Carroll Shelby Dies at 89

Inventing the American Sports Car


  • Carroll Shelby Picture

    Carroll Shelby Picture

    Carroll Shelby. | July 12, 2010

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Carroll Hall Shelby, whose career as a racer and a car builder spanned nearly six decades, has died at age 89.

Shelby had been at the center of sports car enthusiasm in America since the early 1950s, first as a racing driver, then as a car builder and motorsports team owner, and finally as an entrepreneur who was on a first-name basis with the foremost automotive industrialists of his time.

It might be said that Carroll Shelby invented his own style of sports car, a unique combination of a lightweight European-style chassis and durable American V8 power. This vision changed shape through the years, as the Shelby Cobra gave way to the Shelby Daytona Coupe, Ford Mustang GT350, Ford Mustang GT500, Dodge Shelby Charger, Dodge Viper RT/10, Shelby Series 1, Ford Shelby Cobra Concept, Ford Shelby GR-1 and Ford Shelby GT500. Yet Shelby was always talking about one car — a uniquely American sports car that could measure up to Europe's finest.

An Amazing Tale
Shelby had battled heart problems since 1960, when they ended his career as a racing driver after eight years and just one year after he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Diagnosed with a heart murmur as a child and bedridden between the ages of 6 and 14, he ultimately had a heart transplant in June 1990. In 1996, a 73-year-old Shelby also received a kidney from his son, Michael. "I'll be fine as long as I don't run out of spare parts," Shelby told Inside Line in 2008.

Shelby was active to the end. He was honored as the 2008 Automotive Executive of the Year and he appeared at the 2009 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where he helped Ford executives introduce the 540-horsepower 2010 Ford Shelby Mustang GT500. "A truly special car that is a great deal of fun to drive," Shelby said.

Although Shelby initially had a collegial relationship with many of the entrepreneurs who promoted his name in one fashion or another through various products or organizations, he spent much of his last years involved in various lawsuits with them. It was an effort to secure his legacy, he said. "I just want to get all this cleaned up before I go horizontal," Shelby claimed. "I want to leave my name in the best possible hands."

From Humble Beginnings
Shelby was born January 11, 1923, in Leesburg, Texas, a wide spot on State Highway 11 west of Texarkana. It is close to Pittsburg, Texas, a place where Shelby later maintained a ranch (he raised miniature horses).

Shelby got his enthusiasm for cars from his father, a rural postal carrier who experienced the thrill of the automobile firsthand when the postal service exchanged his horse and buggy for an Overland delivery car. When the family moved to Dallas after a few years, Shelby's father took him to local dirt track races and encouraged his enthusiasm for racing and flying. When he attended Woodrow Wilson High School, Shelby was noted for roaring around in a lightweight Willys coupe.

Upon graduation from high school in June 1941, Shelby joined the U.S. Army Air Force and started flight training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. He spent his military career during World War II in the U.S., training bombardiers. He met his first wife at a Baptist church with his parents and used to fly over her house and drop messages inside a pair of flying boots.

A Texan on the Make
After the war ended in 1945, newly married and with a daughter, Shelby left the military and started a dump truck and cement business to support his growing family — by 1947, two sons had joined the clan. A typical Texan from the frontier, eager to get ahead and leave his red-dirt origins behind, Shelby was always on the lookout for new opportunities and so soon found himself in the business of raising chickens.

But in January 1952, the 29-year-old Shelby discovered a new sport when a friend asked him to drive a Ford-powered hot rod in a drag race. Five months later, he drove the MG TC of his friend Ed Wilkins in a road race in Norman, Oklahoma, winning his class. He soon talked himself into rides in faster cars, driving a Cadillac-powered Allard to a win at an SCCA race in Caddo Mills, Texas. Then in August of 1953, Shelby had to rush from work on his chicken farm to the racetrack, and arrived in his pinstriped overalls. These $3 overalls from J.C. Penney promptly became his trademark and he wore the same pair for years.

