The turbo-charged life of Carroll Shelby

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Carroll Shelby

Carroll Shelby in 2010. Image: Onninovation?Flickr/CC BY-ND

Carroll Shelby, a man’s man if there ever was one, died Thursday in a Dallas hospital at the age of 89. A one-time chicken farmer, Shelby pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become a champion race car driver, an automotive entrepreneur and the creator of the muscle car.

From farm to track

A native Texan, Shelby was born on Jan. 11, 1923, in Leesburg, Texas. As a young man, he had a passion for cars, motorcycles and airplanes. He joined the Army Air Force in World War II, where he trained bomber pilots at a Texas air base. After the war, he divided his attention between running his chicken farm and indulging a passion for auto racing. He won his very first race in 1952 and soon soared ahead of the pack to become the country’s top driver.

Once, early in his racing career, he raced from his farm duties to the track, without taking time to change out of his bib overalls. His apparel caused such commotion that, from then on, racing in bib overalls became his trademark.

Catapulted to fame

Shelby was twice named Sports Illustrated’s Driver of the Year. In 1957, after winning 19 consecutive races, he famously graced the magazine’s cover. In the late ’50s, he was given a spot on the Aston Martin factory team and piloted the DBR1 to victory in the 1959 Le Mans 24 hour road race, the crowning achievement of his racing career.

The Cobra strikes

Shelby retired from racing in 1960 because of a heart condition. He turned his attention to automotive design. He used the chassis of an obscure British roadster, the AC Ace, and a powerful Ford V8 engine to create the legendary Shelby Cobra. The fastest street-legal car sold in the U.S. at the time, it had a speedometer that accommodated 180 mph.

Shelby closed shop on the first Cobra in 1967. At that time, only about 1,000 of the cars had been made. But that was enough to make it an icon. Journalist Carol Flake compared the experience of riding in one as “a little like riding a runaway thoroughbred after trotting around a ring on a pony. Fear melts into awe.”

Legendary auto executive Lee Iacocca said of Shelby’s designs in 1995:

“In my opinion, Shelby invented the muscle car in this country.”

Working with Ford

Iacocca hired Shelby for the first time in 1964, when Iacocca was an executive at Ford. He asked Shelby to design a high-performance version of the Mustang. The result was the fastback Mustang GT350, which stole back some to the thunder the model had previously lost to Chevy’s Corvette.

In the 2000s, Shelby returned to Ford for the revival of the Mustang GT40. That collaboration also led to the 2004 Cobra redo, which was unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show. In 2005, the Mustang Shelby GT500 debuted and has been marketed by the automaker ever since.

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Heart of a gambler

In 1990, Shelby, who has always suffered from heart trouble, received a heart transplant from what is rumored to have been a Vegas gambler who died at a gaming table. At the time of his death last week, Selby was the world’s  longest-surviving recipient of a donor heart.

Other achievements

A true renaissance man, Shelby had an amazing variety of accomplishments in his fast-track life. In 1967 he organized the
first International Chili Cook-Off, which has since become an international event. This led to his own brand of chili, which he eventually sold to Kraft Foods.

Shelby ran a safari business in Botswana, Angola and the Central African Republic during the 1970s. He became a trader of diamonds and was involved in many other ventures, including radio stations, ranches, motels and the Chili’s Restaurant chain, which he supplied the seed money for.


Shelby leaves behind three children, four grand children and six great-grandchildren. He was married six times, possibly seven.

He told Vanity Fair in 2006:

“I don’t count the second one, ’cause it happened in Mexico.”


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