Carroll Shelby’s story is one of grit and determination.
He approached every aspect of his life with a “find a way or make one” attitude. That’s how he went from racing borrowed cars in regional events to beating Ferrari at Le Mans in less than a decade. When health issues forced him off the track, he came back as a designer, a builder and a tuner.
He later helped America make a sensational chili and shockingly managed to turn one of Dodge’s dullest cars into a seriously exciting hot hatch. Shelby died in 2012 but his legacy and his company are alive and well.
From a 1932 Ford-powered hot rod to a 760-HP Mustang coming out in 2020, join us for a look at the cars, pickup trucks, races and dishes Shelby left his mark on.
Shelby’s early life
Carroll Hall Shelby was born in a small, rural Texas town called Leesburg on January 11, 1923. While his family had no background in the automotive industry, and allegedly didn’t own a car, he became fascinated by machines at an early age and planned to study aeronautical engineering after high school. World War II side-tracked his career; he enlisted in the Air Force instead of going to college and became a pilot as well as a flight instructor.
He worked a series of jobs after the war. He started a dump truck business in Dallas in 1945 and began raising chickens in 1949. His farm was profitable until his second batch of chickens died from a disease, leaving him bankrupt at 26 with three young kids and a wife.
From amateur to pro (1950s)
Shelby started his racing career in 1952 by borrowing cars. He raced a 1932 Ford-powered hot rod on drag strips as well as an MG TC and a Cad-Allard on road courses. Often wearing striped overalls, he quickly became a force to reckon with in the racing world. His victories across the United States earned him a spot on Aston Martin’s official racing team in 1954. He raced various evolutions of the DB3 at Sebring, Aintree and Le Mans and proved he was capable of competing against pilots with considerably more experience.
The charismatic Texan’s star continued to rise during the late 1950s. He raced in prestigious, high-horsepower machines made by Ferrari, Maserati and Aston Martin, among others. He set speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats, competed in Formula One and co-drove an Aston Martin DBR1 to victory in the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans with British pilot Roy Salvadori.
Shelby stops racing (1960)
Shelby’s racing career took an unexpected turn in 1960 when he was diagnosed with a heart condition called angina pectoralis. The disease forced him to retire from racing after the 1960 edition of the Los Angeles Times-Mirror Grand Prix. He had little interest in returning to his farm, however. He instead founded the Shelby School of High Performance Driving and sought other ways to make money in the automotive industry.
Shelby’s Corvette (1960)
Shelby had other business ventures, including a sports car dealership in Dallas. He also shifted his obsession with taking down Ferrari into high gear during the late 1950s. He joined forces with Chevrolet dealers Jim Hall and Gary Laughlin to purchase three 1959 Corvette rolling chassis and shipped them to Scaglietti in Maranello, Italy. They came back with a gorgeous body made out of aluminum.
The 315 HP, fuel-injected V8 could have turned the Scaglietti Corvette into a Ferrari-taming beast on the track. General Motors canceled the project because it went against its policy of not sponsoring racing. Only three examples were made but the idea of using a big, American V8 to beat Ferrari had taken root inside Shelby’s mind. In hindsight, the Scaglietti Corvette laid the foundations the Cobra was built on.
Shelby’s Cobra (1961)
Shelby reached out to England-based AC Cars in 1961 with an interesting proposal. He wanted to shoehorn an American V8 into a modified version of the two-seater, six-cylinder-powered Ace roadster (pictured) released in 1953. AC had nothing to lose as it could no longer count on Bristol to provide straight-sixes, so it agreed on the condition that Shelby find a suitable engine.
At the time, V8s were a dime a dozen in the United States. He immediately contacted Chevrolet but the firm turned down his request. It had little incentive to help create a model which would compete directly against the Corvette. Ford, however, needed exactly that: a Corvette rival. It agreed to supply Shelby with V8 engine and AC shipped the first Ace to Shelby’s workshop in California in February 1962.
The CSX2000 (1962)
Called CSX2000, the original Cobra was built in 1962 with a 260 HP, 4.2-liter V8 engine from Ford. It was tested by nearly every major car magazine in America, and it participated in several promotional events, but it remained a one-off model for several months so it was cleverly painted in different colors to make it look like there were many examples built. It was much closer to the AC Ace than the later production cars were; its trunk lid notably extended lower because it wasn’t fitted with the chassis brace Shelby installed for additional stiffness.
The Cobra first raced in the 1962 Los Angeles Times Grand Prix. Its pace was promising, it was quicker than Chevrolet’s Corvette Stingray, but mechanical issues prevented it from finishing the race.
The Daytona (1964)
The Cobra was remarkably quick on short, twisty tracks but it couldn’t keep up with cars like the Ferrari 250 GTO on fast, straight stretches like the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. Shelby, Peter Brock and Bob Negstad developed the Daytona using Cobra bits and pieces and a closed-roof body.
Developed only for track use, the Daytona finished first in class in many races including the 1964 editions of the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 1965 Italian Grand Prix. Six examples were built.
