The Story of 20th-Century Midas: Carroll Shelby

By Charlotte Iggulden

Carroll Hall Shelby was a man of rare racing talent and vision, the like of which had not been seen before or since in the automotive industry.

He had the self-belief to approach Ford Motor Company with the idea of building a race car that would beat the seemingly unstoppable Corvette. Carroll Shelby cars, like the AC Cobra and Shelby Mustang, were a winning combination of speed, performance and handling. Even Ferrari was unseated.

Autoweek said he was “the only person to win Le Mans as a driver (with Aston Martin), a manufacturer (class victory with the Cobra Daytona coupe) and team owner (Ford’s GTs).”

With the potential to transform any car manufacturer’s image, Carroll Shelby was a legend in his own lifetime.

This is the story of a man whose hands turned anything mechanical into gold dust.

Carroll Shelby’s Early Life and Origins

Born on January 11, 1923, in Leesburg, Texas, Shelby’s automotive interest began at three or four years old. He was fascinated with anything that had speed, especially planes and cars.

After moving to Dallas, he rode his bike to nearby dirt tracks to watch races. While he did not compete, he attempted to outrun anyone in his 1934 Dodge and 1938 Willys.

When World War II began, he pursued his aviation interest but could not join the Airforce due to a heart problem. He suffered from health complications throughout his life but determined to fly, he became a staff sergeant pilot in December 1941.

After the war and now with a family, his entrepreneurial mindset led him to run a trucking business and chicken farm. When the farm failed, he turned to car racing. 

Shelby’s Racing Success

1950s sports car supremacy belonged to Europe, where Ferrari, Jaguar, Aston Martin and Maserati manifested handling and power. Shelby tried building himself an automobile in 1950, also hot-rodding Jaguars and MGs, winning local races with a friend’s Cadillac-Allard in 1952-53.

In 1954, aged 29, he met John Wyer, Aston Martin’s team manager, who wanted exposure to sell their cars and a capable American to drive their DBR3 at Sebring.

Shelby won three national driver’s championships and in 1957 came first in nineteen consecutive races. Sports Illustrated named him ‘Driver of the Year” in 1956 and 1957. He won races for Ferrari before driving for Maserati and Aston Martin in Formula One.

His “greatest thrill in racing” arrived when he and co-driver Roy Salvadori won the1959 24 Hours of Le Mans in a DBR1, helping Aston Martin win the prestigious World Manufacturers Championship. 

Known for wearing his work overalls to the racetrack, they became his trademark. 

While in Europe, Shelby realised America missed “a winning bet… the design and production of an all-purpose, all-American sports or grand touring car that you could drive to market and race during the weekend.” 

Shelby never planned to stop racing until he found himself downing nitroglycerin pills for his heart condition while driving during his races. Knowing he had three children and dreamt of building his own car, he retired from active racing to found Shelby American in 1962. 

The timing was perfect. The automotive industry was evolving into its golden age

Collaborations

Before Shelby hot-rodded a small AC chassis with a Ford small-block, he wanted a Chevy engine. The SCCA racing rules allowed General Motors to build a lightweight Corvette with commissioned body. The 1959 Scaglietti Corvette was 180 kilograms lighter, with Ferrari style and reliable Chevrolet power. Fearing it might beat their star player, executives terminated the project.

During his racing career, Shelby worked with Dan Gurney, Ford, General Motors, and Oldsmobile, partnering with the latter on the Shelby Series 1 sports car. He also partly designed the 1964-67 Sunbeam Tiger.

Avoiding the heavily regulated 1970s, he collaborated with Lee Iacocca at Chrysler in 1981 on Dodge’s numerous ‘performance weapons,’ including the Shelby Charger and Omni. They defied bureaucracy with great handling, fuel efficiency, inter cooling, and turbocharging. In 1996 he created the 427 Cobra’s successor, the V10 Dodge Viper.

Shelby American

Shelby was impressed with the AC Ace from 1957-59 and knew AC Cars lost its Bristol engine. He asked if they would build a chassis in Thames Ditton, England, before shipping it to his workshop in California, where his engineers would install an American engine and transmission. 

Wary of GM, Shelby found out that Ford was developing a little cast-iron block with 221 cubic inch displacement. Shelby’s idea coincided with their Total Performance ambition to win NASCAR, Indy car, sports and drag racing. Shelby requested Iacocca lend him $25,000 to build prototypes that would “blow the Corvette off.” Incredulous, Iacocca agreed. 90 days later, the Cobra appeared.

Shelby said AC did some engineering, and whilst maintaining its basic layout, his team rebuilt and lightened the Tojeiro chassis, soon installing 260cid. Although stamped with the Shelby American VIN, Ford’s engineers discovered the obsolete AC Ace was extremely fast. Road and Track found it accelerated from 0-60 in 4.2 seconds. 

The 289cid arrived. Following its 1962 racetrack initiation, Billy Krause led by a mile and a half at Riverside. The initial cars were mixed successes. By 1963, upgraded Cobras won national championships. 

To rival Ferrari in the GT class, Shelby’s team modified an AC Cobra to be more aerodynamic, capable of speeds reaching 200mph. 

It debuted at Daytona International Speedway on February 16th, 1964, as the Daytona Coupe. The 289 dominated racetracks, winning at Monza, Sebring (finishing 1-2-3 in 1964), Daytona, and Nurburgring, coming second to Ferrari at Le Mans. 

Cobra roadsters and coupes ran alongside the first Ford GTs, securing the 1965 FIA Championship and World Manufacturers Championship, the first time for an American car. 

