Carroll Shelby: Cobra Creator and American Racing Legend Dead at 89

May 11, 2012
Carroll Shelby With Ford Shelby GT500 Durability Car
Given his long, storied involvement in motorsports and the performance automobile industry, any biography on Carroll Hall Shelby likely contains several dozen chapters. Sadly, the final chapter in his life has come to a close: Shelby died late Thursday night in Dallas, Texas. He was 89 years old.
“We are all deeply saddened, and feel a tremendous sense of loss for Carroll’s family, ourselves and the entire automotive industry,” said Joe Conway, president of Carroll Shelby International, in a prepared statement. “There has been no one like Carroll Shelby and never will be. 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 born on January 11, 1923, to Warren and Etoise Shelby, farmers in Leesburgh, Texas. Though many attribute his penchant for speed to a stint as an Air Force pilot in World War II, it actually seems to have emerged long before. In Rinsey Mills' authorized biography, Shelby recounts how, upon earning his license at the age of 14, he was busted for traveling at 80 mph driving to work the next day.
Shelby's legitimate pursuits of speed didn't start until after the war - and, for that matter, a string of various odd jobs (including chicken rancher) that didn't amuse Shelby himself all that much. Throughout 1952 and 1953, Shelby competed in SCCA road racing events behind the wheel of borrowed sports cars, proving himself an adept competitor even behind the wheel of a little MG TC. Success ultimately allowed him to pilot a borrowed Cadillac-powered Allard J2; its mixture of American V-8 power and a lithe European chassis would not soon be forgotten.
In 1954, John Wyer, then team manager of Aston Martin, enlisted Shelby to run in both Sebring and Le Mans (co-driving with Paul Frere) in an Aston Martin DBR3. Later that year, Shelby was seriously injured while competing in the Carrera Pan Americana Mexico, flipping his Austin Healy four times after T-boning a rock. His significant injuries wouldn't stop him from racing just months later at Sebring in a 3.0-liter Monza Ferrari (co-driving with Phil Hill) with his arm in a special cast and his hand taped to the steering wheel. There was no denying Shel was one tough son of a gun.
As his racing career started gaining steam, he began to be recognized nationally and internationally. Shelby allegedly had multiple invitations from Enzo Ferrari himself to join the Scuderia, but declined.
"I saw the way Ferrari operated," Shelby told us in late 2011, "and I could always sense there was tension. I listened to Phil Hill, I listened to Gurney, and I watched enough of the drivers to know no one ever stayed with him for a long time. Juan Manuel Fangio was one of the kindest, gentlest people you'd ever meet in your life, and he told me [Ferrari] was a very difficult man. 'You will never satisfy him, and he will never have a kind word for you or your future ambitions.'"
In 1956 and '57, Sports Illustrated named Shelby Driver of the Year. Two years later, while co-driving with Roy Salvadori for the Aston Martin factory team, he won Le Mans. A diagnosis of angina ended his racing career in 1960 (part of a lifelong battle with heart disease), but not before he won the USAC driving championship that year. By then racing had become his passion, and he kept his hat in the ring, picking up a Goodyear Racing Tires distributorship and opening a high-performance driving school with Peter Brock as an instructor - which, years later, would be passed on to ex-Shelby American driver Bob Bondurant, who continues to operate the school to this very day.
But Shelby longed to build his own car. His first attempt, which tried to marry an Italian body from Scaglietti with Chevrolet Corvette running gear, faltered when General Motors management nixed the deal. Several years later, the planets finally aligned-. In 1961, when AC Cars in England lost Bristol, its engine supplier, Shelby contacted the company and outlined a plan to use the chassis to build a V-8-powered sports car, which AC approved. Shelby's pal Dave Evans inside Ford helped him secure a deal to buy small-block V-8s, and he acquired fellow racer Lance Reventlow's race-car building enterprise, which was falling on hard times. Within a matter of months Shelby had a chassis, an engine (a 260 cubic-inch Ford V-8), a building to assemble them in, and the engineering brains behind Reventlow's operation, Phil Remmington.
"Evans carried me into (then Ford president) Lee Iacocca's office in Detroit," Shelby recalled late last year. "I said I needed $25,000 to build two chassis that I thought could blow the doors off the Corvette. Iacocca said he'd think about it, but then he told (product engineer/ Mustang father) Don Frey 'Maybe we should give him $25,000 before he bites somebody.'"
Shortly after the first AC 260 Roadster chassis arrived at Shelby's Southern California shop in February of 1962, Shelby said he had a dream about what to name the car. "I woke up and jotted the name down on a pad which I kept by my bedside -- a sort of ideas pad - and went back to sleep. Next morning when I looked at the name 'Cobra', I knew it was right," Shelby said in a 1993 interview with Motor Trend. And so the Cobra was born.
