In August 2012, three months after Carroll Shelby died, the city of Dearborn, Mich., granted Ford Motor Co.’s request to change the name of a street on the company’s sprawling product development campus to Carroll Shelby Way.
It’s a one-of-a-kind honor — no other street on Ford’s campus is named for a key figure in the company’s history. Even though Shelby’s relationship with Ford turned rocky for a time in the 1970s and ’80s, no one did more to burnish Ford’s performance cred than Shelby.
Born in 1923 in Leesburg, Texas, Shelby roared through the world’s automotive scene like a tornado, leaving marks as a racer, automaker, marketer and businessman. He is the only man to win Le Mans as a driver, team owner and manufacturer. The name Shelby is synonymous with performance.
Shelby vehicles such as the Ford-powered Cobra sports car, first-generation Shelby Mustang, Le Mans-winning GT40 and modern Mustang are among Ford’s post-World War II highlights.
Shelby also had a hand in the creation of the Dodge Viper sports car, various high-performance Chrysler products and his own sports car, the Shelby Series 1.
In the late ’50s, as a driver on the world’s racetracks, Shelby devised the plan that eventually took him to Ford. His dream: Build an agile and powerful lightweight sports car using a European chassis and a reliable American V-8 engine. He did not intend to make more than 100 or so cars a year. The race-ready cars would have the bare essentials to make them road legal.
In 1962, Shelby spoke with Ford’s Dave Evans, chief engineer of a new, lightweight 221-cubic-inch V-8, about using the engine.
Evans sent Shelby an engine to see if it would fit in an AC Ace, a British-made sports car. It did, and not long after, Shelby was in business in a rented warehouse in Venice, Calif., installing Ford engines into AC bodies with flared fenders for fatter tires. He named the car the Cobra. The 221-cubic-inch V-8 later morphed into the Mustang’s 260-, 289- and 302-cubic-inch V-8s.
In spring 1964, Ford launched the Mustang. By summer it was available with its first high-performance engine, a 271-hp, 289-cubic-inch V-8. The GT version added dual exhaust, fog lights, styled steel wheels and other items.
A horsepower war was brewing in Detroit, touched off by the Pontiac GTO. The ’64 GTO could be ordered with as many as 348-horses. Soon after came high-performance Dodges, Oldsmobiles, Chevrolets and Buicks.
The cigar-chomping Lee Iacocca, Ford’s general manager in the early 1960s, knew of Shelby and knew that he was stuffing Ford engines into British-made sports cars.
It’s unclear whether Iacocca approached Shelby or vice versa about turning the Mustang into a performance car.
In Shelby, Iacocca found someone who knew his way around Ford’s parts bin and whose name could bolster the Mustang’s performance cred. In Iacocca, Shelby found someone willing to write the checks to make things happen with a minimum of interference.
“It was Lee Iacocca who really stayed behind us all the way, encouraged us, and then got us into the Mustang program,” Shelby wrote in Alex Gabbard’s 1990 book, Fast Mustangs.
Ford shipped a few early 1965 Mustang fastbacks for Shelby to test in California, and Shelby’s track testing exposed some weaknesses.
Shelby told Ford the car needed quicker steering, stronger brakes and more power.
“Ford Motor Co. marketing executives were game to support almost anything Shelby could come up with, knowing the rub-off from a Shelby modified Mustang would increase sales of non-Shelby Mustangs,” Wallace Wyss wrote in his 1977 book, Shelby’s Wildlife: The Cobras and Mustangs.
With the Mustang deal in hand, Shelby rented a Los Angeles airport hangar in 1965 and set up a production line. Shelby got Ford to commit to giving him two days’ of 1965 Mustang production from the San Jose, Calif., plant.
Performance tweaks included a hood with air scoops, a new intake with a Holley carburetor, a performance cam, exhaust headers, big disc brakes and a retuned suspension.
Horsepower jumped to 306, but because the Mustang was smaller, lighter and more agile than Detroit’s mid-sized muscle cars, Shelby Mustangs occupied their own niche. Blue stripes were added down the hood and on the sides. A fiberglass cover was placed where the back seat would have been.
The car created a stir. The GT350 could do something its higher-powered Detroit muscle-car rivals could not: handle well.
Hal Sperlich, the Ford product planner who helped bring the Mustang idea to life, credits Shelby with helping build the Mustang’s performance image.
“He came in and worked with engineering and styling and product planning and brought some of his ideas,” Sperlich told Automotive News recently. “It was an alliance. He had a close relationship for a lot of years using Ford power in his cars and putting his signature to Shelbyized versions of Fords. He was a great, fun guy.”
The arrangement lasted until the final 1966 Mustangs were built. Then Ford transferred production of Shelby Mustangs to a small company in suburban Detroit. The ’67 Shelby Mustang got bigger and heavier. Shelby, tied up with Ford’s efforts to race the GT40 at Le Mans and beat Ferrari, distanced himself from Ford.
The Shelby Mustang carried on until the 1970 model year, adding luxury and grand touring features and a convertible version. In the mid-1970s Ford angered Shelby by using the Cobra name on the Pinto-based Mustang II. In 1988, Shelby sued Ford for using the GT350 name on a Mustang.
By the late ’90s, Ford and Shelby put their differences aside and Shelby helped develop the 2005 GT, the supercar created to celebrate the company’s 100th anniversary.
Shelby continued working with Ford on the redesigned Mustang launched in 2005.
The most powerful American-made production car available today is the Shelby Mustang GT500 with its 662-horse V-8. It stays true to Shelby’s original vision for the cars he helped create: that they could go straight from the showroom to the racetrack.
“Before Carroll left us, he spent hundreds of hours with the Ford engineering team,” says Jim Owens, Mustang marketing manager. “He knew what it took to make a car a racing legend and he shared that with the Ford team. So a little bit of Carroll is in every Mustang we will produce now and into the next 50 years.”