On May 11, 2012, the automotive world lost one of its last cowboys. Carroll Shelby, father of the Cobra, passed away due to complications from pneumonia. He was 89 years old. Over his five decades in the automotive community, this chicken farmer turned race car driver turned hot rodder left an indelible mark. These are his greatest hits.
In 1961, Carroll Shelby learned that AC Motors (a small British sports car maker) was looking for a new engine supplier. It just so happened that Ford had a new 221 ci, and a V8 too. Shelby put car and engine together and created the Cobra in 1962.
The car would become the epitome of the hot rod archetype: light car plus big motor. The Cobra also bloodied the noses of many on race circuits around the world, such as Ferrari at Le Mans. This attracted the attention of a little company called Ford Motor Company.
1964 saw Ford approaching Shelby with the idea of creating a faster Mustang. This period would begin a long relationship with Ford corporate that spawned many Mustang iterations that were successful on the track and the street. The epitome of this relationship came during the end of the muscle car period with the GT500KR that had a 428ci V8. But the end of the 1960s would see the end of this relationship, and Shelby Motors.
If there was one thing Shelby and Ford had in common, it was making European car manufacturers look foolish on their home turf. The best example of this was the creation of the GT40 program. After being turned down by Enzo Ferrari to buy the company, Henry Ford II decided to beat Ferrari at their own game out of spite. This program for revenge would spawn the GT40 race car, but the first iteration failed to produce wins. Shelby was called in to work on the second generation of the car. Ford and Shelby deliver a one two punch with this new car. In 1966, Ford would take the overall win at Lemans with the GT40. Ford and Shelby would repeat this feat for the next three years.
After a brief hiatus from making cars, Shelby would return with a product much different than Mustangs and racecars. The 1984 Shelby Omni GLHS was a performance car for a new generation of needs and wants. The Omni may have been front-wheel drive and had a turbocharged 4-cyl engine, but its violent torque steer helped retain some of that raw attitude that made Cobras legendary. Also, while at Chrysler, he was on hand to give input on the Cobra’s spiritual successor: the Dodge Viper. The Viper would become the Cobra for a new generation. Its raw driving dynamics meant that the Viper was the Cobra ripped from the past and brought to the present.
Shelby’s relationship with Ford would come full circle in 2005 with the newest Mustang Cobra. Once again, Shelby’s name would adorn the flanks of Ford’s pony car. And it was a raucous revival. The GT500 would crank out 425hp from a supercharged 5.4L V8. Today, that number will swell to 650Hp in the newest Shelby Mustang Cobra. With the help of SVT, this Mustang is even better than its forbearers.
The legacy of Carroll Shelby is not squeaky clean. The Texan is notorious for spending much of his later years suing anyone who breathed near his trademark cars, but his legacy is much more than lawsuits and litigations. Carroll Shelby was a type of person that just isn’t found in the industry anymore. He shot from the hip and built cars that were primitive but effective. It was a classic American pioneer spirit, only put to use on cars.
In an age where cars aren’t allowed to be proud signs of speed and fury, examples of this attitude are hard to find. Luckily, we do have torchbearers. One is one of the last products Shelby touched: the Mustang Cobra. The other is the car that carries the attitude of the Cobra into the future: the Dodge Viper. Thank you Carroll Shelby, and Godspeed.