche hobby, especially as driverless cars pull closer to reality.
“I think more and more people would be more than happy to sit back and let the robot car do the job of getting them back and forth wherever they need to go,” he said. “If you can treat your transportation like a subscription service and pay a certain amount every month to have a driverless car take you where you need to go, why would you need to own a car?”
Ted Ax, of Ax and Allies, a Denver auto shop that specializes in British sports cars, said he sees car culture in America being on the way out, in part, because of the shifting values of kids today.
“Younger people are valuing experiences over things,” Ax said. “I think they value cars as transportation, and if you live in the inner city and don’t have a place to park, Uber is much more affordable. If you look at the money of owning a car, whether it’s classic or not, it’s a staggering chunk of money — even for a mediocre car.”
Ax, 54, said the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were likely the high-water mark of car culture in the U.S., but the gas crisis that struck the country in 1973 soured many people on the automobile. Its reputation has never fully recovered.
“I grew up in Boulder,” he said. “I was into cars and thought I was going to get stoned by the body snatchers just for having that hobby.”
He added that while it might once have been an acceptable thought to purchase a cool, classic car for the purposes of “picking up babes on a street corner,” now it just proves you are a jerk who is too into your car.
“I think car culture is fighting a losing battle,” he said. “But it’s still strong in its own way.”
It’s not for everyone.
Three members of Colorado Shelbys, an informal car club that celebrates Ford Shelby Mustangs, drove to the Gunbarrel museum on a Saturday morning from a meet up in Longmont. They said their contemporary Ford Shelby Mustang GT350s have hand-built motors that can’t really be improved upon without sacrificing some aspect of performance, so they mostly focus on cosmetic changes to give their cars a more unique look.
Working on the engine will also void the warranty, which depending on one’s outlook, might not be the best idea considering that one model retails for about $70,000.
Club member Collin Weeks, who lives near Frederick, said he considers the cars to be mechanical works of art.
“Artwork is designed to convey a feeling, and mechanics are designed to give you a feeling, so there is a lot of correlation between art and the car scene,” Weeks said.
The same level of passion exists as in years past, but the number of people involved in car culture is probably smaller today, said Weeks, 34. More modes of transportation exist now, like Uber, than when he was growing up, so the car perhaps doesn’t represent freedom as much as it once did. There is also a wider array of entertainment options these days.
“Now there are so many more hobbies to take people away, whether that be computer games, technology, finance, music,” he said. “I think that cars have just become less of the pie, but there is still the same fervency. There are kids today who don’t care about cars, and that’s OK. I’ll be the first to admit that cars aren’t for everyone.”
For more information on the nonprofit Shelby American Collection and its yearly Shelby Mustang giveaway, go to shelbyamericancollection.org. Admission to the museum, open only on Saturdays, is $5.