Text and photos by Steve Temple 

While Shelby is best known for transforming an anemic British roadster into an American muscle car, he always had a thing for European road-course race cars. Especially besting them on the track. 

But before there were ever any Shelby Cobras beating out Ferraris to win the World Manufacturers Championship, this hard-charging Texan built another car to take on the Europeans. It wore a stylish Italian body, yet those curves belied the heart of America’s sports car. 

Called the Scaglietti Corvette, only three were ever built, two of them for Shelby’s fellow Texans, Jim Hall and Gary Laughlin. They both owned Chevy dealerships, and had leaned on their connections with GM execs to acquire three ‘59 Corvettes, but without fiberglass bodies on them. 

They were then shipped to coach-builder Carrozzeria Scaglietti, in Modena, Italy, and fitted with a handcrafted aluminum bodywork. While certain design elements such as the side louvers echo ones seen on Ferrari’s Tour de France sports racer, not all of the form was fashioned for aesthetic reasons. The fastback shape and recessed rear panel have a functional aspect, directing airflow with a minimum of turbulence, somewhat akin to the recessed Kammback tail of the ‘64 Cobra Daytona Coupe.

Inside the cockpit, the interior is a Euro/Yankee melange, displaying familiar American components such as Stewart Warner gauges, a T-handle parking brake, and a Corvette shift knob. Traditional Italian touches include a cracklefinish dash, a Nardi wooden steering wheel, bolstered, camel-colored leather seats, and finely finished door hardware. Exterior touches also manifest a distinctively Euro flair, with a pair of Ansa exhaust outlets and Borrani cross-laced wire wheels. 

The overall result was an extraordinarily striking exotic, one that wowed the likes of GM Vice President Harley Earl, Chevy General Manager Ed Cole, and Corvette godfather Zora Arkus-Duntov. As noted at the outset, underneath that glorious shape are sturdy C1 Corvette mechanicals. 

Rather than being fitted with Weber or Dellorto carbs, though, the 283ci Chevy V-8 was topped by a Rochester fuel-injection system, and pumped out 315 horses. The exhaust note has an ample, all- American sound, as you blip the throttle through a four-speed Borg-Warner T-10, its gears stirred by a Hurst shifter. It’s interesting to note that the second and third cars initially had a pair of four-barrel carbs, but were later fitted with fuel injection, and their stock Powerglide automatic transmissions replaced with the four-speed setup. 

Given his early experience with the injected Chevy V-8, no surprise that it was Shelby’s first choice for the Cobra. But the Bow Tie block wasn’t available, so he went with a Blue Oval engine instead. 

For safety’s sake, the Corvette’s factory fuel tank was replaced with a comp-grade fuel cell. The rest of the chassis used a stock setup, drum brakes, and a live-axle rearend. While not sophisticated by today’s standards, the aluminum body shaved off 400 pounds, requiring some spring adjustments but also giving the Scaglietti a significant power-to-weight advantage. The mechanical fuel injection was a newer, more refined 1961 version—all pretty heady stuff back in the day. 

Even so, GM’s upper management took a dim view of this Italian/ American marriage, and Enzo Ferrari pressured Franco Scaglietti to abandon the project as well (since he did work for Ferrari). What happened to this trio of exotics? Hall’s sold at auction in 1990, and Laughlin’s went to a large collection in Japan. The third one, shown here and referred to as the “Shelby Car,” is generally acknowledged as the most attractive of the three. That’s partly because it didn’t have the Corvette’s chrome “teeth” in the grille that Laughlin insisted on for the first car in order to pander to GM management (which ultimately made no difference anyway in corporate consent for the design).  

It passed through the hands of several wealthy owners before ending up at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Since founder Bob Petersen and Carroll Shelby were longtime friends, this site is a fitting place of honor for the car. 

Also fittingly, the car’s logo combines Scaglietti’s rectangular logo and the Corvette’s crossed-flags, literally emblematic of the car’s brief yet romantic Italian-American pairing.