Carroll Shelby, who passed away May 10, 2012, at the age of 89, could have been finished five decades ago. He’d already earned more than his share of fame as the former Texas chicken farmer who’d conquered Le Mans in his trademark bib overalls. No one would have thought less of him had he spent the remainder of his life — not very long, doctors told him — trading racing stories for free beers.
Of course, as Shelby knew then and as we know now, he was just getting started. “My ambition was never to be a world-champion racing driver…I always had an idea that I could build my own car,” he told Automobile Magazine earlier this year.
He managed to do that and more. Pictured here are eight — hardly all — of the production sports cars he built or heavily influenced. There were great cars, like the one and only Cobra, and not-so-great cars, like the cobbled-together Series 1. But most of all, they were his cars.
Shelby Cobra 260
After the fact, everyone said it was obvious. But it was Shelby who connected the lithe AC Ace and Ford’s new small-block V-8. More important, he had the snake-oil charm to make it happen. He convinced Ford vice president Lee Iacocca to provide funding in 1961 and within months created the original Cobra prototype, which happens to be the very car you see here.
Shelby Cobra 427
The Cobra 427 never had a chance to match its predecessor’s brilliant record on the track — numerous SCCA titles and the 1965 FIA manufacturer’s trophy — because Shelby American failed to produce enough competition-spec cars to meet the FIA sanctioning body’s requirements. Instead, the big-block version went on to become the ultimate muscle car.
Less an indictment of Shelby than the state of performance in the late 1980s, Shelby’s souped-up Dakota had a limited-slip differential and a V-8 in place of a V-6. That’d be a 175-hp V-8.
Shelby Omni GLHS
Snicker all you like at the humble Dodges, but the 1986 GLHS (“Goes Like Hell — Some more”) was an impressive piece in its day, not to mention one of the progenitors of the hot-hatch movement. And Shelby always loved them.
Chrysler president Bob Lutz initiated the 1992 Viper after spending time behind the wheel of a Cobra clone and wondering why no new car matched its performance. Lutz then brought Shelby in to consult on the project and, just as important, to convince Chrysler chairman Iacocca to provide funding — just as he had at Ford in 1961.
Shelby Series 1
It’s both Shelby’s most ambitious car and his most flawed. It features an aluminum chassis built from the ground up, a carbon-fiber body, and a General Motors-sourced, dual-overhead-cam V-8. But Shelby was too sick to really hold the 1990s project together. The car missed its performance, weight, price, and, ultimately, sales targets. Worse, Shelby had invested millions of his own dollars in the project. “You’re never so slick you can’t be greezed,” he told us.
Ford wanted to take the Mustang racing, and Shelby, as usual, knew how to make it happen. It wasn’t simple: the humble, Falcon-based ‘Stang needed a thoroughly reworked suspension and a breathed-on 289-cubic-inch engine. Peter Brock’s blue racing stripes didn’t hurt, either. In order to compete in SCCA racing, Shelby needed to sell 100 cars. He did quite a bit better than that, and a profitable new business was born. By the late 1960s, “Shelby” Mustangs were bloated muscle cars produced in-house by Ford.
Shelby 1000 Mustang
Like most new cars offered by Shelby American, the 1000 is a Ford-built Mustang that travels to his Vegas facility to become a “real” Shelby. In this case, that means taking a 2012 GT500 and upgrading the engine internals, exhaust, and supercharger to approach the output of a Bugatti Veyron — and surpass it if you opt for the S/C version. The final new product to see the light of day while Shelby lived certainly bears the mark of the man.
Can there be Shelby without Carroll?
As we celebrate Carroll Shelby’s past, it’s worth noting that there will be a Shelby future. “Carroll set up the company to continue the legacy and carry on, and we’ve got product planned clear out to 2020,” says Gary Patterson, vice president of operations at Shelby American, which presently turns out some 350 to 600 customized Mustangs and “continuation” Cobras a year (like those shown here). The story is largely the same at Ford, which develops the GT500 in-house and uses the Shelby name under license. “I would hope that we would keep the name Shelby around for a long, long time,” says Edsel Ford II, Shelby’s longtime friend and liaison in Dearborn.
Still, it remains to be seen how the Shelby name will fare without the man. Though he didn’t play a major technical role in his cars recently and in some respects never did–that’s what the likes of Phil Remington and Peter Brock were for — his outsize persona and the cult he inspired are what made them Shelbys.
More has been written about Carroll Shelby than anybody but Enzo Ferrari. It’s a story that grabs everybody’s imagination. Failed chicken farmer becomes a racing driver, builds his own car, and beats Ferrari in a world championship. No wonder Paramount want[ed] to make a movie out of it.” — Rick Kopec, Shelby American Registry
“His strong point wasn’t his technical or mechanical capability; he just knew how to make things happen. He knew how to bring people together, and he was an incredible salesman…he was just so good at talking people
into things.” — John Morton, former Shelby American racing driver
“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 [Carroll] called me in the middle of the night and woke me up. ‘Goddammit, Linder! Wake up! I need Booper’s number!’ ‘It’s four-thirty in the morning!’ I told him. ‘Well, it ain’t that over here [in Europe],’ he said. My third dear friend. You know, it comes in threes.” — Linda Vaughn, Miss Hurst Golden Shifter
“He was pretty flamboyant and also he could explode on occasion, but for the most part, he and I always got along really well.” — Phil Remington, former Shelby American mechanic
“Carroll was great to drive for because he had raced and he understood drivers. The Cobra roadster was difficult, though, because it would understeer, then oversteer. The only way you could drive it was flat out and sideways — I loved it.” — Bob Bondurant, former Shelby American racing driver
“I worked for Carroll Shelby, I think it was the summer of ’68. I went to his house in California and I knocked on his door, and — I remember this as if it was yesterday — this very beautiful Swedish woman answered the door…I knew it was going to be a really good summer.” — Edsel Ford II, friend in dearborn