Carroll Shelby, legendary race car driver, team owner and car builder, was born on this day in 1923. Though he is perhaps best known for his role in the creation of the Shelby AC Cobra and the Shelby Mustangs of the 1960s, the history of Carroll Shelby covers so much more. His career spanned decades of racing, engineering and production feats.
Shelby’s need for speed dated back to the 1930s when he cruised around his high school town in Texas in a modified Willys. After graduation, he only went faster, serving in the Air Army Corps during WWII, earning his wings as a test pilot and flight instructor. Upon discharge, he held positions in the oil fields and on a poultry farm before giving auto racing a serious go.
His early racing career got underway thanks to a few friends lending their cars to him for days at the track. This included an MG TC and a Cad-Allard, which he entered into various amateur races. In the late 1950s, his success earned him invitations to race for the factory teams of Aston Martin and Maserati. To scratch the surface of his accomplishments in the driver’s seat; Shelby set 16 international speed records at Bonneville Speed Flats in a modified Austin Healy, set the Mount Washington hill climb record and Sports Illustrated name him driver of the year in 1956 and 1957. However, Shelby once said the biggest achievement of his racing career was winning the 1959 24 Hours at Le Mans with teammate Roy Salvadori. During that race he took notice of the outstanding performance of the English AC Ace.
Carroll Shelby retires from racing
Due to health concerns, Shelby retired from racing in October 1959, but his contributions to the track were far from over. He soon started Shelby-American, which imported specially built AC cars, like the ones from Le Mans. However, he asked the English auto builder to alter the vehicle for import. While a Briston straight-6 would normally offer power, Shelby desired to stuff a Ford V8 under the hood. The company obliged, making the necessary alternations. The result was the first Shelby AC Cobra, which debuted in 1962.
While the Cobra became a mainstay of the company, Shelby had his hand in numerous other projects. He became heavily involved in the development of the Ford GT40. This very car would go on to become the first American designed winner of Le Mans. In the same era, the Mustang-based Shelby GT350 and GT500 began rolling out of his factory. To this day those are among Shelby’s most sought after creations by muscle car collectors.
Entering the Halls of Fame
Shelby later partnered with Dodge and Oldsmobile to build more cars with his name on them. While some of these later vehicles are sparking collector’s interest now, it became a daunting task to match excitement for his cars that ruled racetracks in the 1960s and early 70s. He earned induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1991, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1992, the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1992, and the SCCA Hall of Fame in 2013. Carroll Shelby passed on May 10, 2012 in Dallas, Texas at the age of 89. Don’t forget to sign up for the This Day in Automotive History newsletter at the top of this page!