The Life of Carrol Shelby
A short summary of the life of one of the greatest racers/designers in the car world.
In January 11th of 1923, the car world was changed forever when Carrol Hall Shelby was born in Texas. As a kid he was always energetic, with a love for danger. So when America became involved in World War II in 1941, he enlisted to be a fighter pilot in the air force. He became a test pilot and a flight instructor. After the war, he left ranked a staff Sergeant pilot and started a small dump-truck business in Texas. Shelby’s dump-truck business was a bust, so he decided to start a chicken farm instead. At first his farm was successful, but on his second year a sickness hit his chickens and many of them died. This forced him to file bankruptcy.
It was a stroke of luck for Shelby and the automotive world that his chickens died. Without the chickens dying he may have never got into racing, and the world would be worse off without him. In 1952, short on money, Shelby decided to compete in a quarter mile drag race in a Ford hot rod. He didn’t win the race but it triggered the start of Shelby’s racing career.
Later that year, Carrol competed in, and won, a short road race in a friend’s MG-TC. After his first taste of victory, Carrol began to win many more races in various cars. Then one day Carrol was running late and showed up to a race in his farm overalls. Wearing the overalls earned him popularity, and this popularity grew into fame over time. Fame gave him confidence and he became more and more successful. His great success got the attention of Aston Martin’s racing team who hired him to come and race for them in Europe. In his first race for Aston Martin he placed second against a Jaguar C-Type. That Summer Shelby raced Astons all across Europe.
Soon he began to miss America. He returned home after his success in Europe to race in his home country. The year he returned home he was named 1956 Sports Car Driver of the Year by Sports Illustrated. Though he already had an impressive collection of victories he continued to race for different companies all across America. However, everything changed when he began to have heart pains. At the age of 37, he was diagnosed with Angina Pectoris, a chest disease. He was not able to take his medicine while racing, and so he was forced to quit.
In 1956 Carrol started Shelby of America, his own car manufacturing company. He began to coordinate with Charles Hurlock of AC Motors, to build him the body for a light weight, sports roadster. Charles Hurlock agreed to build him the frame of his unnamed roadster to take on the Corvette. Although he had the frame of his car, he still needed the most important part: the engine. After looking around, Carrol decided on a big block Ford V8 capable of making a staggering 425 horse power.
One night Carrol had a dream in which he saw his sports car with the name ‘Cobra’ written across the front. He loved the name, and so decided to call his sports car the AC Shelby Cobra. Later that year Carrol opened a small shop in California to produce his Ford-powered, Vette-slaying sports car. In 1961, he began to produce the first Cobras. From 1961 to 1967, he and his workers produced just under 1,000 vehicles. During that time, Carrol also partnered with Ford to make the Ford Shelby Mustang GT.
To fully test the Cobra, Carrol entered one into the LA Grand Prix. Unfortunately, the Cobra in the race broke down and never finished. During the race Carrol did manage to prove that the Cobra was much faster than the current Corvette Stingray. This helped to boost Cobra sales. The one problem with the Cobra was its lack of aerodynamics. Because it was a convertible, the Cobra simply couldn’t be built as aerodynamic as other sports cars of the time.
To address the lack of aerodynamics, Carrol planned the Shelby Cobra Daytona coupe. It was produced to compete against the the Ferrari GTO in the GT class of racing. Its chassis was loosely based on the normal AC Cobra. In 1964 production began, but only 6 were produced in that year. The reason so little Daytona coupes were built is a long story.
During that year Ford had recently attempted to purchase Ferrari. Enzo Ferrari met with Henry Ford II to sign the contracts in Italy. However, when Ferrari read the contract, he realized it did not give him full control of his greatly successful racing team. Because of that, Ferrari walked out on Henry Ford II and his lawyers. So began the famous racing rivalry between Ford and Ferrari. Henry Ford II was greatly unhappy about the Ferrari incident and so he decided to prove to Ferrari that Ford could race as good, if not even better than Ferrari.
To complete this he needed a car. Henry Ford ll asked his men to build a car that could take down Ferrari at the famous 24 hours of Le Mans. The result was the Ford GT40 Mark 1. It was fairly fast, but handled terribly, and was not one bit reliable. When the big race came, all of the GT40s broke down letting Ferrari take home a 1-2-3 finish. Ford was not happy with this, so he hired Carrol Shelby, and fellow racing driver Ken Miles to help build a better, more reliable GT40. The new engine was much better, but when Le Mans came, all of the Fords once again broke down handing Ferrari another 1-2-3 victory.
Henry Ford ll soon realized that the GT40 needed major changes. For the 1966 Le Mans, Carrol Shelby helped design the ultimate race car. It could hit well over 200 miles per hour, cornered much better, and was hopefully more reliable. The car was the Ford GT40 Mark II. When the race began, the Fords quickly took the lead, but as the race went on they began to once again break down or crash.
Not all of them, though. The remaining drivers retook the lead and finished the race with a 1-2-3 win ousting Ferrari. Ford continued to win at Le Mans in the years to come. None of that would have been possible without the great help of Carrol Shelby. So, long story short, Carrol had to go help Ford build a legend in the racing world, and was not able to complete as many Daytona Coupes as he had hoped. An unfortunate consequence for a fortunate series of events.
