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Robert Sarrailh: building an American legend in Le Mans

04.06.2020

If you like Shelby Cobras you’ve probably already seen one prepared by the French company ATS (Auto Techno Sport) in Le Mans. Owner Robert Sarrailh is one of the industry’s leading experts when it comes to Shelby’s race cars, from the Cobra to the GT40. Most notably, the Frenchman received in 1989 exclusive permission to continue building the Daytona Coupe, the icon of American Le Mans heritage.

Robert Sarrailh: building an American legend in Le Mans

ATS seems to specialise in American race cars especially those from the hands of Carroll Shelby, is that correct?

Yes, exactly! We’ve been doing this for over 30 years. We specialise mostly in GT40s, AC Cobras and the Daytona Coupe. In fact, we were granted special permission from the man himself, Carroll Shelby, to continue production of the legendary Daytona Coupe.

What was your attraction to these cars? It seems unusual for a French company to be so interested in American race cars.

For me it was two things that attracted me to Shelby and his cars. First, it was the persona of Shelby himself, a self-taught man with big ideas. He was a legendary race driver and Le Mans winner. He was also a very regular Texan man; a chicken farmer turned auto manufacturer. In the past he lost his whole investment as all his animals were killed by disease. He knew what losing meant. Afterwards he chose to chase his dream to become a professional racer and won several international races. Because of heart problems, his career came to an unexpected end. But he bounced and became a car manufacturer. Strengthened by his race experience he knew he had to build a car capable of winning races. The real key to Carroll’s success is his talent for spotting racers who had the potential to win races driving his Cobras. But second, in the case of the Daytona Coupe, he built a car in his workshop that could beat Ferrari with only a fraction of the budget. The Ford GT40 was a different story. I also love this era of racing. It was the last time small constructers could build a race car in their shop, race at Le Mans and win. A few years later everything was run by big-budget manufacturers.

ATS seems to specialise in American race cars especially those from the hands of Carroll Shelby, is that correct?

What made the Daytona Coupe so special? And how did you get approval from Carroll to build more?

The Daytona Coupe, with Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant behind the wheel, won Le Mans (in the GT category) in 1964 beating the dominant Ferraris. It was a car built by Shelby with a Ford engine in it. The Daytona Coupe was based on the Shelby Cobra. A combination of an English lightweight chassis from AC and a 4.7 litre V8 from Ford. The original open-top design was not aerodynamic enough for Le Mans. So, they built a new car around the same chassis. It was a project that was imagined by Peter Brock, his first employer, who also led the Shelby racing school in Riverside. Besides this, Brock was also a genial designer, with a career at GM where he worked on the Corvette Stingray and pushed the boundaries of American car design. We had been working on Shelby’s for years. At one point we even invited Carroll to come and see what we did. Instead of building replicas I wanted to build original cars, and Shelby liked what he had seen and gave me written permission to build more Daytona’s here in France. Which we did with a small team of passionate people, who are currently working for my son Fabien, a young engineer and mechanical genius. I retired 10 years ago.

What made the Daytona Coupe so special? And how did you get approval from Carroll to build more?

We all know the Matt Damon interpretation of Carroll thanks to the movie Le Mans 66 (or Ford vs Ferrari). What was Carroll really like?

Most of my communication went through an intermediary, a famous photographer called Bernard Cahier. From the brief moment I did meet Carroll he was always very open and easy going. He was a very passionate person. I’ve seen the movie and there have been a lot of dramatics added to it. For instance, Shelby never had a fight with Miles, but that’s Hollywood…

We all know the Matt Damon interpretation of Carroll thanks to the movie Le Mans 66 (or Ford vs Ferrari). What was Carroll really like?

You’re also working on a very special project, a GT40. Can you tell us about that?

Yes, together with La Fondation du Patrimoine and Motul we’re restoring Ford GT40/P/1020/67. It’s the Ford GT40, chassis number 1020, that ran at Le Mans in 1967. It’s currently on display at the Le Mans 66 exhibition and we’ll begin restoring it quite soon. We have been relying on Motul oil for 30 years now and we’re maintaining good contacts with its staff and the managing director. We have a strong partnership going.

Picture credits: Alexis Toureau, ATS

You’re also working on a very special project, a GT40. Can you tell us about that?
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