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

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."

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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