In a town of 200 people called Leesburg, Texas, Carroll Shelby was born on January
11, 1923. War was being fought in Europe. Germany was getting
the worse end of it by this time. The emerging auto industry hit an all time high for
production of 3,800,000 cars. Ford sold its 4 millionth car this year.
Dodge introduced an all steel bodied car. For the first time, you could buy a Ford
Model T, black only, on a weekly installment plan. Some people were building sports cars
like Dusenberg and Stutz. But they were very limited production cars, hand crafted and
expensive, too much for the average man.
Carroll graduated from a high school in Dallas, Texas, where they had moved. World War II was going on so he joined the Army Air Corp. In the Corp he eventually served as a flight instructor. He married Jeanne in December, 1943. He left the service as a Second Lieutenant in 1945 after VJ Day. He had decided that flying was not in his future so Carroll was looking for a way to earn a living for his family. A long time buddy, Bailey Gordan, convinced him they could make money running a dump trucks in Texas. Gordan's father had a trucking business and was doing well at it. The post war building boom provided plenty of opportunity to haul cement and lumber. After a couple of driving truck, Carroll's father-in-law convinced him to sell the trucks and go into the oil business. And the best place to learn that business was at the bottom, as a rough neck. It was a tough job demanding a lot and giving little in return. He worked the oil fields in 1948-49. When his father died, Carroll realized with his mother's ailing health and his growing family, he needed to make more money then he was in oil business. He gave up on his idea of working his way to being an oil tycoon and quit. He decided to take an appitude test to see what he was best suited for and it turned out to be raising animals. The Government had a program for veterans to help them start their own businesses. Raising chickens was an approved choice. They will willing to provide full financing for getting into the business. The feed companies would carry the cost of feed. So Carroll got into raising chickens. His first chicken herd was 20,000. He made almost $5,000 selling his first batch. Great money in 1949. However the second batch caught a virus and all died, his animal career ended in bankruptcy.
While looking for a new opportunity following the chicken disaster, Carroll ran across an old friend, Ed Wilkins. Ed and he use to go to dirt track car races in much earlier times. Ed had taken an MG-TC, added a Ford V-8 suspension with a solid front end, a ladder type frame, and a Ford flathead motor. Ed asked Carroll he if would like to race it at a drag strip. The racing fever renewed. This was 1952. Carroll easily beat the drag strip competition since most were stock MG's. Next Ed asked him if he'd like to try driving it at a road course in Norman, Oklahoma. The competition was mostly other MG's , just under 20 cars. Shelby started in the middle of the pack. He worked his way into first place and won his first road race. The track officials invited them to compete in the next race, a higher classification against Jaguers XK120's. Shelby knew this was going to be a different race. The Jags had a lot more horsepower but wouldn't handle as well in the corners. He watched, learned and came in first. Later that year, he was invited to drive a Jag XK 120 in Okmulgee, OK. Just before that race, he was invited to drive a Car-Allard by he owner, Charles Brown. Pretty much at the top of race cars then was an Allard sporting a Cadillac motor. That race was one of the SCCA's first races. Carroll won that race as well. In his book he said learning to drive the Allard with its squirrelly front end was like "walking across a floor strewn with marbles." He drove Allards all through 1953. At that time, driving race cars was a gentleman's sport meaning no one got paid. Carroll survived on income from his prior pursuits and raising pheasants and Irish Setters. Then Roy Cherryhomes called him to see if he wanted to replace his regular driver, Roy Scott. Carroll quickly agreed particularly when Cherryhomes said he would pay expenses. It was during this time that he earned the "trademark" of wearing striped farm coveralls. One hot August day in 1953, Carroll had been working on what was left of his farm. That Saturday morning he showed up at the track wearing his coveralls. He realized the overalls were a lot cooler than the driving suit, so he didn't change. Everyone thought it was funny. So funny it made the local news. Shelby got more attention wearing those white striped coveralls than he did winning races. So he kept the attire. He said he "did look a little silly showing up at those sports car races in what people use to call my farmer's overalls," when other drivers made a "great thing of color schemes and immaculately tailored driving suits" but the coveralls stuck and "no one would have recognized me if I'd shown up dressed any other way for racing."
The turning point in Carroll's racing career came at a race in Argentina in 1954. A challenge race between four US teams and four Argentina teams was sponsored. The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) picked Carroll and seven other American drivers to represent the US. The Automobile Club of Argentina paid to ship four US cars to Argentina. The three other US cars went out with engine and transmission trouble leaving Shelby and Dale Duncan driving a Car-Allard owned by Cherryhomes. During the race the fenders came off and numerous flat tires left the team with no spare. The engine caught fire while Duncan was driving. He stopped the car, jumped out, popped the hood up and relieved himself until the fire went out. This not only put the fire out, solved an issue Duncan was having, it also got a lot of attention when the pictures were published. The Cad-Allard was running better and the Shelby-Duncan team came in 10th over all. The Americans won the Kimberly Cup race against Argentina's teams. That was the last race Shelby drove for Cherryhomes. It was this win that got John Wyer's, the manager the Aston Martin's team, attentions.
