Carroll Hall Shelby (January 11, 1923 – May 10, 2012)
Carroll Shelby was an American automotive designer and racing driver. He was most well known for making the AC Motors-based Shelby American Cobra and later the Mustang-based performance cars for Ford Motor Company known as Mustang Cobras which he has done since 1965. His company, Shelby American Inc., founded in 1962, currently sells modified Ford vehicles, as well as performance parts.
The one-time chicken farmer had more than a half-dozen successful careers during his long life. Among them: champion race car driver, racing team owner, automobile manufacturer, automotive consultant, safari tour operator, raconteur, chili entrepreneur and philanthropist.
“He’s an icon in the medical world and an icon in the automotive world,” his longtime friend, Dick Messer, executive director of Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum, once said of Shelby.
“His legacy is the diversity of his life,” Messer said. “He’s incredibly innovative. His life has always been the reinvention of Carroll Shelby.”
Shelby first made his name behind the wheel of a car, winning France’s grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race with teammate Ray Salvadori in 1959. He already was suffering serious heart problems and ran the race “with nitroglycerin pills under his tongue,” Messer once noted.
He had turned to the race-car circuit in the 1950s after his chicken ranch failed. He won dozens of races in various classes throughout the 1950s and was twice named Sports Illustrated’s Driver of the Year.
Soon after his win at Le Mans, he gave up racing and turned his attention to designing high-powered “muscle cars” that eventually became the Shelby Cobra and the Mustang Shelby GT500.
The Cobra, which used Ford engines and a British sport car chassis, was the fastest production model ever made when it was displayed at the New York Auto Show in 1962.
A year later, Cobras were winning races over Corvettes, and in 1964 the Rip Chords had a Top 5 hit on the Billboard pop chart with “Hey, Little Cobra.” (“Spring, little Cobra, getting ready to strike, spring, little Cobra, with all of your might. Hey, little Cobra, don’t you know you’re gonna shut ’em down?”)
In 2007, an 800-horsepower model of the Cobra made in 1966, once Shelby’s personal car, sold for $5.5 million at auction, a record for an American car.
“It’s a special car. It would do just over three seconds to 60 (mph), 40 years ago,” Shelby told the crowd before the sale, held in Scottsdale, Ariz.
It was Lee Iacocca, then head of Ford Motor Co., who had assigned Shelby the task of designing a fastback model of Ford’s Mustang that could compete against the Corvette for young male buyers.
Turning a vehicle he had once dismissed as “a secretary car” into a rumbling, high-performance model was “the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” Shelby recalled in a 2000 interview with The Associated Press.
That car and the Shelby Cobra made his name a household word in the 1960s.