Carroll Shelby: American automotive legend - 1923-2012
Carroll Shelby, one of the greatest names in the world of high-performance cars, passed away late last week at the age of 89 from undisclosed causes. Born in Leesburg, Texas, he stepped away from an ill-fated try at chicken farming to slip behind the wheel of his first competitive drive in 1952 -- a hot rod powered by a Ford V8. From there, Carroll Shelby went on to establish a storied legacy that went far beyond merely being the man who created the original Shelby Cobra. A successful racing driver, team owner/manger, car designer, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Shelby remained active in the game until early this year when his health began to fail.
During his eight years as an eminently successful wheelman, Shelby's skills netted him numerous accolades, including being named Sports Illustrated's Driver of the Year in 1956 and 1957. Carroll Shelby paid his first visit to Le Mans in 1954, as part of the Aston Martin factory team. Five years later, he won the prestigious 24 Hours event outright, also in a factory Aston Martin co-driven with Ray Salvadori. Although a congenital heart condition that frequently saw him compete with a nitroglycerine tablet under his tongue put an end to that part of Shelby's career in 1960, it opened the door for a new chapter of even greater accomplishments.
By 1962, Shelby had secured a deal with British automaker AC Cars for its lightweight AC Ace Roadster sans engine and a true stroke-of-genius agreement with Ford to supply his fledgling Shelby American operation with its new 260-cubic inch V8. The result, unveiled as the CSX2000 at the 1962 New York Auto Show, was homologated in early 1963 for FIA GT III competition as the Shelby Cobra. This lightweight, high-powered sports machine was an immediate on-track success and won the first of many races by handily trouncing the previously dominant Corvettes and Ferraris in an event at Riverside Raceway in California. Later versions of the Cobra fitted with 289 and 427 cu. In. Ford V8s went on to win the SCCA's Manufacturers Championship crowns from 1963-1965 while an elegant Daytona Coupe version capable of sustained higher straight-line speeds gave Shelby his first Le Mans GT Category win as a constructor in 1965. In addition to crushing the factory Ferraris in France, it rolled off with the FIA World Sports Car Championship for Manufacturers -- the first and only time a U.S. automaker ever managed that accomplishment.
In 1966, Shelby and company returned to help Ford Motor oversee the efforts of its blisteringly quick but far-too-fragile GT40 contingent, which had suffered two miserable Le Mans outings in 1964-65. This time around, the latest GT40 Mk II models that started the season with impressive warm-up victories in endurance contests at Daytona and Sebring went on to dominate in a 1-2-3 overall finish at the French 24-hour classic - another first for an American manufacturer -- while Shelby's Daytona Coupe again grabbed the GT Category laurels. The following year, this stunningly synergistic operation returned to France to once again claim overall victory at Le Mans in an updated version of the GT40. During this phenomenal five-year period, a veritable Who's Who of legendary drivers - including the likes of Dan Gurney Bob Bondurant, Phil Hill, Ken Miles and A.J. Foyt - all contributed to the success of the Shelby/Ford racing juggernaut.
By this time, the first of yet another legendary Ford-Shelby collaboration had begun hitting the streets with the introduction of the 1965 Ford Mustang GT350. Developed to beat the Chevy Corvette in the SCCA's B-Production category, the 289-ci/306-horse V8 in the original was joined by a 428-cube/355-horse upgrade in the 1967 GT500. Several other Mustangs also received Shelby attention during this period -- including the 1968 Shelby Cobra GT350, first Ford production car to wear a Cobra name. In 1970 with the muscle car era on the wane, Shelby's initial involvement with the Blue Oval organization came to an end, not to be rekindled for three decades.
During some of those the ensuing years, Shelby stepped away from the car game almost entirely to head up a number of unrelated business operations, including a safari operation in Africa and a company that successfully manufactured and sold his own brand of chili fixings. By the early 1980s, Shelby was tapped by then Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca to work as a "performance consultant" for the firm. In addition to helping create a series of models that wore GLH - for "Goes Like Hell" - badges, Shelby also was on hand to offer input for the original Dodge Viper. In 1990, he underwent a heart transplant, and a year later, established the Carroll Shelby Children's Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to providing financial assistance to children with acute coronary and kidney needs. In 1996 Shelby received another transplant, this time, a replacement kidney from his son.
With the intent of producing one final automotive icon to bear his name, this master of faster founded Shelby American Motorsports in Las Vegas in 1999 as a facility to produce a car known as the Shelby Series I. While few examples of this vehicle that used a number of GM mechanicals were manufactured, the operation flourished and currently turns out Shelby Cobra replicars as well as aftermarket performance kits for various Mustangs, including the Shelby Supersnake.
Much to his admitted surprise, Shelby reunited with Ford in 2001 to start another impressive run that commenced with consulting work on the GT40 Concept, a limited-production mid-engine exotic that finally hit the streets in 2004 as the Ford GT. It was followed up by several other one-offs as well as the first Mustang to carry the Ford Shelby GT500 name that debuted for the 2007 model year. Shelby's last effort with Ford was the 2013 Ford Shelby GT500, which, as a proper farewell to the genius behind it all, is fitted with a 662-horsepower supercharged V8, the most potent engine available in a series production car.