The automotive world lost a giant on this day in 2012 when Carroll Hall Shelby passed away at the age of 89 in Dallas, Texas. Shelby is best known for his role in the creation of the Shelby AC Cobra and the Shelby Mustangs of the 1960s, but his career spanned decades of racing, engineering and production feats.
Shelby’s need for speed was present as far back as the 1930s when he toted around his high school town in Texas driving a modified Willys. After his graduation he served in the Air Army Corps in WWII, where he earned his wings as a test pilot and flight instructor. Upon discharge, he held positions in the oil fields and on a poultry farm before finally getting a chance to grab the wheel of his passion, auto racing.
Carroll Shelby starts racing
Shelby’s early racing career got underway thanks to a couple very trusting friends who lent their cars to him for days at the track. This included an MG TC and a Cad-Allards, which he entered into various amateur races. By 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, one can point to Shelby setting 16 international speed records at Bonneville Speed Flats in a modified Austin Healey, his Mount Washington Hillclimb record, and being named Sports Illustrated’s 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. It was during this race that he noticed the outstanding performance of the English AC Ace, the very car which would become the basis for the first car to bear his surname.
The first Shelby Cobra
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 was his company that imported specially built AC cars. He asked the English builder to alter the vehicle so a Ford V8 could be stuffed under the hood. A fair upgrade from the Bristol straight-6 it normally came equipped it. With American power rumbling, the Shelby Cobra was born in 1962.
While the Cobra was a mainstay of the company through 1965, Shelby was also influential in the creation of the Ford GT40, which, in 1966, would become the first American built car to claim overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the same era, the Mustang-based Shelby GT350 and GT500 were rolling out of his warehouse, rounding out some of Shelby’s most sought after creations.
Shelby would go on to build cars under his own brand, as well as through partnerships with Dodge and Oldsmobile, but few were quite as mesmerizing as those that ruled the racetracks in the 1960s. The International Motorsports Hall of Fame inducted Shelby in 1991, followed by the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1992, the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1992 and the SCCA Hall of Fame in 2013.