Carroll Shelby was a chicken farmer from Texas. But he wasn’t satisfied with just being a farmer. His fondness for high-performance motorsports eventually leads him to a career in motorsports. He entered the vehicle dealership market after he climbed to the top of sports car racing.
In 1952, he won the first major two racing events on American soil that he competed in. Soon, his skills as a race car driver came to light with the amount of success, he had in motorsport events. In 1959, he and his co-driver Roy Salvadori won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
Unknown to people around him, Shelby was suffering from a heart condition, angina pectoris. To keep his pain in check, he had to rely on nitroglycerin tablets under his tongue. He was using the medication while driving at the Le Mans. He refused to tell anyone for the fear he would be removed from the team.
In 1960, the doctors told him that he must give up his driving career as his condition was getting worse. Instead of giving up his passion to build extreme machines and race them, he wanted to build his own car company.
Shelby AC Cobra
Shelby worked out an arrangement to bring the AC Ace glider cars to his workshop in Los Angeles, California. He was looking for a new lightweight V8 engine to install on an AC Ace, a small two-sear British Sports car that was originally powered by a Bristol 2 liter straight-six engine. Carroll Shelby approached Chevrolet as they were the only manufacturer who could supply such an engine. Chevrolet turned down his offer as they didn’t want a competitor for their Corvette. Eventually, Shelby got to know that Ford was developing a new lightweight 221 cubic-inch V8 engine. Through Don Frey, a higher-up at Ford, Carroll Shelby worked out an arrangement to get his hands on these shiny new engines.
At his workshop in Los Angeles, California, Carroll Shelby and his team worked on installing the Ford V8 engines in an AC Ace car, eventually christened it as the Cobra. Within a short time, Shelby Cobra cars were kicking all the competition at racetracks across the country.
In April 1964, Ford introduced the Mustang, a cute, inexpensive, compact, and not that fast. A new kind of breed, the original Pony car. A Pony car is a muscle car that is designed to offer comfort and daily livability with a decent level of performance. Mustang was fast and powerful, but not powerful enough to give its competitors a fair fight.
The Mustang sold really well. So, Ford released some limited-edition special variants of the Mustang like the California Special, and High-Country Special, etc.
Eventually, Ford management was interested in creating a serious performance image for the Ford Mustang to attract a wider audience. Don Frey, due to his experience in his dealings with Carroll Shelby including the Shelby Cobra and Ford GT40, invited him to do some performance tuning to the Mustang to make it a decent and capable no-compromise sports car that could beat the top dogs in the SCCA racing events.
For the Mustang, Carroll Shelby learned from the SCCA president, John Bishop, that the Ford Mustang racer had to be a two-seater with either a modified suspension or a modified engine. So, Shelby removed the back seats, installed a roll bar to improve body roll, a modified heavy-duty suspension system instead of a modified engine as the current V8 engine is powerful enough to get the job done. While creating the first Shelby Mustang, Shelby and his team were joking about what kind of name is suitable for a car like that. Eventually, they settled on 350GT, a reference to the on-foot distance in between two of their buildings.
The 1965 Ford Shelby GT350 was a serious track machine. And like the Cobra, it was a dominant force on the track. Eventually, due to the demand from across the country, Carroll had to move from his workshop into two hangers-on Imperial highway at Los Angeles International Airport, leased from the North American Aviation. These facilities would serve Shelby until Ford Motor Company decided to take control over the manufacturing process of the GT 350 and the yet-to-be-released GT500.
Carroll Shelby himself was heavily involved in running the Ford racing team on the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a team of GT 40s. Due to this, there were so many quality controls and build quality issues that were voiced by the customers. To address these issues and other customer demands, Ford took control over the manufacturing process of Shelby cars. Production was moved to Ionia, Michigan factory where the cars would be built until production ceased in 1970.
In February 1968, Semon E “Bunkie” Knudsen arrived in Dearborn to take control of Ford. Knudsen wasn’t much interested in what Shelby had to say due to some past events. After all, it was Knudsen who was running Chevrolet high-performance car development projects, and these cars that he watched getting created got beaten up by the Shelby Cobras in every racing event possible. Knudsen initiated the Boss program at Ford, effectively terminating the Shelby program.
After Ford didn’t renew the contract with Shelby Performance, Carroll Shelby moved to Chrysler and developed and market an entire line of front-drive small cars such as the Dodge Omni GLH.
The Omni GLH began humbly with a 2.2 Liter engine and packed 100 horsepower. 100 horsepower was enough to propel the Omni GLH to justify its ominous name. A year later in 1985, the Omni GLH received a garret T03 turbocharged engine upgrade, delivering 140 horsepower. The Dodge Omni GLH (Goes Like Hell) set a 0-60 mph time of 6.7 seconds back in the 1986 Road and Track magazines review. Just 500 were made.
These cars were not that commercially successful to make a considerable profit for the corporations, but when Robert Lutz took the charge of Chrysler, he himself personally approached Carroll Shelby about a new two-seat sports car. The result was the venomous Viper.
Carroll Shelby started his own company in Las Vegas, Nevada, and initiated his projects by building a two-seater Oldsmobile powered series 1.
By 2002, Ford Motor Company and Shelby mended the long-lost personal friendship and had a hand in the development of the Ford GT. With the introduction of the new Mustang in 2005, Carroll Shelby and Mustang made history by building Shelby Mustangs, a partnership that lasted to this date, even after the death of Carroll Shelby in 2012.