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Carroll Shelby

1923-2012

Story Larry Jewett / Images Timpiece PR and Ford Motor Company - July 19, 2012 10:00 AM

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The 2013 GT500 will offer the strongest horsepower number from a domestic factory car ever seen. Try 662 horsepower at 6,500 rpm as it arrives at the dealer. That’s impressive.

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Carroll Shelby was at home in the driver’s seat. His driving put him in connection with Ford, who turned to him again when Shelby was in his late 70s. The result was a new generation of performance cars that endure today.

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Upon word of his passing Edsel Ford II (seen with Shelby at the 2011 SEMA Show) said, “Today, we have lost a legend in Ford Motor Company’s history, and my family and I have lost a dear friend. Carroll Shelby is one of the most recognized names in performance car history, and he’s been successful at everything he’s done. He was a great innovator whose legend at Ford never will be forgotten.”

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An autograph from Carroll Shelby was a cherished treasure. Shelby signed a hat at the 2009 Barrett-Jackson Auction in Palm Beach and it’s a safe bet that it is still in someone’s collection and likely will always be.

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Shelby had moved his production facility to Las Vegas. He had a working relationship with the neighboring Las Vegas Motor Speedway that helped the product development departments. The facility is a popular stop for shop tours and museum visits.

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One of the operations in Las Vegas is the recently opened Mod Shop. This area allows the technicians to work on just about anything that a customer wants to bring in, not just Mustangs. Shelby inspected one of the first products that came through the Mod Shop doors a few years ago.

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Carroll Shelby always loved things on wheels. This person-powered vehicle was a popular pastime for young Shelby in Texas. It looks like he is lost in thought on ways to make it go faster.

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Shelby is celebrating one of his greatest racing triumphs as co-driver with Roy Salvadori in the 1959 LeMans while racing for Aston Martin. That win put the American on Ford’s radar.

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Shelby would drive whenever he would get the opportunity, winning many road course competitions in a somewhat brief career. Health issues would force him out of competition and into development.

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A part of the Shelby legacy is the compact Cobra, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012. They remain as popular as ever and the Vegas shop is kept busy. A special run of 50th anniversary cars was sold out within days of the announcement of their creation.

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The two-seater was fun to drive with the open air cockpit and the powerful performance aspects.

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Shelby poses outside the Los Angeles location where the cars were built.

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Being in Los Angeles gave the Cobra a leg up when it came to the cars of choice for celebrities. Shelby is conversing with a customer, a guy by the name of Steve McQueen, who knew a little bit about going fast and not just for the benefit of a camera crew.

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When Ford wanted to alter the image of the popular Mustang, not to mention make it a thorn in the side of the Corvette in racing, they sought ideas from Shelby. The G.T. 350 and G.T. 500 set out to get the job done. After Shelby left Ford, Dodge sought the same expertise for their Charger and Omni models.

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The image needs few words. This means Shelby.

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Lee Iacocca. Don Frey. Bunkie Knudsen. Jack Roush. Parnelli Jones. George Follmer. Steve Saleen.

It’s an impressive but incomplete list of names. These are individuals who had a hand in making the Ford Mustang transition its image from passenger car to performance car. There are others and one name missing from the list, perhaps one of the best known, has concluded his legacy.

Carroll Shelby passed away in Texas on May 10, 2012. His death at the age of 89 truly marked the end of an era.

Born in Texas, Carroll Shelby got the world’s attention on the race circuits of the world. Shelby put his skills behind the wheel to good use. A winner in the United States, Shelby went to LeMans in 1959 to drive for Aston Martin. He and driver Roy Salvadori (who died in June) won that event to increase his stature to international acclaim. Ford Motor Company sought to tap that fame for their international racing program and brought Shelby into the fold. It was a relationship that, despite a cooling off period, would endure for decades.

Shelby’s driving career was shortened by health issues, but it only served as the impetus to start another. Stories have been told about how Shelby convinced a British car company that he could equip their cars with Ford engines, only to go to Ford and say he could convince a British company to run the Ford 289. The end result became the open cockpit Cobra, the car that is celebrating 50 years of existence now.

When Ford Motor Company wanted to remove the “secretary’s car” image from their Mustang, they turned to Shelby. They wanted to make an assault on the B Production class that was dominated by Corvette. Shelby went to work to create the first Shelby G.T., starting with the 350. They upped the ante in 1967 by producing the G.T. 500. By 1970, though, the times had changed and the need for high performance cars led to the two entities going their separate ways.

Ford stayed in the business of making cars. Shelby had the Cobras and other ventures including a motel in Lake Tahoe to keep him occupied. His Texas roots led him to dabbling in the business of chili – cook-offs and spice mixes as a few examples. Always an entrepreneur, he used these efforts away from the automotive side of things as diversions. His heart was clearly in cars.

Lee Iacocca had left Ford and gone to Chrysler. About that time, Chrysler thought about creating a performance division and sent feelers to Shelby. Always interested in a challenge, Shelby met and asked what they had to work with. When given a 2.2-liter engine, Shelby was unimpressed, but the challenge took over. His first work went to the front-wheel drive Charger then on to the Omni. A special edition, the GLH, was created for the little car with “GLH” standing for “Goes Like Hell”. The relationship stretched into the early ’90s, but Shelby’s health problems put an immediate end to a lot of his work.

Carroll Shelby had a heart transplant in 1990, getting the heart of a Las Vegas gambler. Shelby was 67 years old at that time. Shortly after, it was determined that his kidneys were in bad shape. He needed a kidney transplant and it came from his son Michael. Though the plan had been to have the transplant occur in Texas, the hospital had issues and Shelby brought the operation to Los Angeles. Prior to his death, Carroll Shelby was known as the longest living double transplant patient.

His medical experiences opened his eyes to the plight of others. The Carroll Shelby Foundation has worked to raise funds to provide for organ transplants and care to give children a higher quality of life around the world.

Back in the automotive side of things, Shelby was contacted by Ford Motor Company in 2001. The company was interested in re-launching the GT, a GT concept this time, and wanted Shelby’s opinion. The sides collaborated on a car and brought it to market the following year. While short-lived, the supercar paved the way for the continued relationship between Shelby and Ford. When the Mustang was redesigned for 2005, Shelby was ready with plans for a “Shelby-ized version” and the craze started all over again.

Carroll Shelby was a frequent guest at Mustang and Ford functions, including product launches, car shows and auctions. His signature was sought for dashboards or Shelby memorabilia and often required a donation to the Foundation as a way of growing the good.

Carroll Shelby leaves a tough act to follow. Shelby American announced new products at the April New York International Auto Show. Though the leader is gone, it will be business as usual for the Las Vegas- based operation.

The museum will continue a brisk business, perhaps now more than ever. The shop tours will continue, though many who hoped for a glimpse of the man passing through will never see it. Instead, a dedicated team committed to the legacy and what it stands for will continue to keep the fire burning. Carroll Shelby was once quoted that he wasn’t particularly good at anything, but putting people together to see what could happen.

It’s the best way to continue a legacy. His name will forever be associated with performance and his ideas and developments will thrill enthusiasts for generations to come.

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