The first Shelby Mustang (1965)
The Cobra’s success impressed Ford’s top brass, including a young executive named Lee Iacocca who was quickly making his way towards the top of the firm. In 1964, officials asked Shelby to develop a hotter evolution of the then-new Mustang fastback to compete in SCCA-sanctioned races. The original Shelby GT350 received an upgraded version of the Mustang’s V8 tuned to 306 HP, 35 more than stock. It also benefited from suspension and brake upgrades that kept its handling in check.
The Mustang was launched as a fun car to commute in, a pony car positioned below the muscle cars that rumbled across America in the 1960s. Shelby transformed it into a full-fledged muscle car that could keep up with nimbler European sports cars on the race track.
The GT350H (1966)
Ford and Shelby surprisingly turned to rental car company Hertz to promote the GT350. They created limited-edition model named GT350H that enthusiast could rent from select Hertz locations in the United States. It was mechanically identical to the GT350 but it received an edition-specific paint job plus Hertz Sports Car Club logos on the wheels. 1001 examples were made in 1966.
Hertz Sports Car Club members over 25 years old could pay $17 a day (about $134 in 2019) and 17 cents a mile to rent one. Ford’s marketing department hoped enthusiasts would spend time in a rented GT350H, get hooked and buy one. Some did; others saw it as a cheap way to spend a weekend racing. There were reports of racers renting a GT350H, dropping the 306 HP engine in a standard Mustang, hitting the track and swapping V8s again before returning it.
The GT500 and the Super Snake (1967)
Ford and Shelby sensed America’s appetite for horsepower was insatiable. They created an even hotter evolution of the Mustang called GT500 by replacing the 4.7-liter V8 with a 355 HP, 7.0-liter eight from the Cobra. The GT500 should have been positioned below a 520 HP flagship model named Super Snake (pictured) capable of reaching 170mph. Cost issues forced Shelby to cancel plans to build 50 examples of the car after making just one.
It sold for $1.3 million at an auction in 2013 and traded hands again in 2019 for $2.2 million. In 2018, Shelby re-released the Super Snake as a continuation car.
The King of the Road (1968)
The GT500 paled in comparison to its successor, the GT500KR (short for King of the Road). Unveiled at the 1967 New York auto show, it received a 7.0-liter V8 tuned to 400 HP plus fiberglass body panels to keep weight in check. This was important; the Mustang had gotten much bigger and heavier since 1964.
Ford dealers sold 1251 units of the GT500KR in 1968, its only year on the market. The hardtop started at $4473 while the convertible was priced at $4594, figures that represent about $33,000 and $34,000, respectively. To add context, Chevrolet charged $4663 (about $34,300 in today's money) for a Corvette that year.
The Lone Star (1967)
In the middle of the 1960s, Shelby enlisted the help of England-based JW Automotive Engineering to begin developing a replacement for the Cobra. Called Lone Star, it was built on a Ford GT40 platform and used several Cobra-sourced parts (including the brakes). It wore an aluminum body, featured a removable targa top motorists could store behind the seats and used a mid-mounted V8 engine borrowed from the Ford parts bin. Work on the first drivable prototype began in 1967.
Shelby sent the car to Ford headquarters for evaluation but failed to get it approved for production. It would have cost $15,000 (about $115,000 in 2019), according to Hemmings, a figure that made it roughly twice as expensive as a Cobra. This jaw-dropping sum might have prevented Ford from backing the project. Shelby couldn’t build the Lone Star without Ford’s funding so he canceled the project and sold the only prototype made. It went through the hands of several owners before receiving a full restoration.
Shelby’s chili (1968)
Shelby loved food almost as much as horsepower. He founded the International Chili Society (ICS) and helped organize the first World Chili Cook-Off in a mining ghost town named Terlingua, Texas, in 1967. The event was a hit and it inspired him to create the Carroll Shelby Chili mix the following year. He sold the company in 1986 and it still sells chili kits (pictured) in 2019.
Larry Lavine consulted Shelby before creating a restaurant chain called Chili’s in 1975. The racer helped put together the original menu and played a role in decorating the first restaurant, though he never owned a stake in the company. Chili’s has over 1600 restaurants worldwide in 2019.
Shelby leaves the automotive industry (early 1970s)
Production of the Shelby-tuned Mustang ended in 1969, though some leftover models were sold in 1970. Shelby shut down his racing business that same year and ended his collaboration with Ford in 1970. The sports car’s future looked grim at best. Safety and emissions regulations began shaping cars previously defined by horsepower, displacement and a correspondingly muscular design. The Mustang II (pictured) was a shadow of its former self.
Even racing looked hopeless in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis. Shelby left the United States for South Africa in 1974.
The deal with Dodge (1982)
Shelby agreed to work on Dodge models in late 1982 as a personal favor to Lee Iacocca, now CEO of Chrysler. The two men became friends while working together in the 1960s; Iacocca, then an executive at Ford, played a significant role in helping Shelby launch the Cobra program. The tables turned and Shelby needed to help Iacocca carry out the seemingly impossible task of relaunching Dodge.
