Carroll Shelby 1923 - 2012
By David Glenn Cox
This country isn’t going to be as cool as it used to be, Carroll Shelby has passed away from us. Carroll was what it was like to be an American back in those halcyon days of the mid-twentieth century. He was a doer, a tinkerer, part bullshit artist, part genius and all American. He was iconic like John Wayne iconic. He was born in1923, in Leesburg Texas with a bad heart spending several years of his childhood bedridden.
He bought his first car, a Willys, while still in high school and after graduating in 1940 enlisted in the Army Air Corps serving as a flight instructor, this gangly kid from Texas with a heart condition became a test pilot serving with Chuck Yeager. He married Jeanne Fields in 1943 and had daughter, Sharon Anne Shelby. At the wars conclusion Carroll starts a dump truck business in Dallas and in 1946, his son Michael Hall Shelby is born quickly followed by Patrick Burke Shelby in 1947.
Shelby was now young father and a family man, operating his own business. In 1949, Shelby goes into chicken farming; earning $5,000 on his first brood then going bankrupt when the second brood dies from disease. He drives in his first race in January of 1952; behind the wheel of an open wheeled flathead V-8 Ford hotrod in a quarter mile drag race. History doesn’t tell us whether Carroll Shelby actually won that first race, but I’d like to think that he did.
Later that same year in Norman Oklahoma, Shelby drives an MG- TC to victory in his first road race. Later the same day, he drove the MG again outside of its class against Jaguar XK 120’s and the wry Texan again took first place. In November 1952, he wins an early SCCA road race, back in those days Shelby was still splitting time between chicken farming and auto racing. He would arrive at the track still wearing bib overalls from the farm and endured much good natured ribbing. Shelby answered, “If they want to think I’m a rube, that’s just so much the better for me.”
By January of 1954, this farmer in bib overalls running good ole boy road courses in Texas catches the eye of Aston Martin team manager John Wyer. Wyer introduces Shelby to Grand Prix racing greats Juan Fagio and Peter Collins. On the strength of his record Shelby drives an Aston Martin DBR3 finishing… second. By April of 54, Shelby is named to the Aston Martin factory team as a co-driver. By June, he is driving in Le Mans, stop and think of that. If you were to see something like this in a Hollywood movie you’d think it was all too improbable, all too far fetched.
From a chicken farmer driving dusty drag races to driving for a factory racing team in Le Mans in just two years, how cool is that? Carroll Shelby returns home to the United States driving for Austin- Healy setting world speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats. In November, Shelby is driving in Carrera Pan Americana race in Mexico where he loses control of the car flipping it four times, breaking his arm. Shelby returned to racing in August of 1955 while still undergoing reconstructive surgery on his arm. He drives 3.0-liter Monza Ferrari with his arm still in a cast and with his hand taped to the steering wheel. Later that same year, he defeats driving great Phil Hill at Torrey Pines.
Shelby then drives the new 4.9 liter V-12 Ferrari to victory in his first outing, then wins the 1956 Mount Washington hill climb race before turning his sights on Formula One racing. Carroll Shelby was named “Driver of the Year” by Sports Illustrated in 1956 and 1957. He races the Formula One circuit in 1958 and 1959 winning the 24 hours of Le Mans with co-driver Ray Salvadori. Throughout these times Shelby is eating nitro glycerin tablets to control his chest pains. Shelby recalled a factory sponsor commenting on his pill intake during a pit stop, “I don’t like the idea of you taking those pills while you’re racing.” Shelby answered, “You’d like it even less, if I didn’t” then roaring off to victory.
1960, Carroll Shelby retired from auto racing; the pain was getting too great for him to continue. For most people that would have been enough excitement to fill a lifetime. In six short years, he had raced against the best in the world and had beat them all. He had raced them on asphalt, on dirt, on the flat and uphill, he drove them all, succeeding at them all. By1960, he is one of the foremost auto racers in American history. Yet this was only the beginning, in retrospect his racing exploits are almost forgotten today, dwarfed by what lay ahead for him.
Late in 1959, Carroll Shelby and partner Jim Hall build three Scarglietti Corvette concept cars. GM legend Harley Earl likes the cars, but GM management gave the project a thumbs down. In 1960, Shelby was operating a driving school and a Goodyear racing tire distributorship and as is so often the case, his marriage to Jeanne disintegrates.
Shelby learns in 1961, that AC cars of England had lost its source of engines and Shelby proposes using an American V-8. He contacts Ford Motor Company about using their new 221 cubic inch V-8. He plays fast and loose, asking Ford to front him the power plants using the AC bodies as collateral then reversing the gambit with AC. Shelby dreams about his new car, and in this dream it drive up to him and on its hood he sees the name “Cobra.” AC airfreights the first chassis and along with friend Dean Moon they test the car. The 221 engine is quickly replaced by a 260 cubic inch attached to a four speed manual transmission.
