With the recent news of Carroll Shelby’s passing, many automotive media outlets are praising his life as one of the most important automotive innovators to have ever lived. But, I have to say that I have never been impressed by Carroll Shelby and I really don’t know what to think of him. I think that maybe, he was more of a businessman than anything else.
We all know how famous Carroll Shelby is and the empire he created. He and his company have been involved with many different projects with many different brands over the years. Most people think of him as a Ford guy, probably because he worked out a deal to get Ford engines to power the AC Ace which became the Cobra; and also the line of Shelby tuned Mustangs that are being sold through Ford. What many people don’t know is that he worked with Dodge, and has used Chevrolet power just as well.
The following is a semi-timeline of events I find interesting in Shelby’s life with my analysis added. I am pulling a lot of this information from a Motor Trend article that I suggest you read if you would like to learn more about his accomplishments.
Carroll Shelby is probably best known for his Cobra, but really, he got his start as a driving talent. He started his driving career in the early 50’s and was met with quite a bit of success. His talent did not go unnoticed and he was even picked up by legendary team manager John Wyer and drove for him at Sebring. He was named Sports Car driver of the year by Sports Illustrated in 1956 and ended his career, a very good one, in 1960 due to health concerns.
By this time, Shelby had a very good reputation and went on to get involved with the managerial and business aspects of racing and race cars. He started the company Shelby American and soon after, worked out a deal with AC Cars to put Ford V8 engines in their Ace; since the AC company lost their engine supplier.
Now, the legend around Shelby makes it seem like he was the first to transplant a large engine into a small roadster. But, you have to remember we are talking about the Golden Age of racing. Swaps of this nature were the order-of-the-day and were commonly done with Chevy engines. I’m sure you have already heard stories about people taking a corvette engine and swapping it into a smaller chassis from this era. The difference between Shelby and the average Joe doing this in his garage was that Shelby sold a completed car.
The early Cobra’s were, by Shelby’s own admittance, crap. But through trial and error, breaking parts one after another, they finally made it strong enough to finish a race. And thus, the legendary Cobra was born. Was it really that great of a feat of innovation, engineering and design?
There was also the Daytona Cobra, a car designed by Peter Brock. I’ll get back to this one…
Shelby was also involved with the GT40 project. I’m not totally clear on all his contributions to the project; but from what I have read, he seems to have been involved with putting a big block into the Ford GT and reworking the ZF transaxle. I also assume that he provided a more managerial role because of his race experience and due to the GT40 project being so large and containing so many important and big names.
Around this time, Shelby was producing ‘tuned’ versions of the Mustang like the GT350.
After Le Mans, Shelby, for the most part left racing. His company Shelby Automotive Racing Company closed shop and his contract with Ford ended in 1970.
In 1976 he sold Chili Powder.
I wasn’t until the 80‘s he got back into racing, and this time it was with Dodge. He returns to being an OEM tuner, much like what we have today with the current Shelby Mustangs. Remember those turbo Omni’s and Dodge Daytona’s? That was Shelby.
At this point, I feel there’s a change in the way Shelby does business and a series of seemingly endless lawsuits aimed at various car companies begins. I’m sure there might have been lawsuits before this time, but they really seem to start here. Because of the somewhat frivolous nature of these lawsuits and other things that Shelby does, I feel that he tarnishes his image and does an excellent job of assassinating his own character. This behavior really effected my opinion of him.
1988: Shelby sues Ford for the use of the GT350 name.
1989: Shelby magically finds leftover, unfinished chassis of his 60’s Cobra’s that he decides to complete and turn into “Continuation” cars. The authenticity of the parts the cars are made from is a topic of debate.
Later, it is found that the company Kirkham supplies the aluminum bodies of these “Continuation” cars made from “original” parts. Correction 3/10/21 – a man named Mike McCluskey made these bodies for Shelby.
1990: Shelby receives a heart transplant and soon after (1991) starts the Shelby Heart Fund. The Fund is supposed to help children in need of organ transplants. According to AutomotiveNews.com, the charity has granted an insignificant amount of money to its cause averaging only 8% of the organizations total expenditures form 2002-2005.
