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Shelby has a knack for packing cars with a performance punch

CHRYSLER chairman Lee A. Iacocca calls it ''a marvelous little specialty shop situated right in the heart of California.'' He should know: He's the one who pays the bills.

Headed up by Carroll Shelby - renowned auto racer, sports-car designer, and, as Iacocca describes him, ''my old partner in crime on Cobras in the early '60 s'' - the Chrysler-Shelby Performance Center's only reason for existence is to plunge the resurgent Chrysler Corporation back into the automotive performance business at a bargain-basement price.

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Its specialty is not the big-ticket racing cars that other carmakers support, but cars that the ordinary motorist can afford.

When the high-performance ''think tank'' officially opened its doors in the fall of 1982 - on the back lot of Chrysler's new-car preparation center here at Santa Fe Springs - Chrysler president Harold K. Sperlich defined its goal as the development of efficient, fun-to-drive cars that are ''easy on the pocket and easy on the gas.''

The power-packed Shelby Charger, for example, was developed here, with a turbocharged version expected to hit the road in May.

''I believe that Chrysler is doing the right thing,'' says Shelby, a Texas-born entrepreneur who earned his racing spurs in the 1950s. ''It isn't trying to be fancy. . . . It's putting its money on cars that people want to buy rather than what those bums in Detroit think they ought to buy.''

Shelby, a gruff, plain-speaking cowboy who owns a ranch in east Texas, doesn't mince words. His commendation of Chrysler's market strategy is seconded by some experts in the field.

''Performance seems to come and go as a trend,'' says Martin Anderson, executive officer of the Future of the Automobile Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ''It's on the up-cycle right now,'' he adds. ''Every time you have good economic times, performance begins to count in the car market.

''So I think what Chrysler is doing is a good idea and well timed. One of the things that the Europeans and the Japanese have been able to do for a long time, '' he notes, ''is to provide performance in low-cost cars.''

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Situated just east of Los Angeles, the Chrysler-Shelby Performance Center includes a metal-fabrication shop, paint and fiberglass department, and a 15,000 -square-foot garage with 10 stalls, engine buildup areas, and machine shop. Outside there's a quarter-mile drag strip with a seven-acre skid course nearby.

The place is freshly painted, dressed up, and humming with hot-shot cars - and with motivated people who admit they like to work with former racer Carroll Shelby at the wheel.

What Shelby does not want is ''people problems,'' he insists. ''Every time someone in Detroit says, 'Hey, I feel you need a couple more engineers,' I tell him: 'Let's leave it the way it is. You've got to keep things small if they're going to work in a place such as this.'

''If we tried to work on too many projects here, we'd probably be half as efficient,'' he adds. Although the test center has only 15 people in the crew, they now have the capability of building a car from the ground up.

''We're building things like 16-valve heads, doing a lot of work on suspensions and chassis, and a heck of a lot of work on something that's very close to my heart - superchargers,'' he explains. ''I don't think the turbocharger is the end result of where we're going to be going in this thing,'' he adds. ''We've tested about eight different kinds of supercharging systems, and we're coming up with some amazing results.''

Both supercharger and turbocharger (a form of supercharger) provide more spirited performance by pumping an increased amount of air into the carburetor system, more than can be drawn in by cylinder vacuum alone. The supercharger usually operates from a direct link to the engine; the turbocharger uses exhaust gases to drive a turbine that operates the air pump.

To Mr. Anderson super-charging is a sensible option. ''The motion is more direct,'' he asserts, ''it's cheaper, more durable, and there is not so much sophisticated electronics as in turbocharging.''

Walking about Shelby's place, one sees cars in various states of adaptation. A souped-up Dodge Omni GLH, now in production and soon to be showing up at dealerships, turned in some dazzling performances.

Tests supervised by the National Hot Rod Association indicate the gussied-up Omni GLH, including rephased camshaft, 9.6-to-1 compression ratio, and recalibrated electonics, is faster 0 to 50 m.p.h. than the Volkswagen Rabbit GTI or the Camaro Z-28.

That kind of performance is all in a day's work for the east Texas cowboy who seems never to be without his 10-gallon Stetson. Back in his racetrack days, striped bib overalls were another Shelby trademark.

One of the big advantages of a place such as this is the speed at which it can get a job done. ''If we were to work on the little 4-door Omni in Detroit,'' sighs Shelby, ''we might get it out by 1987 instead of this year.''

Originally the work on the second-generation Shelby Charger 2.2 turbo was to be done at the Chrysler engineering headquarters in Detroit, but the job was moved to California. ''Speed is very important in the auto business,'' Shelby asserts.

A lot of the performance center's work will show up in Chrysler's Direct Connection catalog from which auto enthusiasts can order drive-enhancing equipment.

Talking about the performance center, Shelby says that ''a car that feels good in the hands of a man or women is really what is going to win for you in the end, and not spending $50 million a year in racing and then tooting your horn that if your cars win on the racetrack, then you can build better cars for the street.''

Shelby was born in Leesburg, Texas, the son of a postman. When he was 10 years old, his family moved to Dallas, where he did his share of street racing during his teens. Then in World War II he became a flight instructor. Following the war he worked in the oil fields, built houses, and even tried to raise chickens.

He got a late start in auto racing and design - it wasn't until he was 29 that he first raced in sanctioned competition - but he quickly made up for it. Two years after that first race he turned professional. Eight years later he retired from driving with three national championships, a record string of 19 straight victories, and numerous wins in Europe, including Le Mans.

But unlike so many successful racers, Shelby found his greatest success after he retired from the racetrack. All through his years on the track he thought about creating a relatively inexpensive American sports car to compete with Europe's best. That car became the Shelby AC Cobra.

By 1970, his ties with Ford Motor Company came to an end, and several years ago he went to work with his old Ford boss and friend, Lee Iacocca, at Chrysler.

Besides his performance-car business with Chrysler, Shelby also is involved in a custom-wheel business as well as food packaging, cattle transport, land, gold mining in Africa, and chili.

Carroll Shelby is a restless man who stays on the go. Yet in his sparse office here at the Chrysler-Shelby Performance Center, he tips far back in his chair and reminisces gleefully about the past and where he believes racing is going in the future. He gets back to his ranch in east Texas as often as he can, but then, once there, is soon making plans for his next move.

At some point that ''next move'' will bring him back to Texas for good. ''I'll go back to my cows in east Texas,'' he says. ''I like high-tech farming; that's my second love after automobiles.''

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