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Carroll Shelby, the Early Years

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.

About 120 miles from Dallas, Warren and Eloise Shelby brought Carroll into the world. Three years later his sister, Anne, was born. Warren was a mail carrier born and had been raised in the area. He drove a horse and buggy to deliver mail at first, then later 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 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 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 Europe 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. And GM had 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 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.

New space was needed with enough room build cars. Lance Reventlow was closing down his Scarab sports car production after three years. Shelby rented the Venice, California, facilities. It was here that Shelby found Phil Remington. Phil had 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 magazine 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. 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.