Carroll Shelby RIP
Carroll Shelby: RIP
Carroll Shelby died May 10, 2012, at the age of 89.
He had an incredible career. Even a recent 500-plus page biography on him by Rinsey Mills wasn't large enough to contain all his automotive activities.
I will remember him in particular because I wrote three books about him and his cars.
I always thought him the classic rags-to-riches story.
A one-time chicken farmer, Shelby had many careers including champion race car driver, racing team owner, automotive consultant and safari tour operator. In WWII he was a bombing instructor.
Where he put himself on the map most was winning the 24 Hours of LeMans in 1959 in an Aston Martin.
During his entire career he had a bad heart; he managed to hide it in his early years of racing. He retired from racing in 1960 and developed the first Cobra two years later. He was one of the nation's longest-living heart transplant recipients, having received a heart on June 7, 1990, from a 34-year-old man who died of an aneurysm. Shelby also received a kidney transplant in 1996 from his son, Michael.
He went to car racing almost by accident, after his chicken ranch in Texas failed. He worked so hard at racing that he won two National championships and was twice named Sports Illustrated's Driver of the Year.
I give him credit for de-mystifying fast cars. Before Shelby came along the creme de la creme in the sports car world were Ferraris and Maseratis and some of the teams he was on wre racing those cars and had to import mechanics from Italy just to keep them running. When he got to making his own car, the Cobra, he used an off-the-shelf Ford iron lump of a pushrod engine that could be fixed anywhere in the U.S. by any hot-rodder worth his salt.
Even when he came to the Ford GT40, he helped make it a winner when Ford had run it the first year without him and lost every event they entered. Once Shelby was on the GT40 team, they won LeMans within two years! It is no accident that the winning Ford GTs of 1966 and 1967 were both Shelby-American entries.
I also give credit to Shelby for bringing sports car racing into the reach of the common man; before Shelby came along sports car racing in America was an elite sport like polo; only the rich need apply.
Once the chicken farmer began to win, more people came to the sport. He democratized it.
I also give him kudos for his receptive attitude toward new inventions and to anyone with a new idea. When Pete Brock, a 19-year old wunderkind he hired at Shelby said he could make a Cobra coupe that could catch the Ferrari 250GTOs, Shelby welcomed it and that Brock-designed coupe beat the Ferraris , enabling the Cobra to win the World Manufacturer's Cup in 1965.
I also cite his career as a marketing man as a model of how to sell performance. When Lee Iacocca, his old boss at Ford, went to Chrysler he reached out and hired Shelby to promote Chrysler's front drive cars. The resultant cars weren't that good but they did show Americans that front wheel drive could be fun and I think Shelby marginally moved some Americans way from thinking performance had to be tied to rear wheel drive and V8s.
The Viper is another car that owes its existance to Shelby if only because it inspired Chrysler exec Bob Lutz to think of making a Cobra like car. He hired Shelby to be on the panel overseeing the car's development.
Shelby came back into the Ford fold around 2004, when they were developing the new Ford GT. He advised Ford on that car but meanwhile was ginning up his Cobra cloneworks so that he not only supplied Cobra replicas but replicas of GT40s (his main supplier is Superformance in South Africa).
Shelby lived just long enough to see the 2013 Shelby Mustang introduced, a car which Ford called the most powerful production V-8 engine in the world — at 662 horses — and which boasts a top speed of more than 200 miles per hour.
Shelby also developed an aftermarket kit called the Shelby 1000. He was working on development of new products right up to the time he was hospitalized in Dallas in May, 2012.
He is survived by his wife, Cleo Shelby; his three children, Patrick, Michael and Sharon; his sister, Anne Shelby Ellison; six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A private funeral has already been held but a memorial to him is scheduled May 30th for the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles.
Wallace Wyss is the author of SHELBY: The Man, the Cars, the Legend