Paring the automotive output of Carroll Shelby's life to just the 10 greatest cars is no easy task. There are at least 10 variations of the Cobra alone that deserve a spot. Of course the Mustang GT350 should be on the list, but should the Mustang GT350R racer and GT350H rent-a-racer be counted as separate cars? And while Shelby's name might not have been on the fender, neither the Ford Mark IV nor the Dodge Viper would have been successes without him.
So here is our list of the top 10 Shelby cars of all time, even though we're sure that someone will say we missed a few. We've chosen these vehicles because they were (and are) great in themselves, because the legends surrounding them are — more or less — true, and because their mere existence has inspired other great cars.
Actually these are more than just great cars. They are the substance of Carroll Shelby's life, the things that tell us most about him.
1. 1964-'65 Cobra Daytona Coupe
Carroll Shelby was nothing if not audacious. When Ford took on Ferrari as part of Lee Iacocca's plan to corner the world market on performance, Carroll Shelby was the right person to step in when the Detroit engineers found that they couldn't do the job with technology alone.
The Shelby Cobra with its small-block Ford V8 had been a success in American sports car racing from the first, but its roadster bodywork was almost willfully anti-aerodynamic and kept the car from being successful on fast European racetracks against the Ferrari 250 GTO. So Shelby took the basic chassis and had the young, ex-Corvette designer Pete Brock design a new super-slick coupe body, and the result proved damn near supernatural — the Cobra Daytona Coupe.
The Cobra Daytona Coupe actually caught fire in the pits during the 1964 Daytona 24 Hours, but it was on fire with success at its very next race, the Sebring 12 Hours, where it won the GT class. At the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans, drivers Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant took the car to 4th place overall (it even threatened to lead overall for a time), winning the GT class and breaking Ferrari's stranglehold on GT-class sports car racing in Europe.
Just six examples of the car were eventually built, but as the first American car ever to win a championship in international racing, the Shelby Daytona Coupe must be judged the greatest Shelby of them all. From the first, Shelby wanted to make an American car that would be better than a Ferrari, and the Cobra Daytona Coupe did the job.
2. 1962-'65 Cobra 260 (Mark I) and Cobra 289 (Mark II)
If Carroll Shelby hadn't decided to shove Ford's small-block V8 under the hood of the otherwise underwhelming AC Ace roadster, he'd be a barely remembered footnote in racing history — just some guy who won Le Mans in '59 driving an Aston Martin.
Shelby was never really a car designer; instead he was an unstoppable entrepreneur. Almost everyone in the 1950s wanted an American sports car, and Shelby's racing connections led him to the idea of a lightweight British car with one of the then-new lightweight American V8s under the hood. When he couldn't get a Chevy V8 for his car, he turned to the 260-cubic-inch Ford V8. Even in its subsequent form as a 289-cubic-inch engine, this Ford V8 produced only 271 horsepower (SAE gross), but it was enough to take on the Corvettes and Ferraris once installed in a lightweight, 2,000-pound British roadster.
Aside from aluminum bodywork, the Mark I and Mark II versions of the Cobra weren't sophisticated machines. The primitive, AC-designed solid-axle rear suspension came from the early 1950s, the ladder-type chassis was far from structurally sound and the aerodynamic characteristics of the bodywork were flat awful. As a car, the Shelby Cobra was troubled, and its ultimate success was a triumph of development, not design. It was, however, a brilliant idea.
3. 1965-'67 Cobra 427 (Mark III)
The Shelby Cobra roadster was competitive on the racetrack for only a season before the car's inherent limitations became obvious. At first the solution seemed simple: more power. But when racer Ken Miles first drove a Cobra Mark II with a 390-cubic-inch Ford FE V8 in its nose, he started calling the prototype "the Turd."
If the Cobra was going to continue racing, it had to have a better chassis. The Cobra 427 Mark III began with a Ford-designed suspension with coil springs and double-wishbone-type control arms at each corner. And, of course, there was 425 hp on tap from the 427-cubic-inch Ford "side-oiler" V8.
