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The History of Shelby Cars | Shelby Cars Guide

Posted on 2022-01-13

History of Shelby Cars

Before booming sound systems, neon underglow LEDs and flashy vinyl wrapping, there were Shelby cars. The unmistakable dominant force and striking architecture combined unparalleled power with style in an effortless appearance of art and strength.

Shelby American, Inc. was a labor of love turned global success that challenged the most prominent sports car manufacturers in the world. While muscle cars of the modern era have earned their place and proven their abilities, you can't forget the men and vehicles who paved the way with innovative designs and technology that shaped the racing and automotive industries we know today. 

There are few gearheads or racers who don't know the name Carroll Shelby. These cars are renowned for their limited production, undeniable quality and historical stamp on American car culture. Carroll Shelby was a racing legend and pioneer of hot rodding. His passion for speed and love of cars inspired him to push boundaries and go head-to-head with the likes of Enzo Ferrari, Stephan Winkelmann and Sir William Lyons.

From 1962 to today, Shelby American has produced some of the world's finest automobiles. With collaborations with Ford and Dodge, iconic partnerships with high-ranking executives and a vision for creating the fastest and loudest cars in the country, the impact of Carroll Shelby and his automobiles is indisputable.

This is the story of a man with an unequivocal love of speed and who, against all odds, rose to fame as a fearless driver and groundbreaking entrepreneur. This is the legacy of Shelby cars.

Who Was Carroll Shelby?

Today, we know Carroll Shelby as a daring race car driver and visionary who influenced the development of the most iconic lines of American sports cars. But before he was burning rubber on the track and teaming up with Lee Iacocca, he was already proving his luck and showing signs of greatness.

Born in January 1923 in the small town of Leesburg, Texas, Shelby showed an aptitude for cars at a young age. Although diagnosed with a leaky heart valve as a child, as well as additional health complications throughout his life, Shelby couldn't wait to get behind the wheel. By 15 years old, he was already driving and taking care of his dad's two-door Ford Sedan.

After graduating from high school in 1942, Shelby enlisted in the Army Air Corps and earned his wings, becoming a second lieutenant with a promising future. Although he yearned to test his skills on the battlefield in World War II, he proved to be too valuable to send into combat and was assigned with training others in the U.S. 

Shelby's love for the fast life translated well during his time as a pilot. His aircraft of choice was the B-26 bomber, because it was faster traveling in a straight line than any enemy plane.

Once Shelby was mustered out of the Army Air Corps at the end of the war, he started a dump truck business and had three kids with his first wife, Jeanne Fields. He then became a chicken farmer a few years later and was living a slow and quiet life with his family when he could no longer ignore his need for speed.

Shelby's Racing History

In 1952, Shelby won his first race in a MG-TC and was on the fast track to become the best driver in the country. Taking the wheel of Ferrari and Maserati sports racing cars, Shelby won 12 races in his first two years of driving. Known for wearing his coveralls from working on the chicken farm to practice, his practical attire became his racing trademark by 1953. With his natural talent and charisma, Shelby was asked to join the Aston Martin factory team in 1954.

As a regular co-driver for the Aston Martin team, Shelby began traveling and racing around Europe. Going head-to-head with rivals on the racetrack, Shelby took in every moment he had while driving the most expensive and complex cars in the world, including Jaguars, Maseratis, Aston Martins and Ferraris.

The highlight of Shelby's career occurred in 1959 — he and his co-driver Roy Salvadori drove the 24 Hours of Le Mans and won. Over the course of nine years, Shelby claimed 41 wins and 67 podiums in just 141 starts. He was named Sports Illustrated Driver of the Year in both 1956 and 1957. Although his line of work came with plenty of losses, low points and tragedies, Shelby proved his success and talents time and time again.

Entering a New Era

However, Shelby's health quickly caught up to him and ended his professional racing career earlier than planned in 1960. But a hereditary heart condition wasn't going to keep Shelby from thriving in the world of luxury automobiles. After driving the most beautiful and powerful cars in the world, he saw exactly where there was room for improvement. 

