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

Carroll Shelby

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.

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sschewe
My brother Mike was a University of Michigan-Dearborn co-op student at Lincoln Mercury in 1963-4. He was maybe 20 years old and I was 18 when he brought home an "executive evaluation" blue 260 CID HiPo Shelby Cobra. He drove it around Dearborn with me as a terrified passenger---and him as a terrified driver. It was simply astounding---kind of like when Will Smith in Independence Day exclaimed "I gotta get me one of these!" It was absolutely other-worldly. A perfect mating of ultra-light English sports car nimbleness and American V8 muscle.I became a Ford co-op engineering student and eventually a Ford engine designer. My guess is the falling out that Carroll had with Ford in the late 60s and early 70s was partially due to the fact that we at Ford, along with the Big Three, were under the gun to clean up the engines because of the Clean Air Act. Racing was put on hold.The man was one sharp cookie!
Veloman
The first time I saw Shelby was at Silverstone in the late 1950s. He was wearing coveralls, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. I thought, What a clown". Well that changed when I saw him race. He was a jewel and a witty man. Vaya con Dios Carroll...
4501Safari
This man influenced American culture in ways we do not even notice today but having grown up in the time of the Mustang's introduction and the Shelby Cobra was just another affordable (for some, in the day) sports car with a American V8 in the engine bay, my memory is filled with bookmarks having a Carroll Shelby foot note. I remember the first time I saw a mustang with Shelby mag wheels and knew how special that was. I was in Junior College and it was on the town's main street. I heard Cobras howling in the night at a Sebring Race I attended. You could tell them from the Porches. Just last month I read another article about the Old Man. How he had lived well beyond the expected time for a heart transplant and done so many good works in that time. He enjoyed each day and the challenges presented, still, he said. I guess that marvelous young heart he received was finally caught by the aging body it beat in. When you see a Shelby Mustang or hear Cobra maybe give a nod his direction.
eric32507
Everyone who is a certified car nut has his heroes in the industry and I have lost 2 of mine. David E. Davis and now Carroll Shelby. Both made my heart soar with their words, their actions, their many contributions to the industry and hobby, and their all around zest for life. Godspeed Carroll, may you have reached heaven doing 200mph
JCobra
@eric32507 I own a Shelby AC Cobra with a 302 Ford engine,and having a ball with it.  I liked Carrol Shelby and wondered if he was a born again Christian like I am.Eternal life with Christ is so important, and goes beyond what this earth offers.  The alternative is mind boggling and unfortunately is permanent.Jim Evans- AC Cobra owner.

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