It’s a very sad day for Shelby fans around the world. Carroll Hall Shelby, the Texan who created the famous Shelby Cobra and uncounted other high-performance machines that have enlivened the auto world for 50 years, died in Dallas Thursday night at age 89.
He had been hospitalized for pneumonia. Shelby, who affected the aw-shucks demeanor of the chicken farmer he once was, said, “I never made a damn dime until I started doing what I wanted.”
What he wanted was, if you will, power for the people, automotively speaking.
“I love horsepower,” he said more than once.
Beyond just his efforts in the small world of hot-rodding, Shelby influenced how Detroit automakers though about high-performance, and he proved that hard work and bit of guile can make a hero.
But to achieve that, he had to jump from chicken-raising — his fowl all died of a disease one year — and into full-time auto racing, which he’d been doing on the side, in the 1950s. He was a success — at first continuing to wear the work overalls that he did as a farmer — and parlayed that reputation into a foothold as a car builder.
The litany of significant cars he created is long, running from the original 1962 AC Cobra — small British sports car with a big (for the times) Ford engine — through a sojourn at Chrysler and a stint with GM via a failed Oldsmobile-powered car, back to Ford. He was involved with development of Ford’s GT 500 Mustang, the 2013 version of which is certified as the most-powerful regular-production car in the world.
His love affair put him into the orbit of industry giants of the time, as he more and more successfully showed car companies that powerful engines in lightweight cars was a viable and roadworthy combination on which he and they could make a lot of money.
He became good friends with Lee Iacocca who was president at Ford Motor when Shelby began as a car builder. The relationship continue when Iacocca moved to Chrysler.
Iacocca serendipitously happened upon on a small dinner in a Los Angeles restaurant some years back, intended as an intimate schmooze between Shelby and a journalist. Iacocca plopped down at the table and he and Shelby started telling stories.
Among them, how the two began their relationship.
Iacocca said Shelby was pestering him for money to build the original Cobra, and was so persistent that “I finally gave him the money to get him out of my office.”
Much later, in 2010, Shelby was facing two challenging phenomena: Mortality, and the changing nature of the go-fast auto business. At the time, he was taking 25 pills a day, tooling around in a motorized wheelchair and talking about passing the torch at Shelby American, the company he set up to build small numbers of exciting cars, as well as parts.
He noted that extracting the most performance from an engine had become an exercise in computer programming, not tinkering. “I don’t have the power to fight all the problems that I used to anymore,” he said at the time.
“I’ve had a good run. I’ve built a lot of things that work and a lot of things that didn’t work.” He estimates that of the 165 car projects he tried over his lifetime, seven or eight turned a profit. Big enough, it seems, to keep the enterprise rolling.
His was a bold approach to car crafting that was too in-your-face for mainline car companies to conjure in-house. They let him come up with wild machines under their sponsorship, then refined them into cars the automakers could sell as high-performance halos.
Along the way he came up with a recipe for a mean bowl of chili, sufficiently infamous to spark an annual beat-this chili cookoff in Texas, and later even ventured into fashion timepieces.
He began his car building with subterfuge. Hoping to give the impression he was producing a lot of the original 1962 Cobras, he kept repainting the two he had built so car magazines would show them in a variety of colors.
And he had to fend off another giant, his eventual friend Robert E. Petersen, founder of Motor Trend and Hot Rod magazines, for the affections of a woman.
Petersen saw himself as merely taking advantage of an opportunity. Shelby recalled it as a work of infamy: “He’d tell her, ‘You don’t want to go around with a chicken farmer. And he’ll lose (races), anyway’.”
Rumors began circulating about a health problem when the affable auto man failed to appear as scheduled at the New York auto show in early April to promote his latest creations, the 950-horsepower Shelby 1000 and the 1,100-hp Shelby 1000 S/C.
Shelby published an update on his Facebook page in late April to say, in the vein of Mark Twain’s “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” that he had been hospitalized for pneumonia, but was “resting comfortably with family and working on getting better.”