Terlingua, Texas: Where Carroll Shelby’s rat pack let their Mustangs run wild Page 3

2018 Ford Mustang GT in Terlingua, Texas

2018 Ford Mustang GT in Terlingua, Texas

When Shelby bought Terlingua, its population stood at seven, a number that didn’t include a few goats and a pair of burros. Shelby and his drinking buddy, Dallas attorney Dave Witts, sought to create a high-end residential development in the area, banking on the allure of its remote nature as a place for well-heeled folks to kick back and relax.

At least that was how they presented the place publicly. In reality, Terlingua was where they came to unwind. Shelby and Witts invited their friends—a diverse crowd they dubbed the Rat Pack—and they’d load up a DC-3 in Dallas with dirt bikes, hunting rifles, cases of booze, and enough provisions to keep their bellies full in case they didn’t sober up well enough to actually kill any animals.

The crew could have hung out in LA, where Shelby kept a house. Shelby wasn't a loner, but he didn't follow the crowd in anything he did. Why throw parties in a trendy mid-mod house in Bel-Air when he could disappear to his home state for a while? 

2018 Ford Mustang GT in Terlingua, Texas

2018 Ford Mustang GT in Terlingua, Texas

Shelby compatriot, artist Bill Neale, even designed a logo for their hootenanny, a rabbit-like critter that they dubbed the Terlingua City Council’s coat of arms.

Neale said that Shelby was inspired by European heraldry.

“They do them with lions and eagles and gargoyles. I had done a rabbit ‘cause the jackrabbits are big in that part of Texas. He is holding his paw up to say no more peppers in the chili. Shelby liked it. He liked the yellow and the black. That resulted in Shelby asking me to help with a paint job in ’67 for the Trans Am. That’s when I added Terlingua Racing Team across the top of it. Then, the rest of it is kind of a long story about how much fun we’ve had putting it on various cars and things of that nature. It really has been amazing. It’s been on so doggone many cars and airplanes.”

Over its first few years, the Terlingua Land and Cattle Company didn’t sell a single lot to any rich folks. That was just fine with Shelby and his Rat Pack. A desert oasis was never at the forefront of their planning until Shelby and Witts brought in Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert, whose wit and definitive Texas chili recipe made him legendary.

2018 Ford Mustang GT in Terlingua, Texas

2018 Ford Mustang GT in Terlingua, Texas

Tolbert described the area in detail and used it as the setting for a chili cook-off—an annual event that eventually came to define Terlingua long after Shelby’s crew threw their last party. A failed real-estate gold rush became a grocery-store brand instead. Commercially sold chili was not a success, but few of his ventures were.

The Terlingua heraldry became an inside joke for Shelby and his pals. The logo came to symbolize their place, a dusty desert oasis that was bound to fail.

The group slapped Neale’s rabbit logo onto a Mustang-based Shelby GT350-R in 1965 before a race near Dallas. It was a harbinger of things to come and it marked the beginning of the half-serious, half tongue-in-cheek Terlingua Racing Team. The Rat Pack made a hobby out of putting Terlingua stickers onto race cars, a habit that peaked with the 1966 Indy 500. Legend has it that 32 of the 33 Indy racers that year had Terlingua stickers festooned to their bodies.

2018 Ford Mustang GT in Terlingua, Texas

2018 Ford Mustang GT in Terlingua, Texas

The only car without a Terlingua sticker belonged to Graham Hill, the race winner. It’s easy to imagine Shelby joking over a few Lone Star longnecks that Terlingua could have been a success if only Hill’s car had that damn sticker.

The Terlingua Racing Team reached its zenith during the 1967 Trans-Am series, when a Mustang driven by Jerry Titus swathed in what Neale called “god-awful yellow” won the series title.

Our red Mustang didn’t get a souvenir sticker from the only store in Terlingua. The California-based LLC that holds the rights to the logo today doesn’t sell such knickknacks where you’d expect. That probably would be fine with Carroll Shelby, never the best businessman, but always the best salesman.

For two months, Motor Authority crisscrossed the U.S. in an automotive icon seeking stories about the Ford Mustang's place in American history. These are our stories from the road about its owners, its history, and its status as an evolving symbol of our relationship with cars in America.

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