The Importance of being Shelby

Cars People

Words: Charles Bamber

Looking at publicity shots of Carroll Shelby from the 1950s, with Stetson and crooked smile in place, you could be forgiven for thinking him the lead man in a classic John Ford Western.

In fact Shelby’s story plays out like a movie, albeit with a different Ford behind the scenes. Full of adventure, pioneering spirit and enterprise this modern day Texan roustabout turned trail boss chased thrills and dollars wherever he could.

By the time Shelby had finished racing in 1960 he had been military pilot and engineer, run a haulage business, been a chicken farmer and set up a number of sports car and racing tyre operations. As well as driving for Aston Martin, Austin-Healy, winning Le Mans and in his final year of racing winning the USAC driving championships.

carroll-shelby-obit Carroll Shelby got his chops on the track

There is enough in those first 37 years of his life to make a pretty good flick about this freewheeling legendary racer. But in our Biopic all that stuff is really just a backstory, a montage set to an Ennio Morricone track. The action proper starts in California 1961 and an encounter with a deadly snake. That killer reptile is a Cobra and the encounter takes place in Carroll Shelby’s unconscious.

In what was to be a turning point in his business career Shelby had spotted an opportunity in England in the shape of the manufacturer AC who had recently lost their engine supplier. Carroll stepped up, he did a deal with Ford – who became his life long co-stars- to receive their small block V8 engine, and had an AC shipped out to California.shelby_cobra_roadster_1An early Cobra roadster, its creator and an illustrious customer

Cut to Carroll sitting bolt upright in bed, covered in cold sweat, having just dreamt of a Cobra. He had the name of his new dream machine, the AC Cobra is born and so is Carroll’s new career as legendary constructor of Supercars. Like all those old movie stars Carroll could be all things to all men; man of action, taker of risks, thinker, dreamer and class act at handling the press and publicity machine.

Natural Born Killer: the 427 Cobra changed everything
Natural Born Killer: the 427 Cobra changed everything

Wanting to promote his new Cobra he invited pressmen to take it for test-drives around the track at Riverside. For every new magazine outfit that turned up he painted his one prototype a different colour to give the impression of a fleet of Cobras to the reading trade and public.

Within a year they had their homologation and were producing a real fleet, on the track Shelby and his Cobras were knocking Ferrari into the B list.

Edsell Ford had been watching the Carroll Shelby show with interest and in 1964 the Ford Motor Company asked Shelby to develop a high performance Mustang fastback. The GT-350 was born.1967-Shelby-Cobra-GT500Shelby ‘Stangs were the model’s supreme expression

The following year ‘Shelby American’ is incorporated and Edsell Ford decides that Carroll is the man he needs in his corner when he goes toe-to-toe with Enzo Ferrari in one of motorsport’s most legendary dust ups.

Shelby American is handed the reigns for the Ford GT40 project. In true blockbuster movie style Carroll Shelby delivered. The GT40 broke the Ferrari deadlock and became the first American car and team to win the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1966 coming first, second and third on the day.

For many the GT40 is Shelby’s greatest achievement and remains one of the greatest and most sought after of the worlds supercars. However the film show Shelby is far from over.frdconcepts 02detroitMKIV GT40 continued endurance domination

Over the next 45 years there are more twists and turns as we follow this remarkable character. The GT40 keeps winning at Le Mans; there are many more iterations of the Shelby Mustang including the famous Hertz racers.

In a strange subplot Carroll leaves the motor business for South Africa where he develops his own brand of chili powder-, which he later sells to Kraft Foods.

It’s 1982 and he’s back in the game working with Chrysler to produce the Dodge charger, and then comes the Viper.

After a heart transplant he starts a Heart Fund for children, which will eventually raise millions of dollars. Finally in the last decade of his life he returns to work with his old and preferred co-star, Ford.

What better end to the career of an old cowboy than breaking in super-charged Mustangs, and of course dying with his boots on in Dallas, Texas.