1992: Shelby helps unveil the Dodge Viper GTS concept and worked with Dodge as a “Performance Consultant” on the project. I don’t know what his contributions are, but those early Vipers are known to have ‘blow-your-head-off’ handling characteristics.
1993: Shelby demands that kit car manufacturers donate $1000 from each car sold to his charity.
1995: Shelby starts production of the CSX4000 427 S/C Cobras. $350,000 from each $500,000 car goes to his charity.
1997: Shelby creates the Series 1. This is the only original car to ever come from Shelby (Chassis was actually built/designed by Multimatic Inc. in Canada) and uses the GM Northstar engine for power. The car is plagued with development problems, goofy styling, a GM parts bin interior, low power and never met its target weight. The actual car’s curb weight varies greatly depending on the source: Motor Trend quotes Shelby saying that the car was designed to weigh 2,350lbs, while Car and Driver states that the actual weight is 3,350lbs. The car does feature a nifty pushrod suspension and impressive construction technologies; its too bad it wasn’t executed well and seems to be the exact opposite of his original Cobra – A small engine in a large car.
1997: Shelby Heart Fund becomes Shelby Children’s Foundation.
2000: Shelby sues Factory Five Racing. The original suit is over unauthorized use of the Cobra shape, which is a very difficult suit to win. Later, the suit changes to unauthorized use of his trademarked names. The end result is that Factory Five continues to make replicas – but they are not called Cobra’s.
Early 2000’s: Shelby becomes a spokes person for zMAX snake oil.
2002: Shelby is brought in on the new Ford GT project. His contributions are unclear.
2008: Shelby is sued by customers of Unique Performance after Unique fails to deliver customer cars. The real story is hard to decipher but it sounds like Unique Performance was a shady company and ended up getting raided by the police; why Shelby would do business with them is beyond me. Unique Performance took in a lot of customer money which Shelby claimed he never got. I think you should read between the lines on this…
2008: Shelby sues Factory Five Racing again due to FFR’s new Type 65 Coupe. The court ruled in favor of FFR saying that Shelby couldn’t sue for things he already agreed to in his previous suit. David Smith, Factory Five’s president went on to say that Shelby never had exclusive ownership to the Dayton Coupe shape anyway since it was a Peter Brock design. The car was never trademarked because only 6 original cars were produced and never intended for sale or production. Shelby seems to have known how weak his case was and did not appeal the decision.
2009: Shelby’s charity changes it name once again and is now known as the Carroll Shelby Foundation.
After this, Shelby continued his operations with Ford much like he did in the 60’s – being an OEM tuner and releasing cars like the GT500 until his death. Even with this, the level of his (or his companies) involvement is debated with some people saying its was actually SVT doing the work in house.
Shelby was a great racer who leveraged his driving fame into amazing business deals. I don’t see him as the fantastic innovator he’s made out to be; and you have to admit that he pales in comparison to unsung hero’s like Jim Hall and his company Chaparral which developed the modern understanding of downforce and forever changed racing. Shelby never created anything original in his career with the exception of the flawed Series 1. Peter Brock once worked for Shelby and was one of the true sources of Shelby’s “genius”. Brock had this to say about Shelby: “Carroll was a good driver, but he didn’t know much about cars, so he surrounded himself with guys who did. He was selective about what he tried, so he came off as a guy who knew what he was doing…” I think these statements truly highlight who the real Carroll Shelby was.
I feel that Shelby’s reputation is completely undeserved. His litigious transformation late in his career, his abuse of his charity as a tax haven/personal slush fund, and also his questionable dealings with unscrupulous companies speak to his true nature. It seems shameful that Carroll Shelby, a man who stuffed a large engine (which was not his own) into a small roadster (also not his own) would have such a vendetta against small time kit car builders doing the same thing he did 50 years ago. From a legal perspective, it must have been hard for Shelby’s lawyers to calculate the damages, if any, to his company from the alleged transgressions these kit car manufactures supposedly made against him.
If you think Shelby was everything he was made out to be, I would like to know why.
Another post on Shelby that may be of interest: https://www.caranddriver.com/news/a15150423/snake-oil-never-sleeps-car-news/