The 2019 movie Ford vs. Ferrari has re-ignited interest in the story of Carroll Shelby, the driver, designer and builder of American–made sports cars that put the Ford Motor Company on the racing map. The movie story of daring men, enduring friendship and corporate arrogance is well told, but Shelby’s life is worth its own script.
Born in Leesburg, Texas, Shelby was obsessed with speed from a young age. He was racing cars before his 18thbirthday, became a test pilot when World War II broke out, set land speed records at the Bonneville Flats in the year’s after, and was named Sports Illustrated’s Sports Car Driver of the Year. Twice.
In his own words, “It's a lucky man who knows what he wants to do in this world, because that man will never work a day in his life. “ Yet, the fast cars, magazine covers and model wives belie a deeper story, one of a hard-scrabble man hell-bent on becoming an American maverick.
Missing from the movie are the years of toil where Shelby struggled as a dump truck owner, a roughneck oil worker, and poultry farmer, before going bankrupt in the early 1950’s. Throughout, Shelby found ways to finance his dream, proving talented enough as a driver to catch the eye of the Aston Martin race team in Europe.
As a driver, his crowning achievement came in 1959 when he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a feat that is both taxing on car and man. Months later, a life-long heart problem forced him from racing, but not from getting behind the wheel. From his biography, The Carroll Shelby Story, “The more time I spent around the limited-production factories of Europe, the more I realized that America was missing a big bet, a winning bet...that winning bet I'm talking about was the design and production of an all-purpose, all-American sports or grand touring car that you could drive to market and also race during the weekend..."
And that he did. In 1962, he founded Shelby American, an independent sports car company, built on English AC coupe frames and retrofitted Ford engines. This was at a time when the American auto industry was at its zenith, employing tens of thousands of workers and using its millions to buyout, or snuff out, the competition. His first creation, the Shelby Cobra, was literally based on a vision, one that featured a cobra. Like many iconoclasts, Shelby was known for going with his gut.
For all the movie’s demagoging over corporate arrogance, Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca knew they needed to shake things up if they were to beat Ferrari at their own game. The Italians had Enzo. The Americans needed their own maverick. Enter Carroll Shelby.
As Shelby famously states, “You can’t win the race with a committee,” and he quickly put Ford on notice that, this time, things would be different. The Ford Mustang was not new, but converting it into a race car was a task Shelby described as “making a racehorse out of a mule.” That mule-turned-racehorse was the very first Shelby Mustang: The 1965 Shelby GT350. It wasn’t until 1966, after changes were made to the suspension and transmission, that the high-flying Shelby Mustang really soared, tanking the World Sportscar Championship after clinching first, second and third place at Le Mans.
Throughout his life, Carroll Shelby had an uncompromising belief in the power of a dream and the perseverance to see it through. He took a darkhorse idea – Americans need for speed – and turned it into the “muscle car” revolution.
Shelby and Mustang: Two American Mavericks.