The first shiny yellow CSX 2000 Cobra was introduced to the world in April, 1962, at the New York auto show. The car was repainted several times during its rounds with the automotive press to give the impression that Shelby had more than one prototype. After production and other engineering teething issues were addressed, it wasn't long before long before his fledgling company - Shelby American -- was building powerful and lightweight Cobras that quickly began dominating at the track with the likes of fellow motorsports legends Dan Gurney and Phil Hill behind the wheel. Success brought new business to Shelby's door, namely from Ford, due in part to his connections at the automaker and the fact that Cobras were Ford-powered.
In 1964, Ford and Shelby began their first official Mustang collaboration, launching the 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350 for both SCCA B-production spec racing and the street -- marking the beginning of a golden age for Shelby American on the track and in the showroom.
Several of the most iconic cars in Shelby's history were produced during this period, including the 427 Cobra Roadster and the Cobra Daytona Coupe, which would take first overall at the Sebring 12-Hour in 1965 with Bondurant at the helm and went on to win multiple events worldwide. Shelby also was instrumental in developing several of the most sought-after track and street Mustangs in history, including the Shelby GT500 and Trans-Am racers.
Shelby is also forever linked with the legendary Ford GT-40 series cars. Beginning in 1965, Shelby and Ford led an all-out American assault on European sports car racing with the Daytona Coupe and GT-40, culminating in the GT-40's historic 1-2-3 finish at the 1966 Le Mans 24 Hour, humbling the mighty Ferrari juggernaut as Henry Ford II proudly looked on. The GT-40s won Le Mans the following year as well. While Shelby didn't build the GT-40s, he and his team were instrumental in its development and racing success - and it remained one of his most proudest accomplishments decades afterward.
"One of the greatest thing in my life was winning the (FIA) World Championship in 1965," Shelby said last year, "but I got a lot of satisfaction from winning at Le Mans [with the GT40]. Winning it in 1966 and 1967 as a builder, after winning Le Mans as a driver in 1959, may be the biggest thing in my life, as far as I'm concerned."
As the muscle car era drew to a close, so did Shelby's era with Ford. Production of the Shelby Mustang ended in late 1969, and Shelby's team racing agreement with Ford was terminated shortly afterward.
"Two things made me leave Ford," Shelby recently recalled. "The politics at Ford in the '60s were horrid; they were hiring internal people to run performance things that didn't know a damn thing about it. They caused more problems instead of turning it over to someone who could carry it through. But even performance went away: safety and emissions were priorities, and there wasn't budget for performance. Performance went away, and it wasn't until '82 or '83 when [Ford] began to think about it again."
In 1982, Chrysler came calling. Mustang godfather Lee Iaccoca, who had become the CEO of Chrysler, enlisted his old pal Shelby to inject some performance sparkle there, which led to the "Goes Like Hell" Omnis, Shelby Chargers, Lancers, Shadows, and even a Dakota pickup through the '80s. Shelby was also an advisor in the development of the Dodge Viper-, which Bob Lutz conceived as a modern-day Cobra, and drove the prototype Viper that paced the Indy 500 in 1991 -- less than a year after his heart transplant. (He would later undergo a kidney transplant and become the oldest surviving double transplant recipient in history.) Shelby later founded the Carroll Shelby Children's Foundation to help fund organ transplants for children in need.
While Shelby was lauded for his charity work and other worthwhile endeavors, he was also noted for his litigiousness, several shaky business deals, and lengthy feuds. In 1988, Shelby sued Ford over the use of the GT350 name it used on its 1984 20th anniversary Mustang, and the case was settled in 1990. Over the years, Shelby also did trademark battle with several makers of replica Cobras and companies using the Cobra name and shape -- including, ironically, AC Cars and Cobra replicar makers Superformance International, Inc. He even got into a well-publicized row with the Shelby-American Automobile Club over what he believed to be mismanagement at the organization.
Not surprisingly, Shelby was also the target of numerous suits and countersuits, most notably by customers of Unique Performance, a Shelby Mustang continuation company he partnered with, who claimed they didn't get the cars they paid for when the company was shut down during a criminal investigation for title washing. He battled with Wilhelm Motor Works, another Shelby Mustang continuation company, over a licensing dispute. Shelby was also sued twice by Denice Halicki, widow of "Gone in 60 Seconds" creator H.B. Halicki, over the use of "Eleanor," the name of the Mustang that starred in the original 1974 movie.
