Shelby was born on January 11, 1923, in Leesburg, Texas, to Warren Hall Shelby, a rural mail carrier, and his wife, Eloise (Lawrence) Shelby. Shelby suffered heart valve leakage problems by age 7 and spent most of his childhood in bed. By age 14, Shelby’s health improved and he was subsequently declared to have “outgrown” his health problems. Shelby’s first wife was Jeanne Fields; they married on December 18, 1943. Their daughter Sharon Anne Shelby was born a year later on September 27, 1944. They had two more children — sons named Michael Hall (born November 2, 1946) and Patrick Bert (born October 23, 1947). Shelby and Fields later separated and divorced in February 1960. In 1962, Shelby married actress Jan Harrison but the marriage was annulled the same year. Shelby dealt with health issues throughout his life. He took nitroglycerine pills when he was racing because of his heart. He had a heart transplant in 1990 and a kidney transplant in 1996.
Shelby died on May 10, 2012, at the age of 89. He had been suffering from a serious heart ailment for decades. Joe Conway, president of Carroll Shelby International, said that “we are all deeply saddened, and feel a tremendous sense of loss for Carroll’s family, ourselves and the entire automotive industry. 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.” Another one of his legacies may well be when he said to the TV camera “Yesterday’s History. Tomorrow’s a Mystery. So live for today.” It seemed to be his credo.
Shelby honed his driving skills with his Willys automobile while attending Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas, Texas. He graduated from Wilson in 1940. He was enrolled at The Georgia School of Technology in the Aeronautical Engineering program. However, because of the war Shelby did not go to school and enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps, serving in World War II as a flight instructor and test pilot. He graduated with the rank of staff sergeant pilot.
Starting out as an amateur, he initially raced a friend’s MG TC. He soon became a driver for the Cad-Allard, Aston Martin and Maserati teams during the 1950s. Driving for Donald Healey, in a streamlined and supercharged, specially-modified, Austin-Healey 100S, he set 16 U.S. and international speed records. Teamed with Roy Salvadori, and driving for Aston Martin, he won the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans. He drove in the Mount Washington Hillclimb Auto Race in a specially prepared Ferrari 375 GP roadster, to a record run of 10:21.8 seconds on his way to victory in 1956.
He was Sports Illustrated’s driver of the year in 1956 and 1957. He competed in Formula One from 1958 to 1959, participating in a total of eight World Championship races and several non-championship races. The highlight of his race driving career came in 1959, when he co-drove an Aston-Martin DBR1 (with Englishman Roy Salvadori) to victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. During this race he noted the performance of an English GT car built by AC Cars, known as the Bristol. Three years later, the AC Bristol would become the basis for the AC Cobra.
After retiring from driving in October 1959 for health reasons, he opened a high-performance driving school and the Shelby-American company. He obtained a license to import the AC Cobra (often known in the USA as the Shelby Cobra), a successful British Sports racing car manufactured by AC Motors of England, which AC had designed at Shelby’s request by fitting a Ford V8 to their popular AC Ace sports car in place of its standard AC six, Ford Zephyr or 2 liter Bristol engine. Shelby continued on to be influential with Ford manufactured cars, including the Daytona Coupe, GT40, the Mustang-based Shelby GT350 and Shelby GT500. After parting with Ford, Shelby moved on to help develop performance cars with divisions of the two other Big 3 American companies, Dodge, and Oldsmobile. Ford provided financial support for AC’s Cobras from 1962 through 1965 and provided financial support for the Ford GTs, first with John Wyer’s Ford Advanced Vehicles in 1963 and then with Shelby American from 1964 through 1967.
In the intervening years, Shelby had a series of ventures start and stop relating to production of “completion” Cobras — cars that were allegedly built using “left over” parts and frames. In the 1960s, the FIA required entrants (Shelby, Ford, Ferrari, etc.) to produce at least 100 cars for homologated classes of racing. Shelby simply ordered an insufficient number of cars and skipped a large block of Vehicle Identification Numbers, to create the illusion the company had imported large numbers of cars. Decades later in the 1990s, Carroll alleged that he had found the “left over” frames, and began selling cars which were supposedly finally “completed”. After it was discovered the cars were built from scratch in collaboration with McCluskey, Ltd., they were re-termed “continuation” Cobras. The cars are still built to this day, known as the current CSX4000 series of Cobras.
He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1991, and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1992. He was inducted into the SCCA Hall of Fame on March 2, 2013. In 2003, Ford Motor Co. and Carroll Shelby mended ties and he became technical advisor to the Ford GT project. In that same year, he formed Carroll Shelby International, Inc., based in Nevada.
Shelby began working with Dodge at the request of Chrysler Corporation chairman, Lee Iacocca. Iacocca had previously been responsible for bringing Shelby to the Ford Mustang. After almost a decade of tuning work, Shelby was brought on board as the “Performance Consultant” on the Dodge Viper Technical Policy Committee made up of Chrysler’s executive Bob Lutz, Product Design chief Tom Gale, and Engineering Vice President François Castaing. Shelby was used for his wealth of experience to make the Viper as light and powerful as possible.
- January, 11, 1923
- Leesburg, Texas
- May, 10, 2012
- Dallas, Texas
- Leesburg Cemetery
- Leesburg, Texas