By now you may have heard that the great Carroll Shelby, one time race car driver and constructor has passed away at the age of 89 on Friday, May 10, 2012. The automotive world has truly lost one of the greats who lead a full life and accomplished feats few men can imagine. On the news of Mr. Shelby’s passing, my thoughts were he may be the last man to have such a singular impact on racing history and the cars that bear his name. My next thoughts brought me back to August, 1988. I was all of 15 years old at the time, while on vacation in Cape Cod, Massachusetts had read that Enzo Ferrari had died. An ocean and generation apart, Mr. Ferrari and Mr. Shelby had some similarities, but for now let’s talk about Mr. Carroll Shelby.
My fear is the current generation of gearheads are watching too much Barrett-Jackson auto auctions on Speed TV, where over the past few years Mr. Shelby has gone on stage to auction off one of his latest Mustang-based creations to charity, and there is no doubt the hundreds of thousands of dollars Shelby has raised has helped many people. Where my discontent lies is in the portrayal of Carroll Shelby, often depicted as a simple chicken farmer from Texas, and oh, he makes chili too! How cute.
Kids, that is not the Carroll Shelby that impresses me. In the 1950’s, Shelby won races in an MG TD, set 16 US and International speed records in a specially modified Austin-Healey 100S. In 1959 he drove the winning Aston Martin DBR1 to victory at the 24 Hours of LeMans-one one of only two victories Aston Martin can claim. Shelby also competed in Formula 1 racing from 1958-59. Due to heart problems that plagued Shelby from youth, he was forced into retirement.
This is where the magic happens-as if winning LeMans is not enough. Shelby was able to seal a deal with British sports car maker AC to drop a Ford V-8 into their AC Ace, creating the AC Cobra, pictured at top. Spawning the ultra-rare and desirable Daytona Coupe, the Cobra is one of the most desirable and iconic exotic sports cars of all time, and the most copied car ever built by kit car companies, although Shelby and his lawyers spent years fighting this.
It is well known that Ford had attempted to buy Ferrari in the 1960’s, and with the deal nearly sealed, Enzo Ferrari backed out at the last minute. With the deal off, Ford vowed revenge on Ferrari, and Ford was going to beat them on their own turf. Ford called Carroll Shelby for help. The result? The Ford GT40 won LeMans four years in a row. It is the only American built race car to ever win at the historical Circuit de la Sarthe.
With Ford’s connection to Shelby cemented with its AC chassis and involvement in Ford’s domination over Ferrari with the GT40, Ford sought to build on the equity of its new pony car, the Mustang. While there are rumors that Shelby’s initial reaction was of zero interest in modifying Mustangs and refused the project, under pressure from Ford management Shelby gave in and agreed to put his name on the Shelby Mustang GT350, the purist example of a Shelby Mustang. Later iterations of Shelby ‘Stangs seemed counter to Carroll’s original vision, and by 1970 Ford and Shelby parted ways.
Carroll Shelby slipped into obscurity it seems, until the very man who demanded a Shelby Mustang-Lee Iaocca, called on him to inject some badly needed adrenaline to the ailing Chrysler Corporation. At its inception the Omni was a crude answer to VW’s Golf, but with Shelby’s hand Dodge created a GTI killer with 175hp on tap for an impressive 0-60mph time of 6.5 seconds with a top end of 130mph. Shelby had a hand in several other high performance Dodge products, and was an integral part of the creating the Dodge Viper.
Shelby’s history with Ford resumed again with his input in the modern iteration of the Ford GT, an homage to the GT40 and Shelby Mustangs once again hit the showroom floor in 2005. Fittingly, Carroll Shelby’s last car with his own input was the Shelby 1000, the most powerful Shelby to ever hit the street or track. And so we draw the circle back to Enzo Ferrari, the man Shelby beat on relentlessly at the most prestigious stage of endurance racing. When Enzo Ferrari died, the twin-turbo V-8 Ferrari F40 was the last car he oversaw was ready for market, the most powerful, fastest, and expensive Ferrari of all time. For Carroll Shelby, the Shelby 1000 holds that same distinction.
This puts Mr. Shelby in some elite company, and proves again if the will is there, Americans can beat the best the European exotics have to offer. Carroll Shelby deserves to be remembered as more than a chicken farmer, he is the singular American figure to absolutely punish the best Europe had to offer on their own soil. For that, we thank you, Carroll Shelby.
The Garage offers our sincere condolences to the Shelby family and all of his friends and co-workers.