It’s safe to say that few who met Carroll Shelby ever forgot the experience. The tall and handsome Texan — think a young Andy Griffith — had a personality that would captivate a room and ideas that captivated the world.
Not that charm or cleverness were Shelby’s only gifts. He was also one hell of a race driver. Born in Leesburg, Texas, in 1923, he won the first road race he ever entered and went on to be Sports Illustrated’s Driver of the Year in 1956 and ’57. He capped off his career by winning the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans for Aston Martin.
But it was what he did after he hung up his helmet for which he will be most remembered. Even in the early 1960s it was not a new idea to put an American V-8 in a nimble European roadster. But it took someone with Carroll’s inexhaustible charm to make it work. In this case, to convince one of the world’s smallest car makers and one of the largest to cooperate with one another on what would become the legendary Shelby Cobra. And it happened in large part because Carroll was able to convince Ford that AC was committed to the idea and AC that Ford was committed to the idea long before it was, strictly speaking, true.
Once the Cobra was born, even greater successes followed. In 1965 the Cobras would go on to be the first American team to win the world championship for sports cars. That same year, at the behest of Ford’s Lee Iacocca, the Texan debuted the Shelby Mustang. And in 1966 and 1967, Shelby played a key role in helping Ford’s international racing program capture Le Mans.
There were missteps to be sure. Even Shelby’s charm couldn’t gloss over his unfortunate decision to endorse the George Wallace/Curtis LeMay presidential ticket, the failed Shelby-Wallis turbine Indy cars or the preposterous “discovery” of a cache of original Cobra chassis and parts numbers in the ’80s. Nor was he at his shrewdest when he turned down the rights to distribute Toyotas up and down the entire Western seaboard because Iacocca assured him, “We’re gonna push those sons-a-bitches back into the Pacific Ocean.”
But his successes — including being godfather to the Dodge Viper and more recently a new generation of Shelby Mustangs — far outweighed his failures. And if Carroll was perhaps never at risk of being nominated for sainthood, he always made the car world a more interesting and exciting place.
Back in the ’80s when I was editor of AutoWeek I would get regular calls from guys who said they were planning on importing some obscure foreign sports car and stuffing a big American V-8 in it. Invariably they’d add, “just like Carroll Shelby.”
And every time, I’d sit back in my chair and think, “Just one problem, sport: You’re not Carroll Shelby.”