Why This Longhorn Is Selling One of the Largest Collections of Shelby Mustangs in the World

The first thing I see when I walk into Gary Thomas’ car warehouse in downtown Houston last December is, well, a car. But it’s not assembled yet. I get the exploded view; it’s splayed out across the floor, every rusted and bent part accounted for. The car was once particularly pretty, but its last owner liked to take things apart.

One day, sooner than later, this blessed mess will be a fully functioning, Grabber Blue 1970 Boss 429 Mustang, one of only 499 ever made, with just 1,047 original miles on it and a white deluxe interior. It’ll look like it did when it came off the lot or like it did on your daddy’s dorm room poster. It’ll look like the vast array of spotless vehicles Thomas has parked in this warehouse. It’ll be a work of art.

Thomas, BS ’72, Life Member, has told himself many times he is done buying new cars to restore. He has upward of 170 complete vehicles in this building (which also contains a hospital-type room with dozens in various states of repair) plus another 100 in East Texas just waiting to be made whole. At age 70, the retired energy executive only has so many hours in the day.

I ask him when he bought this one, the Boss 429 that needs a whole lotta love before it is ready to live in one of his four 12,000-square feet car rooms that shimmer to life when Thomas flicks the switch at the far end. “This past weekend,” he says with a knowing glance, “I get a call, and a gentleman has a 1970 Boss 429 and a 1969 Shelby GT350. And he’s ready to see them go, and he wants them to go to a good home.” This is a good home.

So, he isn’t finished. When there are masterpieces like this hiding out in old barns or covered in weeds in the middle of a field, he can’t help himself. Also, he doesn’t really have to look anymore; people know who he is. That’s what happens when you own a 60,000-square-foot warehouse protected by galvanized oil-field tubing and razor-wire. Inside is an unfathomable collection of classic American cars, one of the most expensive being a 1963 black AC Cobra 289, which is worth anywhere from $800,000 to just north of a million bucks. To boot, this isn’t his only car warehouse in downtown Houston. It’s just his newest one.

As you walk through a room filled with dozens of Shelby Mustangs—named for Carroll Shelby, who created Shelby America in 1962, building the Cobra from 1962-67 and the Shelby Mustang from 1965-67 before Ford took over—you feel like you’re in a myriad of scenarios. Did you stumble into Jay Leno’s satellite garage? Is this the rental house for the Fast & Furious franchise? Who has this many cars? Batman?

For the last 40 years or so, Thomas’ life work—outside of working his way up to becoming president of a major energy company called EOG—has been the meticulous restoration of hundreds of automobiles, merely one of which would make any baby boomer’s head explode. For a man who came from nothing and has everything, where and when does it end?

Well, soon. Or, soon enough. Thomas doesn’t quite know when, at press time, but in the near future, the Shelbys—plus a massive collection of 1932 and period-adjacent V-8 Fords—will belong to other people. All of them. And he’s using part of that to fund the $25 million he has pledged for construction of UT’s new Gary L. Thomas Energy Engineering Building, set to be completed in the fall of 2021 at the corner of 24th and Speedway.

Each Saturday morning, Thomas rises at 6 a.m. to cook breakfast for his auto crew. Along with two Salvadorian brothers, an expert restorer and mechanic named Rodney Bullock who works on his cars every day, and an old work buddy from EOG who shares his enthusiasm for cars, he will work for 10 straight hours—no sitting or slowing down—cleaning and polishing and doing whatever needs to be done. And there’s always something. Despite his lofty station in life, it has never occurred to him to keep his hands clean.

“When you are lucky enough to grow up with little, and then you’re advantaged,” he says, “you’re compelled to take care of what you have.”

Thomas’ father instilled that work ethic in him as a boy growing up in Crane, Texas, a tiny boomtown just south of Odessa. Equipped with only a sixth-grade education, Troy Thomas showed his three children the importance of taking care of the precious few possessions you might have. That included a black Ford pickup that Thomas washed West Texas dust off of three or four times a week and the push mowers and gasoline edgers he used six days each week and on which the young boy learned how to change oil. His mother taught him perseverance and meticulousness. Also a child of the Great Depression like his father, and aware that tap water in West Texas leaves mineral deposits on car finishes, she would hurriedly back her car out of the garage during a rainstorm, soap it down, and let the rain rinse it off instead of using the hose.

