Carroll Shelby - The Godfather of the GT40

by Wallace A. Wyss

One of the most important figures in the evolution of the original GT40 is Carroll Shelby.

Shelby had been born before WWII, the son of a rural postman outside Dallas, Texas. His first love was flying and, after hanging around airports cadging rides in airplanes, when WWII came along, Shelby enlisted at the age of 19. Although he didn’t go to college he was commissioned as an officer and served out the war teaching bomber pilots to fly.

Following the war he had a variety of careers, including oil field roustabout, cement contractor, and chicken farmer.

He was making it as a chicken farmer until one fateful day when 40,000 of his chickens up and died. Shelby hung it up. Fortunately he had a new interest. A friend had invited him to a sports car race. Shelby had been hot rodding before that and sports cars were something new. He took the wheel of the spindley wheeled MG-TC and won the race. Later on he was loaned a faster Jaguar XK-120. He won that race too. Soon wealthy car owners were sponsoring him in cars like an Allard powered by a Cadillac engine. He even went to Argentina to race, and it was there he met John Wyer of Aston Martin who later on hired him for the Aston team.

Shelby was so poor when he first began race driving that he wore his chicken-pluckin’ overalls and was made fun of as a hayseed from the sticks. 

He even went to Europe with other American "free booters" like Masten Gregory , Phil Hill  and Ritchie Ginther, all hoping to find that 'factory ride."

He fought his way up the sports car ladder, finally getting a monied sponsor , home building contractor Tony Parravano who seemed to have the power to go to the Ferrari plant and have cars built that weren’t on the automaker’s catalogs. Shelby also made a name for himself in Maseratis.

If he was anything, he was determined. One time he crashed a Healey in the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico and, while his arm was still in a cast, snuck out of the hospital and was racing again, his hand taped to the steering wheel.

He was named "Sports Car Driver of the Year" by Sports Illustrated magazine in both 1956 and 1957 and featured on the cover.

His high point as a sports car driver was being on the Aston Martin Team for whom he and Roy Salvadori won the 24-hours of Le Mans race in 1959.

All the time Shelby was racing he was nursing a secret—he had a bum ticker. He returned to the U.S. in 1960 and was still racing with nitroglycerine pills under his tongue. But finally his doctor told him he had to retire. His last efforts resulted in him winning the USAC championship and driving in F1, in an obsolete Maserati 250F.  But when he retired, there was no retirement income. He found himself 37 years old and broke.

But Shelby was an entrapreneur. He started a race driving school at Riverside raceway, hiring a young

man named Pete Brock as his driving instructor. Then, in 1961, while visiting Sports Car Graphic, for whom he wrote articles, he heard that A.C. Cars Ltd. in England was discontinuing the A.C. Ace Bristol because Bristol was discontinuing the engine. He then called Ford and said he wanted to borrow a couple of their new thinwall cast iron V8 engines and when they agreed, he called A.C. and said Ford was helping him on engines, could they provide a car? So A.C. sent him an A.C. Ace. He installed the Ford engine, by then up to 260 cubic inches, and the first Cobra was born.

Ford gave him help in getting the Cobras in the showrooms of Ford dealers and by 1962, Cobras were being produced.

Ford’s Lemans Plans.

Shelby was in the right place at the right time but, inexplicably when Ford decided to go into endurance racing in 1962, they didn’t ask Shelby to help them develop the Ford GT. Instead they tied in with Eric Broadley of Lola and created the endurance racing Ford GT in Dearborn and built them in England at FAV (Ford Advanced Vehicles). They ran with a unitized steel tub, independent rear suspension, an Italian gearbox and a Ford pushrod "Indy" engine, 255 cubic inches. The car was a flop its first year despite the driving talents of two of America’s greatest drivers, Phil Hill and Ritchie Ginther.

Shelby, perhaps to prove to Ford that he could handle a mid-engined car, sponsored his own mid-engined Cooper Monacos with Ford Cobra V8's in U.S. road racing.

