Honoring an American Legend: Carroll Shelby

April 16, 2008
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Mention the name Carroll Shelby, and lots of words come to mind: racer, car builder, automotive legend, pilot, transplant recipient, entrepreneur - and perhaps even rascal.

One thing is probably true; the plain-speaking Texan is a bit of all of these – and more. And despite a life-long series of illnesses, any of which would have crippled a weaker man, Carroll Hall Shelby, at 85, is still going strong. So it’s probably no surprise he’ll be receiving the latest in a long line of honors today as Automotive Executive of the Year.

The path from Leesburg, Texas, hasn’t always been a straight line. Indeed, Shelby was born dirt poor, on January 11, 1923, with seemingly few opportunities. So it was probably no surprise to family and friends when he signed up for the then Army-Air Corps, during World War II, serving as flight instructor and test pilot (which kindled a lifelong love of flying that continues today).

Returning from the war, Shelby planned to settle down and do something that fit in back in Leesburg. “I opened a chicken farm,” he recalls, with the Texas twang that’s never left him, “but my chickens all died.” Farming clearly wasn’t in his genes. But somehow, fast cars had gotten into his blood. And by the early 1950s, he was proving his mettle as a talented amateur. Turning pro, he landed “rides” with then-strong teams from Aston Martin, Maserati, and Cad-Allard, unquestionably proving his skills with a 1959 win at Le Mans.

Shelby would race anything, from sprints to endurance to hill climbs. But many of those he raced with – and for – didn’t know there was a bit of a problem: a congenital heart defect that threatened to kill him at a young age. “I raced my last race,” he revealed to me, some years back, “with a nitroglycerine pill (an old-time remedy for certain heart conditions) under my tongue.”

After unclipping his racing harness for the last time, Shelby continued on the management and design side of the business. He might not have had much talent for farming, but he was a natural entrepreneur. Shelby launched a racing school. Then he began building one of the most significant cars of the era, the legendary Cobra, which used an AC chassis and Ford engine.

(One of the biggest of several controversies surrounding Shelby arose a few years ago, when he claimed to discover previously unused Cobra parts in an old warehouse, assembling them and putting them on the market as classics.)

Shelby also formed what would prove to be a long-standing alliance with one of Detroit’s Big Three, helping design and then scoring a series of victories with the Ford Cobra and Ford GT racing teams. The Shelby name also began to appear on production cars, notably the Ford Mustang, a project launched by Lee Iacocca, then the automaker’s president.

After being summarily fired by Ford CEO and heir Henry Ford II, Iacocca moved to the struggling Chrysler. After saving the company by lining up a federal bail-out bill, Iacocca needed to rebuild the product lineup, and he turned to his old friend Carroll Shelby. The Texan was in troubled health – he would ultimately undergo a series of operations, including a pair of heart transplants – but Shelby came through, lending his name and expertise to several products, including the 1983 Dodge Shelby Charger and 1989 Shelby Dakota.

But the ties to Chrysler were tenuous, and once Iacocca finally retired, there was little to keep the former chicken former down on that ranch. So Shelby tried his hand at several other ventures, everything from a chili cook-off, which still continues, in Terlingua, Texas, to Shelby-American, a new carmaking venture, based in suburban Las Vegas. That project has resulted in several offerings, including an ill-fated supercar using an Oldsmobile engine.

He also found himself embroiled in several legal battles, including one brought against a company making Cobra replicars.

But the ties to Ford ran deep, and in 2004, Shelby walked back on the stage for the debut of an all-new Cobra concept car, with a retro body, a Ford GT chassis, and a 605-horsepower V-10 under the hood. While several other concepts followed, a new generation of performance aficionados likely best know Carroll Shelby for some of the newest production cars bearing his name, starting with the 2007 Ford Shelby GT500.

“I never thought I’d see my name on anything again,” Shelby told me, following a preview of that super-Mustang. But, it turns out, it wouldn’t be the last time. The entrepreneur has even crafted a unique series of Mustangs to be offered exclusively through the Hertz rent-a-car franchise, the Shelby GT-H.

At 85, most men would long ago have gone into retirement, but while Carroll Shelby may move a lot slower these days, it seems like he’s still racing in many ways. No wonder he’s been hailed with a variety of honors, being inaugurated, among other things, into the International Automotive Hall of Fame. Today, he’ll be honored for his business skills. And you can be sure he’ll have some blunt things to say about that.

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