Carroll Shelby had a vision. It was the kind of vision that would change the world of cars forever. Teenage boys — especially those who were into hot cars — could only hope to be like him someday. Born in Leesburg, Texas, Shelby had a lust for speed. He knew what he wanted in a car and went on to develop it — a high performance American sports car — which he raced in competitions all over the world by the time he was in his late 30s. There is no other sports car that will make the blood stir more than the car that took Shelby to his fame — the 1962 Cobra.
A Little History of the Cobra
The Cobra began in 1961 when the British builder of Ace roadster, AC Cars of Thames Ditton in England, lost their manufacturer for the lightweight, but powerful Bristol motor. Carroll saw the Ace as an object of great admiration. To have it gone forever would be wrong. He coveted the look of the Ace with its sleek design, open top, race potential. So, seeing what he had to do keep the production of the car going, he made a proposal to the owner of AC Cars, Charles Hurlock. Shelby suggested they continue making the Ace chassis for a good old U.S. V-8 engine. He didn’t let on that he did not have a clue as to where it would come from, but he liked the idea and was determined to pull it off — which he did in 1962, just a year after receiving the first chassis from AC. It was a marriage of the British Ace roadster and Ford’s hot new 260-cid V-8 engine. Later there was a 289 which now put the Cobra up to 380 horsepower and crowns in the SCCA-A-production and the U.S. Road Racing Championship.
His career as a championship race car driver was in full swing, winning competitions all over the world, including the 24 hour Le Mans, beating such sophisticated models as Ferraris and Corvettes. Then in 1960 Shelby discovered he had a heart condition, which forced him to quit racing due to the stress involved in competitive racing. It didn’t stop him from continuing his heartfelt dreams, though. He would begin a new path, a new chapter in his life, as an automotive designer. If he couldn’t drive fast himself, he could create cars that could give some other driver a thrill. He would make them faster, lighter, and able to beat out the world’s fastest cars.
In 1965, at the 12 Hours De Reims in France, Shelby and his team raced a Cobra that would score enough points to win the prestigious FIA World Championship of GT cars, taking the title virtually owned by Ferrari for a decade. With his success, doors opened for Shelby, including partnering at times with Dodge and Ford Motors. The Cobra was hot and only getting hotter.
But the Cobra production stopped in ’68 after a total of 356 had been produced. It didn’t take long before 427 replicas were popping out of the woodwork. When AC cars revived, they began producing its own specimen of replicas back in the late 80s. That was great, except Shelby went one step farther by having 43 new “1965” Cobras built from leftover parts in the mid-1990s.
Since 2003, the finest Cobra “replica” built comes from Shelby himself, manufactured at Shelby Automobiles in Las Vegas, Nevada. Unlike the original, Shelby’s Cobras now offers a fiberglass, carbon fiber, or aluminum body, and the frame is stronger. But to the untrained eye, this is an identical 1960s Cobra — a fine work of art signed by its maker.
Shelby’s Career Doesn’t Stop There
Although the Shelby Cobra roadster was the beginning of Shelby’s career, with groups such as the Beach Boys writing songs about the car, Shelby’s life work continues even later in life. A little history of his later years:
- 2006: The new Shelby GT
- 2007: Shelby GT500KR — introduced the 2008 model
- 2007: Shelby GT-H Convertible introduced
- 2007: Post-title Super Snake package introduced for the Shelby GT 500’s
- 2007: Shelby GT convertible introduced
- 2007: Shelby Performance Parts Company is formed
- 2007: Shelby Terlingua Racing Team returns
His achievements are many, far too many to mention. Shelby is a legend in many ways, and these are only some of his achievements in the past two decades:
In the 90’s, Shelby American developed the awesome Shelby Series 1, the fastest car ever tested in the standing measured.
In the 90’s, while waiting for a heart transplant, Shelby founded the Carroll Shelby Children’s Foundation, a charitable organization focused on children in need of transplants. His role as legendary racer and designer is broadened even more by this generous move.
In 1991, after pacing the Indianapolis 500 in a Dodge Viper, Shelby was inducted into the International MotorSports Hall of Fame.
Since 2005 Shelby has partnered with Edsel Ford and the Ford Motor Company once again, continually producing number one models for the Ford Mustang.
Today at the age of 85, Shelby, the legend, continues to be a driving force (no pun intended) in automotive design. His love of the sports car is reflected in everything he does, living up to the reputation he so deserves.