Although thrilled by the speed of his past sports cars, he was frustrated by their engines. The cars required constant maintenance, keeping them out of commission — an obvious problem for a professional driver. Shelby was struck with the idea of creating a sports car that had the delicate handling of European counterparts with the balance of an American V8 engine that didn't need special servicing.

His dream was to offer such a machine at half the price of the competition while earning and maintaining the same prestige. The result was the first Shelby Cobra.

Vintage Shelby Cars

Cars were a cornerstone of American culture in the '60s and '70s. In the prime of rock 'n' roll, low gas prices and major pop culture shifts, cruising and riding fast were preferred pastimes for people of all ages. In many ways, Shelby American, Inc. came about at the perfect time. Carroll Shelby's designs and inventions were the envy of car enthusiasts and racers across the country. Shelby American, Inc. quickly solidified its place and standard of excellence in the motor vehicle industry.

Shelby American: Just the Beginning (1960 - 1970)

The opportunity to create the first Shelby car came about by chance. AC Cars in Great Britain had lost their engine supplier for their Bristol sports car. Shelby seized his chance by contacting AC Cars and sharing his idea. They eagerly agreed to collaborate, but only when he had an engine manufacturer ready for production. Thus began the beginning of Shelby's relationship with Ford Motor Company, which provided the engine necessary to create his machine.

Ford had been looking for a sports car that could go up against Chevrolet's Corvette. Shelby was driven by his goal of racing against Corvette in the United States and Ferrari in Europe, setting his sights on the World Manufacturers' GT Championship.

In 1962, the first 260 Roadster was delivered to Shelby's garage. In less than eight hours, Shelby and his crew put in a 250 Hi-Po V8 and Borg-Warner four-speed and took the first Cobra out for a test drive. Shelby American was officially incorporated, and Cobras quickly began dominating the racetracks.

From coast to coast, Corvettes feel second to Cobras. In July 1965, both roadster and coupe models of the Cobra won the World Manufacturers' GT Championship, making Shelby American the only American manufacturer to ever win.

In 1964, Lee Iacocca, Ford Division Manager, asked Carroll Shelby to help him build a faster and more powerful Mustang Fastback. Ford Mustang sales had seen major success, but Iacocca feared the Mustang wasn't receiving attention for its performance and didn't fit into Ford's standard marketing. In 1965, the first Shelby Mustang, the Shelby GT350, forged its way into the world.

With Shelby's experience and creativity, the Mustang was transformed into a sports car with a standout performance image. Road race circuits across the country witnessed the power of the Shelby Mustang. From the Corvette Stingray and Sunbeam Tiger to the Jaguar XKE and every model Ferrari could dream up, the Mustang conquered.

The Shelby GT350 was manufactured between 1965 to 1970. The GT500 model was added to the line in 1967 when Ford widened their Shelby Mustangs to fit a big-block V8 engine. This model was produced from 1967 to 1970.

Following the success of the Mustang, Ford turned to Shelby to help resolve another issue with another vehicle — the Ford GT40. The GT40 was built to go up against Ferrari's fierce performance cars. While Shelby was originally part of the preliminary design process, he wasn't the lead on the project. The ambitious team had designed, built and tested the Ford GT40 in just 10 months. However, suspension failure caused the GT40 to be pulled from the 1964 Nürburgring 1000 km race, even though it had been performing well.

This happened once more during the 24 Hours of Le Mans just three weeks later, which led Ford to appoint Shelby as the project head. Once again, Shelby worked his magic and transformed the vehicle into an unbeatable machine. With Shelby's modifications, the Ford GT40 went on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans from 1966 to 1969.

"Retiring" on Top (1970 - 1980)

By 1970, Shelby had created the Cobra Daytona Coupe, Cobra 260, 289 and 427, Mustang GT350, GT350H and GT350R, the Cobra Super Snake and Ford Mk IV. Needless to say, Shelby went full throttle during the formative years of Shelby American and his involvement in sports car manufacturing.

However, Shelby had his eyes on retirement and allowed Ford Motor Company to take over production for Shelby vehicles in 1968. During the transition, Shelby American began producing models other than the original high-performance cars they imagined. In 1970, Carroll Shelby retired from the racing and auto industries.