During the winter of 1964, Ford belatedly recognized that maybe Shelby,a LeMans winner,could help them and quietly sent two of the three Ford GT’s to him with the plea to make them right. Shelby installed the 289 iron block engine, threw out the wire wheels, redesigned the nose, and made many changes in the gearbox.

In the first race of the 1965 season, Shelby proved he had made the Ford GT into a winner. He was put in charge of a racing team and went to Le Mans in 1965, bringing along some small block Mk.I Ford GT’s while Ford brought along two 427 big block GT’s, the cars that became the Mk.II.

Unfortunately, though the big block engine was strong, the big block GT’s did not do well at Le Mans in 1965.

Ford decided to continue onto the next year, and for 1966, augmented the Shelby team with two other teams, the Holman–Moody team from Charlotte, N.C., experts in the big block from their days of NASCAR race car building, and the Alan Mann Ltd. Team from England, who had impressed Ford years earlier with their preparation of Falcon sprint rally cars.

In 1966 the combined three teams did Ford well at Le Mans resulting in a 1-2-3 finish.

Ford also had Shelby sell a few of the Mk. I "Sports 50" road cars, part of a run of fifty identical cars made to qualify the Ford GT as a production sports car so it wouldn’t have to run in the prototype class.

Shelby was also involved in the race prepping and campaigning of the Ford GT Mk. IV, though the J-car, its predecessor, had been developed in Dearborn. Shelby’s chief test driver, Ken Miles, was killed in testing the J-car in August 1966 so the Shelby team paid a dear price in helping Ford launch the third and final phase of their Le Mans effort.

Shelby Mustangs.

During the entire time Shelby American was involved in the Ford GT program, Shelby was supervising the building and marketing of the Shelby Mustangs, which had started in 1965 with the Shelby GT-350. He also had a Ford performance parts program selling many of the bits that made the Shelby and Cobra go fast for sale at Ford dealers. Not to mention subsidiary businesses in owning car dealerships, motels and the like.

When Ford got out of endurance racing in 1967, Shelby went on to race Trans Am Mustangs for Ford, but the big budgets weren’t there and soon he found he was more comfortable as an independent. His Indy car program went nowhere and he went on to pursue other interests including big game hunting in Africa and raising appaloosa horses. A lark was developing a food product called Original Texas chilli!

His personal life has been less chronicled. He has been married no less than five times, his latest wife a British import, Clio. His children by his first marriage have been involved in his business throughout.

His heart problems returned and finally he received a heart transplant, this leading him to start a foundation to gather funds for children’s transplants.

He re-entered the car business when Lee Iacocca, his old supporter at Ford, moved to Chrysler, and called Shelby for help since Chrysler had effectively lost the youth market. Shelby put his name on some front drive little cars for Chrysler but the former Ford fans who liked Shelby didn’t warm up to the little pocket rockets. Bob Lutz was at Chrysler at the time, and it was he who suggested that a Cobra-like car might be more appropriate. That became the Viper and Shelby was on the advisory board that shaped that car.

Eventually Iacocca retired and Shelby severed his relationship with Chrysler.

Meanwhile the festering sore of other people making Cobra replicas bothered Shelby so much that he began making his own replicas. He set up a business in Las Vegas making copies of his 427 Cobra and eventually his 289.  He also had a new car designed-- the Series I--with an Oldsmobile engine. That car was not well received by the fans who liked his Ford cars and has been discontinued.

Now, at 82 years old, Shelby continues on, nonplussed by the failure of the Series I. In November, 2002 he signed on with Ford again as an advisor on the new Ford GT.  In 2003 he signed a deal with AC Cars Ltd. to once again import A.C. Cobras this time from a new plant in Malta. He is talking to Hollywood producers about making a movie of his life.  Shelby remains once of the most interesting drivers of Sixties racing  because he has kept the hammer down non-stop through life while those of his contemporaries who survived are for the most part on sitting on their front porches reminiscing…..

Wallace A. Wyss, author of the best selling "Shelby's Wildlife: the Cobras and the Mustangs", is co-authoring a new book on the Ford GT40’s of old and the new Ford GT with Brian Winer. Together they previously published "GT40 Photo Album" (Iconografix).