Carroll Shelby: How One Man Changed the Automotive World

Jason Siu
by Jason Siu

Yesterday, we reported the tragic news of Carroll Shelby’s passing, a man whose passion shaped the automotive industry over the past few decades.

Born to Warren Hall Shelby and Eloise Lawrence Shelby on January 11th, 1923, it wouldn’t be until 1952 that Carroll Shelby got behind the wheel of a Ford-powered hot rod and participated in his first-ever drag race. It would be a mere four months later in May that Shelby would participate in his first road race in Norman, Oklahoma behind the wheel of an MG-TC and taking first place while competing against other MGs. He further proved his natural driving prowess later that day, capturing another victory while taking on the challenge against more powerful Jaguar XK 120s. Later on that year, Carroll Shelby grabbed a first place finish in an early SCCA race out at Caddo Mills, Texas.

His first big racing break came in January 1954, when Aston Martin team manager John Wyer offered Shelby an opportunity to co-drive an Aston Martin DB3 out at Sebring, Florida. Three months later, Carroll Shelby piloted a DBR3 to a second place finish for Wyer, landing him a spot as a co-driver at Le Mans in June 1954.

Racing accidents and victories would be scattered throughout that decade; but most notably was a Torrey Pines victory in July 1955 behind the wheel of a Mexiso Ferrari. That victory would give Shelby the opportunity to race a new 4.9-liter, 12-cylinder Ferrari, in which he once again grabbed himself a top podium spot. After accomplishing a win in just his first outing with the new Ferrari, Shelby was given the opportunity to travel to Europe to race.

In 1956, Shelby was named Sports Illustrated‘s ‘Driver of the Year’; and a year later in 1957, Carroll Shelby Sports Cars opened up in Dallas, Texas and Shelby is given the Sports Illustrated honor yet again. In June 1959, Carroll Shelby won the 24 Hours of Le Mans while co-driving an Aston Martin DBR1/300. Come the early-1960s, Shelby began experiencing chest pains and doctors diagnosed it as “angina pectoralis”, a condition where the coronary arteries lack blood.

December 3rd-4th, 1960 would mark Shelby’s last competition win, winning the USAC driving championship for that year. From there, he concentrated on his passion for performance, opening his School of High Performance Driving a year later in 1961 at Riverside Raceway. September 1961 would mark the beginning of Carroll Shelby’s venture towards building his own sports cars.

In February 1962, Shelby took delivery of his first roadster body and had a dream that reveals the name ‘Cobra’ in front of his car. Powered by a Ford V8 mated to a four-speed transmission, Carroll Shelby takes his new Cobra for a test drive. Next month, Shelby-American would begin its operations in California. From there, Shelby’s rich heritage began to blossom. In September 1963, Cobra production eclipsed 170 and Dan Gurney won at Bridgehampton behind the wheel of a Shelby Cobra, marking the first time an American driver had won an FIA race with an American car.

August 1964 marked a significant milestone, when American automaker Ford asked Carroll Shelby to develop a high-performance Mustang fastback. Later on that year, the first-ever ’65 Shelby Mustang GT350 race and street cars are built. In 1965, Ford turned its GT-40 project over to Shelby-American and the choice immediately pays dividends. At its first race at Daytona, the GT-40 captures its first victory along with the Shelby GT350.

The rest of the 1960s and early 1970s would see Shelby-American making Ford a winner internationally and on American soil. 1966 was another important milestone in Shelby’s career, as it marked the first time an American team had won at Le Mans. A trio of GT-40 Mark IIs crossed the finish line 1-2-3 grabbing the attention of motorsports enthusiasts worldwide.

Shelby would expand his racing program while operating as a team owner, joining the NHRA Drag Racing Series in 1968. A couple of years later, however, Ford would end its long-term racing agreement with Shelby, a few months after Shelby Automotive Racing Company officially closed. In 1974, Shelby would take a break from the automotive industry, traveling the world to develop his own brand of chili.

It wouldn’t be until 1982 that Shelby would return to cars, teaming up with the infamous Lee Iacocca and Chrysler to help create Dodge products. 1982-1989 would be known as ‘The Dodge Years’ as Shelby helped develop prototype Charger and Viper models. In 1985, Shelby’s journey to develop his own brand of chili pays off as Kraft buys up the Carroll Shelby Chili Mix.

In 1990, Shelby’s health condition became more serious and he received a heart transplant. A year later, he would start the Carroll Shelby Heart Fund to help finance organ transplants for children in need. In 1997, Shelby designed and manufactured the first Shelby Series 1 sports car. In 2003, the Ford Shelby Cobra would be revealed at the North American Auto Show and Shelby gets involved with the development of the new Ford GT model.

2005 would see Shelby renewing his partnership with Ford, bringing the high-performance GT500 model. The first 2007 Shelby GT500 was auctioned off at a Barrett-Jackson auction, raising $600,000 for the Carroll Shelby Foundation.

The most recent Shelby GT500 model is undoubtedly a culmination of Shelby’s vision and hard work over the years. In fact, at the car’s debut at the LA Auto Show, Shelby was on hand and called it the, “greatest Mustang ever built.”

It’s hard to imagine how Ford’s performance would have become without Shelby’s involvement. Could you imagine the American automaker pushing 662-hp out of a 5.8-liter V8 all on its own?

His name may be synonymous with American performance, but Carroll Shelby’s impact has gone well beyond American soil.

Jason Siu
Jason Siu

Jason Siu began his career in automotive journalism in 2003 with Modified Magazine, a property previously held by VerticalScope. As the West Coast Editor, he played a pivotal role while also extending his expertise to Modified Luxury & Exotics and Modified Mustangs. Beyond his editorial work, Jason authored two notable Cartech books. His tenure at saw him immersed in the daily news cycle, yet his passion for hands-on evaluation led him to focus on testing and product reviews, offering well-rounded recommendations to AutoGuide readers. Currently, as the Content Director for VerticalScope, Jason spearheads the content strategy for an array of online publications, a role that has him at the helm of ensuring quality and consistency across the board.

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