Carroll Shelby was a man ahead of his time. A great visionary, automobile enthusiast and businessman, he was the man behind some of the most famous cars to date. The story of Carroll Shelby stretches far beyond the story of cars. It is a story of dreams, optimism, hardship and victory.
Early Years of Shelby
Carroll Hall Shelby was born on January 11, 1923, in Leesburg, Texas. After completing high school , Shelby joined the Army Air Corp as a flight instructor during World War II.
Shelby left the service to start a dump truck business in Texas, and later entered the oil industry. After a stint in the oil business, Shelby started a chicken ranch. Bankruptcy ended his chicken ranch business.
Shelby and the Racing Tracks
Shelby began his racing career in 1952. In the beginning, he drove an MG TC. In 1953 he started driving an Allard. The Allard was a fast car that required tough handling. In 1954, Shelby won tenth place in a 1000 km race race held in Buenos Aires. He again drove an Allard.
Shelby’s driving skills were noticed by John Wyer, team captain of Aston Martin, who invited Shelby to drive one of his cars at Sebring. Though his first attempt driving an Aston Martin at Sebring was a failure, Shelby finished second at a race held in Aintree. This opened the gates of Le Mans for him. Shelby drove the Aston Martin until 1960.
The Weak-hearted, Strong-minded Shelby
Shelby’s racing career ended in 1960, due to a heart problem. The previous year he had a victory at the Le Mans, thus securing a place as one of the top professional drivers in the world. Shelby decided that if he could not drive a sports car, he would build one.
Shelby – The Automobile Enthusiast
Shelby dreamed of building a sports car which had the sophistication of a European model. He had the vision of bringing America to the forefront of world racing. To achieve this; he wanted to create an American car using a mass production engine. GM did not approve of Shelby’s idea of using their V8 engine on a European body. However, Ford came to Shelby’s help.
The Cobra Years
Shelby-American introduced the first Cobra in 1962, using a Ford 221 cid V8 engine and a European body from AC Ltd, England. The car was called, Shelby AC Cobra. In The Cobra Story, Carroll Shelby says, "As soon as the engine was installed I really felt that, with some development we had a world champion." With the help of writer Deke Houlgate, the Cobra was promoted vigorously in magazines, radio and television. The Cobra appeared in movies as well. Soon, the Cobra became a household name.
Milestones achieved by the Cobra
- January 1963 – Cobra wins first and second places at Riverside, California
- September 1963 – At Bridgehampton, Dan Gurney, driving the Cobra, becomes the first American driver to win an FIA race.
- November 1963 – Cobra wins the SCCA A-production National Championship Title.
- December 1963 – Cobra wins the United States Road Racing Championship.
- June 1964 – Cobra defeats Ferrari and wins the GT class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
- November 1964 – Cobra wins their second title at the SCCA A-production National Championship.
- March 1965 – Cobra Daytona Coupe achieves overall first at Sebring 12-Hours.
The End of the Cobra Era
In August 1968, Shelby-American sold the last new 427 Cobra Roadster. This marked the end of the Cobra era, and paved the way for the Mustangs to follow.
The racing agreement between Ford and Shelby came to an end in 1970. Thereafter, Shelby ventured into other businesses and social service activities. Carroll Shelby passed away on May 10, 2012, at age 89. He will forever be remembered as a classic car legend.
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About the Author
Drew Yagodnik is Vice President of Classic Automobile Insurance Agency, Inc. Classic Automobile Insurance Agency has been protecting collector, classic and exotics since 1992.