Mr Mustang: the American legend that was Carroll Shelby
From chicken farmer to racing driver to producing his own brand of chili, Carroll Shelby was one of a kind.Neil Churchill February 8, 2015
"Yesterday's history. Tomorrow's a mystery. So live for today" - Carroll Shelby.
If there's one thing lacking in the automotive industry today, it is the number of former racing drivers at the top of companies. Back in the '60s, having a man who used to race cars himself call the shots on the production line was almost requisite.
In Europe, Enzo Ferrari was the epitome of that man. Over in America however, Carroll Shelby was every part Ferrari's equal. Shelby had an extraordinary life from fighting off health problems, racing sports cars, managing a chicken farm and launching his own chili brand. But he will always be remembered for producing some of the most sought after muscle cars the world has ever seen. Born in Leesburg, Texas, in 1923, Shelby suffered heart valve problems at the age of seven - an early sign of what would later come back to haunt him. Aged 20, he married his first wife Jeanne Fields and the couple went on to have three children: Sharon Anne, Michael Hall and Patrick Bert.
After leaving his job as a flight instructor in the Air Corps, Shelby started a dump truck business. Four years later he started up his own chicken farm, netting $5,000 - a good amount for the time - from his first batch. However the business was short-lived after his second group of chickens died of a disease, leaving Shelby bankrupt.
It was in 1952 that Carroll first took part in a race; a quarter mile drag behind the wheel of a hot rod fitted with a flathead Ford. That moment ignited the racer in Shelby, and from then on his focus in life was on racing and producing racing cars. Two years later and after several racing meets, Carroll was invited to drive for Aston Martin at Le Mans in June 1954, and later that year Austin-Healey asked him to help set 70 new Class D records at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
It was little surprise that in 1956 and 1957, Shelby was named 'Driver of the Year' by Sports Illustrated. In between his two awards however, he opened Carroll Shelby Sports Cars in Dallas. In June 1959, Shelby co-drove an Aston Martin DBR1/300 to victory at 24 Hours of Le Mans, and later that year built three Scargliette Corvettes for General Motors - although the deal was not successful.
A year later, Shelby opened his Goodyear Racing Tire distributorship in Southern California, but soon after his childhood health problems return as he is diagnosed with angina pectorals - his coronary arteries were being starved of blood. Later that year Shelby competed in his last race, winning the USAC driving championship for 1960.
It was there after that Carroll really lit the flame to create his own breed of sports cars. He formed a deal to put a new small-block V8 engine made by Ford into a two-seater roadster made by AC Cars, after learning the England manufacturer had lost its source for engines. Shelby claimed he had a dream that revealed the name 'Cobra' to him, and thus the first Shelby sports cars powered by an American V8 was born, under the operations of Shelby-American. Over the next year, the Cobra won several races including the SCCA A-production national championship and the United States Road Racing Championship. At the same time, Shelby began producing the Daytona Coupe project. But it was in 1964 that Shelby-American put a huge marker down on the racing circuit, beating the Ferrari GTO at Sebring in the prototype class.
Later that year Cobras won the GT class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, again defeating Ferrari. 1964 also marked the start of Carroll's Ford years, with the production of the first Shelby Mustang GT350 race and street cars. Soon after, Ford turned its GT-40 project over to Shelby-American, leading to the car winning its first race at Daytona in 1965 - the GT350 also won its first race.
Over the next five years, Carroll Shelby oversaw huge on-track success for Ford and Shelby-American - including further wins at Le Mans - and several new models. In 1970, Ford ended its racing relationship with Shelby-American, and the Shelby Automotive Racing Company closed. Soon after, Carroll took a leave of absence and spent time in South Africa.
In 1976, Carroll Shelby stepped back into the business world, but with a completely different interest. He created his own chili powder - Carroll Shelby's Original Texas Brand Chili Preparation - and marketed it internationally. He also helped create the International Chili Society. After his spell in the culinary industry - he sold his chili product to Kraft - Shelby stepped back into the automative world in 1982 as he teamed up with Chrysler to create what has become the manufacturer's famous Dodge cars.
Five years' later, he began work on what would become the Dodge Viper. In 1990, Carroll underwent a successful heart transplant, leading him a year later to create the Carroll Shelby Heart Fund, to help finance organ transplants for children. In 1992, Shelby was rightly inducted into International Motor Sports Hall of Fame. But he wasn't finished yet with making cars.
In 1995 Shelby produced new Cobra roadsters, in 1997 he designed and manufactured the Shelby Series 1 sports car and in 2003 he was involved with the development of the new Ford GT as the two companies rekindled their relationship. Over the next nine years, Shelby produced several high-performance models including the GT500, GT, GT500KR and GT-H convertible. In 2007 the Shelby Terlingua Racing Team returned. In 2008, Carroll celebrated his 85th birthday with 800 friends. The next year he was presented with the lifetime achievement award as the Automotive Executive of the Year in Detroit.
Still not finished with business, in 2010 Carroll launched the Shelby Signature Foods Company with a portion of the proceeds going to his foundation.A fitting response; the next year he was honoured by the World Children's Transplant Fund for his generous donations to organ transplantation. On May 10, 2010, Carroll Shelby passed away after suffering a bout of pneumonia. He was 89 years old.
It is no doubt that Carroll Shelby was a visionary of his generation, single-handedly transforming the automobile industry into how it is today. He once said, "Driving race cars was an avenue for me to learn how to build my own car, and that was my ambition all along." An ambition he certainly fulfilled.