He liked to stand by the side of the road, trying to spot different makes and models of Fords and Chevrolets. Around the age of 8, Thomas began building spectacular plastic car models and entering them into contests at their church. When the other boys grew jealous of Thomas’ stellar machines, he’d trade them his for two or three of theirs, plus maybe a box or two of spare parts. He would then take their cars apart, sand them, fix and build them back up, and eventually sell those for more models and parts.

“I do that with the real cars today, as you saw laying out in the garage,” he says with a smile, motioning toward the splayed-out guts of the 1970 Boss 429. He still has those plastic models, too.

In high school, Thomas excelled at basketball, and planned to play at nearby Odessa Junior College. That is, until his team played at Gregory Gym and he got to see Austin for the first time. He applied for and received a scholarship to attend UT as a petroleum engineering major, sponsored by Union Oil Company of California (later Unocal).

His friends and classmates from that time, married couple Mike, BS ’74, Life Member, and Linn Riley, say he could have probably walked on to the UT men’s basketball team. Though Thomas’ hair has gone silver, he’s still tall and slender, and walks with an athlete’s gait. Basketball was, as he says, “his first love,” but his second love was continuing to blossom at UT, eating up more and more of his free time.

Thomas negotiated a deal with his parents: if he could save up for four years of college, they’d allow him to buy a brand-new car. He figured with his cheap rent—$37.50 per month his freshman year for his place a few blocks west of the Co-op—plus the $25 in tuition, he could get it done. And he did.

“It was, I hate to tell you, a General Motors product,” he says. “A 1969 Impala Super Sport 427 4-speed.” His sophomore year he got a place in West Campus that was around double his freshman year rent, but it didn’t matter—it had a garage. During the school year, he had two jobs: one at a Gulf service station, so he could work on his car after hours, and the other as a baker at Kinsolving, delivering sweet treats to coeds. During summers, he did an internship with the petroleum company Unocal, which allowed him to work first in Odessa and then Midland so he could commute from his parents’ house.

After graduating, he spent 1972-74 in Oklahoma City working for Unocal, before telling a VP that he’d like to try his hand at drilling. He was transferred to Casper, Wyoming, but his new role would take him all over the Great Plains: Utah, Montana, the Dakotas. Along the way, while the rig was moving, he’d check out salvage yards for Shelbys and Thunderbirds, slick American Ford machines that he coveted. Eventually, though, the Shelbys won his undivided attention, for a few reasons. He liked the performance aspect of the Shelby Mustangs and that Shelby was a Texan himself. But the main reason was that they were few in number and were quite special, even back then.

The Rileys remember when oil and gas reunited them with their friend in Tulsa, in the late ’70s. Thomas had married in 1976 (he and his wife divorced in 1991), and they would all get together at the Thomas home, where they’d find the beginnings of an auto body shop contained within.

“You’d go into the back bedroom and there’d be an engine in there and a transmission in the guest bath,” Mike says. “Parts everywhere,” Linn continues, “but spotless.” He was, and is still, as characterized by the clean, polished floor throughout his car house, incredibly meticulous. Back then, Linn remembers, Thomas didn’t bat an eye at carrying car parts over his cream-colored carpet.

Eventually, he was working his way up through the ranks at Enron, and was part of EOG, a company that split off from the ill-fated, erstwhile energy giant before its downfall. By the late 1990s, he was an executive of a major energy company by day and trawling listings and taking phone calls on extremely rare Fords by night.

He found Bulluck, a man who has worked on all of Thomas’ cars and managed restorations for more than 20 years, and a family team of three expert painters in Kerrville—the colors are coded, and, even 50-plus years later, can be recreated by Ford. He found a guy who bought the mold of the original Goodyear tires so he can have period-correct wheels on these bad-boys. He tracked down and hired the best upholsterers and engine and drive-train builders in the country to work on his babies. And, to get parts and cars from here-to-there, he even bought a couple of his own trailers to haul the lots.

