By Di Freeze
Most people don’t equate the name of Carroll Shelby with aviation. However, Shelby is a pilot and has actively used his twin-engine Aerostar, which he bases at Petersen Aviation at Van Nuys Airport, to commute back and forth between his manufacturing plant.
He also uses that aircraft to fly to his ranch in east Texas. Besides the Aerostar, he owns a Cessna on which his wife, British-born Cleo Patricia Marguerita Shelby, whom he married in 1997, is being trained to get her pilot’s license. And, he owns a fixed wing ultralight aircraft, which, at 79, he plans to fly himself.
“This plane is the only thing that I can fly because they don’t allow any pilots with an organ transplant to fly any registered aircraft,” said Shelby, who has had both heart and kidney transplants.
He attends the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual event, often flying with Chuck Yeager, Barron Hilton, chairman of the board of Hilton Hotels Corporation, and actor Cliff Robertson.
When time permits, he enjoys hanging out with longtime racing friend and aviation aficionado Robert E. Petersen, founder of Petersen Aviation and Hot Rod magazine.
Born on Jan. 11, 1923, to Warren Shelby, a rural mail carrier in Leesburg, Texas, and Eloise Lawrence, Shelby moved with his family to Dallas seven years later. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. In November 1941, he began training at what is now Lackland Air Force Base, near San Antonio, Texas.
One of Shelby’s fondest flying memories is of dropping letters placed in his flying boots over his fiancée’s farm, while on training missions.
Shelby served out World War II as a flight instructor and test pilot of the Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan and Curtiss AT-9 Jeep.
He married Jeanne Fields in December 1943, and mustered out of the service as a second lieutenant in August 1945. He soon started a dump truck business in Dallas, Texas. After running this small fleet for a while, he entered the oil business, as a roughneck.
An aptitude test taken a few years later revealed that Shelby should try his hand at raising animals. So, in 1949, he began raising chickens. His first batch of broilers netted a $5,000 profit, but he went bankrupt when his second batch caught Newcastle’s disease.
A New Career
In January 1952, Shelby entered the world of racing when he drove his first race, a quarter-mile drag meet, behind the wheel of a hot rod fitted with a flathead Ford V8. His first road race took place behind the wheel of an MG-TC, in May of that year in Norman, Okla., as he competed and won against other MGs and in a second race, competition that included Jaguar XK 120s. That November, he piloted a Cad-Allard to first place in an early SCCA race.
Already a familiar face at race tracks by then, Shelby arrived at one in the fall of 1953, still wearing his work clothes. The striped bib coveralls caused more publicity than his racing record. He continued wearing them and they soon became his trademark.
In January 1954, John Wyer, Aston Martin’s team manager, invited Shelby to co-drive an Aston-Martin DB3 at Sebring, Fla. With the team, he headed to Europe in April, finishing second at Aintree. He co-drove with Paul Frére at Le Mans in June, and continued to race in Europe until August, when he returned to the States and helped Donald Healey of Austin-Healey, set 70 new Class D records at the Bonneville Salt flats in Utah.
In November 1954, Shelby suffered injuries at the Carrera Pan Americana Mexico while driving an Austin-Healey. Although he was still undergoing operations to recover from that accident, in which the car flipped four times, he was once again racing by March 1955–with his arm in a fiberglass cast and his hand taped to the steering wheel. This time, at Sebring, he co-drove a 3.0-liter Ferrari Monza with Phil Hill.
Following Torrey Pines in July, where, while driving a 4.1-liter Ferrari Mexico, he defeated Hill, building contractor Tony Paravano asked Shelby to drive a new 4.9-liter 12-cylinder Ferrari. After winning his first outing, he again went to Europe.
In 1956, Sports Illustrated named Shelby sports car driver of the year. He received the title of “Driver of the Year” in 1957.
In June 1959, Carroll and Ray Salvadori co-drove an Aston Martin DBR1/300 to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Shelby began 1960 driving a Maserati 250F Formula One Grand Prix car. It would be a year of change, besides separating from his wife and moving from Dallas to La Mirada, Calif., Shelby would begin suffering from heart-related health problems that would cause him to abandon his racing career.
But first, he would drive a Scarab to first place at Continental Divide Raceways and in his last race in December, the Third Annual Los Angeles Times-Mirror Grand Prix for sports cars, while driving a Type 61 Birdcage Maserati, he finished fifth. Overall, he won the United States Auto Club’s driving championship for 1960.
Shelby wasn’t about to stay away from cars. He opened Shelby School of High Performance Driving, a revolutionary driving school, in 1961, the same year he began work to realize his dream of building an inexpensive American race car to compete with Europe’s finest.
