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Carroll Shelby, auto racing legend, dead at 89

Among sport’s greats as driver and designer, also remembered as one of the longest living heart transplant recipients and philanthropist.

Published May 16, 2012

Carroll Shelby, the legendary car designer and champion auto racer who built the fabled Shelby Cobra sports car and injected testosterone into Ford’s Mustang and Chrysler’s Viper, has died. He was 89.

Shelby’s company, Carroll Shelby International, said Friday that Shelby died a day earlier at a Dallas hospital.

“We are all deeply saddened, and feel a tremendous sense of loss for Carroll’s family, ourselves and the entire automotive industry,” said Joe Conway, president of Carroll Shelby International, Inc. and board member. “There has been no one like Carroll Shelby and never will be. However, we promised Carroll we would carry on, and he put the team, the products and the vision in place to do just that.”

Shelby was one of the nation’s longest-living heart transplant recipients, having received a heart on June 7, 1990, from a 34-year-old man who died of an aneurism. Shelby also received a kidney transplant in 1996 from his son, Michael.

The 1992 inductee into the Automobile Hall of Fame had homes in Los Angeles and his native east Texas.

The one-time chicken farmer had more than a half-dozen successful careers during his long life. Among them: champion race car driver, racing team owner, automobile manufacturer, automotive consultant, safari tour operator, raconteur, chili entrepreneur and philanthropist.

“He’s an icon in the medical world and an icon in the automotive world,” his longtime friend, Dick Messer, executive director of Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum, once said of Shelby.

“His legacy is the diversity of his life,” Messer said. “He’s incredibly innovative. His life has always been the reinvention of Carroll Shelby.”

Shelby first made his name behind the wheel of a car, winning France’s gruelling 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race with teammate Ray Salvadori in 1959. He already was suffering serious heart problems and ran the race “with nitroglycerin pills under his tongue,” Messer once noted.

He had turned to the race-car circuit in the 1950s after his chicken ranch failed. He won dozens of races in various classes throughout the 1950s and was twice named Sports Illustrated’s driver of the year.

Soon after his win at Le Mans, he gave up racing and turned his attention to designing high-powered “muscle cars” that eventually became the Shelby Cobra and the Mustang Shelby GT500.

The Cobra, which used Ford engines and a British sport car chassis, was the fastest production model ever made when it was displayed at the New York Auto Show in 1962.

A year later, Cobras were winning races over Corvettes, and in 1964 the Rip Chords had a top five hit on the Billboard pop chart with “Hey, Little Cobra.” (“Spring, little Cobra, getting ready to strike, spring, little Cobra, with all of your might. Hey, little Cobra, don’t you know you’re gonna shut ’em down?”)

In 2007, an 800-horsepower model of the Cobra made in 1966, once Shelby’s personal car, sold for $5.5 million at auction, a record for an American car.

“It’s a special car. It would do just over three seconds to 60 (m.p.h.), 40 years ago,” Shelby told the crowd before the sale, held in Scottsdale, Ariz.

It was Lee Iacocca, then head of Ford Motor Co., who had assigned Shelby the task of designing a fastback model of Ford’s Mustang that could compete against the Corvette for young male buyers.

Turning a vehicle he had once dismissed as “a secretary car” into a rumbling, high-performance model was “the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” Shelby recalled in a 2000 interview with The Associated Press.

That car and the Shelby Cobra made his name a household word in the 1960s.

When the energy crisis of the 1970s limited the market for gas-guzzling high-performance cars, Shelby weathered the downturn by heading to Africa, where he operated a safari company for a dozen years.

By the time he had returned to the United States, Iacocca was running Chrysler Motors and he hired him to design the supercharged Viper sports car.

In the meantime, Shelby had also inaugurated the World Chili Cookoff competition and he began marketing Carroll Shelby Original Texas Chili.

In recent years, Shelby worked as a technical adviser on the Ford GT project and designed the Shelby Series 1 two-seat muscle car, a 21st century clone of his 1965 Cobra.

“I just wanted to see if I could do it one more time after a heart transplant and a kidney transplant,” he once told the AP.

In 1990 he had marketed the Can-Am Spec Racer, an affordable racing car for entry-level drivers.

He created the Carroll Shelby Children’s Foundation in 1991 to provide assistance for children and young people needing acute coronary and kidney care. According to its website, the foundation has helped numerous children receive needed surgery, as well as provided money for research.

Carroll Hall Shelby was born Jan. 11, 1923, in Leesburg, Texas.

During World War II he was an Army Air Corps flight instructor who corresponded with his fiancee by dropping love letters stuck into his flying boots onto her farm.

After leaving the military in 1945, he started a dump truck business, then decided to raise chickens. The poultry business initially flourished, with Shelby earning a $5,000 profit on the first batch of broilers he delivered. He went broke, however, when his second flock died of disease.

A friend then invited him to become an amateur racer and his success led to his joining the Aston-Martin team and competing in races all over the world.

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