In 1971, Shelby founded the Shelby Wheel Company in Gardena, California. The business produced and distributed aftermarket specialty aluminum wheels. Otherwise, Shelby was completely removed from the automotive world until the 1980s. But his work was far from done.

The Dodge Years (1980 - 1990)

The 1980s brought major changes for Carroll Shelby and his alliances. In 1978, Iacocca was hired by Chrysler Corporation as CEO to help save the company from going bankrupt. He succeeded and saw an opportunity to reintroduce Dodge to the performance vehicle space while Chrysler was still striking hot. For this task, he needed a seasoned professional who knew sports cars better than anyone, so he called in Carroll Shelby.

The legendary duo had created many iconic Ford Shelby models and rose to the occasion for Chrysler with the same energy and focus. By 1983, they had designed and engineered the Dodge Shelby Charger. The sleek styling and improved suspensions made the 1983 to 1987 Shelby Chargers more economical and faster than any other assembly line cars on the market. And when the turbocharged 2.2L engines were introduced in 1985, the demand for these standout cars surged.

The success of the Charger led Shelby to found Shelby Automobiles, Inc. in 1983. Under the Dodge brand, Shelby modified and helped produce the Dodge Shelby Charger, Dodge Charger Shelby, Dodge Omni GLH and Dodge Viper RT/10 CS.

Shelby saw the Omni as a blank slate with a ton of potential. Seen as a cheaper knockoff of the Volkswagen Golf, the Omni had a low body and streamlined engineering perfect for gaining some serious speed. In 1984, Shelby dubbed the newest version the Omni GLH — "Goes Like Hell." With a modified engine, the Dodge Omni was once again an established competitor to the Volkswagen GTI. When the engine became turbocharged with 146 horsepower in 1985, the little machine left others in the dust.

Unfortunately, the little speed devil didn't wow buyers on the sales floor. But before Chrysler ended the initiative, Shelby and Iacocca produced just 500 more Omnis equipped with 175 horsepower.

The following vehicles manufactured by Dodge used Shelby-modified components, but these automobiles were not actually created under the advisement of Shelby. The production of these vehicles, in their respective order, ranged from 1986 to 2000:

  • The Daytona Turbo Z C/S
  • Daytona Shelby Z
  • Daytona C/S
  • Daytona Shelby
  • Lancer Shelby
  • Shadow Competition
  • Spirit R/T
  • Daytona IROC R/T 
  • Durango S.P. 360

Shelby enjoyed creating limited production models and continued to do so with Shelby Automobiles in Whittier, California. Shelby further solidified his status as a true expert and entrepreneur. The models he designed are highly sought after today for their incredible design, performance and rarity. These include:

  • 1986 Shelby GLH-S: This was based on the Dodge Omni version created during Shelby's partnership with Dodge. Only 500 of these cars were made.
  • 1987 Shelby GLH-S: This model was inspired by the Dodge Charger Shelby and just 1,000 units were produced. 
  • Shelby Lancer: During 1987, Shelby Automobiles also introduced the Shelby Lancer. They made 400 with leather interiors and automatic transmission, while another 400 featured cloth interiors and a five-speed transmission. Only those 800 automobiles were made. 
  • Shelby CSX: Rounding out the '87 production run was the Shelby CSX, based on the Dodge Shadow. The auto company manufactured 750 models.
  • Shelby CSX-T: This car was also derived from the Dodge Shadow. Made in 1988, 1,000 of these vehicles were created.
  • Shelby Dakota: Based on the Dodge version, the Dakota was the first Shelby truck of '89 and just 1,500 units were made. 
  • Shelby CSX-VNT: Last but not least, Shelby Automobiles manufactured the CSX-VNT. This automobile was also based on the Shadow and only produced 500 models.

In total, Shelby created 22 different models during his partnership with Chrysler.

Modern-Era Shelby Cars

Going into the 21st century, Carroll Shelby welcomed the evolving technology and changing consumer demands. Shelby was always considered ahead of his time. While maintaining his high standards and exceptional quality, his eye for sleek and modern designs seamlessly blended into the changing culture of the 2000s.

Transitioning (1990 - 2000)

Always the businessman, Carroll Shelby founded yet another company in 1982: the Shelby American Management Company. This umbrella organization allowed him to manage his other various business ventures with the help of the company's president, Don Landy. Landy proposed creating another new brand of Shelby sports vehicles in the 1990s.

