The recent death of Carroll Shelby, the creator of the Shelby Cobra, had me waxing nostalgic for the good old days when gasoline sold for 23 cents a gallon and highway speed limits were set at 70 miles per hour.
I came of age during the era of the muscle car when guys gauged their image by the power of their ride. When I learned to drive, my soon-to-be fiancé taught me on a stick shift – a standard, manual transmission – in his hand-me-down Volkswagen Beetle. When his dad bought himself a sedately-equipped 1969 Dodge Charger, my fiancé traded the VW for a 1968 Dodge Coronet Super Bee. Equipped with a 383 cubic-inch V-8 and a gas-guzzling, four-barrel carburetor, the Super Bee poured out a modest 330 horses when you put your foot into it. His best friend cruised in a 1967 Pontiac GTO with a hood scoop, and the best man at our wedding drove a 1969 Ford Mustang Mach I, the fastback model used for the movie, Bullitt. In that movie’s memorable ground-breaking scene, Steve McQueen careened through the streets of San Francisco after a Dodge Charger like a roller coaster, causing the Charger to lose five (we counted them) wheel covers during the chase. The Mach I was the Mustang which inspired Ford’s more recent special edition Ford Mustang Bullitt.
Needless to say, discussions among our friends were often about high-performance cars, and they included the Chevrolet Corvette, the German Porsche, and the Shelby Cobra. What I didn’t know then, is that Carroll Hall Shelby was born in 1923 in the small Texas town of Leesburg in Camp County, about 2 hours east of Dallas. Shelby attended Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas and served in World War II as an aviator under the Sergeant Pilot Program which had been introduced in 1941. Shelby’s return to civilian life found him sharing ownership of a Dallas automobile dealership with Jim and Dick Hall. They specialized in sports cars, and whenever Shelby could, he raced cars. Although he tried a number of other business ventures, including chicken-farming, by the 1950s, he was racing fulltime and won the 1959 Le Mans with a British-made Aston Martin (the sports car used in the earliest James Bond films). In 1960, Shelby stopped racing for health reasons and moved to Southern California where he began tinkering with a Ford GT40. There he started his own racing team, winning the Le Mans with the GT40 he powerfully enhanced.
When the British automotive manufacturer, AC Cars, ceased production on their two-seater in 1961, Shelby seized the opportunity to integrate an American V8 engine into AC’s two-seater chassis. In 1962, Shelby America production was underway in Venice, California, churning out the Shelby CSX2000, better known as the Shelby Cobra, for public consumption. Ford soon contracted with Shelby to develop the 1965 Ford Mustang GT350 which hit the streets in the fall of 1964; he sold the Cobra name to Ford in 1965.
Carroll Shelby had his own spread of land in Texas, a 220,000 acre ranch in Brewster County, called the Terlingua Ranch after the nearest town, Terlingua. Shelby often flew his own DC-3 from Los Angeles to Dallas, and a few times a year, he brought his business associates, Tom Tierney, David E. Davis, Jr., and Bill Neale for a little relaxation. It was there that they hatched the idea of the Terlingua Racing Team, and in 1967, they held the first Terlingua International Chili Championship with Wick Fowler, creator of the “Two Alarm” chili mix, as one of the few contestants. In 1976, Shelby and his fellow chili aficionados founded the International Chili Society, and Shelby introduced his own chili preparation mix, manufactured in his plant just north of Dallas in McKinney; he sold his Carroll Shelby Chili Mix to Kraft Foods in 1985.
Shelby American, Inc., Shelby’s own automotive empire, now resides in Las Vegas, Nevada, and features its own shrine to the Cobra and its kin, the Shelby American Museum which is located near the Las Vegas Speedway. Tours are free and open to the public. Monday-through-Friday tours include a jaunt through the manufacturing plant, but are museum only on Saturdays. Another museum devoted to the Cobra is the Shelby Cobra Collection in Boulder, Colorado, which is open to the public only on Saturdays. The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles is hosting an invitation-only event honoring Carroll Shelby on May 30. After all, Southern California fed America’s automotive cultural frenzy with music that immortalized hotrods and sports cars throughout the 1960s.
Shelby was inducted into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 1992. The recipient of a heart transplant in 1990, Shelby created the Carroll Shelby Heart Fund in 1991, a fund to finance organ transplants for children, which grew to be the Carol Shelby Foundation in 2009. The Foundation funded the creation of the Carroll Shelby Automotive Technology School, a part of the Northeast Texas Community College located in Mt. Pleasant, Texas.
Carroll Shelby traveled all over the world, but always considered Dallas his home. He passed away in Dallas at the age of 89 on May 10, 2012, just months after the 50th anniversary of the birth of the first Shelby Cobra.