Carroll Shelby, More Than Mustangs


Photo by Micheal Price in Wikipedia Creative Commons

These two cars are Carroll Shelby Cobras.

Tate Larsen, Staff Writer

Carroll Shelby is one of the most fascinating people. Many know him as the namesake of Ford’s Shelby Mustang. Yet, labeling him as only a guru of muscle cars is too one dimensional.

Carroll was born on Jan. 11, 1923, to Warren and Eloise Shelby in Leesburg, Texas. Shelby’s dad was a rural mail carrier and Shelby would often tag along on his routes with him. He had one sister, Lula, who was three years younger. By the age of seven, Shelby would have heart valve leakage problems causing him to suffer with heart conditions his whole life. Growing up he became extremely interested in speed, his attention always on planes and automobiles. Around the age of 10 he would ride his bicycle to a nearby dirt track to watch races. He could not wait to own his own car and by the age of 15 he was driving and caring for his father’s two-door ford sedan.

It is interesting how all of us start out basically the same. We have parents. We experience some hardship. We become interested in something. And some of us, like Shelby, follow our dreams.

After graduating high school Shelby joined the army Air Corps in 1942 where he earned his wings and would be commissioned as a second lieutenant. He wanted to go to battle, but his requests were never granted. He spent time on many different bases in Colorado and California before leaving the army in 1945.

Shelby tried a series of jobs. He started his own dump truck business in Dallas, tried working as a roughneck in the oil fields for a short stint in 1948-49 and worked as a poultry farmer. His first batch of chickens earned him $5,000, but his second all died from disease. 

A trait that successful people share is they reinvent themselves into something else when they fail. It is weird to think that a guy who created numerous famous cars, had businesses and ideas that just did not work. Failure does not stop legends.

When Shelby was 29, he began racing professionally. In May of 1952 he entered a race with his friend’s MG-TC sports car which, interestingly, had a wooden frame. He blazed to first place. Later the same day he entered and won another race this time against must faster Jaguar XK120s. He won 12 races over the next two years which gained the attention of Aston Martin’s team manager John Wyer and they offered him a spot on their race team in 1954. Shelby remained dominant through the rest of the 50s with “Sports Illustrated” naming him Driver of the Year in 1956-57. The peak of his racing career came in 1959 when he won 24 Hours of Lemans with Aston Martin. In 1960 he would retire as a racer due to his heart condition.

Sometimes when life changes we whine and blame the world. Shelby pivoted and just got to work on the next project. His heart condition did not prevent him from being around the machines that made his mind tick. Although he could no longer drive, he could still be a car mastermind.

Over the years Shelby drove plenty of fast cars from Ferraris and Maseratis to Aston Martins and Jaguars. He was fascinated by the speed of the car, but not the engine that needed constant maintenance and repairs. What Shelby wanted was a car with European handling but that America V-8 power. His dream became a reality when he learned that AC, a British car company, had recently lost their engine supplier for their Bristol sports car. He reached out to the company with his idea, and they were extremely enthusiastic. He also talked to Ford about building the engines. Ford loved the idea of a car that could compete with GM’s prized Corvette. In the end, AC built the chassis and sent them to Shelby’ garage in California and Ford shipped Shelby the engines. 

Ford sent Shelby 260 cui and 289 cui engines to put in the AC. Now Shelby had all the pieces to make his dream come true and opened Shelby American in 1962. The new car would be coined the Cobra. When racing Ferrari on the speedy European tracks Shelby needed a more aerodynamic Cobra, so they made a body named the Daytona coupe that won the GT World Manufacturers Championship on July 4,1965.

Meanwhile at Ford, after a jaw-dropping year of sales in Mustang’s first year, Lee Iacocca, a chairman at the company, was still worried that the car lacked the performance he envisioned for customers. So he brought in Shelby to beef up the Mustang’s motor. Shelby created the GT350 and GT500. To learn more about these Mustangs go to my previous column. 

After Ford failed to win a Le Mans with their new Ford GT40 and after Henry Ford’s attempt to buy Ferrari went sideways, Iacocca suggested to an unhappy Henry Ford to hire Shelby, the goal being to beat Ferrari at their own game in the race 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

From 1949, two years after the creation of Ferrari, and the first race after World War ll, Ferrari won nine times and six times in a row up until 1966. That is like Michael Jordan and the Bulls winning six titles in the 1990s. The 24 hours of Le Mans is one of the most prestigious races in the world. 

Shelby and racer Ken Miles worked tirelessly over the next two seasons to develop the GT into a monster using a 7.0L (427cui) engine. After the car retired (broke down) in the 1965 Le Mans, which Ferrari won, Ford would come back with a vengeance in 1966 beating Ferrari and having their GT40s place 1, 2, 3. SInce then Ferrari has never placed first at Le Mans. To end a streak like Ferrari’s is outstanding, but to shut out Ferrari one, two, three is legendary. Shelby became the only person to win Le Mans as a driver, manufacturer and a team captain. 

In 1968 Shelby handed off the reins to the Shelby vehicles to Ford and retired from the automotive world of manufacturing and racing. He spent time raising Kobe beef and bonding with his grandchildren on his ranch in Pittsburgh, Texas. He took trips to Africa to experience its beautiful landscapes and animals sometimes staying there for nine months. In this “retirement” he became a Goodyear tire distributor and created the Shelby Wheel Company. His love for chili led to the creation of the Championship Chili Cook-off in Terlingua, Texas. In 1972 he came out with his own original Texas brand chili that sold in stores from coast to coast and became a great success. While known for cars and racing, Shelby was one of the greatest businessmen of all time. He tried businesses from manufacturing cars and car accessories to making chili.  

In this world of go, go, go all the time, we should all note that this prolific inventor utilized down time. After years of winning in racing Shelby’s mind needed a break, so he took the time he needed. Then, he was back to invention.

In 1982 Shelby returned from his hiatus to partner with an old buddy Iacocca. Iacocca was now at Fiat Chrysler. Shelby helped create new engines at Dodge for the Dodge Dakota and Charger, and the Omni GLH (Goes Like Hell).

In 1990 Shelby received a heart transplant and then created the Shelby Foundation which was to help young kids around the work with life-threatening diseases.

In 2005 Shelby went back to help Ford create another GT350 and GT500 up until his death in 2012 making him the longest-living heart transplant recipient.

Shelby is a legend. His legend lives on through guys like me who dream muscle cars.