It’s quite appropriate to be writing about Carroll Shelby - father of perhaps the most famous sports racing car ever built – under the Wheeler Dealers banner, for were ever a legend built upon some wily deal-making and a little self-promotion it was his.The Texan entrepreneur died on May 10th this year, but reminded that the Wheeler Dealers duo were in the process of restoring a replica Cobra, I waited until now to pay brief tribute to the man.
Born on January 11th 1923, his childhood was sadly plagued with the cardiovascular issues that would so influence the course of his career. Spending WWII as a flight instructor, he subsequently launched himself straight into business, firstly running a dump truck business, then trying his hand at chicken farming. Sadly a nasty bout of Limberneck disease left Shelby decidedly short on chickens, but having taken two victories at his very first road race meeting there seemed little doubt that his true talents lay elsewhere, and over the next few years he would become a prominent talent on the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) scene, famously driving in his farming overalls.
Making the journey to Europe at the behest of fellow American, and Mercedes works driver, John Fitch, Shelby purchased a new Aston Martin DB3S, soon attracting the attention of team manager John Wyer and often running as a member of the works team. Victory for Aston in the 1959 Le Mans 24 Hour race would ultimately prove to be the highlight of Shelby’s International driving career, his brief forays into Formula 1, at the wheel of privateer Maserati 250Fs in ’58, and the uncompetitive Aston DBR4 the following year, proving a disappointment. The recurrence of his heart issues would sadly force his retirement, as USAC Champion, at the close of 1960, and though he would subsequently devote considerable energy to his Goodyear franchise and racing school, his ambitions lay elsewhere.
The American market had long been highly lucrative for the British manufacturers, whose products dominated the post-war road racing boom, the only domestic competition essentially coming from the Chevrolet Corvette. Shelby’s ambition became the creation of a car that combined lightweight European components with affordable big-block American power that could turn the tables. Fellow Texan racers Gary Laughlin and Jim Hall, latterly founder of Chaparral, joined Shelby in the creation of three extraordinary Scaglietti-bodied lightweight Corvettes in 1959, but thanks to General Motors’ unwillingness to sponsor a racing programme the project was stillborn. Turning to Ford for assistance proved fruitless, but the ‘Blue Oval’ would be more than happy to supply power for the car that would forever become synonymous with the Shelby name. The AC Ace, fitted with 2-litre Bristol engine had become popular on the British club racing circuit, and with specially designed spaceframe chassis, took a class win at Le Mans in ’58, but when the engine went out of production and was replaced with a 2.6 litre unit from the Ford Zephyr the results were disappointing, and it appeared that the cars days were numbered. Enter Shelby, who persuaded Ford to supply their 4260 cc powerplant, fitted a Borg-Warner gearbox and launched into a development programme which led to chassis, suspension and aerodynamic refinements.
The name ‘Cobra’ apparently came to Shelby in a dream, and although it apparently didn’t please the dealers or all of the customers, it sounded good, and suggested that this was one car that wouldn’t just devour the competition, it would swallow them whole, and fortunately enough that’s exactly what it did. The Ace-Cobra, AC Cobra, Ford Cobra, or Shelby Cobra as it was varyingly referred to, turned the ’63 USRRC (US Road Racing Championship) and SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) Championships into a one horse race, and took the fight to Ferrari in Europe the following year, finishing a close second in the World Sportscar Championship.
Shelby would then turn his attentions to the development of all-conquering Ford GT40, which fulfilled the company’s ambition of beating the Ferraris at Le Mans, and by the time his trademark stripes adorned the fearsome Mustang GT500 they had become a hallmark of high performance. His contributions to the world of racing and sports car engineering could fill volumes, his philanthropic work another; Carroll Hall Shelby truly packed a lot into his life, his legacy attests to that.
You can see the Wheeler Dealers working on the replica Cobra on Discovery Tuesday 18th September at 9pm.
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