Carroll Shelby: the Myth or the Man by Mike Thies

There is truly a library of books and articles about Carroll Shelby. He is easily one of the most outstanding icons of the American automotive history.  His recent death has left us to consider his legacy, his impact and his memory. He was a man for the times with a vision for what the sports car in America could be.  The stories are near mythical anymore.  There is the one where the “Cobra” name came to him in a dream and the one that is told about how he named the GT350 by asking an employee about the distance between the office and the shop. 

Shelby was challenged with health issues all his life. He suffered heart valve leakage problems as a young boy and reportedly spent most of his childhood in bed!  It is said that he decided to "outgrow" his health problems do what he wanted to do anyway. He took nitroglycerin pills when he was racing because of his heart and later ended up with a heart transplant and a kidney transplant.  The “second” heart he called it, and it held up for 22 years!


He prided himself as a Texan and graduated high school there. He was accepted at Georgia Tech but went in into Word War II in the Air Corps and helped with flight instruction. After the War, he was a race car driver for the Aston Martin, Maserati and Healey.  He became a favorite of the Brits and set 16 U.S. and international speed records. Once injured in a race, it is told he returned with his arm in cast and drove to a win with his hand taped to the steering wheel!  He won the 1956 Mt. Washington Hill Climb and famously, the 1959 Le Mans. During this race he was drawn to the performance of the AC Bristol. Some years later, these cars would become the basis for the AC Cobra!  He was driver of the year in both 1956 and 1957 for Sports Illustrated.


It is told that Shelby could be impatient and gruff. His Texas style was to swagger and cuss a bit, but always held a good sense of humor behind it.  His pride in his chicken farmer background led to him wearing his famous trademark bib overalls.  The number of significant personages that considered him a friend and ally is again part of legend. There is the famous story of how he pushed Bill Cosby into buying a rare 200 mph Cobra! Cosby allegedly drove it once and gave it back...terrified.  Lee Iacocca was reported to have said that Shelby was the kind of friend you loved to fight with. “I got great ideas fussing with that man.”, he said.  Shelby is quoted as to having told Iacocca that he didn't want to work on the Mustang. ”…the first thing I said was, 'Lee, you can't make a race horse out of a mule. I don't want to do it.' He said, 'I didn't ask you to make it; you work for me.'"


Having to have worked on sports cars for every major US automaker, Shelby told that he Cobra was his favorite.  He said, “The reason I moved to California the first time was to build the Cobra. I thought it was stupid to have a 1918 taxicab engine in what Europeans like to call a performance car, when a little American V-8 could do the job better.” “The Cobra is my personal favorite car. The original 289 Cobra is the car I respect the most. I like to drive the 289 better than the 427.”


He often told people that he was not afraid to die and he that was surprised he lived as long as he did. He said his doctors told him in 1960 that he had five years to live. “It’s not the number of years, but the years in your numbers!” In his years he had seven wives and was told to have commented frequently that men & women were not meant to get along.


Carroll Shelby was a friend to all gear heads and loved what he did.  He left racing due to health problems that were slowing him down and went on to impact every major aspect of modern automotive history.  Now in his death, he adds to the myth & man stories to be told at car shows and race tracks. A bizarre custody battle happened between his children and the last of his seven wives!  His body was left stuck in a Texas morgue while some judge decided who was to get to dispose of his remains.  He died at age 89 at in Dallas; there was a divorce petition pending.


Here is a list of some of the top Shelby cars. How would you rank them as your favorite? How about finding a photo of each on the Internet and pasting it as a comment? :-)

  • Dodge Omni GLH/GLHS
  • 2012 Shelby Mustangs 1000 & 1000 S/C
  • 1992 Dodge Viper
  • 1964 Sunbeam Tiger
  • Shelby GT500 KR “King of the Road”
  • Shelby GT350
  • Shelby Daytona Coupe
  • Shelby Cobra
  • Ford GT40

 Check out this cool video with Bill Cosby on Carrol Shelby:

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Comment by Michael Thies on July 23, 2013 at 7:38pm

After reading this article, a young daughter of a friend of mine asked, "What is the ending"?  I told her I didn't understand and she said, "If he was getting divorced at his age after 7 wives, there certainly was a girl there waiting for a proposal! Who is she?" I totally missed the real story!  M.


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