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Carroll Shelby - King of the Road

By: Lawren Dame \ Associate Editor \ June, 23 2014

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“Automobiles are the thing that I’m known for and that’s really my love and that’s what I think about more than anything else.” - Carroll Shelby


Carroll Hall Shelby, born in Leesburg, Texas, on January 11, 1923, was a man who devoted not only his career, but his entire life to automobiles. It is no secret that Shelby lived and breathed cars—“I love horsepower,” he was known to say. Shelby exemplified the term “a man of many trades,” rising from humble beginnings as a chicken farmer to gaining rank as a staff sergeant pilot during WWII, to becoming a world-renowned racecar driver, all the way up to his grand finish as the automotive entrepreneur he is most notably known for today. Shelby rose to fame as father of many automotive exploits resulting in such wonders as the Cobra and Shelby Mustang, the powerful sports cars which remain his legacy to this day.

Shelby began his life on this earth as the son of working class Warren and Eloise Shelby. Warren worked hard as a mail carrier, and Eloise stayed home caring for Carroll, who at seven years old developed a severe heart condition. Young Carroll Shelby spent much of his childhood bedridden, until seven years later when, at age 14, the leaking valve in his heart was deemed to be cured.

Though he was not born into a long lineage of racers, Shelby developed interest in the sport through his father, who bore a love for racing and often took Shelby and his friends to dirt bike and car races. Once Carroll himself could drive, he would venture outside his home state to treat himself to more advanced racing, such as the IMCA sprint car events in Iowa. In school, Shelby also learned how internal combustion engines operated by breaking down go-carts and putting them back together.


Shelby’s budding love of racing was put on hold with the arrival of WWII. Several years earlier, he had developed an interest in aviation after his father bribed him to get on a plane. Though only 16 at the start of the war, he enlisted into the Army Air Corps as soon as he could, in 1941. Shelby never saw any action but instead remained in the United States as a flight instructor at military bases in Texas and Colorado throughout his four year duration in the Corps. This gave him the opportunity to court a girl he took a fancy to, Jeanne Fields, though not in the traditional way one would expect. Ever the spirited type, he would fly out over her farm, dropping his flying boots onto her property—with love letters hidden inside them. Carroll married Jeanne in 1943, and remained in the Air Corps until he graduated in 1945 with the rank of Staff Sergeant Pilot.


After leaving the Air Corps, Shelby began a dump truck business in Dallas, Texas which ultimately failed. This led him to try out chicken farming, and he was able to reap a $5000 profit from that first flock for his efforts. However, the second batch all died of limberneck disease, sending Shelby into a flurry of bankruptcy. After these two business failures, Shelby returned to his first love—racing.

In January of 1952, Carroll Shelby finally drove a racecar for his first time ever—although certainly not his last. In a quarter mile drag race he rode in a hotrod equipped with a flathead Ford V-8 engine. A few months later, in May, Carroll participated in his first road race with the aid of a MG-TC (pictured above), finishing in first place among other MGs. That very day he also took on the fiercer Jaguar XK 120s, winning for a second time. This meant Shelby’s less than 100 horsepower vehicle was miraculously able to beat out all of the 160 to 210 horsepower Jaguars. It was this win against cars which more than doubled the factory power of Shelby’s MG that dragged him out of his recent business failures and into the light of fame. 

In 1953, Shelby was running late to a race, so he rushed from his farm to the track in his work clothes—striped overalls. This odd outfit struck a chord with fans and generated more publicity than his victory; thus, from thereafter the striped overalls became his trademark racing attire. 

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During the next few years, Shelby became a star of the track. The top car manufacturers of the world, including Ferrari, begged him to drive for them. During his stint as a racecar driver, Shelby achieved three national sports car championships in the US, gained a spot on the Aston-Martin team in Europe, won the 24 Hours of Le Mans and set land speed records at Bonneville Salt Flats, while being named Sports Illustrated’s “Driver of the Year” two years in a row—in both 1956 and 1957.

For Shelby, the highlight of these racing accomplishments came in 1959: his victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Roy Salvadori while driving an Aston-Martin DBR1/300. Shelby was one of only 12 Americans to ever win this race, as well as being the third American to do so. It was also during this race that he took note of the Bristol, an English GT car built by AC cars. Three years later, this AC Bristol would become the major influence for creating the AC Cobra.


Sadly, despite all these feats, Shelby was forced into an early retirement from racing due to the recurrence of the old heart problems from his childhood. It was discovered that he had angina pectoralis, a disease in which blood is unable to reach the coronary arteries. Carroll put off leaving the track for as long as he could, he even tried racing with nitroglycerine pills under his tongue, but in 1960 he knew it was time to quit. He competed in his last race that year, finishing with a win in the USAC driving championship. However, though it was the last time he could operate those heavy pounds of steel and horsepower, Shelby knew he would never give up on racing—he turned to designing these machines, instead. 

