Carroll Shelby: Ford vs Ferrari's American Renaissance Man

Who was Carroll Shelby

Image Credit: OnInnovation


Carroll Shelby was an American racer, automotive designer, and entrepreneur. His legacy lives on through his innovative and high-quality racing cars, including the Ford GT40 that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This historic event was retold in the 2019 film“Ford vs. Ferrari” starring Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as Ken Miles, Shelby’s close associate and test driver who helped land the Le Mans victory.  Shelby’s long and successful involvement within motorsports and the car industry make him an iconic figure within the automobile world. 


The Early Years 

Carroll Shelby was born in Leesburg, Texas on January 11, 1923. He developed a love for automobiles at an early age, often accompanying his father, a mail carrier, along with him. Aside from his early interest in cars, he also developed an interest in racing early on.  In Shelby’s autobiography, written by Rinsey Mills, he recalled that as soon as he got his license at age 14, he got busted for driving 80mph to work the next day. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1942 after he graduated high school. Soon after, he trained other navigators and pilots to battle in the war. Ironically, he never went into combat. 

After World War II ended, Shelby moved to Dallas with his family and worked at various, odd jobs. At some point, he even became a chicken farmer, profiting a lucrative business from his first patch of chickens. However, he had to close his business due to a virus that killed off his entire livestock. 


Earning His Racing Stripes

Carroll Shelby Aston Martin

Image Credit: Wikipedia User C5813


In 1952, Shelby entered the racing world by competing in SCCA road racing competitions.  Months after, he won his first race driving an MG-TC. Eventually, he started winning more races with more high-performance sports cars that included Ferrari and Maserati. In two years, he won twelve races that ultimately caught the attention of John Myer, Aston Martin’s team manager. Myer offered Shelby to co-drive an Aston Martin DB3 at Sebring and eventually Le Mans. His winging streaks and racing skills got Sports Illustrated to name him “sports car driver of the year” in 1956 and 1957. In 1959, in an Aston DBR1/300, he won Le Mans with Ray Salvadori as his co-driver. Unfortunately, he had to end his racing career in 1960 due to a heart condition. 

That didn’t stop Shelby from involving himself in the automobile world. He launched a driving school called the Shelby School of High-Performance Driving and Shelby American, but soon produced the Cobra Roadster with England-based AC Cars. It won FIA Manufacturers Grand Touring World Championship in 1965. He would go on to create several iconic cars under Ford, including the 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350 race and streetcars, Shelby Cobra Daytona coupe, and the Ford GT-40 series cars. 


Carroll Shelby: Ford vs. Ferrari

The Ford GT-40 cars were built for the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. In 1963, Ford was about to buy Ferrari, but Enzo Ferrari pulled out the last second due to a disagreement with Ford’s demands. This started a bitter rivalry between Ford and Ferrari. To show that Ford had an exceptional racing department,  Henry Ford II wanted to build an engine that would not only rivals Ferrari, but also beat them at the Le Mans race. However, in Ford’s first year in Le Mans, Ferrari won first, second, and third. Soon, Shelby and his test driver and closest associate, Ken Miles, came into the picture. Miles started to test the Ford GT40s and began to address some of the issues. However, GT40 lost again in the second year. Eventually, Miles and another engineer by the name of Phil Remington tested the GT40s again and concluded that the cause of low horsepower was poor air ducting. With Shelby’s crew, they fixed the ducting, installed better brakes and lighter wheels. 

In 1966, Ferrari and Ford competed once again in the Le Mans race. Shelby ran three teams with Miles being a co-driver in one of them. Ultimately, the head competition came down between Miles and McLaren, another Ford driver. Ford, ecstatic that two of his cars are leading to the finish line, wanted to take a picture of both of them crossing at the same time. However, in order for him to do that, Miles had to slow down. He reluctantly agreed. Both McLaren and Miles crossed the finish line at the same time. In case of a tie, Le Man decided on the winner based on whichever car had traveled the more distance. In this case, it was McLaren who was declared the winner of the Le Man’s race. This was a hard blow for Miles, but vowed to do better next year. Unfortunately, Miles was killed in a single-vehicle accident while testing the Ford J-car. 

Thanks to Shelby and Miles, Ford won Le Mans from 1967-1969.  Unfortunately, in 1969, the Shelby Automotive Racing company closed down. The following year, the partnership between Ford and Shelby ended. In 1974, believing that government regulations would end racing competitions, Shelby moved to South Africa. For a while, he lived comfortably and even launched his own Texas-inspired chili mix powder called “Carroll Shelby’s Original Texas Brand Chili.

Lee Iaccoca, the CEO of Chrysler and Shelby’s former Ford colleague, persuaded Shelby to help him improve on car performance. In 1982, Shelby went back and began a contract with Chrysler while also trying to improve on Dodge’s image. He modified Dodge cars that included the Dodge Shelby Charger. He also largely contributed into creating the Dodge Viper. 


Riding into the Sunset and Legacy

In 1990, Shelby received heart surgery and in 1996 he also received a kidney transplant from his son, Michael. This experience led him to find the Carroll Shelby Foundation, an organization that funds kids to receive heart transplants. In 2003, he returned to Ford, and in 2005, the 2007 Shelby GT500 Mustang debuted in New York. He would continue to make appearances for Ford and for his charities over the next several years, obtaining the 2011 Keith Crain/Automotive News Lifetime Achievement Award and the  World Children's Transplant Fund for his donations to organ transplantation. Despite his poor health, he continued to be an active and significant figure in the automobile industry. He died on May 10, 2012 in Dallas, Texas at the age of 89. 

Shelby was a car man's car man: he was the embodiment of the American Muscle Car movement and in many ways represented the spirit of American culture at the time. He loved cars, was always looking for the next business opportunity, and was a family man. His legacy to push the limits of excellence continues with the Shelby line of Mustangs, and will be remembered for a very long time to come.

If you're interested in Classic Ford Mustang Parts or Late Model Ford Mustang Parts, please feel free to browse our inventory. We manufacture parts that we hope Carroll Shelby himself would be proud of!

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