Carroll Shelby Time Line (from carrollshelby.com)
In a town of 200 people called Leesburg, Texas, Carroll Shelby was born on January 11, 1923.
The First World War had been over a few years in Europe. The American
economy was recovering from the war. The emerging auto industry hit an all time high for
production at 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.
Not all cars were the plain jane Model T's though. Some people were building
sportier cars like Duesenberg and Stutz. But these were very limited production cars, hand crafted and very
expensive, way too costly for the average man.
Carroll graduated from a high school in Dallas, Texas, where the family had moved. World War II was going on so he joined the Army Air Corp. In the Corp he served as a flight instructor. He left the service as a Second Lieutenant. After the war, he ran a small fleet of dump trucks in Texas, then went into the oil business. After a couple of years working oil rigs, he decided to start a chicken ranch. When his second batch of chickens caught a virus and died, his animal career ended in bankruptcy.
Carroll Shelby started racing in 1952 driving an MG TC. He advanced quickly to Allards powered by a huge Cadillac engine. Neither car belonged to him, he was just the driver. During 1953 season Shelby drove the Allard, one tough handling, fast car. He ended the season in Buenos Aires at a 1,000 kilometer race in January 1954 in tenth place. Tenth wasn't as bad as it sounds considering he was competing against Porsches, Ferraris, Aston Martins and Jaguars in a car that didn't have near the handling those cars did. And that finish came at the end of a year of 100% victories in the Cadillac/Allard.
The Aston Martin team captain, John Wyer, had been watching the way Shelby drove the Allard. He asked him to drive one of his Aston Martins at Sebring. Shelby was broke at the time and didn't have a car to drive so he accepted. Wyer wanted him to come to Europe, but he didn't go. The DB3 Aston he drove at Sebring ended up not finishing the race. Later that year, Shelby wound up in England to buy an Aston for a Texas millionaire. Wyer immediately asked him to stay in Europe and drive an Aston on the Aintree course. He finished second to a "C" type Jaguar and that earned him a place on the LeMans team later that year in June.
In 1956 Carroll Shelby Sports Cars opened in Dallas, Texas. The dealership handled different kinds of sports cars and did pretty well. Shelby was Sports Illustrated's Driver of the Year that year. He continued to have a dream of offering an American version of European sports cars he had seen and driven. A car that handled well, like the Aston Martins with a Corvette engine.
Shelby continued to drive for Aston Martin until 1960.
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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, the car get away from him on turn 6, and ran straight into an earthen bank, demolishing the front end. It took 72 stitches and plastic surgery to sew Shelby 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 and driven some of the best
cars Europe had to offer. Carroll was one of the world's first professional drivers. Carroll also saw how the European limited production
factories built cars. He moved to southern California, the cradle
of American sports car. He lost money trying to raise chickens in eastern
Texas, besides cars 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
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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 had purchased 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 connoisseur 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
people ordered 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.
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. The Chevy Corvette proved that. 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.