Saturday, May 12, 2012

"My name is Carroll Shelby and performance is my business"

“Carroll was one of the best friends I ever had. He was known all over the world as an icon in the automotive industry and one of the greatest names in the history of motorsports. He was a great Texan and a great innovator with a style of his own. I’ll never forget how he would climb out of that sports car with bib overalls and a cowboy hat. Ford will do all but close the company because of his passing. I admired him a great deal and will miss him greatly as a friend and a business partner.” Bruton Smith 

If the Lone Star flag isn’t flying at half-staff, it should be. Native Texan Carroll Shelby, a legend in the world of automotive performance, died Thursday at Baylor Hospital in Dallas. His cause of death has not yet been released, but the champion racer and automotive designer was 89 and had recently battled pneumonia.

Words like “icon” and “visionary” often pad obituaries of those whose lists of accomplishments feature only a fraction of those that Shelby’s includes. Had those accomplishments only included creating two legendary cars, the Shelby Cobra and the Shelby Mustang, his legacy would have been secure, but by the time Shelby achieved those career landmarks, he’d already found international success as a race car driver. In fact, Sports Illustrated named him Driver of the Year in back-to-back years (1956, ’57.)

Born in the piney woods of deep East Texas on Jan. 11, 1923, Carroll Hall Shelby served as an Army paratrooper in World War II, and then turned to chicken farming. For a chicken farmer he made a heck of a race car driver. Noted for wearing bib overalls straight from the farm to the track, Shelby began racing full time when all the chickens on his farm died. During his driving career he won three US national sports car championships, competed in Formula 1, set international speed records in an Austin-Healey, and won the 24 Hours of LeMans in an Aston-Martin (with co-driver Roy Salvadori).

Shelby might have racked up any number of driver championships but the chest pains he’d been feeling for several months turned out to be heart disease and after winning the USAC Road Racing Championship in December 1960, he hung up his helmet. Some men would have been content to retire to a life selling automobiles and automobile accessories, but not Carroll Shelby. Even opening his own driving school didn’t satisfy him.
AC Shelby Cobra with Bob Bondurant
Photo from Wikicommons
When Chevrolet passed on putting their engine in a foreign chassis, thus creating a competitor to their own Corvette, Shelby approached Ford with his vision of putting a high-powered American V-8 engine in a lightweight British-designed sports car chassis to create a car that could compete with the likes of Ferrari and Aston-Martin in world-class racing.

Ford’s new vice-president Lee Iacocca agreed to supply the engine and by doing so gave birth to the Shelby Cobra, the first American-made car to win an FIA World championship. The Cobra story would - and has - filled books.

The relationship between Iacocca and Shelby proved to be a fortuitous one for “car guys” of both sexes. In 1964, Iacocca asked Shelby to remake Ford’s Mustang and another legend took form. The Shelby Mustang in all its incarnations made Ford an international name in motorsports and a rock star on American highways. Between 1965-1970, Ford and Shelby were in the thick of the "pony car" era that celebrated American muscle beneath the hood.

Shelby Mustang GT350 in Wimbledon white with Guardsman blue stripes.
Photo from Wikicommons
Iacocca took over Chrysler and turned to Carroll Shelby, enticing him away from a foray into the world of chili cooking and chili cook-offs by asking him to spice up the Chrysler-Dodge lineup. After consulting on updates to the Charger and Omni, Shelby was instrumental in the design of the Dodge Viper, a high-performance V-10 sports car that echoes the look of both the original AC Cobra and the Corvette Stingray. Not much of a coincidence since designer Peter Brock worked on both cars. Though the public eye has recently been focused on the reincarnation of the Charger and the Challenger, the Viper still holds a place in automotive history.

Aging didn't stop Shelby's drive. The International Motorsports Hall of Fame inductee continued to produce cars and still managed his companies and his branding throughout the years. In 2005 he again partnered with Ford, and  the latest version of the Shelby Mustang debuted at the 2012 New York Auto Show. Shelby seems to have saved his best for last, since the Shelby 1000 conversion features an upgrade to 950 street-legal horsepower, even more powerful than the Shelby GT-500 “Super Snake."

In 1990 Shelby began what would be another record-breaking chapter in his life. After having heart surgery in 1973 and bypass surgery in 1978, he received a heart transplant at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. His experience in waiting for a donor prompted him to form the Carroll Shelby Foundation to help fund organ transplants for children, help children with life-threatening illnesses, and support automotive education. In 1996, at 73, he had a kidney transplant, with his 50- year-old son as his donor. At the time of his death he was one of the longest-living heart transplant recipients.

Survived by his wife, three children, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, Carroll Shelby lived a life as big as his home state. He left a rich legacy that will keep him a household name for years to come.

The Skirts and Scuffs family extends our sympathies and prayers to the Shelby family.


  1. Outstanding Lisa! Well written and a great tribute!

  2. Interesting story. Not only Ford was cool:)