Aston Martin wanted to introduce their cars to America. The best way to do that they felt was with an American team. Wyer was taking a team to Sebring and asked Shelby to co-drive one of the DBR3's. Charlie Wallace was chosen as the other co-driver. Shelby's car was in the top 6 when the rear axle broke taking the car out of the race. After Sebring, Shelby got an offer to drive for a Texan, Guy Mabee, a oil millionaire, and he was offered a wage to do so. He and his wife decided Shelby should go to Europe to drive instead of staying in Texas. He did drive for Mabee, but in April 1954 he took off for England. Mabee agreed to buy an Aston Martin for Shelby to drive when he wasn't driving for a factory team. When he got to England, he met with Wyer he offered him a ride in a factory race car at Aintree. He finished second to a C-type Jaguer. That finish got him a chance to drive for Wyer at LeMans. Mabee came to the race as well.
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Shelby's worse wreck in his eight years of racing was at the second race held at the new Riverside International Raceway. John Edgar was sponsoring him in a brand new $20,000 Maserati. One the first practice lap, Shelby let the car get away from him on turn 6, straight into an earthen bank, demolishing the front end of the car. It took 72 stitches and plastic surgery to sew him up.
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After retiring from racing at the age of 37, Carroll Shelby was trying to follow his
doctor's orders. A bad heart ended a racing
career that culminated with a win at LeMans in 1959. He had raced against the top
drivers of the world. Driven some of the best
cars Europe had to offer. He was one of the world's first professional drivers. Carroll
also saw how the European limited production
factories built cars. And he lost money trying to raise chickens in eastern Texas.
Carroll moved to southern California, the cradle
of American sports car. Cars after all were his first love, not chickens. Maybe Shel
couldn't race cars but he could still be
around them. He managed to get a tire distributorship from Goodyear and set up
business in the back of Dean
Moon's Goodrich dealership in Santa Fe Springs. Moon was a long time friend.
didn't approve of the joint location and eventually convinced Shelby to move his
inventory. He set up in Garden Springs, a couple of
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"As soon as the engine was installed I really felt that, with some development we had a world champion."- Carroll Shelby from Carroll Shelby's The Cobra Story.
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During this time, Shelby bought some ads in a few magazines offering a performance
driving school. Send a dollar and you would receive information about the school in
return mail. Soon
dollars started to come in the mail. Lots of people were interested in a Carroll Shelby
performance driving school. Shelby, a true connoiseur of wine, women and song,
into local watering holes, pockets full of envelopes containing dollar bills and order a
drink. When the it was time
to pay he'd pull some envelopes from his pocket and tear them open. The money also
financed trips to Detroit.
He didn't know the Federal Trade Commission insisted the school information was
supposed to be printed
prior to advertising it
for sale. Deke Houlgate, a writer for a Los Angeles newspaper and a long
time friend, told Shelby it was time to get organized. (Houlgate
and Shelby first met at the brand new Riverside track. Carroll had driven in the first
there and Holgate was a reporter.) By this time Houlgate had
left the paper to set up his own business. Shel asked Deke if he would do public
relations work for his new
enterprise. Houlgate agreed to assist. Shelby American was born. The year was 1962.
The idea was to spread the Cobra name. Carol Conners, a very early Cobra buyer, wrote a song she called "Hey, Little Cobra" that was a hit on the top 40. Cobras would be seen in movies, on the TV, in the magazines, and immortalized on the radio. Cobra quickly became a household word. It was the right car for times.
Up until the early 60's a hot car to the American enthusiast
meant a big
engine in a big car. Fast meant how quick can you go in a straight line. American cars
weren't built to
handle well, they were highway
cruisers. The rest of the country looked to Southern California for ideas. During the
late 50's the kids were seeing how fast you could go
at El Mirage, a dry lake bed near Santa Monica, CA. Enthusiasts like Phil Remington
were putting bigger engines in the cars to get
more speed. Remington, a future member of the Shelby team, put a flat head Ford V8
into a modified Model A and set a
class record of 136 MPH on the lake bed. But enthusiasm was building for
cars that handled as well as they went. By the early 60's the Beach Boys were
telling the rest of the US about surfing, fast cars and California
girls. GM was planning to introduce the Stingray Corvette in 1963. A new
spreading across the USA.