Carroll Shelby Dies at 89

His friends called him Ol' Shel', and I was lucky enough to be a bit more than an acquaintance.

Carroll Shelby, who directed the effort in which Ford beat Ferrari at LeMans in 1965 and shocked the automotive world has died at 89. Shelby was one of the world's longest-living heart transplant patients and there's a transplant foundation for kids in hs name.

Shelby was a national champion sports car driver in the early '60s (as Paul Newman would be decades later) and was even on the cover of Sports Illustrated for his racing exploits. But when race stewards found out he was popping nitroglycerin tablets during races for his congenitally bad heart, they strongly suggested he stop.

Thus Carroll Shelby, visionary and marketer, was born.

His first big gig was directing the effort for Henry Ford II (Henry the Deuce) at LeMans in 1965. Henry and Enzo Ferrari hated each other and Ford spent a reported $40 million for Shelby the develop the race team which included drivers AJ Foyt, Ken Miles and Dan Gurney to crush perennial winner Ferrari.

Why the animostiy between the two moguls? Ford was negotiating to buy Ferrari but Ferrari would only sell if he could continue to run his race team. Henry said "No," and reportedly Enzo said, "Fuck you" to Ford's face in the Italian's office.

Shelby and Ford developed the GT40 (not the newer one, but the original) and that either stood for its 40mm roof height or the $40 million spent. No one is quite sure which. In any event, Ford beat Ferrari.

Shelby was on his way.

His friendship with Lee Iacocca at Ford and Chrysler resulted in the still-produced Shelby Mustangs and cars including the Dodge Omni GLH and GLHS, ferociously fast economy cars will little to no handling or braking. But they all sold, and sold well. The Shelby name was magic.

The Shelby Mustang H model was actually rented to the public by Hertz. Racers would come into a town for a weekend, rent an H, pull out the engine and put it in their race car, returning the car to Hertz with only a few miles on it., Those were the days!

Shelby was more a markleter than anything else. Yes, he envisioned the cars but he hired the best people to develop them, leaving the details to engineering types. His first Cobras, a two-seat British sports car which he outfitted with either 289 or 426 cubic inches Ford V8 engines, were built near Los Angeles Airport. Shelby would test drive them on airport runways.

Shelby's headquarters are now located in Las Vegas.

A few years ago, Sherlby claimed he had "found" the original paperwork for a series of Cobras built in the 1960's which had been destroyed in a fire. The State of California bought his story (after all, this was Carroll Shelby), and a new run of more modern, safer Cobras hit the streets.

He was involved in numerous lawsuits against kit car manufacturers who were copying the Cobra, and he usually won.

I called Shelby the "BIlly Sol Estes of the car world"; those of you who remember the Lyndon Johnson administration will know that name.

One night at the Bel Air Hotel in Los Angeles, Shelby told me: " Steve, the most valuable thing on my cars is my autograph on the glove box door."

There are a million Shelby stories (his transplanted heart supposedly came from a 32-year old Las Vegas gambler who dropped dead on a craps table) and most of them are true. Shelby leaves us without writing a book of memoirs, much like Bob Petersen of Hot Rod and Motor Trend magazines, Wally Parks of the National Hot Rod Association and of course the murdered Mickey Thompson. I wrote Jim Wangers' autobiography; he helped create the original Pontiac GTO. My finding is most of these guys don't want to slow down enough to do a book!

Carroll Shelby is gone and we can only wish to see the likes of him again. What a life well-lived.