Updated: May 17, 2021
From winning the 24 hours of Lemans to helping Chrysler develop a quick little hatchback, few people have left a mark on automotive culture quite like Carrol Shelby.
Carroll Hall Shelby was born in 1923 in Leesburg, Texas. As a teenager, Shelby's interest in automobiles started at a young age. He could not wait to own a car, and by age 15, he was driving and working on his Dad's two-door Ford sedan. After graduating from high school, Carroll enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942. He soon earned his wings and was appointed to a second lieutenant. During World War II, the Air Corps' practice was to keep the best pilots in the USA to train others. Although Shelby requested it, he never operated in combat. Instead, his preferred aircraft was the B-26 bomber because it was quicker in a straight line than any Japanese, German, or Italian fighter aircraft manufactured during the war.
When World War II ended, Carroll resigned from the Army Air Corps. Carroll started many businesses, but he had a passion for racing. Winning his first race in 1952 in an MG-TC put his road racing career on a fast track. Soon Shelby was driving Ferrari and Maserati sports racing cars. He won 12 races in two years. Impressed by his driving talents, Shelby was invited to join the Aston Martin factory team in 1954
The pinnacle of Shelby's driving career came in 1959 when he won the crown jewel of international sports cars racing, the 24 Hours of lemans.
During Shelby's European racing career, he drove the fastest and most expensive sports cars of the time. The Ferraris, Maserati's, Aston Martins, and Jaguars were very expensive and were outfitted with very complex engines. Carroll was impressed by the power these sports cars had to offer, but their complex, unreliable engines required constant maintenance and repair. With this idea in mind, Carrol questioned why no one in the United States built a sports car that offered European handling and balance with an American V-8 engine that could be easily repaired at any car dealership or automotive shop. Carroll started to think of building just such a sports car and selling it for half the European market price. While dreaming, Shelby came up with the name for his sports car, the Cobra. Shelby's vision became a reality when he discovered that AC Cars in Britain lost the engine supplier for their Bristol sports car. Shelby reached out to AC Cars and showed them his plan. They were thrilled; AC told Shelby to reach back out when he had an engine supplier lined up.
Shelby went to General motors asking for them to supply their Small Block V8. However, GM declined his proposal. after being rejected, Carroll went to GM's biggest competitor, The Ford Motor Company, who loved the idea of offering a sports car that would go head-to-head with the Chevrolet Corvette. Carroll, always the racer, explained his dream to race Cobras against Corvette in the USA and Ferrari in Europe. In addition, he wanted to win the World Manufacturer's GT Championship that had been solely claimed by Ferrari since its inception.
In 1962, Carrol started Shelby American in California. First equipped with the Ford 260ci but later adopting the 289ci engines, the Cobra proved to be a success for Ford dealers and racetracks worldwide.
The Cobras dominated Corvettes in North America, winning races coast to coast. On July 4, 1965, the Cobra won the World Manufacturers' GT Championship, as the team soundly defeated Ferrari and is the only American vehicle manufacturer ever to win the prestigious championship.