Carroll Shelby didn’t enter his first car race – a quarter-mile drag meet – until he was nearly 30 years old but the hot rod he drove to the finish line one day in 1952 was powered by a Ford V8.
More than a half-century later, Shelby is one of the most recognised names in performance car and racing history and is back in the Ford family producing concept and production performance cars and trucks.

Shelby’s first Ford derivatives were the legendary Cobras and Shelby Mustangs of the 1960s. Today, he is one of the key collaborators on the ‘dream team’ that built the 2005 Ford GT, which goes on sale this summer.

Shelby was also heavily involved in the design and engineering of the Ford Shelby Cobra concept car, which was introduced at the North American International Auto Show in 2004 and recently announced that his specialty car company will produce a limited edition Shelby Ford Expedition for sale through selected dealers next year.

Ford is stoking the passions of enthusiasts again by unveiling an all-new, all-modern Ford Shelby GR-1 concept car at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, signaling more excitement in the future for the two famous names.

Shelby may have started late, but he was a winner from the beginning. Just two years into his driving career, Aston Martin’s racing manager, John Wyer, recruited him to co-drive a DB3 at Sebring. Within months, the chicken farmer from Texas was bumping elbows and trading paint with the likes of Juan-Manuel Fangio, Phil Hill and Paul Frere. He won Europe’s prestigious 24-hour endurance race at Le Mans in 1959, driving an Aston Martin DBR1 with Roy Salvadori.

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Early in 1962 Shelby drove his second Ford-powered race car. It was the first mockup for the Cobra, Shelby’s now-legendary marriage of a lightweight British roadster body with a small-block Ford V8. By January 1963, he had homologated the car under the FIA’s GT Group III class, and that month a Cobra won its first race, beating a field of Corvette Stingrays at Riverside, California.

In January 1965, Ford hired Shelby to lend his expertise to the GT40 campaign. Three cars had run the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans, but none of them finished. Shelby began work on installing the more reliable 7-litre stock-car engine in what would be known later as the GT40 Mark II. It proved to be considerably faster than the Mark I, and, although 1965 was another unsuccessful year at Le Mans, GT40 had become, in just two seasons, a strong contender.

Ford and Shelby tested the GT40 Mark II extensively – both in the wind tunnel and on a special dynamometer that simulated a 48-hour run of the Le Mans circuit. At the start of the 1966 season, GT40 began a four-year domination of endurance racing. While Ford and Shelby took on Ferrari at Le Mans, they fought Corvette at home. The first effort was the legendary Shelby Cobra, a Ford-powered and Shelby-engineered derivative of the AC Ace. Production of the vehicle, which had a one-ton weight advantage over the Corvette, began in June 1962 and continued until March 1967.

In August 1964, Ford asked Carroll Shelby to develop a street-legal, high-performance Mustang to compete against the Corvette in SCCA B-production road racing. Shelby-American, Carroll Shelby’s Californian racing shop, completed its first Mustang GT350 by September.

The 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350 was a fastback production model with a functional scoop in its fibreglass bonnet and 306 horsepower from the 289-cubic-inch V8 underneath – an increase of 35 horsepower over the stock Ford engine. Suspension upgrades included a larger front stabiliser bar, Koni shocks and rear traction bars and race-ready features, such as competition safety belts, a large oil-pressure gauge, tachometer and a boot-mounted battery. It sold for $US4,000 and was instantly recognisable by its Wimbledon White paint and blue GT350 side stripes along the rocker panels.

For 1966, the GT350 was offered in white, red, black, green and blue, and Hertz purchased nearly 1,000 special 1966 GT350H weekend ‘rent-a-racer’ models. In the 1967 model year, the Shelby Mustangs sported unique fibreglass bodywork that extended the front end with an aggressive dual scoop and finished the trunk lid with an integrated spoiler.

But most important in 1967 was the new GT500, a big-block version with 355 horsepower. More than 2,000 of those 428-cubic-inch Mustangs were delivered in the first model year.

1968 was the first year the name ‘Cobra’ was officially used on a Shelby Mustang. That year, a convertible body style became available. Although the Shelby Cobra GT350 was essentially unchanged, later GT500s were powered by the new ‘Cobra Jet’ 428 engine and thus became the GT500KR, for King of the Road.

For 1969, the penultimate year of the Shelby Mustang, the engine choices included the optional 351 Ram Air engine, and the bodywork incorporated a total of nine scoops – five on the bonnet, one at the front of each fender and one on each quarter panel. In 1970, with sales slowing, the final Shelby Mustangs built for 1969 were updated to 1970 specifications and sold, ending the famed run.