× Search

Enter Title

Carroll Shelby: A Life Well Lived

Born on January 11, 1923, Carroll Shelby is one of the great American success stories. Racecar driver, WWII “Flying Sergeant", philanthropist, automotive entrepreneur and racing team owner, he had the ingenuity, tenacity and grit needed to be a winner throughout his life.

The son of a Texas postal worker, Shelby attended high school in Dallas. He left to fight in World War II and the US Army made him a “flying sergeant” flight instructor. Shelby returned to Texas after the war to dabble in business with a dump truck operation, chicken farm and sports car dealership. He enjoyed a first taste of car manufacturing when he built a handful of “Scaglietti Corvettes.”

Shelby's first race was on a drag strip in a 1932 Ford and then he moved to road courses, competing throughout the USA in his spare time. When all his chickens died of limberneck disease, Shelby moved into racing fulltime.

Once, on his way to a race, Shelby left his farm clothes on to make the start time. When his eccentric attire netted him more publicity than his racing victory, Shelby made the striped bib overalls his trademark.

In a few years, Shelby became a dominant figure on the racing scene. Top international car manufacturers courted him to drive for them, including Ferrari. Shelby captured three national sports car championships in the USA, earned a spot on the Aston-Martin team in Europe, won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, tried Formula One and set land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Twice, he was named Sports Illustrated's “Driver of the Year.”

Still in his prime, a heart condition caused him to abandon driving in 1960. So Shelby turned his talents to racecar design and automotive manufacturing.

Carroll Shelby believed in combining big horsepower with inspired engineering. Based on his experience with the Scaglietti Corvettes, he approached Chevrolet about fitting their motor into the English AC Ace chassis. However, GM declined would have been a competitor to their existing sports car.

That led Shelby to pitch Lee Iacocca at Ford Motor Company to build a sports car using its new small block engine. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the two men.

When Iacocca agreed to supply motors and cash for the venture, Shelby vaulted into action. He formed “Shelby American” around a group of Southern California hot rodders and they shoehorned Ford's engine into the lightweight Ace roadster. Christened the “Cobra,” Shelby's CSX2000 rocked the automotive world at the 1962 New York Auto Show.

Led by competition manager Ken Miles and fabricator extraordinaire Phil Remington, Shelby American developed and refined a competition version of the Cobra for American racing. Then Shelby American fielded both coupe and roadster versions in Europe. During 1964, Shelby American earned a class win the Le Mans in the Cobra Daytona Coupe.

In addition to racing Cobras again during 1965, Shelby added the Ford GT to his team at the request of Ford Motor Company. That year, they won the FIA sports car world championship with Shelby Cobra; in 1966 and 1967 Shelby captured the overall win at Le Mans in the Ford GT. Carroll Shelby is the only person to win Le Mans race as a driver, team manager, team owner and racecar manufacturer.

In 2012, Dan Gurney, who was part of the Shelby American racing team said, “Carroll Shelby was an automotive visionary and leader. His West Texas downhome bib overall style had a huge emotional impact on me and when he launched his now legendary Ford powered Cobra team, I found myself a very willing volunteer to lend my driving ability to his quest to take on the established European teams on their home turf.

As part of Shelby American, we managed to win some tremendous races together: the very first FIA sanctioned points race for Cobra at Bridgehampton 1963 in a Cobra Roadster, the GT classes at the Targa Florio, at Le Mans and at Goodwood with the Daytona Cobra Coupe in 1964. Then we won the crown jewel: the 1967 Le Mans 24 Hour Race with the Ford Mark IV. His leadership was very unconventional and more powerful than either his friends or competitors ever imagined. His charm will be missed, but his reputation as a motorsports icon is secure.”

At the same time, Shelby's operations turned out the Shelby 289 and 427 Cobras, as well as a succession of Mustang-based Shelby's created at the request of Ford Motor Company. He scaled back his California operations in the late 1960s when new government regulations and insurance rules began to affect the sales of performance cars. For several years, he operated businesses in Africa until civil war in the region closed them down.

