Perhaps it was the effeminate name that gave Carroll Shelby the onus to overcompensate, but he was a man whose life verily defined masculinity. A champion race car driver in an era in which there were few more daring endeavors, an automotive genius whose creativity birthed what are today some of the most collectible cars extant, an entrepreneur whose very name became a powerful brand—Shelby lived all of those lives. He died on May 10 in Dallas, at 89 years of age.
A Texan both by birth and in spirit, Shelby’s outsized fame began when he turned from chicken farming to racing in the 1950’s. As a talented wheelman-for-hire, he drove all manner of cars for wealthy owners during the decade, from sports cars to open-wheel Formula One race cars. Shelby even raced on the Bonneville Salt Flats, setting speed records in an Austin-Healey. Shelby landed a spot on the Aston Martin factory team and a seat in its DBR1 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959, where he achieved his greatest fame as a driver, winning the race with co-pilot Roy Salvadori.
Pictured: Carroll Shelby and the CSX2000, the first Shelby Cobra.
Shelby retired from driving later that year due to heart trouble, and promptly set about changing the face of American sports car racing as a constructor. He developed the 1962 Cobra, what became arguably the single most influential performance automobile of our time. Based on the AC Ace, Shelby crammed Ford's powerful, small-block V8 under the bonnet of the lightweight British roadster.
Pictured: Carroll Shelby after winning the International Grand Prix at Riverside Raceway.
The Cobra’s racing success led Shelby to forge an alliance with Ford Motor Company that would eventually lead to a Le Mans victory in 1966 for the iconic GT40. Shelby took over Ford’s sports car racing program in late 1964, after the GT40’s poor showing in that season’s competition. Under his direction, the team righted its fortunes, developing a new version of the car with a larger engine that enabled Ford to sweep the podium positions in 1966. The GT40 would go on to win the next three years as well.
While all this transpired, Shelby’s company, Shelby American, was also busy hot-rodding Ford’s hot-selling Mustang. While vintage pony cars have become popular collectibles, the ones that emerged from Shelby’s factory are among the most valuable. Authentic Shelby Mustangs routinely sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction today, with competition versions trading hands for over a million. The same holds true of Cobras, which are worth nearly half a million dollars even in poor condition.
Pictured: 1962 Shelby Cobra.
The 1970's saw tumultuous changes in the auto industry, with increasing regulation leading many manufacturers to abandon racing and discontinue their performance-oriented models. This dark era saw Shelby launch-of all things-a chili seasoning mix that's still on sale today. This deal would foreshadow a new role for the famous automotive guru, one that perfectly matched the tenor of the times in the "Greed is good" 1980's, when Shelby developed his reputation as a shrewd businessman.
Pictured: The 1967 Ford Mustang Shelby GT 500.
He launched numerous automotive ventures over the next two decades. Shelby started a wheel company. He signed on to do another hot-rodding project for his old friend Lee Iacocca, but rather than Mustangs, Shelby was given lowly Chrysler compacts that he turned into performance cars with more than middling success. He consulted on the original Dodge Viper, which was little more than a modern take on the Cobra. Shelby designed a new sports car, the Series 1, but it proved unsuccessful and led to the bankruptcy of the company that owned the right to build it. Shelby also began building "continuation cars," Cobras constructed in the style of their 1960's-vintage forebears, some of which were supposedly composed of leftover parts from the original production – and carried vintage vehicle identification numbers alongside their vintage hardware. It was this business venture that earned Shelby a reputation for litigiousness, as he sought to capitalize on the design of the original Cobra in the face of numerous other companies that had begun building derivatives of his most iconic vehicle.
Pictured: Carroll Shelby with the 2004 Shelby Cobra Concept.
By the 2000's, Shelby had returned to Ford as a consultant on its revival of the GT40. He gave his blessing to a stunning Cobra Concept that debuted at the 2004 Detroit auto show, and the next year a new series of Shelby Mustangs was launched by the automaker at the top of its Mustang lineup. Ford has continued to build and market Shelby GT500's since, and Shelby himself had often acted as a spokesman for the automaker.
Pictured: Carroll Shelby with the 2007 Ford Shelby GT Mustang
In recent years, Shelby’s January 11 birthdays fell during the Detroit auto show, which he mentioned in 2009 when introducing the 2010 GT500 Mustang in front of thousands of journalists. But this year when Ford introduced the 2013 GT500 convertible, it did so at the Chicago Auto Show in February, and Shelby was not present. His withdrawal from public view prompted concern, and an update on his health was delivered in late April, via Facebook, explaining that Shelby had been hospitalized for pneumonia for the last several months. “I'm resting comfortably with my family and working on getting better,” it read. “My kids are taking good care of me.”
Shelby is survived by those kids, his three children, Patrick, Michael and Sharon, his sister, Anne Shelby Ellison, six grandchildren, six great grandchildren and his wife Cleo. The family asks that those wishing to remember him make donations in Shelby’s name to the Carroll Shelby Foundation (www.cscf.org), a charitable organization he founded in 1991 to provide financial support for children facing life-threatening health issues.
Pictured: 2012 GT 500 Super Snake