The Shelby American Collection in Boulder, Colo., pays tribute to Shelby by displaying that car, the Shelby Cobra, along with Mustang GT350s and Ford GT40s. The collection includes Sebring, Le Mans, USRRC, and FIA factory race cars driven by Shelby American team drivers Ken Miles, Dan Gurney, Bob Bondurant, Phil Hill, Dan Gerber, Dave MacDonald and many others. Shelby himself attended the grand opening about five years ago and returns each year for an annual fundraiser for the nonprofit museum.
In late 1961, Shelby spoke to AC Cars of England after hearing they had lost the source for their two seat roadster’s six-cylinder Bristol engine. They agreed to keep building the chassis if it could be paired with a suitable American engine. That engine would be a recently introduced Ford small-block V8.
The prototype chassis, CSX2000, arrived in Southern California in February 1962, and was taken to Dean Moon’s shop in Santa Fe Springs. Within eight hours after its arrival there, it was paired with a 260 HiPo and a Borg-Warner four-speed transmission, and the 260 Roadster hit the street.
The following month, Shelby American, Inc., opened in Venice, Calif. After being painted a bright pearlescent yellow by Dean Jeffries, CSX2000 debuted at the New York Auto Show in April.
Shelby began heavily promoting his creation in May. Automotive press, test-driving the CX2000, responded with one main superlative: explosive.
The pencil and paper kept on his nightstand came in handy when Shelby awakened one night, and quickly scribbled a word he had seen on a car in a vivid dream: Cobra. CSX 2001, the second Cobra built, which arrived in LA in May, was built into the first competition Cobra. With production slow, because the AC chassis required extensive engineering, CX2000 was repainted several times to make it appear to the press that there were several cars already produced.
The Shelby American Collection has on display the third Cobra/first factory race car built, chassis #CSX2002. Known as the Billy Krause or Riverside car, the 260ci Cobra debuted at Riverside in October 1962, with Krause behind the wheel.
“It actually never won a race,” said museum cofounder Stephen Volk. “Being the first race car, it had a lot of problems.”
Dave McDonald scored the first Cobra victory at Riverside in an SCCA race held Feb. 2-3, 1963. He took the win on both days. Ken Miles, in another Cobra, finished second. These were the only wins for the 260ci Cobras. The 289ci Cobra debuted in early March.
For an FIA race at Sebring that month, three Sebring Cobras were built. However, it wasn’t until September that Shelby American had an FIA win. Dan Gurney accomplished this feat in a Cobra at the Bridgehampton 500.
The Cobras first appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June 1963. Two teams, each with one car, entered Cobras for the race. Both Cobras ran fitted with the “Le Mans” hardtops, the first effort to improve aerodynamics. In all, three Le Mans cars were made.
“We have the one with the most significant race history here,” said Volk.
1963 wins for Shelby included the November SCCA A-Production championship. In December, the Cobra won the United States Road Racing Championship’s manufacturer’s championship.
Six USRRC factory race cars were made. The museum displays Shelby Team Cobra CSX2431, owned by Tom Benjamin. The USRRC/FIA roadster is known as the Ken Miles car.
“It was Ken Mile’s personal car,” Volk said. “You notice this doesn’t have a full windshield, because it was designed to race in the USRRC; a full windshield would slow you down. USRRC had different race rules then for instance, FIA, which required you to have a full windshield.”
Even so, said Volk, Shelby would “cheat.”
On a different Cobra, he points out slots in which a windshield, upright per FIA regulations, could be manipulated into a more slanted position for greater aerodynamics, once a driver had left the starting line.
Volk owns CSX2345, the fifth of five 289 Cobra FIA roadsters built specifically for competition in the 1964 FIA Manufacturer’s Championship.
Volk tells how the 289 Cobra FIA roadsters originally weren’t able to pass the FIA suitcase test, in which a certain size suitcase had to fit in the trunk.
“On the spot, (Shelby American) took the hammer out and fixed it so they could get the trunk closed and pass that requirement,” he said.
Volk’s 289 Cobra FIA roadster is “as raced.”
“It has the actual tires, sparkplugs, sparkplug wires, etc., it had when raced in 1964 and 1965,” Volk said. “Its one of the very few—if not the only—factory team cars that is un-restored.” That particular car has five first-place FIA wins.”
The museum also displays one of six team Cobra “Daytona” coupes. The Daytona coupe, named such due to its first competition event of February 1964 at The Daytona Continental, took its first GT class win, over Ferrari GTOs, in March 1964 at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Total victories at Sebring placed Cobra in the lead over Ferrari in FIA points for the GT III championship. Shelby held a press conference to announce that the team was headed to Europe to challenge Ferrari. Cobras and Ford’s new GT40 were tested at Le Mans in April, the same month that Miles won the USRRC race at Riverside.
In June, Shelby-American Cobras won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Cobra was fourth overall and first in GT.
In the middle of December 1964, the unsuccessful Ford GT program was handed over to Shelby American. The Shelby American racing season began at Daytona on Feb. 28, 1965. The race saw the first victory for a Shelby Ford GT40 and Shelby-entered cars take five of the first six spots.
