Tribute: Carroll Shelby (1923-2012)
Legendary racer and car designer, leaves a legacy of horsepower
By Shahzad Sheikh
A true-life hero of the automotive world has left us. We celebrate a lifetime of unprecedented and unmatched motoring hedonism, with a look back at the career of the extraordinary Texan.
I never had the honour of meeting Carroll H Shelby, and from my limited experience of Cobras or Shelby Mustangs, I’ve only ever briefly been touched by the brilliance of a legacy that will live forever in the annuls of automotive history.
The cause of his death has not been revealed but during his last two decades, Shelby had both heart and kidney transplants, in spite of which, he continued to be active in the management of his companies and charitable organisations to the end. See this very poignant interview with him last year, in which he says he still wants to be a part of it all, but recognises the fragility of his life.
Dogged by health problems, it’s not like he didn’t have a good run though finally passing on at the age of 89. This after an illustrious career as a racing driver (fighting back a serious heart condition to win the 1960 USAC sports car championship) and when illness forced him to give up racing, turning spectacularly successful car designer and engineer.
His name became synonymous with immensely powerful sports cars that separate the men from the boys – Comedian and serial Ferrari-owner once sent his 200mph Cobra back to Shelby because he was terrified of it. (Listen to his comedy routine ‘200MPH’ – it’s hilarious).
However hearing of Shelby’s death felt like a blow that shook the very foundations of the tower of car-love that people like you and I build and maintain. One that we keep standing despite the tsunami of efforts to label us irresponsible, a threat to the planet and its resources, and a menace and danger to society and anyone who should dare venture onto the streets.
Whilst governments are hell-bent on mollycoddling us in cocoon of legislation bent of draining the last vestiges driver entertainment and satisfaction, people like Shelby, Bob Lutz, Ferdinand Piech, Lee Iacocca, are the generals who fight on our behalf, in the battle for the right to drive the cars we enjoy.
Now the Stetson wearing maverick is gone and we’ve already lost the likes of Enzo Ferrari, Soichiro Honda, Colin Chapman and many others who were engineers and racers first, and businessmen and accountants second.
And with the automotive industry focussing on rationalisation and efficiency, I don’t see many others lining up to step into the formidable shoes of those who’ve gone before. Stephen Winkelmann? Perhaps. Dieter Zetsche? Not so sure. Carlos Ghosn? Give me a break…
Watching the brilliant video above from 1965, we truly mourn the loss of a hero, a petrolhead’s petrolhead, a swaggering giant who fired up our imaginations, fuelled our dreams and then made it all come true.
We’d like to think that he didn’t really die, but that he’s simply gone upstairs to goad God into buying a triple supercharged 2000bhp Cobra, because it’ll be faster than the 1500bhp Supersnake he sold to the devil some time back!
‘My name is Carroll Shelby, and performance is my business.’
Fraser M Martin (Automotive and classic car expert, journalist, off-road specialist, road and race instructor and coordinator):
‘Probably one of the last true greats of the American motor industry, Carroll Shelby will be sadly missed for no other reason than that he was one of the last true greats of the American motor industry. He was a visionary when there were few, turned his thinking into action despite the forces stacked against him and gave America what was probably its only ever real sports car. The recipe of getting an enormous engine into a tight British sports car, and making it work, is unlikely to be repeated given the ingredients available today. RIP Carroll – I hope there’s a smell of burning rubber wherever you are.’
Gaurav Dhar (classic car expert and enthusiasts from the Rolling Art Emporium, Dubai):
‘To say that Carroll Shelby was a remarkable man, larger than life or perhaps even an inspiration to many would be an understatement and then some.
‘His legend has canvassed every aspect of the motoring world and beyond in a single lifetime. It’s a story immortalized long before he left us.
‘Whether it was the inception of the Cobra cars, winning Le Mans in an Aston Martin, or racing his way to numerous victory’s behind the wheel of the most prominent car manufacturers of his time and going toe to toe with likes of Fangio and Moss, Carroll Shelby was an unstoppable force to contend with on the track.
