The Early Years of Carroll Shelby


Carroll Shelby
the Early Years

In a town of 200 people called Leesburg, Texas, Carroll Shelby was bornon 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 alltime 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 couldbuy a Ford Model T, black only, on a weekly installment plan. Some peoplewere building sports cars like Dusenberg and Stutz. But they werevery limited production cars, hand crafted and very expensive, too muchfor the average man.

About 120 miles from Dallas, Warren and Eloise Shelby brought Carrollinto the world. Three years later his sister, Anne, was born. Warren was amail carrier born and raised in the area. He drove a horse and buggy to deliver mail at first, later he got a car. His first automobile, purchased in 1927, was a two year old Overland touring car.

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 raceheld 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. Goodyear, however, didn't approve of the joint location and eventually convinced Shelby to move his inventory. He set up in Garden Springs, a couple of miles away.

Shelby had long dreamed about building an American sports car. A car that would rival the limited production cars from Europe. Maybe even one that could beat Ferrari's best. It had only been a short time before that Shelby had told Enzo Ferrari that one day he'd be back to "whip his ass" with an American car powered by a mass production engine. One night he woke in the middle of a dream and wrote down a word. The next morning he saw "Cobra" scribbled on a piece of paper near the bed.

Carroll had long thought about stuffing a small, American V-8 into an European sports car body. It wasn't an original idea, though. Others had done similar things. He'd even talked to GM about using their small block. But GM's attention was on the Vette. There was no interest in a limited production sports car. Ford on the other hand was very interested. The Corvette gave GM a performance image and that sold cars. Shelby had gotten word that AC Ltd in England no longer could obtain motors for their cars from Bristol Aeroplane Company. He contacted AC in England and told them Ford would supply motors for the car, if they'd only ship him one body to assemble the first Cobra. At the same time, he was telling Ford he had a supply of bodies if they would only ship an engine to test in one. Things started to come together. A body arrived at Moon's shop followed by a new Ford 221 cid, V-8. Moon and Shelby worked late in the night installing the engine in the AC body. They spent the early hours that morning driving the first Cobra across the oil fields of Santa Fe Springs, celebrating with lots of liquor. Somehow the car and its drivers survived the night and the Shelby AC Cobra was born.

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"As soon as the engine was installed I really felt that, with somedevelopment we had a world champion."- Carroll Shelby from CarrollShelby'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, would walk 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 two races 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.

New space was needed with enough room build cars. Lance Reventlow was closing down his Scarab sports car production after three years. Shelby rented his Venice, CA, facilities. It was here that Shelby found Phil Remington. Phil designed the last Scarab, a rear engine sports car powered originally by an Olds V8, later by a small block Chevy engine.

Carroll Shelby was one of THE great promoters. With Deke Houlgate's help, Shelby started promoting the Cobra. Almost before the first Cobra was completed, Shelby had road tests set up with different magazines, including a new one called Sports Car Graphic. The schedule didn't allow enough time to paint the first Cobra so Moon and some friends scoured the all aluminum body with twenty boxes of SOS pads until it had a brilliant shine. The very first pictures were of a silver Cobra. That same car was painted yellow and pictured on the cover of Road and Track. It was repainted a different color for each magazine to give the impression Shelby American was turning out a lot of Cobras.

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 fever was spreading across the USA.