Journal: 19 Things You Didn't Know About Shelby

19 Things You Didn’t Know About Shelby

By Aaron Miller
November 23, 2015

Editor’s note: This article was originally written by our friends at Supercompressor, and it’s fantastic, so we thought you’d like to learn a bit more about Carroll Shelby and his incredible cars.

As a world-renowned race car driver and an even more legendary car builder, Carroll Shelby and Shelby American are absolute icons of the American automotive psyche, and this year a Cobra Daytona became the first car considered to be a piece of national heritage by the Library of Congress, so when Shelby American let us take a peek at over 60 years’ worth of Shelby history in their photo archive, we couldn’t resist. Here’s the best of what we found:

1. Carroll Shelby, one of the manliest men to ever live, was a hopeless romantic

Fact-based legend has it that he spent WWII as a flight instructor just outside of San Antonio, and on longer missions he would drop love letters stuffed in leather boots out of his plane when flying over his fiancé’s farm.1

2. Before he was 30, Carroll was one of the best drivers in the world

His first-ever road race was in 1952, when he took a woefully underpowered British MG to a race in Oklahoma, beating everyone in his engine class before destroying the vastly superior Jaguar XK120 class above him. Needless to say, it was onwards and upwards from there.

3. Shelby single-handedly made overalls cool

He later claimed that they were more comfortable during a long race, but they were actually just the workwear he wore on his chicken ranch. One day he went straight to the track from the ranch, causing an uproar from the crowd and crews. Ever the marketer, the overalls stuck.

4. He was tougher than your old man

In 1955, he co-drove the 12 Hours of Sebring with a hand that was so badly broken they had to make a special fiberglass cast, then tape it to the steering wheel just so he could steer the car.

5. And he was tougher than your grandpa, too

In 1959, he was driving for Aston Martin when he came down with dysentery just before the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He still won. “I didn’t eat anything for 24 hours apart from dysentery tablets. Then we won the race and — oh my God — they suddenly stuck a champagne bottle in my mouth and it sent me a bit loopy”.2

6. Speaking of champagne, he helped invent the victory spraying ritual

No one had ever shaken up a bottle of bubbly to celebrate a victory before Ford GT40 driver Dan Gurney spontaneously sprayed everyone nearby. Guess who was right next to him whispering in his ear? Shelby.

7. Unsurprisingly, he was a cardiologist’s worst nightmare

Shelby became notorious for popping nitroglycerin tablets to ease chest pains from a chronic heart condition. But in his final race at Laguna Seca (pictured above in his “Birdcage” Maserati), he clinched the championship by finishing second, then promptly complained to the press that he would have won the damned thing had he not had to slow down to take his heart medications while driving.

8. He literally invented the Cobra in his dreams

Shelby frequently had ideas in the middle of the night and would forget them by morning, so he kept a pencil and paper by his bed. One morning he woke and found he’d written the word “Cobra.” Pictured above is the first test car. Genesis.

9. Carroll really didn’t like Enzo Ferrari

In the fifties Shelby had frequently driven for the Italian Stallion before severing his relationship with the brand. After the deaths of several drivers including his friend Luigi Musso, at the ’58 French Grand Prix, Shelby made it his personal mission to spurn Enzo, blaming him personally for the deaths of his buddies.

10. That beef with Enzo lead to the birth of the legendary Cobra Daytona, which strangely used WWII-era German tech to beat Ferraris on European tracks

Using a theory originally developed by the Nazis(!?!), the Cobra Daytona (pictured above) had a slick aerodynamic profile that blew the competition away on the longer European tracks. On shorter tracks, they used the less aerodynamic FIA Cobra (the one that you know from the poster on your childhood bedroom wall). The combination of the two allowed them to dominate the leaderboard, leading Shelby to destroy Enzo in the FIA World Sportscar Championship, as the first American manufacturer to ever win it. Unsurprisingly, the technology Shelby used immediately became the benchmark for success.

11. The Shelby Mustang almost never happened

Ford wanted to race Mustangs in the Sports Car Club of America race series, but the SCCA (which had been Corvette dominated) didn’t want to be bossed around by another manufacturer and wouldn’t listen to Ford’s request to change the rules. Ford then drafted Shelby in to reshape the image of the Mustang (read: make it insanely powerful) and to leverage his diplomacy skills within the organization. Shelby ended up obliging as a thank you for the financial support he’d received from Ford for the Cobra program.

12. The GT40 was too small for its driver Dan Gurney

Shelby and Ford got the best drivers of their day to get behind the wheel of the legendary GT40s, like Bruce McLaren (yes, that McLaren) and Dan Gurney (shown here with Shelby at Sebring), who was too tall to physically sit in the car, so they added a bubble in the top of the door to fit his six foot four inch frame.

13. Despite popular belief, not all Cobras were great in the corners

The Dragon Snake was purely in the straight line game, with a host of options dedicated to getting it down the quarter mile as quickly as possible. And parachutes.

14. The Supersnake Cobra was built as Shelby’s personal rocketship

In 1965, Carroll designed the Supersnake as the ultimate Cobra for his personal enjoyment, so it’s got two superchargers reaching out like the hands of God to force air past the carburetors and pump out nearly 800 hp.

15. Oh and that Supersnake? It was too much for Bill Cosby to handle

Shelby only made one other Supersnake for his (totally random) buddy Bill Cosby, who nearly died trying to control it and promptly gave it back. The guy who ended up buying it after him did die when, while trying to control it, he went flying off a cliff on the Pacific Coast Highway, landing in the Pacific Ocean.

16. At one point you could order a Cobra with an automatic transmission

We’re not sure why you would, but you could, and 16 people did.