‘His achievements and legend also extend outside motorsport, where he went on to help children with the Shelby Foundation and support numerous other charities personally.
‘Indeed, the list runs many miles long to name those who have been inspired, touched and enamoured by the man and the legend that is Carroll Shelby.
‘A chicken farmer turned international race car driver who famously (allegedly) once sat in ‘the’ commentadore’s office in Italy with his cowboy hat on and his boots on desk, while casually turning down an offer to race for a certain prancing horse at the same meeting…
‘You cant make this stuff up even if you tried to.
‘I think the old adage that runs through the veins of every classic car lover and enthusiast world-wide sums it up best…
‘”They just don’t make em like they used to…”
‘In Carroll Shelby’s case, I doubt they ever will again. At least not in my lifetime.
‘Off I go to fetch my 10 gallon hat and cowboy boots and fly the Red Baron down Sheikh Zayed Road to pay tribute to a personal hero of mine.
‘Long live the king.
‘My condolences to those he left behind.’
- Born 11 January 1923 in Leesburg, Texas. Suffered heart valve leakage problems by age 7 and spent most of his childhood in bed, until his health improved at 14.
- In 1940 enlisted in US Army Air Corps serving in WWII as a flight instructor and test pilot.
- After the war he worked in a chicken farm, ran a dump truck company and a sports car dealership, where he began building his own cars. In later years he also had a food business and played Golf at championship level.
- At 29 he ran a Ford-engined hot-rod in a drag race for a friend. Later he raced an MG TC in a road race eventually winning at an SCCA race in a Cadillac-powered Allard.
- 1954 invited to drive an Aston Martin at the Sebring 12 hours, and then an Aston DBR3 at LeMans.
- By 1956 he had won 40 races and was Sports Illustrated’s 1957 Driver of the Year.
- Opened Shelby Sports Cars in Dallas in 1957.
- Won the 1959 LeMans in an Aston DBR1 with Roy Salvadori. Tried Formula 1 in an Aston Martin DBR4 but unsuccessfully. He also raced Maseratis and Ferraris.
- Diagnosed with severe heart problems in 1960, he still managed to bag that year’s USAC Sports Car Championship before quitting racing.
- Opened a high performance driving school and the Shelby-American Company.
- Started importing the two-seater sports cars from AC Motoring in England in 1962, switching out the Bristol engines for Ford 221 V8s, dubbing it AC Cobra – later popularised as the Shelby Cobra. He successfully entered the car in races with Ken Miles and Dave MacDonald driving, eventually roping in Dan Gurney and Phil Hill too.
- Got Ford’s backing and campaigned the car in Europe, in 1965 a Cobra Daytona Coupe beat Ferrari in the FIA GT Manufacturer’s Championship.
- This started a close association with Ford that lasted till 1967.
- 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350 introduced followed by the GT500.
- Ford gave Shelby its unsuccessful GT40 racing programme (aimed at beating Ferrari) in 1965. The following year it took the top three positions at LeMans, winning again in 1967.
- Ford withdrew funding in 1968 and Shelby American actually had to close in 1970.
- Lee Iacocca, who brought Shelby to Ford, had taken over at Chrysler and contracted Shelby to build high performance Dodge Chargers and Omnis. Shelby was also responsible in the launch of the Dodge Viper RT V10 in 1989.
- Heart transplant in 1990. Less than a year later drove the Viper pace car at the 1991 Indianapolis 500.
- With the aid of coachbuilder, Mike McCluskey, brought the Cobra back into low-volume production in 1995 as the 427 S/C Roadster ‘continuation Cobra’.
- In 1996, at age 73, received a kidney donated by his son.
- New contract with Ford in mid-2003 to help create Ford GT, and Shelby editions of the Mustang, launched with the GT500 at the 2005 New York Auto Show.
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