The Mark III is the iconic Cobra as it is worshipped today. The general shape of the AC Ace remains, but the fenders are swollen, the tires are huge, the stance is hunkered down and ferocious and there are exhaust pipes along each side that are big and loud enough to shake loose glaciers. The Cobra 427 is a full 7 inches wider than the Cobra 289.
In its November 1965 issue, Car and Driver tested the then-new $7,000 Cobra 427 and found it would accelerate to 60 mph in a truly ludicrous 4.3 seconds, hit 100 mph in just 8.8 seconds and shred the quarter-mile in 12.2 seconds at 118 mph. The magazine claimed the car would accelerate from a dead stop to 100 mph and then brake to a dead stop again in just 14.5 seconds.
The Cobra 427 wasn't a sales success, however. Even the full-blown Competition Roadsters and barely tamed Semi-Competition S/C models languished at dealerships and in Shelby's warehouse. But the Cobra 427 is the car that launched 100,000 replicas.
4. 1965-'66 Mustang GT350 and GT350H
Though the Ford Mustang became a sales sensation when it went on sale in April 1964, beneath its skin the car was a Ford Falcon economy car, not a sports car. When Ford decided to go racing with the Mustang, something had to be done.
To get the Mustang in shape for competition in the SCCA's B Production class, Shelby started by throwing away the backseat to make the car a two-seater. Then he raided Ford's parts bin for a close-ratio Borg-Warner four-speed manual transmission, some 11-inch front disc brakes, oversize rear drum brakes from a station wagon and a Detroit Locker rear differential.
The Mustang fastbacks arrived at Shelby's facility at the Los Angeles airport equipped with the same 271-hp 289-cubic-inch V8 available in other Mustangs, but once Shelby added a Holley carburetor, exhaust headers and an exhaust system that dumped out just forward of the rear wheels, output swelled to 306 hp. Of course the real magic of the GT350 resided in the Shelby suspension, which included Koni shocks, stiff antiroll bars and Goodyear Blue Dot tires on 15-inch wheels.
Shelby needed to build 100 GT350s to get the car homologated for competition. He made 562 during 1965 and all but one was painted Wimbledon White with blue stripes. Production expanded during the 1966 model year including 1,001 built as "GT350H" Hertz rental cars, most of which were Raven Black with gold stripes and equipped with automatic transmissions.
5. 1965 Mustang GT350R
The GT350 was built so the GT350R could go racing. And the GT350R was just different enough from the GT350 to rate its own place on the greatest Shelby list.
The SCCA racing rules meant that the general specifications of either the engine or suspension of the GT350 couldn't change much to create the GT350R. But the little changes mattered. Each GT350R had a carefully blueprinted engine capped by high-rise aluminum intake manifolds. The front and rear fenders were flared to accept larger American Racing wheels, and an oil cooler was added behind the oversize radiator. Lightweight Plexiglas replaced real glass in the sail panels and the rear window. The most distinctive modification was a new fiberglass front lower fascia — an airdam, really.
Shelby only built 36 GT350Rs and they're easily the most highly prized of his Mustang-based machines. Want one with a decent race history? Show up at the right auction with about $1 million in liquid assets.
6. 1966 Cobra Super Snake
Sometimes Carroll Shelby just does things because he's Carroll Shelby. The Cobra 427 was already the most vicious car in production anywhere when he decided to get really outrageous. So he took two of the Competition Roadsters that were gathering dust at his shop, bolted twin Paxton superchargers to their 427s, added huge hood scoops and replaced the manual transmissions with beefier three-speed automatics. With somewhere between 800 and 900 hp on tap, these two Cobras are simply the most ludicrous creations ever to come out of Shelby's shop.
Shelby kept one of the Super Snakes for himself and sold the other to his friend Bill Cosby. The sheer insanity of the Super Snake inspired Cosby's famous "200 MPH" comedy routine in which the car scares Cosby to his core doing nothing but idling. Legend says Cosby returned the car to Shelby after just one drive in it. The Cosby Super Snake's second owner, Tony Maxey, lost his life when he lost control of the car, went off a cliff and ended up in the Pacific Ocean.
