SEMA News—July 2012

By Drew Hardin
Photo Courtesy of the Petersen Archives

Carroll Shelby: Synonymous With Performance

  Shelby made history 50 years ago when he married Ford’s new 260ci V8 with a lightweight British AC Ace sports car to create the Cobra. 
Carroll Shelby, who passed away in May at the age of 89, was a true icon in the automotive world—someone whose name was literally synonymous with performance. Ask anyone to list their 10 favorite cars of all time, and chances are good that at least one will carry Shelby’s name or have been influenced by the flight instructor turned chicken farmer turned sports car racer turned car builder turned entrepreneur turned philanthropist.

Shelby made history 50 years ago when he married Ford’s new 260ci V8 with a lightweight British AC Ace sports car to create the Cobra. Five decades later, ol’ Shel made history again with the ’13 Shelby GT 500, home to the most powerful production V8 in the world, a supercharged 5.8L engine producing more than 650 hp. Between those bookend achievements, Shelby infused the ’65 Mustang with some much-needed juice and created the GT 350 (and later GT 500); helped Henry Ford II beat Enzo Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966; worked with Lee Iacocca to transform Chrysler front-wheel-drive compact cars into turbocharged hot rods; consulted on the design of the original Dodge Viper as well as a number of Shelby Mustangs and concept cars for Ford; and continued to build hopped-up Mustangs and continuation Cobras from his Shelby American facility in Las Vegas.

For all the automotive work he did, Shelby never considered himself much of an engineer. He was more the marketer, the man pushing his next big concept to whomever he thought should listen. He didn’t build that first Cobra in 1962, for instance; but when a single prototype car arrived from England, it was his idea to paint and repaint that car several times over so it would appear that production was in full swing—and so several competing car magazines would feature the sports car.

Likewise Shelby didn’t engineer the modifications that turned the Mustang into the road-racing GT 350, but it was he, not representatives from Ford, who primed the pump for that car by sitting down with the SCCA to find out just how they would equip a Mustang to make it eligible for sports car racing.

Yet what Shelby considered his proudest achievement had nothing to do with cars. He suffered from heart disease most of his life—it brought his race-driving career to an end in 1959—and while going through the process of a heart transplant in 1991, he founded the Carroll Shelby Foundation, which provides medical assistance to children in need of coronary and kidney care.

Carroll Shelby was named to the SEMA Hall of Fame in 1986. He may be best known as a car builder and racer, but his influence in the automotive specialty-equipment industry runs deep. That first Cobra was built in a corner of Dean Moon’s shop in Santa Fe Springs, California, and it was custom car painter Dean Jeffries who laid the first yellow paint job over its bare aluminum body.

Later, many of the components that went into the GT 350 were offered as specialty equipment through Shelby American. Who knows how many garden-variety Mustangs were modified with the signature rocker panel stripe and fiberglass hood to emulate the GT 350’s look? And how many thousands of replica Cobras are on the street (and under construction right now) using a variety of crate engines, wiring harnesses, gauges, racing seats, competition belts and more products, all sourced from the aftermarket?

Had it not been for Carroll Shelby and the legendary cars he created, the automotive landscape—and the specialty-equipment companies that help emulate those landmark cars—just wouldn’t be the same. 

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