If there's one man whose legend transcends five decades of automotive change, it's Carroll Shelby. At 85 years of age, he still wants to leave his mark. Of course, he already has.
With a few slaps on the back, a smile worth 400 volts and a stride long enough to mark off square footage in an assembly plant, Carroll Shelby enters the room six years ago at Kruse International’s auction park like he owns the place. Well, maybe he does. It’s September 1, the day before Labor Day. But it’s Shelby Day at Kruse’s annual car bash that gives this small northern Indiana town of Auburn a carnival atmosphere. It is here where one of his limited-edition sports cars will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. “Go get ’em, Shel,” one fan yells as Shelby walks past. “Don’t quit on us yet.”
Carroll Shelby was then 79 going on 19 and judging by the way he shakes hands, flashes that smile or signs autographs on everything handed his way (one man even asks him to sign the dashboard of his Cobra GT 350), he is hardly braking.
“Inducted into a hall of fame,” Shelby says of Kruse’s plans on this holiday weekend. “I guess I just think of myself as a regular guy just trying to get by.” Just trying to get by ...
His words hang in the air as Shelby, dressed in black from head-to-toe, turns to shake another hand. Maybe he was trying to get by when he was a chicken farmer in the heart of east Texas — and the chickens died of Newcastle’s disease. Or there was the dump truck business that didn’t dump enough loads. Or the day 45 years ago when Shelby was diagnosed with a heart condition that doctors predicted would leave him six-feet under in less than five years.“But I guess I’m still kicking,” he says.
Just getting by? Hardly this Shelby. He’s about to turn 86.
With the retirement of Mustang marketer Lee Iacocca (now 84) and the death of Corvette designer Zora Arkus-Duntov in 1995 at age 86, Shelby stands alone at the top of the automotive pyramid in terms of style, ideas and design.
As the father of the legendary 1960s Cobra race car, he still casts an enormous shadow over the auto industry.
“I guess I’m an imagineer,” Shelby says.
Born to a father who was a mail carrier and a mother who was a homemaker, Shelby served in the Second World War as a flight instructor and test pilot. But racing gushed in his blood. He began on drag strips and rarely slowed up. As a driver, he was named Sports Illustrated’s driver of the year in 1956 and 1957, but American races didn’t pay the bills, so he headed to Europe where he won the 24 Hours of LeMans (France) endurance race in an Aston Martin. He returned to the United States in 1960 and was still winning races when a heart ailment forced him to retire after taking the Untied States Auto Club (USAC) title. He was 37. And he was broke.
Out of racing, Shelby pursued another career, opening his Shelby School of High Performance Driving. A $90 advertisement in Sports Car Graphic returned $1,400 in requests for literature. He couldn’t imagine what would follow, even if somehow he had been preparing for it his whole life.
As a young man, Shelby had always kept a pencil and paper on a night stand next to his bed, just in case automotive inspiration hit at odd times. One morning he awakened to a new message on the pad, something that came in a dream: Cobra.
“I had always wanted to build my own sports car,” he said. “The next morning, when I looked at the name, I knew it was right.”
It would be his legacy.
In 1961, England-based AC Cars had lost its supplier of engines and Shelby had airmailed a letter of proposal to AC asking if he could keep building the chassis for a special Shelby sports car to be powered by an American V8. The same month, Shelby found out about the new 221-cubic-inch Ford small-block and sent a letter to Ford explaining his idea for a sports car and his need for a V8. AC agreed. Ford agreed.
And the rest was history.
By March of 1962, Shelby-American opened its doors at a shop on Princeton Drive in Venice, Calif., and the original Cobra Roadster was born. The 260-horsepower two-seater was quick and it would only get quicker. Soon, with Shelby on side, Ford was cleaning up on the track and in the showroom. Mustangs that were specially modified by Shelby were a roaring, snorting success and with his help, from 1965-’70, this sporty-looking sensation became more than just a head-turner.
With white paint and blue stripes, Shelby and Ford took the industry by storm. By 1967, the performance-car market wanted more and Shelby was there, cranking out a GT500, a 428 cubic-inch engine in a modified Mustang chassis. Insurance and safety lobbyists eventually got in the way and the high-power performance cars soon faded, but Shelby didn’t.
He kept churning out products decade after decade. In the early 1980s, when Iacocca was trying to save Chrysler, he called in his old friend and asked him to spice up a dying brand. From a factory in Whittier, Calif., Shelby’s men transformed Dodge Omnis, Chargers, Lancers and Shadows into pavement terrors.
Shelby had another dream come true with Dodge when he sat in on the development of the Viper — built with Shelby, and his premise for the Cobra, serving as the inspiration. Later, Ford has asked for his input on the 2005 Ford GT.
Then there’s the ongoing work with Ford in a Shelby Series of Mustangs and more hall of fames ... and on and on.
More than 15 years ago he had a heart transplant, donated by a 38-year-old Las Vegas, Nev., gambler. With a new life, Shelby vowed to leave his mark. Of course, he already has.
“I feel like I’m out on an island because everybody’s dying . . . there aren’t very many of us left.”
Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a note on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.