Shelby would go on to develop a competition version of the Cobra, adding Ford GTs to the team per Ford’s request. In 1963, he began development of a new roadster, the Daytona, with the goal of reaching 200 mph, and this car would become the completed Daytona Coupe in February of 1964. During the Daytona’s production, the Cobra managed to win both the SCCA A-Production National Championship and the United States Road Racing Championship for 1963. The entrance of the 427-powered Cobra in 1964 led to the very first win for the Cobra against the Ferrari GTO, and led to the idea for a big block-powered Cobra among Shelby, Ford, and AC. 

The infamous Mustang also underwent production during this time period, achieving immediate success upon its arrival in 1964. It made its debut during the muscle car era, however, so Ford sought out Shelby’s advice in perking it up. Shelby obliged, though he had tight SCCA regulations to comply with regarding modification of either the suspension or the engine—he couldn’t adjust both. Shelby’s solution was to modify the suspension of the 1965 Mustangs he was given to work with, removing the rear seats, adding larger disc brakes and a fiberglass hood as well as a lower suspension. He fitted them with Koni adjustable shocks, larger sway bars in the front and rear, 15 inch silver wheels, and finally a Detroit Locking rear complete with traction bar brackets. To improve appearance, side-exit exhaust pipes were included with Glasspack mufflers for enhanced sound. The result: the Mustang Shelby GT350. 

By that January of 1965, both of Shelby’s newest achievements, the GT350 Mustang and the 427 Cobra, were finalized and ready for action at the Riverside Raceway. These cars, and all of Shelby’s automotive endeavors, in fact, resulted in cars which were faster, nimbler, and some of the most competitive in the industry. The Shelby-American team was able to take the FIA World Championship of GT cars with Shelby’s Cobras at the 12 Hours De Reims in France, claiming the title Ferrari had previously maintained for a decade. Not only this, but the Shelby-American Team won the Le Mans 24 Hour race in 1966 and again in 1967 thanks to Shelby’s expertise in car design. The Shelby Mustangs of 1965-1970 would prove to be wildly successful due to Shelby’s skill, and this success and vision continued on through the 90s with Shelby American’s development of the Shelby Series 1, the fastest car ever tested at the time. 

In the late 1960s Carroll was forced to scale back on his production in California due to new government regulations and insurance rules. He ran his businesses in Africa for several years until these were halted due to civil war in the area. In 1982 he began to help his lifelong friend Lee Iacocca at Chrysler with enhancing their car performance, making miraculous modifications to the struggling K car as well as coming up with a whole new class of cars. They were able to collaborate to create the Charger GLHS, Omni GLHS, a muscle truck, the Shelby Dakota along with the jaw-dropping Dodge Viper.


Shelby returned to his old loves, the Cobras, in 1988, developing the “mystical 43” 427 S/C big block Cobras utilizing the last 43 chassis numbers left from FIA homologation paving the way for a limited ‘continuation edition’ of big block Cobras. By June of 1990, Shelby was long overdue for some coronary aid, becoming the successful recipient of a heart transplant. After this experience, his heart was moved to form the Carroll Shelby Heart Fund, what he considered to be his greatest contribution to humanity. This organization remains dedicated to this day to providing medical assistance to children in need, as well as supporting educational opportunities for youth through automotive and other training programs, benefitting the Carroll Shelby Automotive Foundation.

On October 1, 1992, Shelby received recognition for his automotive legacy by achieving induction into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame. A year later, he regrouped with Ford Motor Company to become technical advisor to the Ford GT project, as well as forming Carroll Shelby International in Nevada. In 1995, Shelby American, one of his oldest companies, opened a new facility in Las Vegas to expand his continuation of Cobra creation. He formed the Oldsmobile Series 1 roadster here with the partnership of GM, also adding other Cobra models. Ten years later, he entered into a new agreement with Ford allowing for his development of the new Ford GT as well as the reintroduction of many Mustang based Shelby cars, such as the Shelby GT-H, Shelby GT-500, Shelby GT-500 “Super Snake,” Shelby GT and Shelby GT500KR.


Carroll Hall Shelby managed to keep a hand in each of his several companies as well as his beloved Foundation until his death on May 10, 2012, at the age of 89. He had suffered with a bout of pneumonia as well as his resurfacing heart troubles, and after decades of being on the go, his racing heart was finally at rest.


Shelby’s ailing heart may have failed him, but where his heart was weak, his passion was strong. This passion still reveals itself today through Carroll’s enduring legacy as a man who knew what he loved, pushing onward for a lifetime as a driving force within the industry that his heart called home. As Joe Conway, president of Carroll Shelby International put, “There has been no one like Carroll Shelby and never will be. However, we promised Carroll we would carry on, and he put the team, the products and the vision in place to do just that.”


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