Former race car driver Carroll Shelby reckons he could be a billionaire today if he had taken Toyota up on its offer to distribute cars for the upstart company back in the 1960s.
Instead Shelby, now 84, turned his good racer buddy, Tom Friedkin, on to the deal. And it was Friedkin who in 1969 acquired Gulf States Toyota Inc., an independent distributor that has annual revenue of more than $4 billion and is getting stronger each year.
Says Shelby: "I turned it down because I went to Lee Iacocca, and he told me not to take it because the domestic makers were going to push the Japanese back into the ocean. But I'm happy for my friend. At least a friend made the money."
Shelby says that financially, he regrets not taking the Toyota deal. "But," he says, "with a billion dollars, I'd probably be in a casket by now."
Instead, he's still making Shelby Cobras and their 427-cubic-inch engines. He's also a distributor for Good- year racing tires.
Gulf States, of Houston, and Southeast Toyota Distributors Inc., founded by Jim Moran in Deerfield Beach, Fla., now are Toyota's only U.S. distributors. It has been a win-win situation for both the distributors and for Toyota.
Gulf States and Southeast Toyota have made billions from Toyota. In return, the automaker has learned how to sell and market to U.S. consumers.
"Jim Moran taught us about Toyotathon and the finance business," said Jim Press, who was Toyota's top U.S. executive until his recent departure for Chrysler. "Gulf States is teaching us truck sales today, so we still have an outside influence to avoid 'big company' disease."