Carroll Shelby, legendary car builder and racing champion, dies at age 89

Carroll Shelby, an international automotive icon who rose from a bed-ridden childhood in Texas to build one of the most iconic sports cars ever and become a world-champion racer died Thursday at the age of 89 after a lengthy illness. His cars will live forever.

A winner at Le Mans in 1959, a driver in everything from Formula 1 to the Bonneville Salt Flats, Shelby’s lasting impact will be the cars he built, namely the Shelby Cobra 427 that beat Ferrari in Europe and his variations of the Ford Mustang that he was involved with from the 1960s through his death.

Throughout his career, Shelby battled and overcame his physical limitations, from racing crashes to a congenital heart defect that required several surgeries and eventually a heart transplant in 1990.

Born Jan. 11, 1923, in Leesburg, Texas, Shelby was the son of a rural mail carrier. After being confined to bed for much of his first several years, his heart grew strong enough for Shelby to take an interest in cars. During World War II, Shelby served as a flying instructor, and wrote letters to his fiancée by putting them in flying boots he’d drop on her farm.

Married with children after the war, Shelby began a racing career that quickly rose to international acclaim. After rushing to the track for his early races wearing the same bib overalls he wore at his chicken farm, the look became his trademark. Sports Illustrated named him driver of the year in 1956, and Shelby wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959.

Sidelined from race driving by his health, Shelby turned to building race cars. His masterpiece came from importing a British roadster, the AC Ace, then replacing its undersized engine with a Ford V-8, eventually winning the international Grand Touring championships in 1965. Shelby would later spend much of his career unsuccessfully suing builders who copied the body shell and chassis, until a U.S. court found that Shelby did not own a copyright on the design.

After leading Ford’s efforts to beat Ferrari at LeMans with the GT40, Ford asked Shelby to help develop a hot-rod edition of the Ford Mustang in 1965, a deal that soon produced the GT350 and the GT500, cars still battled over by collectors today. After a cutback in performance cars during the early ’70s, Shelby had to turn to other businesses, and didn’t revive his own operation until a partnership with Dodge in 1982.

Throughout his career, Shelby kept a host of other businesses alive, from deodorants to a chili festival. He also launched the Carroll Shelby Foundation to aid children in need of organ transplants. And even in his later years, after a revival with Ford and his own company, Shelby kept to the same answer when asked what was his favorite car to ever bear his name: “The next one.”


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