In the last 20 years, he worked his way up to be named president of EOG, while simultaneously growing his collection to include such rarities as Hertz Rent-a-Racer Shelby Mustangs, a real 1965 Indianapolis 500 pace car, and a one-out-of-one Shelby GT500 convertible in a color called Grabber Green—it’s true to name, the green really grabs ya—ordered specially by a Ford executive at the time. He started collecting 1932 (and nearby) Ford V-8s, partially because that’s an important year in American car-making, as it is the year Henry Ford introduced that type of engine. He has, in the words of friend and former EOG coworker Jill Miller, BS ’85, Life Member, become, “his own automaker, his own company.”

That company is fueled by his will to preserve as much of history as he can, while he still can.

“I like to be hands on, too much so probably,” he says. “I have to stay in shape, got to keep doing it so I can keep doing it.”

Miller worked with Thomas at EOG for 15 years before his retirement in the fall of 2018, and the two bonded over cars. But Miller doesn’t collect them—she races them.

“I’ve been telling him for many years I’ll be happy to drive his cars,” she laughs. “He starts them and moves ’em about three feet, but he doesn’t drive them very far at all. It’s a running joke with us.”

I ask Miller what sets Thomas apart from other car collectors she has come across. No. 1, duh, he has a lot more than most normal folk.

“You don’t run across people having that many—even Jay Leno,” Miller says. “They have unique cars, but they have, like 20.”

But other than the sheer number of automobiles he has, he treats them, Miller says, “as his babies.” And he knows every single detail about every last one.

Thomas—despite his deep love for the cars, the care he gives them, and the rich history and wealth of stories they’ve provided to him—will, in the near future, sell each and every one of them.

“I’ll sell anything,” he says bluntly. “There’s a lot that I’m really attached to, but if somebody wants it, we’ll sell it.” He believes that because they are such large investments, and because they are specialty cars, the buyers will treat them right. It’s hard to imagine that they’ll get the same type of love they get in downtown Houston, but alas, everything must go. Mainly though, Thomas is happy to see the cars go to a good home, and for the money to go back to UT—the institution that afforded him so much.

“They have a chance to buy the automobile that they always wanted, they really admire,” he says, “and it’s for a good cause for them as well.”

Besides, it isn’t even about the cars, really. Sure, they’re pretty, and he loves each and every one of them. But really, it’s about putting his hands under the hood. It’s making connections with people like Miller and his car-loving buddies around the world. It’s tracking down 1960s drag racer Lucy Below in the Woodlands and bringing her out to the car house to see her old Ford Mustang Mach 1 Sportsroof with a 428-cubic-inch, Super Cobra Jet, Ram Air engine, that he lovingly restored—which he did last November. Below, now in her 80s, cried when she saw it in person, a machine she spent countless sweaty days and nights in and hadn’t seen in more than 50 years.

“We’re just caretakers of the cars, and they’re a part of history,” Thomas says. “The best thing about that is the people that you meet.”

The Rileys saw that more than 40 years ago. Mike would organize a pheasant hunt for his oil and gas buddies every year in his hometown, Perryton, just north of Amarillo. The other guys would thrill to chasing game, but not so much Thomas.

“He was interested in the relationships with the people,” Mike says.

In fact, a few short weeks after I leave the car warehouse, Thomas will fly to Scottsdale, Arizona, for the Barrett-Jackson, a week-long car auction featuring vehicles from John Elway, Simon Cowell, and Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, among other celebrities. He has been chatting away with his automobile buddies about when everyone is getting in, and when they can meet up to talk shop. This is what keeps the passion for automobile restoration alive.

When I call him the following week, he has some news. For the first time in his 15 years of attending the event, he didn’t buy anything, even though he had his eye on a few cars.

“I sat on my hands,” he says. “I got too many to take care of.”

He spent the weekend doing research on the market. After all, he has almost 200 cars to sell, and he needs to know what’s what.

Besides, he has projects waiting in his East Texas warehouse that he’s excited to get to, like the rare, light yellow 1950 Mercury convertible with red and black interior he bought almost 20 years ago. “It sounds strange, but it’s really pretty,” he says. “It just needs a little TLC.”

Photographs by Brian Goldman.



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