In September of 1969, the Shelby Automotive Company’s sales began to rapidly decline. By that December, Carrol had realized that Shelby automotive would have to close. Later that month, Shelby Automotive would cease to exist. Carrol ended his agreement with Ford, and went into retirement. He lived in America in retirement until 1974. In 1974, Congress passed the Environmental Quality Act, which effected vehicle emissions. Believing such strict vehicle emission rules would end the days of sports-cars, Carrol moved to South Africa, where he lived for a few years.
After living in South Africa, Carrol once again returned to America. He lived in partial retirement throughout the rest of the 1970s, During this time Carrol went from cars to chili, when he started his very own chili mix. started his own Chili mix company. His Chili was called Carrol Shelby’s Original Texas Brand Chili. It was later bought by Kraft, and is now available on Amazon, and in select stores across America.
Carrol’s Chili company occupied his busy mind for a while, but in 1982 he began to crave something else besides chili. Not something with spice, but something with grease and oil. Car grease and oil. His old friend Lee Iacocca had left Ford, and was then working for Dodge. He needed help building a high performance Dodge Charger, so Iacocca contracted Carrol to get the job done. However, instead of focusing on building a wicked fast charger Carrol helped more with tuning the suspension and body work. The Shelby Charger was sold from 1982 to 1987, and just over 7,500 vehicles were produced
Carrol wasn’t satisfied. He took the Shelby Charger back to his shop, and made even more changes, this time speed focused. His new Charger was called the GLHS, or Goes Like Hell S’more (the normal Shelby charger was called the GHL, or Goes Like Hell). Just 500 GLHS models were built. Carrol owned and drove a GLHS until his death.
During the time of the GLH, the famous Bob Lutz was Vice Chairman of Chrysler. So when he began plans for a new Dodge sports car to rival the Corvette, Carrol, who was already at Dodge was asked to help. The Sports car in question was the Dodge Viper. Carrol did help a fair amount designing the Viper, although his name was never put on it. Shelby attended the Viper’s Detroit Debut in 1989.
Shelby went back into retirement for a short period in 1990 before returning to what made him famous - racing. After getting a heart transplant in 1990, Carrol found himself fit to race once again. He got back into racing slowly, pacing the Indy 500 in 1991. A year later Shelby traveled to Lime rock to race one of his 1966 Shelby GT350s. He performed amazingly well for a 69 year old man, setting lap times almost identical to when he was young.
Soon though, Carrol quit racing, and turned his focus to his newly started charity, The Shelby Heart Fund. He made a deal with Shelby Cobra replica manufacturers that if they donated $1,000 per car, he would let them sell as many replicas as they wished. The Shelby Heart Fund was later changed to the Shelby Children’s Foundation.
At 74 years old, you might think he’d be done with designing cars. But you’d be wrong. In 1997 Carrol began production of the Shelby Series One, the first car designed completely by Carrol himself. It was a 2,350 lb drop top sports car powered by a 320 horse-power Oldsmobile V8. The reason he built the Series One was an experiment. He claimed he wanted to see if you could build an ultra light weight sports car with normal car amenities such as air conditioning and a CD player. It turned out that if Carrol put his mind to something, he could build anything, and so he succeeded in his wish, and built the very car he had in mind. He planned to mass produce the series one, but only built a few prototypes, due to money issues.
After the Series One, Carrol finally settled down for a while. ‘For a while’, being a short five years. In 2002, Carrol was ready for his last hurrah in car building. He was going to build a new Shelby Cobra. His concept for it was a V10 powered roadster that borrowed much of its design elements from the original Cobra. It was unveiled at the Detroit auto show in 2004, but unfortunately never left the showroom.
Carrol had finally retired for good. In 2005, after the Shelby Cobra Concept was unveiled he was officially done making vehicles. However, he still remained active in the automotive world attending vehicle unveilings and car shows across America. Even though Carrol himself wasn’t designing cars, that didn’t mean the Shelby name was dead. In 2005 the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 was revealed in New York. After that, the Mustang Shelby GT-H was produced as a Hertz rental only vehicle, proving the Shelby name lived on.
Soon, the Shelby name began to appear on more and more Mustangs. In 2007, Ford released the Mustang Shelby GT500KR, a convertible Shelby GT-H, a Mustang Shelby GT, as well as a convertible Mustang Shelby GT. Carrol had nothing to do with the production of these vehicles, but was happy to see the Shelby name still appearing on high performance American muscle cars.
As he approached his final days, Carrol’s heart once again began to fail him, despite his transplant in the 90s. On May 10th, 2012, Carrol Shelby passed away in a Dallas, Texas hospital at the age of 89. But Carrol Shelby was a legend, and legends never die. So even after his death, the Shelby name lives on. Shelby Mustangs continue to be manufactured to this day.
Through his life, Carrol racked up one of the most impressive lists of achievements out there. He dominated on the race track. He raced for Aston Martin, and other major race teams. He made some of the most famous cars in the world. Carrol’s cars are considered some of the most influential and collectable of the century by countless magazines and people. It’s not just his cars that are influential. Carrol himself has also been considered one of the most influential people in the automotive world.
This year, Ford unveiled the new 2020 Mustang Shelby GT500, a 700 plus horsepower, 5.2 liter V8 Hellcat killer. It’s a monster of a car that would have made Carrol Shelby grin were he to see it. Plastered to the front grill is badge of a cobra. A remembrance of the car that became an automotive legend. A remembrance of of the man who made that legend. A remembrance of Carrol Shelby.
- River Bolster