If you want to teach your children about race cars, not just about how they work, but about what they do, show them a 1964 Shelby Daytona. A Daytona coupe is nothing to glance at. It defies the cursory glance, the magnetic speed of its design and engineering requires more. It lingers there in your mind, drawing in bold, black, double lines the very idea of a race car. Only six of them were built, and they all remain, now outliving the man responsible for their creation.
Last Thursday, Carroll Shelby passed away at the age of 89, after complications with an illness. He leaves a wake of legend.
Like a comic book superhero, Shelby started life in weakness, often bedridden with a malfunctioning heart valve. He didn’t outgrow this issue until he was 14. But it seems the energy of childhood only stored itself up, because as soon as Shelby could move, he was moving fast. Even before he was old enough to drive, he tore his bicycle around abandoned race tracks in Texas. And it’s said that his first licensed foray onto public roads in his father’s Willys ended in a speeding ticket.
After high school he joined the US Army Air Corps, where he worked as a test pilot and flight instructor. After World War II, he traded the stick for a steering wheel and began a career as a racing driver for European marques like Cad-Allard, Maserati, and Healy. In the latter he set 16 speed records, both national and international. He even competed in Formula One in 1958 and 1959, but was generally unsuccessful. In 1959, he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans driving an Aston Martin.
Quitting while he was ahead, Shelby took his health problems into account and ended his driving career. But he kept racing, this time from the garage. He formed Shelby American, a small manufacturer and tuning operation closely allied (at first) with Ford. Shelby’s initial success was the AC-based Cobra, a tiny, gorgeous, British roadster with a Ford V8 wedged under the small, flip-forward bonnet.
The Cobra was an instant favorite, preferred by racing drivers everywhere. It won and kept winning. Ford was so impressed they charged Shelby with the task of reworking their fledgling but successful pony car, the Mustang. The Shelby GT350 and GT500 were among the most potent muscle cars of their era, and remain some of the most desirable Mustangs ever built. Shelby even worked on the astounding GT40 supercar, designed specifically to defeat Ferrari at Le Mans.
Later Shelby American worked with the other American manufacturers, as well. His all original roadster, the Series 1, was powered by an Oldsmobile V8, though it wasn’t well supported by the dying brand. Shelby also worked on several cars for Dodge, including the “Goes Like Hell” GLH Omni and the 1983-4 Shelby Charger (undoubtedly the only shining light in the whole generation). Shelby was also part of the Technical Policy Committee for the original Viper.
Not everyone loved Carroll Shelby, and the brilliant surface of his life is marred by a few memorable controversies. In 2002 he partnered with Unique Performance, a custom builder in Texas who was found to use prison laborers and gallons of Bondo. Back in the 1960s, Shelby illegally limited Cobra production, skipping over large blocks of VIN plates so the Cobra could meet homologation standards. He released them decades later as “missing” chassis and frames. Predictably, they were built from scratch.
“When you heard those words, ‘I think we found you a heart,’ there is nothing so sweet,” said Shelby in 1991, shortly before his heart transplant. The experience of waiting for a heart and living through the complications involved inspired him to create the Carroll Shelby Foundation, which financially assists children in the same situation. For all his illustrious racing wins and unforgettable machines, this is certainly his most important acheivement.
Carroll Shelby made hobbies of things most of us only imagine. He will be missed. He is already.