Arguably the best known American automotive legend of the second half of the 20th century, Carroll Shelby was many things to many people. Driver. Builder. Trailblazer. Husband. Father. Grandfather. To the automotive world though, he was known simply as “Shelby.” And so it is with heavy hearts that we report that Carroll Shelby has died at the age of 89.
Whenever a well-known gearhead dies, whole communities and car clubs mourn their passing. These days such passings seem all too common, as many of the men who helped push automotive performance into the mainstream are well past retirement age. Yet that hasn’t stopped these trendsetters, like Shelby, from continuing their work on amazing performance cars.
Born in the small Texas town of Leesburg, one of Shelby’s first driving experiences was as a pilot and trainer in World War II aircraft. After the war, like many G.I.’s, Shelby entered into the racing world, competing for a number of teams and brands, among them British companies like Allard and Aston Martin.
It was Shelby’s experience with small English cars that would lead to his most famous creation; the Shelby Cobra. By taking an AC Cobra and stuffing a Ford 289 V8 engine into the lightweight chassis (though Shelby’s first choice was Chevrolet), Carroll Shelby helped create an automotive legend that was a powerful and nimble performer. The Shelby Cobra would be sold in limited numbers during the 1960’s, and today such cars are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Shelby Cobra is also the most imitated car on the planet, with dozens of different kit car companies popping up to reproduce it.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention Shelby’s other efforts, most famously the Shelby GT350 and GT500 Mustangs. The late 1960’s were Shelby’s heyday, though come the 1970’s Shelby withdrew from production cars and focused on smaller scale projects. The Shelby name did not reappear on a production car until Dodge tapped him to help improve the performance on their turbocharged Charger compact and Dakota mid-sized pickup. Shelby also attempted to build his own supercars, the most recent one being the Shelby 1000, a 1,000 horsepower GT500 that will go down as one of the last cars Shelby himself had a hand in building.
At 89 years old, Shelby was no spring chicken, though this wasn’t his first health scare. Over twenty years ago Shelby received a heart transplant, leading him to found the Carroll Shelby Children’s Foundation. In recent months it has been rumored that Shelby was in a coma, and he was forced to miss the 50th anniversary of his most famous creation, the Cobra.
Shelby’s passing isn’t just a loss to the Ford family, but the entire American auto industry. Shelby’s vehicles not only pushed the envelope on performance, but inspired competitors to step up their game. This was especially true in recent years, as Ford brought Shelby back into the fold with the new generation of GT500 Mustangs. With the 2013 Shelby GT500 making over 660 horsepower, and the recent debut of the Shelby 1000, at least Shelby went out on a high note.
Shelby’s influence on the American car industry cannot be understated, and in more than one way he was a truly larger-than-life figure. At auction, cars bearing his mark bring hundreds of thousands of dollars, and his name recognition among gearheads is second to none. What his passing means for Ford’s own plans to carry on using the Shelby GT500 name, we don’t know, but his legend is not like to fade anytime soon.
Today the motoring world lost one of the last legends of an incredible era. Carroll Shelby, you will be missed.