Shelby's last clean-sheet new-car design -- the 1999 Series 1 -- was to have been a 2400-pound, 500-hp supercar powered by a supercharged version of Oldsmobile's Aurora V-8 engine, but development problems, government red tape, and corporate politics caused the car to come to market late, overpriced and overweight, underpowered and underdeveloped. Production was ultimately purchased by the Venture Corporation, but continued financial problems let Shelby re-acquire the Series 1 production rights and tooling in 2004 for a fraction of what he sold it for. Production ended in 2005.
By 2004, Shelby was back where he started, collaborating with Ford ("I hope to stay there the rest of my life," he said in late 2011, "even if the end is looming in the short future.") on 2004's Shelby Cobra Concept Car and 2005's GR-1 coupe- -- a faithful homage to the Pete Brock Cobra Daytona coupe rendered in unpainted aluminum polished to a chrome finish. He also consulted on the design of Ford's centenary birthday present to itself, the 2005-2006 Ford GT. Since then, the Shelby name has returned to a brace of different Mustang models, some built by Shelby out of his Las Vegas factory, and some by Ford.
Befitting his status as a living legend, Shelby was showered with awards and accolades. He was inaugurated into the Automotive Hall of Fame and the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame, just to name a few. Health concerns - many surrounding his long-standing heart condition - never seemed to hinder Shelby, even as he approached his 89th birthday. In his waning years, even ol 'Shel was more than humbled by just how charmed a life the so-called snake charmer managed to lead.
"My heart was a big concern, and I struggled with that until 1990 when I had a transplant," he said. "There are a lot of negatives involved with living with transplantation but it did save my life, so I have to work hard with 30 pills a day. I have for 21 years. They told me I might get five years out of it, but I wouldn't get more than two good years. Here I am, 21 years later, talking to you.
"I'm the luckiest old man in the universe, and I'm doing what I want to do. I couldn't be more thankful for my life, and the way it is."
This shot of Carroll Shelby taken last fall at the SEMA show in Las Vegas captured the essence of the Carroll Shelby I knew for 33 years: Funny, wicked, gossiping about cars and people, always on top of the scene with his finger on the absolute pulse. He was grateful for every minute of every day he lived with his second heart. He called me Lindermood. I talked to Linda Vaughn, the Queen of race queens, earlier today and we had a laugh about Ol' Shel. "He called me Lindermood," I told her. "He called me Linders," she said.
Carroll Shelby In 2011
It seems like everything I hung out with him—working on a television pilot, staying with him at his home in California, traveling with him to his ranch in East Texas, doing a pace lap at Indy in the Viper with him at the wheel—resulted in a column. They were always fun to write, and much more noteworthy to me for what I couldn't put in them.
He came to my second wedding when I became Jennings. "You'll always be Lindermood to me," he said. My beloved aunt Red was tending bar and in charge of getting nametags on the guest. "Oh I don't need one of them," Shelby told her. "Look," she answered. "I don't give a shit if you want a question mark on it, you need a nametag if you want a beer." Which is why Carroll Shelby was seen wandering around at my wedding with a question mark on his name tag.
"I suppose she indented your life the way she did mine," He told my husband, Tim, that day. My life? It has been indented forever by his friendship. I will always remember him in the same way he once described me to my husband: He had the personality of a fart on a hot skillet.
May you be in heaven before the devil knows you're dead, Shel.
-Jean Jennings

President and editor-in-chief, Automobile Magazine

I lost my third dear friend in the past year. The first was Booper, Carroll's old girlfriend, and the second was Grumpy [Jenkins]. Once he called me in the middle of the night and woke me up. "Goddamn it, Linder! Wake-up! I need Booper's number!" "It's four-thirty in the morning!" I told him. "Well, it aint that over here," he said.

Carroll and I worked together for over forty years, because he always used Hurst shifters. Even the King of Sweden had a Shelby with a Hurst shifter. I met the king. He had holes in his pants and he wasn't wearing socks. At the state dinner that night, he was in all his finery.

My third dear friend. You know, it comes in threes.

--Linda Vaughn, Miss Hurst Golden Shifter
“Today, we have lost a legend in Ford Motor Company’s history, and my family and I have lost a dear friend. Carroll Shelby is one of the most recognized names in performance car history, and he’s been successful at everything he’s done. Whether helping Ford dominate the 1960s racing scene or building some of the most famous Mustangs, his enthusiasm and passion for great automobiles over six decades has truly inspired everyone who worked with him. He was a great innovator whose legend at Ford never will be forgotten. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.”

--Edsel B. Ford, Ford Motor Company board member


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