Shelby continued to pile up wins in sports car racing. As a result, the SCCA sent him and a group of Americans to compete in a sports car race in Argentina in 1954 and there he met John Wyer, the well-known team manager for Aston Martin. Eager to help sell his British sports cars in the U.S., Wyer invited Shelby to drive an Aston Martin at the Sebring 12 Hours. Following Shelby's successful outing there, he drove an Aston Martin DBR3 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Belgian journalist Paul Frère.

Racing for Money
Shelby was a very successful privateer who raced for a wide range of car owners, notably Allen Guiberson, Tony Parravano and John Edgar. By the end of 1956, Shelby had won 40 races and became Sports Illustrated's 1957 Driver of the Year. Parravano took him to Europe to buy sports cars for his racing stable, and Shelby got the idea of starting his own car company from Ferrari (Enzo Ferrari offered him a driving contract several times) and Maserati. With backing from oilman Dick Hall (the older brother of Jim Hall, later famous for Chaparral racing cars), he opened Shelby Sports Cars in Dallas in 1957.

Always known as a smooth driver who didn't break machinery, Shelby's driving career peaked with his victory at the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans in a factory-supported Aston Martin DBR1 with co-driver Roy Salvadori. After a few unsuccessful races with the overweight front-engine Aston Martin DBR4 Formula 1 car, Shelby returned to the U.S. to race sports cars, but within a month everything had changed as he experienced chest pains and a doctor diagnosed heart problems. Shelby managed to finish 1960 as the USAC sports car champion, racing the last few events with a nitroglycerine pill under his tongue to lessen the strain on his heart. After just eight years, Shelby's driving career was over.

The Cobra Idea
Shelby had a distributorship for Goodyear racing tires, but he also opened a driving school in Los Angeles to supplement his income. He spent a lot of time hanging out with automotive journalists and talking about a European-style sports car that could be made in America. In 1961, he learned that AC Cars of England needed a replacement engine for its two-seat sports car, which had been using the Bristol inline-6. He thought of the new all-aluminum V8 being created for Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac, but then he learned that Ford was about to introduce a 221-cubic-inch V8. He cut a deal to take a rolling chassis of the AC Ace and it arrived in Los Angeles on February 2, 1962. Less than eight hours later, a 260 HiPo Ford V8 had been installed at the nearby shop of hot-rodder Dean Moon.

Painted pearlescent yellow, the Cobra was the hit of the 1962 New York Auto Show. To give the impression that he was building a lot of cars, Shelby repainted the Cobra CSX2000 a different color for every magazine that wrote a story about the car. Meanwhile he began to organize a production facility at the race shop near the Los Angeles airport where Lance Reventlow's Scarab sports cars had been built, and indeed many of Reventlow's former employees came to work for him.

Shelby put the Cobra on the racetrack in October 1962 at Riverside International Raceway in a three-hour production car race, and driver Bill Krause led a pack of Corvette Stingrays (a car also making its competition debut), until a rear hub broke. Ken Miles, a thoughtful but opinionated British expatriate, and Dave MacDonald, a wild young driver from L.A., signed to race the Cobra for 1963. They soon established the car's credentials as a winner, and Shelby enhanced the car's reputation by persuading his friends Dan Gurney and Phil Hill to race the car occasionally.

It had been Shelby's plan from the start to race the Cobra in Europe, a plan that Ford endorsed as part of its new corporate-wide racing initiative. For the 1964 season, Pete Brock and Ken Miles developed the Cobra Daytona Coupe to improve their chances against the Ferrari 250 GTO on high-speed European circuits. A Cobra Daytona Coupe won the production car class at Le Mans in 1964 and then went on to win the 1965 FIA GT Manufacturers Championship, defeating archenemy Ferrari.

Total Performance With Ford
The success of the 1964 Ford Mustang led Shelby to develop a high-performance version of the car, and in September 1964 the first examples of the 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350 began to roll out of Shelby's production facility.