Carroll Shelby is now in the automobile business; he ships a prototype to the 1962 New York Auto Show and begins setting up dealers and taking orders from Shelby-American’s offices in Venice California. Shelby promotes the car, by offering test drives to the automotive press. Then repainting the car to give the impression that he had a larger number of these vehicles available. The 260 engine is then replaced by Ford’s new 289 V-8, the first Cobra’s have an MG steering box and VW beetle steering column. Shelby offers the car to GM, but GM fears any competition with its Corvette model and declines his offer.
When the Cobra takes to the track for the first time it breaks a rear hub and doesn’t finish. Yet over the next three years the Shelby Cobra loses only one race in competition in the United States. In Europe, the results weren’t as good; the tracks there had higher sustained speeds putting the coupe at a disadvantage. The sales were also disappointing but the iconic legend of the Shelby Cobra still looms large. I was at a car show several years ago and the participating cars had been roped off from the rest of the parking area. A man pulled his Shelby Cobra into the parking area as the patrons at the car show knock down the rope barriers flocking to see a Shelby Cobra in the parking lot. In its various incarnations the Cobra beat Corvettes and even Ferraris, like Carroll Shelby himself, the car was a winner, raw and powerful.
In 1964, the Ford Motor Company introduced the Mustang; it was an inexpensive sporty car aimed at the growing twenty something market. The 1964/65 Mustang was actually only a retooled Ford Falcon; the Falcon was hardly sporty and decidedly was not a sports car. While the new car was a sales sensation selling 22,000 copies on its first day, Ford Chairman Lee Iacocca realized that to build on the initial success of the Mustang, Ford would have to build a fastback model. The car would then need to be entered in competition, and so Iacocca approaches Carroll Shelby about tuning the new Ford fastback model.
Shelby runs the new car around the test track reporting back to Iacocca the numerous flaws and handling deficiencies. Management dispatches racing champion Bob Bondurant, one of their top trouble shooters to fly down and meet with Shelby, but by the time he arrives Shelby has fixed most of the deficiencies. He’s changed the steering sector linkage and moved the front shock absorbers mounts. This was the genesis of the Shelby Mustang GT 350. Why did Shelby name the car the 350? Because he estimated that was distance, 350 feet from his building to the next.
The huge success of the Mustang created two competing camps inside of Ford Motor Company. Some wanted to make the Mustang faster and more race ready, while others wanted to add on more profitable luxury options. The 65/66 models were the lightest and most race ready of the Shelby Mustangs, the company pushed each year for more comfort over speed and by 1970 the Shelby GT program was finished. Like the AC Cobra before it, the Shelby Mustangs are iconic, genuine pieces of American industrial art. At the same time Shelby-American was building GT’s it was also managing Ford Motor Company’s GT-40 program and once again, Shelby was beating Ferrari and all comers.
This is less than twenty years from Carroll Shelby’s life and in it, he changed the automotive world forever. He was a giant and larger than life legend, he made and lost a lot of money, obviously he didn’t do any this just for the money. I never heard him bitch about paying his taxes, he raised lots of money on his acclaim for charity. He made things work; he made them work better than they’d worked before and better than when the engineers were finished with them. He took his high school diploma and the kind of an innate genius that one must be born with to change the automotive world forever.
March 1965 – Shelby GT 350 production moves to larger Los Angeles facility. GT 40 Mark II (427 big block) begins development.
Cobra Daytona Coupe finishes first overall at the 12 hours of Sebring.
April 1965 – First street model 427 Cobra is completed.
May 1965 – First Shelby GT 350 drag car is built.
July 1965 – Shelby-American team scores enough points to win FIA world championship in the GT class.
August 1965 – First 15 competition model 427 Cobras are delivered for SCCA class A- production racing.
Production begins on 1966 GT 350.
October 1965 – Shelby proposes a special GT 350 Hertz racer
November 1965 – Hertz orders 200 GT 350 H (Hertz)
FIA certifies the 427 Cobras for the 1966 racing season
The 1966 GT 350 wins second consecutive championship in class B production car road racing in the Sports Car Club of America.
December 1965 – Hertz raises its order of GT 350’s from 200 to 1,000
February 1966 – GT-40 Mark II wins at Daytona.
Shelby- American builds prototype Mustang for Trans-Am series.
June 1966 – GT-40 Mark II’s win at Le Mans finishing, first, second and third; the first time an American team had ever won Le Mans. The third place car had spun off the track during the night and had come back from being a lap down to finish third.
September 1966 – Ford wins Manufactures title in Trans-Am series with Shelby-American Mustangs.
June 1967 – Under team owner Carroll Shelby, Ford wins 35th running of Le Mans in a GT-40 driven by A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney.
October 1967 – Shelby – American wins 1967 Trans-Am manufactures title.
January 1968 – Shelby enters the NHRA Drag Racing Series. Don Prudhomme's Ford Cammer-powered rail makes its debut as Shelby's Super Snake at the 1968 Winter nationals.
June 1968 – Team Shelby’s GT-40 wins at Le Mans once again.
Isn’t this enough success for one lifetime, you might think so, but this is only twenty years of Carroll Shelby’s life, he went on after all of this developing performance cars for another forty years. The name of Carroll Shelby was already legend, it is now immortal.