17. He had an unreasonably deep love for chili

Urban legend has it that Shelby once almost hit a chef for putting beans in his chili, but his chili passion ran far deeper than that. All those Cobras and Mustangs that say Terlingua on the side? He owned 220,000 acres in West Texas near the town of Terlingua, where he co-founded the world’s first chili cook-off. It still runs to this day, alongside his eponymous chili brand, available nation wide.

18. Chili’s the restaurant exists because of Carroll

Larry Levine, the founder of Chili’s, was Carrol’s son-in-law in the early seventies, and had gone to Terlingua’s cook-offs a few times before opening the first of the now-ubiquitous restaurants in Dallas.3 Think about that the next time you’re rolling up fajitas and slurping down a frozen strawberry margarita.

19. This is the fastest Shelby you’ve never heard of

It’s called the Cooper Monaco King Cobra. The chassis was designed by John Cooper, and Shelby did his thing with it, tossing in a Ford 289 V8. In a way, it was a precursor to the Lola-designed GT40, but despite its speed it was generally beaten by the cars that eventually evolved into the first Can Am racers. You know, the ones with the insane wings on top.

RIP Carroll. You were one awesome and crazy SOB.

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Jim Levitt
Jim Levitt
4 years ago

I owned FOUR 427 Cobras (for my own, not for resale). I dare anyone to match that.
I mean in the mid 1960s not currently.
First 27 on the East coast that I actually drove to Ca in late March as a 21 who did not know any better! I and the car got there in one piece.
I also owned a real Comp (SC) 3 times (!) and a narrow fendered 427 (he built 6 or 7 of those, I’ve only seen one other back in the day) and a 428 for a short period of time.
Except for the first one all the others were from 1971 to 1979.

6 years ago

I don’t think Hustler is the right term. I have met Carrol ang the right description would be Mover and Shaker!

Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer
6 years ago

OK y’all. Why so much whining and nit-picking? Have any of us here done a tenth, hell, a hundredth of the amazing things Shelby did?

Of course he was a hustler. We call people “hustlers” upon realizing that they are better at doing what they want than we are.

Ronald Thomas
Ronald Thomas
6 years ago

# 10 is crap! the Maserati 151 in 1962 used Kamm theory to great effect. Shelby did not resurrect anything there . He followed,if he did anything.

7 years ago

He was THE man.

7 years ago

With regards to the article and comments about my husband, they are not totally accurate.

p kerit
p kerit
7 years ago

I met Carroll Shelbys son recently. Hes living in a small town, Winters, Texas Population about 3000

7 years ago

“The guy who ended up buying it after him did die when, while trying to control it, he went flying off a cliff on the Pacific Coast Highway, landing in the Pacific Ocean.”

Was not expecting that

Jesse Bowers
Jesse Bowers
7 years ago

Guitar slinger got here before I did, and nailed it. Every point. I could add to things you didn’t know about Carroll Shelby, but what’s the point? I already posted it all on and thought for sure when I read the title, that ol can of deodorant “Pit Stop” would be in the list.

7 years ago

Whoa, take THAT, Petrolicious. Guitar Slinger just put you in your [u]place. [/u]

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
7 years ago

#11 Urban myth .. busted ! Shelby was brought in to give the Mustang some sales life with the male customers as the Mustang initially was considered to be a Secretary’s car [ the 60’s equivalent of todays Hair Dressers car comment ] and was only selling ( in numbers ) to women . Once Shelby had taken the Ford Falcon turned Mustang … [ see … back in the day folks did pay attention to Badge Engineering ] and given it some genuine cojones Ford then saw the opportunity to race it as well as possibly displace the Corvette as America’s sports car which in fact it never did . What it did to was to create a whole new category . The Pony Car

#19 Everybody who knows anything about Shelby as well as CanAm knows all about the Cooper Monaco mash up [ PS; Hate to be pedantic but that was the beginnings of the CanAm era .. ]

#13 Hate to be the one to destroy a lifetime of urban myths … but the fact is … NO Cobra ever handled well . They were and still are an evil tempered unruly beast requiring more manhandling than I’m betting most of the readers here would be capable of dishing out . So .. no .. the Dragon Snake was not the only bad handler of the bunch . It was just the worst

#15 Bill Cosby couldn’t handle the SuperSnake . Gee … in light of the fact that the man made a fool of himself in a 289 Cobra why should that surprise anyone ? The only thing Cosby was ever good at ‘ handling ‘ was the manipulation of the truth

#5 Like to lay down a wager of say … $10k or so on that one ? For either of my grandfathers ? Suffice it to say in light of their backgrounds and professions … thats a bet you’d lose before you even placed it

And in addition ;

#20 Did you know that Carrol Shelby was a man you’d of been very well advised to NEVER do business with ? A genius at putting disparate bits together making the sum much greater than the whole … but a nightmare when it came to his business ethics and professionalism . As the saying went .. want to make a million doing business with Shelby ? Write him a check for $10 million .

21 Did you also know … that the only original car from stem to stern Shelby ever created * [ the Shelby Series One ] was an abject nightmare as well as a complete and utter failure to the point an entire book was written about it [ which also went a long way towards revealing Shelby’s questionable at best business ethics ] ” Snake Bit ” ; by Eric Davison

* Without taking anything away from the man or his accomplishments … the fact is each and every car with his name on it was either a recreation or a blending of already existing parts . Even on the Daytona the only thing original was the bodywork …. which as the article shows … wasn’t very original either

PS ; All the rest ? To borrow the cliche from the Geico commercials

” Everybody knows that ” … at least … like i said … anybody that knows anything about Shelby and his/its history

Donald Callum
Donald Callum
7 years ago
Reply to  Guitar Slinger

Thank you! I got sick of the Shelby hype we used to get from Car & Driver, he was a glorified hustler, and a good sports car driver.
I was waiting for some one to bring up the pretty well-known truth.