The Shelby team in 1965 again swept the boards in the USRRC series and won its third consecutive manufacturer’s title. The FIA season wrapped up in Reims, France, on July 4, 1965, with Shelby American becoming the first American manufacturer to win the World Championship.
Cobra FIA roadsters and Daytona coupes earned the championship for Shelby, after the title had been held by Ferrari for more than a decade.
Shelby’s Cobras were some of the fastest, if not the fastest, production cars ever made. The 427 Cobra sped from zero to 60 mph in four seconds and from zero to 100 miles per hour and back to zero in 13.8 seconds.
The Cobra line was discontinued in 1967. At vintage events around the country, Volk currently races CSX2226, a Shelby American Independent Competition Cobra 289 roadster that was the last Cobra to professionally compete. It was doing so as late as 1983.
Shelby American officially moved to a new facility at Los Angeles Airport on Imperial Highway in March 1965.
From there, they would continue production of the Shelby Mustang GT350, of which the first race cars and street cars were built in the fall of 1964.
The prototype, the Mustang GT350R, ran its first race in Texas in February 1965. It was discovered years later in a barn in Mexico, and, now owned by Volk, is on display at the museum.
Shelby American won Le Mans in 1966 with the GT40 Mark II and in 1967 with the GT40 Mark IV racing coupe. Both examples are displayed at the museum. Volk owns chassis s/n J-7, the Mark IV that Mario Andretti drove in the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans. Murray Racing has faithfully restored the car to its original condition.
“They only built six GT40 Mk IVs,” Volk said. “It was very advanced. At Le Mans in 1967, they were competing against Ferrari, and were going 20 mph faster down the Mulsanne Straight. Ford used a lot of aerospace parts on it. In fact, that’s the first (automotive) use of aluminum honeycomb. This car used a lot of avionics for its time, such as the Cannon Connectors. The windshield wiper is off a 707. It actually set a track record at Le Mans that has never been beaten–by a non-turbo charged car.”
The GT40 Mk IV (developed from the J-car) prototype was also one of the first cars tested in a wind tunnel.
The Shelby Mustang project ended in September 1969, after a decline in sales. The following month, at Riverside, Shelby fielded his last Ford team race car, and in December, the Shelby Automotive Racing Company closed. The long-term racing agreement between Shelby and Ford ended in early 1970.
But Shelby has kept at his craft.
Besides being hired in the 1980s by Lee Iacocca to bolster Chrysler’s image, such as overseeing the addition of stripes and decals to Dodge Chargers, and transforming Dodge Omnis, Chargers, Lancers, Shadows and Dakota pickups into “pavement rippers,” in 1987, Shelby began prototype work on a Dodge sports car, which later became the “Viper.”
After a long awaited heart transplant in June 1990, a grateful Shelby began the Shelby Heart Fund. Founded in September 1991 and later renamed the Carroll Shelby Children’s Foundation, the tax-deductible fund was set up to help indigent children with heart or kidney problems.
In September 1991, Shelby was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. He was elected into the Automotive Hall of Fame in October 1992.
In 1997, Shelby designed and manufactured the Shelby Series 1 sports car. And, in 1998, two years after receiving a kidney transplant, he created the Super Pursuit 360 high performance sport utility vehicle.
In 1999, Motor Trend Magazine voted the Shelby Cobra CSX2000 the most significant car of the last 50 years, and Shelby teamed with Titan to produce a custom motorcycle, the Shelby Series.
Shelby American, Inc., now located in Las Vegas, has produced at least 40 editions of the Shelby Cobra.
“Carroll still has a lot going on,” said Volk.
Life Outside of Racing and Aircraft
In 1967, Shelby got together with Wick Fowler and a few friends to devise a plan to sell hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Terlingua, Texas, which he had acquired and discovered he couldn’t easily sell. The discussion between friends flown in spawned the World Championship Chili Cook-Off and the International Chili Society.
The gatherings, which did indeed help sell the land, featured chili recipes of Fowler and Shelby. In fact, seven years after its inception, Shelby was granted a trademark for the “World Championship Chili Cook-Off.” When Shelby preferred the event be moved just outside of Los Angeles, in the Tropico Gold Mine, Fowler and others opted to continue holding their cook-off in Terlingua. Eventually, those gathering in Terlingua renamed their event “The Original Terlingua International Chili Cook-Off.” Fowler’s and Shelby’s chili mixes still engage in friendly competition. Incidentally, Shelby began marketing his famous chili mix in August 1969, complete with an emergency ration of Bromo Seltzer. His chili company, the Original Texas Chili Company, was sold to Kraft in July 1976.
For more information about the Shelby American Collection, visit [http://www.ShelbyAmericanCollection.org], or call 303-516-9565. For timelines, photographs and a complete biography on Carroll Shelby, visit [http://www.carrollshelby.com].