Leftlane interviews Shelby American President John Luft

For nearly 50 years, the best known name in four-wheeled performance has been Carroll Shelby, and while not quite everything he touched turned to gold - hello Dodge Dakota - the Shelby American works in Las Vegas have teamed up with Ford to crank out some especially impressive hits lately. Leftlane sat down with Shelby's new president, John Luft, to talk about where the company stands today - and we took the opportunity to poke and prod to find out about future Shelby models.

Luft was promoted from within last month after now-former president Amy Boylan stepped down from the position. For the last 10 years, Luft oversaw Shelby's vast licensing efforts.

You're new to the presidency, but not to Shelby or to performance cars.

John Luft: I grew up as a teenage street racer in San Diego. When you grow up in Southern California, you're all about what kind of car you drive. I grew up in the late '70s and all your friends had different types of cars. I just happened to be the guy that had the Mustang. I raced up and down Valley Parkway challenging all oncomers as we often did back then. I hardly had two nickels to rub together to put gas in the car, but I could race up and down the street.

I was raised with a father that was into off road racing. We had all kinds of dune buggies and sand rails. Speed was part of my upbringing; I guess you could say I cut my teeth on it.

I've been in Carroll's organization for 10 yrs as the president of licensing and I've served on the board with Shelby automobiles and I've been dealing with every strategic issue from 2003 on. I often dealt with it at 30,000 feet and now I'm at ground zero.

I was always involved in the Ford negotiations because they always involve a license agreement. I've been knee deep in it.

Carroll is a veritable fountain of youth despite his 87 years. What is his involvement in Shelby American today?

Carroll will always say that he is not involved and that he leaves it up to his executives to manage, but the reality is that I know it's a slow day at my desk if I don't get at least six calls from him.

He's highly involved and he's approachable. He calls me six times along with probably a dozen different employees he talks to regularly.

He's very hands on, even at 87.

We've seen other performance brands struggle in the current economy. How has Shelby American fared?

We have felt the downturn, but Carroll's philosophy has saved us from any dramatic impact. His philosophy is that if you have 5,000 people who really want this car, you only build 4,000. Carroll says, 'I want to leave that last thousand with a thirst in anticipation of the next car we build."

Let's talk about new and upcoming products. Tell us about the development of the reborn GT350.

Luft: The [original] GT350 is the Holy Grail of Shelbys. Much like Star Wars, they launched the original and then did a prequel. So for us to launch GT500 and then back up to the GT350 was in true Star Wars fashion. The original GT350 had some of the earliest history of street performance, and of course the R model was designed to win.

In SCCA circles, the GT350 very handily beat Corvettes. That was the genesis of the Mustang-based Shelbys, so it was only fitting that history repeated itself.

The base model was introduced a few months ago with the supercharger and styling and performance enhancements, and now we have announced the naturally aspirated version . The naturally aspirated car was the result of customer requests. I'd say five out of 10 calls for the GT350 were asking the question, 'Is there a naturally aspirated version? Or an automatic?'

When you have that type of feedback from consumers, you'll give them what they want.

We just recently attended a huge Ford dealer preview in Detroit and the dealers were unanimously pleased with the naturally aspirated model.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, are there plans for a Terlingua package for the Ford Mustang's new 3.7-liter V6?

Luft: That's to be determined. At this time, we don't have a new product on the drawing board. We have focused all of our design and engineering efforts toward the development and launch of the GT350.

How much of the positioning of the naturally aspirated GT350 was driven by price?

Luft: Price resistance was never a factor when people were considering purchasing the supercharged conversion. It was really the result of SCCA track potential, which we learned from the Shelby GT, which had such a great presence. And then it gets down to drivability - not everyone wants that blower and that kind of power. Like the Shelby GT, you can use the naturally aspirated GT350 as an easy daily driver, too.

You had access to Ford's new 5.0 long before Ford announced the Mustang. Obviously there is a close relationship between Shelby American and Ford Motor Company.

Luft: When the book is written, the last chapters will obviously include Ford. I joined Carroll in 2000 and he was in negotiations with Ford when I joined the company. And I think they finished the negotiations in 2004 or 2005. It was a long process [laughs].

If you remember history, when Carroll and Ford parted ways, it was a changing of the guard. There was a certain animosity and at that time emissions were coming into the automotive world and it was time to go on hiatus.

That's when Carroll spent 10 to 12 years in Africa. Always an interesting time in his life.

So for Carroll to come back today, it's almost the script he couldn't have written for himself.

Carroll just came back from a week in Detroit, where he sat for hours with the designers working on the new GT500. They put him behind the wheel, they sat there just listening to his every comment. Carroll, at 87, just amazes me. When he shifts gears and really focuses on the issue at hand, his responses are instinctive. They're not anything he learned in engineering school, they're just instinctive.

They're ecstatic with his involvement and we're ecstatic with our involvement with Ford.

Let's dream a little. You're the man at the top at Shelby American and you grew up around off road performance. Shelby American's best friend is Ford Motor Company, which conveniently produces a phenomenal desert racing truck, the F-150 SVT Raptor. See where we're going here?

I have learned to never say never [Laughs].