In the history of automobiles there are names that are revered as legends, such as Vic Edelbrock and Ferdinand Porsche. Then there is one that, above all others, stands out as representing everything that automotive beauty and performance are about. That name is Carroll Shelby, who passed away on May 10th. Carroll Hall Shelby was born January 11, 1923, to Warren Hall Shelby, a Texas mail carrier, and his wife, Eloise Lawrence Shelby. Early in life he developed heart valve problems, almost causing his death at age seven. The courage and determination he showed in overcoming this disability served him well throughout his life, as a pilot, racer, and renowned car designer and performance expert.
Shelby graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1940 and signed up immediately after with the Army Air Corps, where he became a flight instructor and test pilot. Engaged at the time to Jeanne Fields, he courted her by writing her love letters, which he placed in an old boot and dropped out of his plane while flying over her farm. He spent WW2 stateside training military fliers.
After the war ended, Shelby tried his hand at a variety of businesses, including chicken farming. But he found his true calling in the early 1950s, when he began racing cars on the amateur circuit. In 1953 he drew attention by showing up at the track wearing a pair of bib overalls, which soon became his signature racing outfit.
In 1954 he caught the attention of Aston Martin‘s racing team and began driving for them. Over the next two years he racked up a series of first place finishes, leading to Sports Illustrated naming him race car driver of the year in 1956.
In 1959 his driving career was cut short when he began experiencing cardiac chest pains. He retired from the circuit and opened a performance driving school. Soon after he launched a new venture modifying vehicles, importing British racing cars and replacing their original engines with Ford Motors. Thus was born the original AC Cobra, later to be known as the Shelby Cobra. This began a long association with Ford, during which he developed the Daytona Coupe, GT40, the Shelby GT350 and GT500, and the 427 Shelby Cobra.
In the early 1980s Shelby went on board at Chrysler, where he modified the Dodge Charger and several other vehicles. In the late 80s he began work on what would be his signature project with the company, the Dodge Viper, which owes its light body weight and considerable engine power to his influence.
In 1990 Shelby’s health problems led to his receiving a heart transplant, soon after which he started a charitable foundation to help children in need of organ donations. In 1992 he was inducted into the Motor Sports Hall of Fame. Throughout the decade he produced Cobra and Shelby series sports cars.
In 1999 he was honored in two very different ways. Motor Trend named the CSX2000 the most significant car of the past 50 years. Also, the film Gone in 60 Seconds featured a look-alike version of his 1967 Shelby in the role of Eleanor, the only Mustang ever to be named in a movie’s credits.
In the 2000s Shelby renewed his ties with Ford, assisting in the development of the GT. In 2007 the first Shelby GT500 was sold at auction, raising $600,000.00 for his charitable foundation. In 2008 he celebrated his 85th birthday with 500 friends in Las Vegas. In 2009 he received a lifetime achievement award when he was named Auto Executive of the Year in Detroit.
Carroll Shelby’s contributions to both the automotive industry and to the well-being of children with health problems cannot be overestimated. His life is proof that hard work, determination and goal-oriented efforts can yield amazing results. He will be sorely missed.
Written by Bill Wilson
Photos Courtesy of Ford, RM Auctions and Mecum Auctions