Despite successes in 1964, Shelby had to keep ahead of the 289 Chevrolet Stingray. He never wanted to install a 427cid, but without a midsize 350, the Cobra became a muscle car. 

In 1965, a new chassis was designed (Mark III) with NASCAR engine. Just 53 out of 100 AC Cobras made the homologation deadline, making them non-road legal race cars. Shelby modified 31 for street use and called them S/C Semi-Competition cars. 

Guinness World Records listed the 500hp aluminium MKIII as the fastest production car in the world. The S/C had a 3.6 second acceleration rate and 186mph top speed. 

GT40 

In 1963, Ford’s offer to buy Ferrari was rebuffed, leading to Henry Ford II’s famous words, “If we can’t buy Ferrari, we will beat them.”

Shelby removed the Cobras from competition in 1965 to lead Ford’s GT40 performance program.

Shelby thought Eric Broadley’s coupe could win Le Mans and soon had his best engineers working on its 427cid engine/transmission, transforming the car with wind-tunnel aerodynamics into an MlII. 

This decision instigated their 1-2-3 win, an unprecedented defeat for Ferrari.

Shelby felt that guilty officials would not accept three winners. He believed Ken Miles, with whom he had collaborated since 1963, deserved the triple crown, encompassing Daytona and Sebring.

Miles was instrumental in Shelby’s racing program as a long-distance driver and development specialist on the 427 Cobra and Ford GT350; they were also good friends. When he was killed testing the J-car, Shelby reportedly never felt a greater loss.

Shelby Mustang 

By mid-1960s, muscle cars became America’s automotive agenda, with NASCAR, ¼ mile drag racing, and hot rod associations.

Despite being intensely jealous of Shelby, Ford needed his help. Iacocca wanted an image of performance, but the SCCA spurned Hal Sperlich’s Mustang as a ”secretary’s car,” not a sports car. Shelby shared the sentiment, disapproving of “Detroit’s habit” of modifying a “nice small car.” 

Shelby’s competitive desire to beat Ferrari reignited, on Bishop’s advice Shelby American removed the back seats, added racing suspension, shock absorbers and a 271-306hp V8, giving the automotive world the Shelby Ford Mustang. The prototype won ten first places in B-Production during the 1965 SCCA season, winning three consecutive years against Ferraris, Corvettes, and Jaguars. 

The street version, GT350, and competition version, GT350R, were handmade like the Cobra and designed for racing. The 1966 Shelby GT350 was a detuned racecar for road use and is often cited as one of the greatest muscle cars of all time. 

The 1967 Shelby GT500 had a modified 428cid “Police Interceptor,” with 355hp, 420lb-ft torque and 4.8-second acceleration rate. It could reportedly destroy its rear tires in one drag race.

Amidst increasing government regulations, Shelby retired from the automotive business on October 4th 1969, founding the Shelby Wheel Company and expanding his Goodyear Tire distribution. 

Influence on Automotive Designers

Carroll Shelby’s philosophy influenced many: he once advised Popular Mechanics to “put a big, powerful engine in a little car.” In 1964, Ford advertised their ‘Cobra Tonic: Dr Shelby’s marvellous elixir for Fairlanes, Falcons and Galaxies, in ten strengths up to 343hp.’

Feud Against Cobra Kit Cars

In 1986, Ford, AC and Autokraft collaborated to create and sell the AC Mk IV.

Carroll Shelby, however, had no input or benefit. Infuriated, he recognised that he had sold the Cobra name to Ford for $1, but “not the right to manufacture” the vehicle that AC Cars was building. Their Cobra was a replica and “not the real thing” built by Shelby American: “The name doesn’t make the car; the car makes the name.”

Shelby pursued lengthy lawsuits for years. However, Factory Five proved that their Cobra shape resembled the original AC Ace.

Shelby American began ‘continuation cars’ with CSX serial numbers before selling replicas. The AC Cobra/MK III is reputedly the most copied car in the world, with approximately 50,000 to date. 

Portrayals in the Media

The partnership of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles is covered in the 2019 film, Ford v Ferrari. Matt Damon’s portrayal of Shelby bears a close resemblance, with a little artistic license, although Damon shows Shelby taking nitroglycerin pills for his heart condition.

Shelby was a gifted salesman; he approached Iacocca first. Although he was hot-blooded, Shelby never physically fought his friends and his autobiography Go Like Hell revealed he did not fly dangerously. 

Modern Activities

In 1989, Shelby developed the Shelby Can-Am, another sports car that had its own racing class between 1991-1996.

Following a heart transplant in 1990, Shelby founded the Carroll Shelby Children’s Foundation. 

More contented later in life, Shelby worked on diverse projects. He returned to the Ford Motor Company in 2003 to work on the Ford GT project. Later that year, a new line of Shelby-Ford vehicles was announced, and Shelby Automobiles founded. The 2005 Shelby GR-1 concept car was based on the Shelby Cobra Daytona.

Shelby’s Texan identity endured throughout his life: he loved cowboy hats, miniature horses and his ranch in Pittsburg.

Carroll Shelby Death

In spite of his debilitating heart condition and resulting angina pectoris, Carroll Shelby died in May 2012 at the age of 89, reportedly of pneumonia. Joe Conway, president of Carroll Shelby International, said “There has been no one like Carroll Shelby and never will be.” 

Summary 

Carroll Shelby was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (1991), the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and Automotive Hall of Fame (1992), Diecast Hall of Fame (2009), and the SCCA Hall of Fame (2013).

Despite leaving an unmatched automotive legacy, Shelby downplayed his achievements. He did not care how or if he was remembered: “History has already written it.” 

Author: Charlotte Iggulden 


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