It seemed Shelby could do no wrong, so Ford handed him its unsuccessful GT40 racing program for 1965. First time out, a Shelby-prepared GT40 won the Daytona 24 Hours. For 1966, the combination of the Shelby team's racing expertise, engines from NASCAR's Holman-Moody and advanced engineering from Ford's suppliers led to victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where Henry Ford II saw Ford GT Mk. IIs cross the finish line in 1st, 2nd and 3rd place. In 1967, the Ford GT Mk. IV won at Le Mans.

By 1968, Carroll Shelby had become a legitimate cultural icon thanks to his motorsport success with Ford. Inspired by the success of the first chili cook-off in 1967 in remote Terlingua, Texas, Shelby even developed his own Frank Tolbert-style chili.

But when Ford dialed back its big-budget presence in racing after 1968 as safety and air emissions concerns consumed engineering dollars, Shelby's empire quickly shrank and Shelby American closed its doors after the 1970 season. Instead, Shelby entered the business of manufacturing custom wheels, then a brand-new field.

A Life in Transition
The founding of the Shelby American Automobile Club in 1975 revived public interest in Shelby again and he was a fixture for years at club events, autographing cars and chatting up enthusiasts. Then in 1982, with old Ford friend Lee Iacocca at the helm of Chrysler, Shelby contracted to build high-performance Dodge Chargers and Omnis. That September, the first Dodge Shelby Charger with its turbocharged inline-4 was displayed and Shelby was back in the car business. Later he played an important role in the 1989 debut of the Dodge Viper RT/10, as Chrysler went to great lengths to spin the Shelby mythos around its new sports car.

An accomplished golfer (he played in the finals of the Texas amateur championship as a young man), Shelby spent much of his time in Los Angeles with his friends at the Riviera Country Club. But his health was failing. In June 1990, he received the heart of a 38-year-old gambler from Las Vegas in a long-overdue operation. Less than a year later, he drove the Dodge Viper pace car at the 1991 Indianapolis 500. Five months later, he established the Carroll Shelby Children's Foundation to fund heart transplants for children.

With growing enthusiasm for specialty sports cars (especially with a retro theme) in the early 1990s, Shelby decided to get back into the car business himself, and commissioned noted coachbuilder Mike McCluskey to prepared a reincarnation of the Cobra for series production. In 1995, the Shelby Cobra 427 S/C roadster appeared in the CSX4000 series, the first "continuation Cobra."

His health again failing in 1996, Shelby received a kidney donated by his son Michael, and once again beat the odds to regain his health at age 73. The next year, Shelby announced the Shelby Series 1 sports car, an exotic front-engine car with a high-performance engine from Oldsmobile's racing efforts. Unfortunately the program soon devolved into financial turmoil and personal acrimony, although more than 250 cars were ultimately built.

Back to Ford
By mid-2003 Shelby was back in the Ford camp, playing a role in the creation of the Ford GT as part of celebrations of the Ford Centennial. Ford announced that a line of "Ford-Shelby" cars would be created, and Shelby Automobiles was founded in December 2003. Several concepts followed, and finally the Ford Shelby GT500 broke cover at the 2005 New York Auto Show. In January 2006, that first 2007 Ford Shelby GT500 Mustang was sold for $600,000 at the Barrett-Jackson auction, with the money donated to the Carroll Shelby Children's Foundation.

Despite failing health in recent years, Shelby continued to make appearances for Ford and his charities. Shelby Automobiles, located in the industrial park adjacent to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, now has a restaurant and a museum and is a frequent stop for tourists.

Clever, charming and a great storyteller, Carroll Shelby was always an idea guy rather than a mechanic, and his ability to make deals frequently surprised the business people he encountered. Though automotive technology itself didn't interest him, he understood cars in a way that few others ever have.

We asked Shelby once how he would like to be remembered. "I don't care if anybody remembers me," he said, laughing. "But we've built some hot rods I don't think people are going to forget."

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