By 1995, a new variation of Shelby American, Inc. had been established, and Landy was replaced by Don Rager. Plans for a new Shelby car began immediately in Gardena, California, while an assembly plant was constructed in Las Vegas. This new vehicle, the Series 1, debuted through several prototypes in 1997 at the North American International Auto Show and Los Angeles Auto Show.

However, financial support for the Series 1 came from Oldsmobile dealers, rather than General Motors or another parent company. This unusual arrangement gave a limited number of Oldsmobile dealers the exclusive rights to offer the Series 1 with a $50,000 deposit for each car. This changed in 1998, when 75% of Shelby American's stock was sold to Venture Corporation. Venture had supplied the exterior body panels and some interior pieces. Fortunately, during this transition, Shelby retained the rights to the Cobra.

Venture Holdings was unable to deliver the same quality of previous Shelby vehicles. By 1999, the cars being produced were so poorly built that Venture Holdings could not finish their orders until 2000. In 2003, they declared bankruptcy.

Following Venture's downfall, Carroll Shelby once again created a new holding company, Carroll Shelby International, Inc. This time, the company was taken public and a new branch of Shelby Automobiles was founded to manufacture the vehicles. During this time, Shelby teamed up with Ford to design the new Ford Shelby Cobra and a new model of the Ford GT.

In 2004, Shelby Automobiles bought out Shelby American, along with the rights to the Series 1 model. In 2005, Shelby and Ford debuted their GT500 model, followed by a special release of a 2007 Shelby GT500 at an auction for the Carroll Shelby Foundation. Between 2005 and 2012, Carroll Shelby released a line of stunning Mustangs. Partnering with Ford and Hertz, Shelby produced the CS6, CS8, GT-H, the Shelby GT, Ford Shelby GT500, GT500KR and GT350. 

In December of 2009, Carroll Shelby International proudly renamed itself Shelby American in honor of the 45th anniversary of the 427 Cobra "Super Snake" and GT350.

In 2011, Shelby American unveiled a special edition CSX8000 continuation Cobra, followed by the 2013 Ford Shelby GT500. To honor the 50th anniversary of the original Shelby Cobra, Shelby American debuted the Shelby 1000 in 2012. The newest model was a true representation of how far Carroll Shelby's dream had come since 1962. The last model had a jaw-dropping 950 horsepower.

Shelby Cars: FAQ

How Many Shelby Cars Are There?

Shelby was known for only producing a limited number of cars. In total, an estimated 19,962 Shelby vehicles were built between 1965 and 1970. While the exact number of total remaining Shelby cars is unknown, we do know that only 581 of the original 260-289 Cobras and 309 of the original 427 Cobras are left.

Which Shelby Is Best?

This comes down to preference, but the 1967 Ford Shelby Mustang GT500 is considered one of the most powerful Mustangs to ever grace the pavement. Today, Super Snakes still hold their own on the road.

What Car Was Shelby Most Known For?

Carroll Shelby made a list of legendary cars, and it's difficult to say which vehicle Shelby was best known for. Was it the first Cobra, with a growl that challenged any car in its path? Or the 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350 that changed the game for Ford forever? It's safe to say that Shelby's reputation is well-preserved either way. However, since the Mustang established Ford's presence in the high-performance vehicle space, we'd say that's the vehicle Shelby is most known for.

How Many Shelby Mustangs Were Made?

A total of 14,368 Shelby Mustangs were made between 1965 to 1970.

What Is the Most Famous Shelby Cobra?

Gearheads and racers agree that the 1965 Shelby Cobra 427 Roadster is the most legendary Cobra model to date.

Find Your Dream Shelby Car at Volo

Although Carroll Shelby is no longer with us, passing in March 2012, you can experience his legacy firsthand with Volo Museum Auto Sales. As a certified Shelby dealer, we offer genuine Shelby cars guaranteed to transport you back to a simpler time of cruising in glamorous, authentic roadsters that would make even James Bond green with envy. Our stylish and colorful vehicles will have you reaching for your sunglasses and ready to take on the open road.

Visit us for a test drive or shop our stock online!