We live in an age where some of the great innovators of our time are reaching their twilight years, and sadly on May 10th 2012 we lost another great in Carroll Shelby.
If the name sounds familiar but you can’t quite place it, think AC Cobra and you will be travelling very fast down the right road. The AC Cobra – or the Shelby Cobra as it is known in North America – is surely the epitome of the fast, white knuckle ride we expect from a hand built automobile fit for racing.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the birth of the AC Cobra and makes the death of Carroll Shelby even more poignant. With the likes of AC Heritage set to celebrate by recreating life at the Thames Ditton factory at Goodwood Revival this year, and the Cholmondeley Pageant hosting the largest gathering of this famous sports car in the UK along with the ‘AC Cobra 50th Anniversary Class’ it seems an understatement to say that his death seems particularly untimely.
Normally when someone passes away, I’ve looked at their achievements and creations in metal, but with Shelby it’s hard to stray too far from the achievements of the man himself.
Carroll Hall Shelby was born in January 1923, his first encounter with automobiles being with a dump truck company in Dallas in 1945 after spending the war years as a flight instructor based on home US soil. His first race of any note was in January 1952, a quarter-mile drag race. Four months later Shelby won his first road race at the wheel of an MG-TC.
His trademark striped bib overalls dated back to a moment in 1953, when, with little time to spare, Shelby turned up to practice in his farm work-wear. But it wasn’t all fun for Carroll Shelby on the race circuit. In 1954, racing in the Carrera Pan Americana Mexico, Shelby rolled his Austin Healy suffering broken bones and a shattered elbow.
But this guy was addicted now and nothing was going to keep him away from the buzz of racing cars. Unbelievably, while he should have been recovering, Shelby had a special fibreglass cast made for racing, and with his hand taped to the steering wheel managed to continue with his beloved racing. A year later in ’56, Sports Illustrated gave Carroll Shelby the accolade of ‘Sports Car Driver of the Year’.
1959 saw Shelby win the La Mans 24 hour race in an Aston Martin DBR1/300 co-driving with Ray Salvadori. A year later he broke the course record at Continental Divide Raceways in a Scarab. By the end of 1960, he was crowned USAC Driving champion. After an illustrious racing career, 1960 was also to be the year that Shelby retired.
It didn’t take long for the flame in the next phase of Carroll Shelby’s life to ignite. Only a year later in 1961, Shelby sent a proposal to the struggling AC Cars to put a V8 engine in their roadster.
As the project began to gather momentum, in typically romantic fashion, Shelby claimed that the name Cobra came to him in a dream. I honestly don’t doubt it.
Shelby’s real dream was to not only compete with the dominant Corvette in America, but to leave it eating dust. With a greater power to weight ratio thanks to the light body, the AC Cobra’s day was coming..
The dream would come true after a few false starts in January 1963, when Ken Miles and Dave McDonald take the first two podium places at Riverside in California driving for Shelby-American. On this occasion, the Corvette Stingrays only saw dust. Sadly, Miles was to be killed just three years later while racing at Riverside.
In 1964 the Cobra won the 24 Hours Le Mans. On the back of this, Ford asked Shelby to build a car that would challenge the Corvette in SCCA B-production road racing. The result of this was to be the Shelby Mustang GT350.
As the Shelby and Cobra clamour started to die down in the late sixties, with the last 427 Cobra Roadster being built and sold and with Shelby Mustang sales dropping, bizarrely, Shelby’s next path took him was to start producing and advertising his own chilli mix, which he later sold to Kraft Foods.
In 1990, following a heart transplant and a second marriage, and with Shelby now contracted to Chrysler to create the Dodge Shelby Charger, he is seen back on the racetrack pacing the Indy 500 in a Dodge Viper.
Then, in 1992 Shelby races in his Shelby Mustang GT350 for the first time. With a lap time of just 1:09, he is a mere 0.4 seconds away from Bob Johnson’s record which was set way back in Shelby’s racing hey-day of 1965 – Shelby is 69 years old. In October of the same year, Carroll Hall Shelby is inaugurated into the Automotive Hall of Fame. The only question here must be what took them so long?
Today, Shelby’s own website simply says “The Last American Legend. The race is run, the flag unfurled, the champion will now rest”. A fine, fittingly romantic tribute to a man that, on training missions to become a flight instructor in 1941, used to drop love letters, that he had placed in his flying boots, onto the farm of his fiancée Jeanne Fields.
Shelby went one better than most in his amazing life and his heart was so clearly submerged in racing – both of them.