The Shelby ME - The dream that might have been!
written by Ian Winters (around year 2002)

I was made aware that the Shelby ME was being advertised for sale in the USA earlier this year. Upon contacting the vendor for more information I found that the car is still in the hands of the men who tried to bring the AC 3000 ME to the states, Steve Hitter and Barry Gale.

I asked Steve to give me the history behind the failed attempt at bringing the ME to the American market, below the tale unfolds, however before reading the tale it’s worth knowing a few details about some of the people/cars mentioned.

Carroll Shelby: as well as Cars, Carroll Shelby is also famous for Chili. This started in 1967 when he and Dallas Attorney, Dan Witts wanted to dispose of their ranch in Terlingua, Texas. They came up with the idea of having a Chili cook-off at the ranch to find the best Chili in the world. This started as just a gathering of friends but grew to into an annual event and now there are over 300 cook-off’s some attracting a crowd of 15,000 or more. The land was sold and Mr Shelby founded the Original Texas Chili Company to boot.

Lew Spencer: an accomplished racer, raced the first Sunbeam Tiger developed by Shelby from the Sunbeam Alpine for Ian Garrard (Rootes West Coast Manager), just as the Cobra had been developed from the AC ACE.

Lee Iacocca worked for Ford as a marketing manager and was instrumental in agreeing to Ford assisting in the creation of the AC Cobra. Known also as the ‘Father’ of the Mustang. He moved from Ford to become Chrysler’s President in November 1978 and became Chairman in 1979, a post he held until stepping down in 1993.

K cars – These 1980’s cars such as the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant were based upon 4 and 6 cylinder front wheel design and were to save Chrysler. The American market of the early 80’s wanting smaller more fuel efficient cars rather than the fuel guzzling V8’s that Chrylser had been producing.

In the mid-70s Steve Hitter had an Advertising Agency in Los Angeles. Among his clients where GT Products and Carroll Shelby Chili. GT Products was owned by Ray Geddes who had run the Shelby project for Ford and was instrumental in the Ford agreement with DeTomaso to build and import Panteras. When that ended he decided to go into the automobile accessory business, starting with ‘Pantera Parts’. Lew Spencer of West Coast AC Cobra and Sunbeam Tiger fame was his General Manager and Barry Gale was in charge of the Warehouse, Steve Hitter himself produced the Advertisements and Catalogues.

In the late-70s Ray decided to get out of the Pantera business, so Barry and Steve bought ‘Pantera Parts’ from him and renamed it ‘Panteramerica’. In addition to parts they imported “grey market” Panteras in a deal with DeTomaso via their distributor in Belgium, Claude DuBois. Claude was also the AC distributor for Belgium.

On one of Barry's trips to Europe in 1980, Claude mentioned that AC would no longer get engines for the 3000ME from Ford. Although I’ve not heard this from any other source this would appear to be logical given that the last Ford Capri to use the Essex unit was the Capri MkIII 3000s which was phased out in June 1981.

At that time the US car manufacturers were introducing 4 and 6 cylinder front wheel drive cars with the engine mounted in front of the wheels and transaxle. Barry and Steve we realised that they could take the complete drivetrain and mount it in the rear of the AC to create a mid-engined car.

In late 1980, Barry and Steve flew to England to meet with the Hurlocks and negotiated a deal. Like DeTomaso, AC cars were very concerned about US product liability, so as they had done with DeTomaso, they arranged to "buy" the cars through Claude DuBois in Belgium. In December they received their Agreement for the US rights to the car from AC Cars. They ordered the first (as it turned out, only) car, without engine and transaxle, completely assembled, but unpainted.

In the interim, Barry and Steve had contacted both GM and Ford to supply drivetrains. Ford was interested, but at that time only had low powered 4 cylinder engines in the proper configuration. GM had 6 cylinder engines in their "X" cars, which seemed to be a good fit and were willing to do "something".
The car arrived in the USA in February 1981. Barry and Steve enlisted Kas Kastner (he had been in charge of Triumph racing on the West Coast, so he knew his way around British
cars) to do the engineering, so the car was sent to his place in Torrance.

While waiting for GM, Barry and Steve started redesigning the body. Dealing with GM was proving to be a very long and frustrating experience, layers of people that could never say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but sent you to someone else. Months later, they received a Buick V6 with an automatic transmission, instead of the Chevy V6 with 4-speed transaxle that had been requested.

As fate would have it, Barry and Steve ran into Carroll Shelby in Las Vegas at the SEMA show. (The automotive aftermarket trade show). He had just made his deal with Chrysler, Barry and Steve explained what they were doing, how frustrated they were with GM and invited him to come look at the car.

Shelby went to Kas’, understood what they were trying to do and agreed to get involved. The facility that Chrysler was building for him in Santa Fe Springs was not finished, so Barry and Steve continued work on the exterior at Kas’. Restyled the body, pulled the moulds and replaced the original exterior panels (primarily wings and front end) with the new design. The body was painted white and when the Chrysler Shelby Performance Centre (CSPC) was ready the car was transported there.

The plan was for Shelby to install the highest performance Chrysler K car engine and transmission and then present the car to Lee Iacocca as the AC Shelby Chrysler. Barry and Steve would do the final assembly in California, just like the original AC Shelby Cobra.

The AC project was not the priority at Chrysler Shelby. Before this project was viable, there had to be a performance version of the Chrysler K Car and its offsprings. The mandate At CSPC was to create Performance Chrysler Sedans and Trucks and this they did. In the mean time they fitted the Chrysler Turbo and five speed into the AC and got it running. New wheels and tyres completed the exterior revisions.

Finally the time came for the presentation to Iacocca and the rest of the
Chrysler Top Management. The car was sent to Metalcrafters (famed for producing
numerous Chrysler show cars and prototypes) for final bodywork and paint, however plans for the revisions to the rear end to include Chrysler taillights were put on hold. Painted Chrysler Shelby Blue and Silver the car was presented to Iacocca and company along with the other Shelby project cars. Unfortunately for Barry and Steve, the mandate at the then “new” Chrysler was front wheel drive!
Mid-engined sports car just did not fit Iacocca’s vision.
The car remained at Shelby’s for a time, and was used to test different incarnations of the Chrysler engine end transaxle.

When the Chrysler / Shelby deal ended, and they closed the Santa Fe Springs facility, a disappointed Barry and Steve picked up the car and put it in storage, however Steve remains philosophical about the whole episode saying ‘If Shelby could not make it happen, it wasn’t going to happen’.

Kas Kastner went on to run the highly successful Nissan racing teams
featuring the all conquering IMSA GTP cars; Barry went to Law School, and Steve
got a proverbial “offer he couldn’t refuse” from a client and went to work
for them. We all know what happened to Shelby.

The car has been in storage in Southern California since being picked up by Barry and Steve. It was never driven in rain, and has remained good and dry since then. In total it has done less than 1000 miles.
(Note, the odometer shows 216 miles)

Chassis 161