Even those unfamiliar with racing and the automotive industry may be familiar with the Shelby name. Carroll Hall Shelby was a race car driver, automotive designer, and entrepreneur whose name graced legendary vehicles like the Shelby Cobra, Shelby Mustang and other performance cars from the 1960s and beyond.
Carroll Shelby was born in January 1923. As a race car driver, he was noted as a winning co-driver of the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1959. He started his high-performance automotive company, Shelby American in 1962.
He was born in rural Leesburg, Texas where his father was a mail carrier. Carroll had heart problems starting when he was 7, issues which affected him for the rest of his life. It was at about this time he gained an interest in speed; in particularly fast cars and airplanes. After moving to Dallas, he would ride his bike to dirt tracks to take in car races around the area. By age 15 he was driving and tinkering with his Dad’s Ford.
He began sharpening his car racing skills in high school driving his Willy’s automobile, and upon graduating in 1940, attended the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Aeronautical Engineering program. He learned about flying in 1941 at the Antonio Aviation Cadet Center, now known as Lackland Air Force Base. He ultimately served as a flight instructor and test pilot. He flew a variety of aircraft and at the end of the war, began his own dump truck business. He worked as an oil-well roughneck and then struggled in the poultry business before declaring bankruptcy.
Carroll Shelby started racing as an amateur at 29 years old and by 1953 began traveling internationally to race. He raced in Europe before being severely injured in a crash in 1954, requiring 8 months of rehabilitation. He began driving Ferrari’s in 1955 and enjoyed terrific success through the next few years. He was named Sports Illustrated’s Driver of the Year in 1956 and 1957. He was involved in another crash in late 1957, causing serious facial injuries.
Shelby’s greatest triumph came at Le Mans in 1959, and he raced his last race at the Los Angeles Gran Prix not long after. He started the Shelby School of High Performance Driving in Riverside in 1961.
As he raced, Shelby had frequently thought about the possibility of an American performance car that could be both sold to consumers and raced. He worked with credit supplied by the Ford Motor Company in creating what would ultimately be the Ford AC Cobra in 1962. Seventy-five of the original Shelby Experimental cars were produced. The 427 Cobra prototype was built in late 1964.
Shelby’s successes built his credibility and momentum and Ford and Shelby-American produced the Mustang-based Shelby GT350in 1965. Shelby’s work with Lee Iacocca on the Mustang eventually led him to serve as a performance consultant for Dodge on the Dodge Viper.
Shelby penned his autobiography in 1967 at just 44 years of age. On a personal basis, Shelby was married seven times and had a heart transplant in 1990. He established the Carroll Shelby Children’s Foundation to cover the medical expenses of children with heart disease who couldn’t afford care. He died in May 2012, leaving a long legacy of racing and automotive design successes in his wake.