Feature

Carroll Shelby, 1923–2012

The Texas chicken farmer turned hot-rod designer

Carroll Shelby had a burning desire for speed, and he let little get in the way of it. Warned he might suffer a heart attack before a 200-mile car race in 1960, the man who later created the legendary Shelby Cobra stashed nitroglycerin pills under his tongue to take whenever his chest felt tight. He finished third. “If I hadn’t slowed down each time I popped one of those pills,” he later complained, “I might have won.” 

Born the son of a mailman and car buff, Shelby started out working on a chicken farm in East Texas, said the Los Angeles Times. When he joined the racing circuit, in 1952, he quickly gained a reputation for eccentricity. He once forgot to change out of his striped bib overalls before a race, but when he noticed how much attention it got, he made the farmer’s get-up his trademark. In another race, he demanded that a fellow driver urinate on his car’s engine after it burst into flames mid-race. Once the fire was out, he went on to finish first among amateur drivers. By the time Shelby retired, in 1960, he had won three national championships and the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race, and had twice been named Sports Illustrated’s driver of the year.

His racing career over, Shelby “turned to automotive design,” said The Washington Post. With a mind to make the “fastest, sexiest sports car on the road,” he put a Ford V8 engine into the chassis of a sports car made by British company AC, and dubbed it the Shelby Cobra. Having built a single prototype, he had it photographed by an automotive magazine, then repainted it so a different magazine could feature it too. Shelby’s knack for self-promotion made the Cobra an instant cult classic. With its roaring horsepower, supercharged engine, and unprecedented 180 mph speed, Shelby’s vehicle “almost single-handedly defined the modern muscle car.”

The craze for high-performance sports cars was short-lived, said The New York Times, and Shelby’s business faltered in 1970. But his life “beyond the sports-car world” was no less colorful. Shelby began selling a chili mix with his name on it in 1969, and went on to host thousands of cooking contests as founder of the International Chili Society. He set up a safari business for hunting big game in Africa. All the while he continued to work as a sports-car design consultant, helping launch special-edition performance models of the Dodge Charger and Ford Mustang. The latest model of the Mustang-based Shelby GT500 has the most powerful production V8 in the world, with 662 horsepower. 

A renowned ladies’ man, Shelby would admit to only six of his seven marriages. “I don’t count the second one,” he told Vanity Fair in 2006, “’cause it happened in Mexico.”

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