In 1982, he began helping his friend Iacocca, who had assumed the helm at Chrysler, to enhance performance of the cars at the struggling company. His team turned the lowly K car into a pocket rocket and pioneered a new class of cars. They also created the muscle truck and developed the Dodge Viper, which paced the 1991 Indy 500 with Shelby at the wheel.

In 1988, Shelby started building Cobras again. Teaming with McCluskey, Ltd, he began development of the “mystical 43” 427 S/C big block Cobras, which were the last 43 chassis numbers left from FIA homologation. That laid the groundwork to develop a limited line of “continuation” big block Cobras.

In 1995, his long-established company, Shelby American, opened a facility in Las Vegas to expand his continuation Cobra operations. In Las Vegas, he later manufactured the Oldsmobile powered Series 1 roadster in cooperation with GM and added other Cobra models. In 2005, Shelby entered into a new agreement with Ford Motor Company that involved him in the development of the new Ford GT and led to the re-introduction of several Mustang based Shelby cars, including the Shelby GT-H, Shelby “Super Snake,” Shelby GT500KR. and various muscle trucks.

“At Ford, Carroll Shelby will always be remembered as an innovator and a performance vehicle legend, but most importantly, an incredible partner and close friend for more than sixty years,” said Edsel Ford II, member of the Board of Directors of Ford Motor Company and great-grandson of Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company. “The Ford and Shelby collaboration is something that has always been very important to me personally and Carroll will continue to be the inspiration behind our future collaboration that will carry his name.”

Joe Conway, Co-CEO of Carroll Shelby International, Inc. and CEO of Shelby American, Neil Cummings, Co-CEO of Carroll Shelby International, Inc. and CEO of Carroll Shelby Licensing, Inc., along with Aaron Shelby, member of the Carroll Shelby International board are a formidable team who are dedicated to carrying out Carroll's visions for the future.

“There has been no one like Carroll Shelby and there never will be again,” said Joe Conway. “We were all deeply saddened and felt a tremendous sense of loss for Carroll's family, ourselves and the entire automotive industry when he passed in 2012. However, we promised Carroll we would carry on, and he put the team, the products and the vision in place to do just that.”

Shelby was also a pioneer for modern licensing programs in the automotive industry. Beginning in the 1960s, he began licensing his name and designs for various products. Today, Carroll Shelby Licensing, Inc. (one of two wholly owned subsidiaries of Carroll Shelby International, Inc.) has Shelby licensees worldwide. The company manufactures, markets and sells everything from the best and fastest muscle cars on the road, to premium Shelby memorabilia.

Shelby considered his greatest achievement to be the establishment of the Carroll Shelby Foundation. Created in 1992 while Shelby was waiting for a heart transplant in the hospital, the charity is dedicated to providing medical assistance for those in in need, including children. The Foundation also supports educational opportunities for young people through automotive and other training programs and benefits the Carroll Shelby Automotive Foundation.

“Carroll formed a foundation to give something back to those who have not been as fortunate as him, in both medicine and education,” explained Carroll Shelby Foundation co-President M. Neil Cummings, Esq. “The Foundation is well endowed to continue Carroll's vision.”

Shelby remained active in the management of each of his companies and the Foundation until his death, even though he endured both heart and kidney transplants in the last two decades of his life. An innovator and pioneer, he achieved an almost mythical status that never diminished. He traveled the world, socialized with movie stars and beauty queens, made and lost numerous fortunes, won races, built cars and lived large.

Carroll Hall Shelby, a man whose vision for performance transformed the automobile industry, died at age 89, on May 10, 2012.

“Carroll was a visionary who never stopped seeking ways to build faster, better cars,” noted Aaron Shelby, member of the Carroll Shelby International board. “He was actively involved in the vehicles we built before he passed, the development of our parts business and each of the cars and trucks scheduled to be introduced over the next few years. Carroll Shelby was the ultimate competitor and my grandfather's spirit continues to guide the company.”



Back To Top