Father of the Cobra and winner of Le Mans, Carroll Shelby did it all in the automotive world.
In automotive circles, few names evoke the level of reverence and respect that Carroll Shelby’s name does. It’s a name synonymous with speed. Shelby was a pilot, chicken farmer, racecar driver, racecar builder, astute marketer, and one of the purest, true blue, dyed-in-the-wool car nuts to ever crank a wrench or stomp a throttle. He won Le Mans, built the Cobra, and made the Mustang fast. He inspired generations of car enthusiasts the world over and his legacy is no less relevant some ten years after his passing.
Carroll Shelby was born in Leesburg, Texas in 1923, and his love of cars began early in life. Shelby said his first memories were traveling on his father’s rural mail route in a Willys Overland. A heart condition diagnosed at age 8 kept Shelby from participating in sports, but it didn’t stop him from attending local oval-track car races. Eventually, Shelby’s heart condition improved, allowing him to pursue things as he pleased, including driving.
According to Shelby, the day after getting his driver’s license at age 14, he asked his father if he could borrow the family’s old Dodge for a drive around the block. Shelby promptly drove to a main thoroughfare where he was pulled over doing 80 mph.; it was a while before he allowed back behind the wheel.
Shelby joined the Army Air Corp. at 18 and quickly took to flying as he had driving cars. During WWII, Shelby trained pilots at the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center. After the war, Shelby jumped from job to job, exhibiting a restlessness that hinted at horizons greater than working as an oil rig roughneck or running a chicken farm.
Shelby had always loved racing and, in 1952, decided to try to make a career of it, entering a race with his friend’s MG TC. Shelby took the British roadster to victory in his first two races. Clearly, Shelby had the knack, and he began racing for Aston Martin in 1953.
During his racing career, Shelby set speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats; 30 race wins in ’56 got him named Sports Illustrated’s driver of the year, an honor he’d reclaim the following year. As a driver Shelby did a bit of everything, hill climbs, endurance races, and even dabbling in F1.
It all culminated in Shelby’s win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959, driving an Aston Martin DBR1 along with co-driver Roy Salvadori. During this time, Shelby’s heart condition had recurred. During his final races in 1960, he was forced to take nitroglycerin tablets while he drove. It was clear to Shelby his racing days were over, but his contributions to racing were far from finished.
In the early 1960s, Shelby transitioned to other ventures that included the founding of the Shelby School of High-Performance Driving at Riverside, CA and forming Shelby American, Inc. with the purpose of building a new race car inspired by the light yet powerful Allards of his early racing days.
Shelby initially approached GM with his idea and parlayed three Corvettes for conversion. That trio was shipped off to Italy and were reskinned by none other than Sergio Scaglietti (designer of many, many Ferraris). But before those three cars, known to history as the Corvette Scaglietti Coupes, even made it back stateside, GM had pulled the plug on the project, wary that Shelby’s new car might overshadow the Corvette.
Undeterred, Shelby began casting about for alternatives and heard rumor that A/C Cars of Britain had lost their engine supplier. He called them up with a proposal to, A/C bodies married to an American V8. A/C Cars liked the idea. The only hitch was Shelby didn’t yet have a deal for an engine, but he knew Ford’s new Windsor’s V8 was a likely fit. At his meeting with Ford, Shelby pitched the new car as a chance for Ford to help build a Corvette-beater. One executive that liked the idea was Ford’s general manager at the time, Lee Iacocca.
In 1962, Shelby began building and racing the first of his A/C Cobras. A perfect blend of lightness and power, the Cobra is one of the greatest American cars ever made. Even so, it failed to finish its first race in ’62. But once refined, the Cobra quickly began picking up wins (with drivers Ken Miles and Dave McDonald behind the wheel) and doing just what Shelby had promised, beating Corvettes in the process. Among the biggest wins was a GT class in at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and fourth overall finish.
Notably, the Cobra 427 was, from 1964 to 1966, the fastest production car in the world with a top speed of 165 mph.
In the mid-1960s, Ford had a new hit on their hands, the Ford Mustang. People loved the look of the car. What they didn’t like as much was how slow the car was. Those first ’64 ½ Mustangs were based off the Falcon and came with mundane straight sixes under their hoods and weren’t particularly fast. Enter Carroll Shelby, who, for the 1965 model year, helped develop (and lend his name to) the Shelby GT350. Most of the upgrades address the car’s handling. Though Ford had already given the Mustang a V8, Shelby tuned it up for an additional 35 horsepower as well as giving it a functional hood scoop and those signature racing stripes. It was just the first of many Mustangs to carry the Shelby name.
When Ford decided to make a return to racing and specifically take on Ferrari on their own “turf” at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, they turned to Shelby for help developing the car. That car would be the GT40 which Shelby, Ken Miles, Pete Brock, and company took to a 1, 2, 3 finish at Le Mans in 1966. You can read more about this legendary grudge match between Ford and Ferrari here.
Though Shelby transitioned away from racing in his later years, focusing on ventures that included a tire distribution business, his expertise (and name) was frequently called upon when car executives wanted to build something fast. In the early 1980s, Lee Iacocca asked for Shelby’s help and car celebrity cache on what would become the Dodge Shelby Charger as well as the Dodge Omni GLH. Shelby would make a return to Dodge less than a decade later for the Dodge Viper project (directly echoing the Cobra in both spirit and name). Shelby even drove the new Viper as the pace car for the 1991 Indy 500.
With a breezy Texas drawl and mischievous glint in his eye, Carroll Shelby was a charismatic and inspirational figure. But it’s only once you look, or better drive, a Cobra, that you begin to understand his true spirit. A purist at heart, Shelby gained notoriety and made plenty of money along the way, but in the final analysis, it was always and remained about the pursuit of speed for its own sake.