The project was considerably different. At Ford, Shelby had V8s and performance-ready rear-wheel drive platforms to work with. At Chrysler, he had emissions-choked four-cylinder engines and an array of front-wheel drive architectures (including the infamous K platform) developed to underpin bargain-priced economy cars. On the face of it, extracting performance from a K car made as much sense as using potatoes to make an apple pie.
Dodge released its first Shelby-badged model, the Charger (pictured), in 1983. It was better suited to receiving more horsepower than the K-based models and it sold relatively well.
The Omni GLH (1984)
Shelby then set his mind to turning the Omni (which Chrysler got from its European division, where it was known as the Talbot Horizon) into a hot hatch capable of dethroning the Volkswagen Rabbit GTI. The GLH designation stood for goes like hell, and the hot-rodded Omni introduced in 1984 lived up to this promise with a 110 HP version of its 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine.
In 1985, Shelby created the GLH-T by bolting a turbocharger to the side of the 2.2-liter and squeezing 146 HP from it. Finally, in 1987, he created the ultimate Omni (pictured) by bumping the turbo four’s output to 175 HP and improving handling with a tighter suspension plus better tires. Shelby had successfully alchemized the Omni into a serious sports car, a feat many doubted he could pull off. The quickest Omni was called GLHS (goes like hell s’more) and limited to 500 examples.
Shelby’s other Dodge projects
Other Dodge models benefitted from the Shelby treatment, including the Lancer (pictured), later variants of the Charger and the Shadow. He didn’t shy away from pickup trucks; he made a 300 HP D150 in 1983, though it remained a prototype, and a 175 HP Dakota of which 1475 units were built in 1989.
Shelby helped Bob Lutz and Tom Gale create the original Dodge Viper, which openly drew inspiration from the Cobra, but health issues similar to the ones that pushed him out of racing prevented him from devoting much time to the project. He left Chrysler after receiving a heart transplant in 1990.
The Shelby Series 1 (1997)
Shelby recovered from the heart transplant, and later from a kidney transplant, and jumped back into the automotive industry. He put his name on dozens of cars but he didn’t design one from the ground up until 1998. Called Series 1, the roadster arrived as a modern take on the Cobra powered by a 4.0-liter V8 borrowed from Oldsmobile and tuned to 320 HP. It took the form of a two-seater convertible characterized by a modern design that shared only a handful of styling cues with the original Cobra.
Shelby made 249 examples of the Series 1 during the 1999 model year. He planned an updated model called Series II but axed the project in the late 2000s due to the rising cost of homologating the car. Three Series II prototypes were built but production never started.
Shelby’s later years
Shelby never stepped away from the automotive industry. In the 2000s, he worked closely with Ford to introduce a number of cars including the 2004 GR-1 concept (pictured), the 2005 Mustang GT500, the 2006 GT-H and the 2007 GT500KR. He also founded the Shelby Performance Parts company in 2007.
He returned to the food business in 2009 when he launched Shelby Signature Foods to focus, in his own words, on healthy comfort foods as well as regional specialties like salad dressing mixes, cornbread, salsa and batter mix for fried chicken. The company also sold olive oil. He didn’t lose sight of philanthropy and created the Carroll Shelby Automotive Technology School of North East Texas Community College in 2009.
On a personal level, the last years of Shelby’s life were accented by many awards (including the Automotive News Lifetime Achievement award) and a series of lawsuits either filed by or against his companies. He died at the age of 89 on May 10, 2012.
Shelby in 2019
In 2019, Shelby continues to tune different Ford models from its headquarters in Las Vegas, Nevada (pictured). Most of the cars it makes are based on the Mustang but it also tunes the standard and Raptor variants of the popular F-150 as well as the bigger, turbodiesel-powered F-Series trucks. Every Shelby-modified model receives a long list of exterior, interior and mechanical upgrades.
Shelby also periodically releases limited-edition continuation cars. It announced a 50-car run of the 1965 Daytona Coupe in 2015 and it celebrated the 1968 GT500KR’s 50th birthday with a batch of 20 cars. Neither was cheap; the Daytona started at $180,000 with a fiberglass body and the Mustang cost $250,000, a figure which included the price of the donor vehicle.
Shelby and Ford
Shelby and Ford set aside their differences and their partnership continues in 2019. The tuner notably helped develop the 2020 GT500 (pictured) unveiled at the 2019 Detroit auto show as the most powerful street-legal, factory-built Mustang ever released. It receives a supercharged, 5.2-liter V8 that channels 760 HP to the rear wheels via a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission. Pricing starts at $73,995, a surprisingly reasonable figure considering the level of performance it delivers.
Chrysler severed ties with Shelby during the early 1990s and the two companies never worked together again. Autocar visited Shelby's headquarters in Las Vegas in January 2019 and we didn't spot a single car from the Dodge era in its museum.