Shelby's personal Super Snake was sold at the 2007 Barrett-Jackson auction for $5.5 million, then the highest price ever paid for an American car.
7. 1967 Ford Mk IV
On August 17, 1966, driver Ken Miles was killed at Riverside International Raceway in California while testing the new Ford J-car, a prototype for the successor to the Ford GT40. It was a devastating personal loss for Shelby, as Miles had been not only the key development driver for Shelby but also a key confidant for all things automotive.
Less than a year later, the J-car had evolved into the Ford Mk IV and Shelby-American's entry had won the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans with Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt, Jr. It remains the only time an American-made car driven by American drivers and campaigned by an American team has taken the overall victory in the legendary race.
The development of the Mk IV was a collaboration between Ford (which funded the cars), Kar Kraft (which built the cars) and Shelby-American (which raced the cars). The Ford Mk IV might not have had Shelby's name on it, but it fulfilled Shelby's dream of winning international renown with an American racing car.
8. 1967-'68 GT500 and GT500KR
Racing wasn't really a consideration in the development of the GT500. This was Shelby's road car: a big, confident and relatively civilized GT. It was a Shelby that could be driven every day.
The GT500 was based on the slightly larger second-generation Mustang. It had a 428-cubic-inch Ford Police Interceptor V8 under its elongated fiberglass hood (a precious few had the side-oiler 427). The suspension was tuned for civilized comfort and the bodywork carried plenty of air scoops, plus taillights taken from the 1965 Ford Thunderbird.
By 1968, production of the GT350 and GT500 had moved out of Shelby's Los Angeles facility to the A.O. Scott Company in Michigan, where Ford could keep a close eye on things. The '68 GT500 was even more aggressively styled than the '67, and when the big-block V8 was upgraded to the 335-hp Cobra Jet specification, the GT500 became the GT500KR.
Shelby used to say that the "KR" stood for King of the Road. And the GT500 was Shelby's first attempt to build just that.
9. 1984-'86 Dodge Omni GLH and GLH-S
During the 1980s Carroll Shelby switched his allegiance to Dodge when his pal Lee Iacocca took over running Chrysler. And back then there was nothing in the Dodge stable that was remotely like a Mustang or Cobra. So Shelby turned his eyes to the lowly Omni.
A blatant rip-off of the Volkswagen Golf, the Omni wasn't much more than a cheap sheet metal box with a pokey four-cylinder engine in its nose driving the front wheels. But Shelby looked at its low mass and straightforward engineering and saw possibilities.
The result was the 1984 Omni GLH ("Goes Like Hell," Shelby explained). A few modifications to the 2.2-liter inline-4 improved output to 110 hp, enough to make the car competitive with the recently introduced Volkswagen GTI. For 1985 the GLH's engine got a turbocharger, which meant there was now 146 hp under the little car's hood. The car became a rocket.
The Omni didn't become the sales phenomenon that Iacocca and Shelby had hoped, but before the program ended, the last 500 cars were equipped with 175-hp engines, creating the Omni GLHS ("Goes Like Hell Some More").
Sure the GLHS had plenty of torque steer and it didn't qualify as sophisticated. But it's the car that cleared the way for the truly powerful small cars of today.
10. 2010-2013 Shelby GT500
The 2010-2012 Shelby GT500 is simply the best-driving car to ever wear the Shelby name. The suspension is supple and responsive and the supercharged 5.4-liter V8 makes a stunning 550 hp. It manages the neat trick of embodying the spirit of all the Shelby cars that have come before it in a thoroughly modern package. For 2013 the Shelby GT500 gets even better with a larger engine, revised suspension and an incredible 662 hp rating. As of this writing we haven't driven one yet, but tune in next Monday for a full test of Shelby's last great car.
It's just the sort of car you'd expect to wear the Shelby name in the 21st century.