CARROLL SHELBY BEFORE THE COBRA
Carroll Hall Shelby was born on 11 January 1923 in Leesburg, Texas, a tiny, remote community of barely 200 people at the time, on the Louisiana and Arkansas Railway, 120 miles (193km) northeast of the rather larger city of Dallas. His parents were local people, and church-going Baptists. Leesburg’s founders may have been a bit optimistic in 1873 when the tiny settlement opened a post office, but in 1923 Shelby’s father Warren Hall Shelby was a Texas mailman, who made most of his deliveries by horse-drawn buggy. When he was around three, Carroll’s mother Eloise (née Lawrence) gave Carroll a sister.
It was a back-country life, but a reasonably comfortable one. The US mail paid Shelby’s father enough for him to buy his first (second-hand) car just before Carroll reached his fifth birthday – a dark-green 1925 Willys Overland tourer with folding top, artillery wheels, manual gearshift and wood-rimmed steering wheel. It was hardly sporty, but a virtually identical model appeared in Willys Overland publicity shots in 1923, sign-written on the open bodywork with the boast: ‘This Stock 1923 Overland – First Car To Reach Lake Tahoe (Via Placerville)’, a short but brutal trek through the mountains between California and Nevada in the days when the American road network was still pretty sketchy.
Shelby Sr loved cars and Carroll picked up the bug, watching his father tinkering with the Overland engine, or sitting on his knee holding the steering wheel. Warren obviously liked Overlands (built in Toledo, Ohio) and in 1928 bought a slightly sportier Overland Whippet, with a 2.2-litre 4-cylinder engine and wire wheels, which made an even deeper impression on the boy.
Then, in 1930, the family moved to Dallas, where Warren was promoted to postal clerk and Carroll started attending Woodrow Wilson High School. He was a sickly child, and by age nine or ten he was showing signs of the heart problems that would dog him through his life, meaning he was often prescribed afternoon bed rest in his pre-teen years.
By the time he was around fourteen, though, the problems seemed to have eased. Shelby had started to grow taller and stronger, and while he tired easily he was living a more normal teenage life, still fascinated by cars, and now by aeroplanes, too.
His father had helped young Carroll learn to drive, in a scruffy 1934 Dodge; by 1938 he had a car of his own, registered in his father’s name, as Carroll (at just fifteen) still wasn’t old enough legally to own it himself. That, and most of the other cars he occasionally got to drive, had tricky manual ‘crash’ gearboxes, so he learned one useful driving skill for a future racing driver quite early – how to double-declutch.
Modest four-wheel beginnings for the boy from Leesburg, Texas, in the late 1920s.
Warren Hall Shelby, Texas mailman and father of Carroll, had an affinity for Overlands, built in Toledo, Ohio – rugged and dependable with just a hint of sporty.
The boy had a brief flirtation with flying, and apparently dressed the part.
WHEELS AND WINGS
Racing was already creeping into Carroll’s consciousness as his father took him to the dirt-track races at the local ‘bullring’ ovals. When his father couldn’t take him, he’d go on his own, and get involved in a bit of fetching and carrying for the racers.
Alongside that came a growing interest in flying. Rural Texas was scattered with small airfields and private landing strips, and young Shelby started odd-jobbing at some of those, too. That occasionally allowed him to sit in a cockpit, and eventually his indulgent father paid for his first joy ride, in a Ford Trimotor. Shelby admitted that it frightened him to death, but again he had the bug. He negotiated passenger rides whenever he could, and after graduating from Woodrow Wilson High in 1940 he enrolled on an aeronautical engineering course at the Georgia School of Technology.
By this time he had also worked as a motorcycle delivery rider for a local drugstore, using an Excelsior bike. But he wasn’t good on two wheels, and while he never hurt himself badly he eventually grew sick of falling off, and quit his job on the spot. From then on, he would stick to four wheels, always with the option of a bit more serious flying.
Appropriately enough for his future connections, Shelby’s first joy ride, sponsored by his father, was in a Ford Trimotor – in this case, also appropriately, a mail plane.
Around 1939 Shelby met Jeanne Fields at a Baptist church social, and married her in December 1943, just after his father had died, from the heart problems that Carroll probably inherited from him. By December 1944 they had a daughter, Sharon Anne, and Shelby’s life had moved on quite dramatically. He never completed the course at Georgia Tech; as World War II started to draw America in, Shelby had joined the United States Army Air Corps; in November 1941 he started training at San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center (later to become Lackland Air Force base). Between his new military career, his courting of Jeanne and his mother’s reduced financial circumstances, any ideas of getting more involved in motor racing were temporarily pushed into the background.
A QUIET WAR
With the help of a friendly recruiting sergeant (and before the realities of war kicked in), Shelby organized a posting near to his mother and wife-to-be’s homes, at Randolph Field, a vast base around 15 miles (24km) from San Antonio, opened in 1931 and still America’s primary flight training facility. In his Basic Flying Training Squadron, Carroll Shelby combined his training with less glamorous duties – including moving tons of chicken manure from an old farm to flower beds around the base’s Spanish Colonial-style buildings. Moving chicken manure would have a resonance in the Shelby story a few years later.
He also drove a fire truck on the base for a few months, until with the war in Europe under way he finally got his chance to fly regularly. His pre-flight training started at Randolph in November 1941 and in September 1942, as a sergeant, he was transferred to Ellington Field, this time near Houston. In his training days he used to fly over his fiancée’s family farm, occasionally dropping letters and once even landing to take Jeanne (and her mother!) for a highly unofficial joy-ride. Shelby was never a slave to the rule book.
In December 1942 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant, but that was as far as his promotions went, and he neither saw active service nor did much travelling: the furthest he went in his four-and-a-half years of military flying was the Gulf of Mexico.
Shelby’s first Army Air Corps posting was Randolph Field, with its famous colonial-style buildings, and conveniently close to home in Dallas.
His time as a military pilot (and later instructor) wasn’t without its adventures. As well as the unsanctioned diversions to Jeanne’s family farm, he crashed in the desert during a simulated bombing run. He got his student pilots out of the plane while it was still in the air, then hung on as long as he could himself before bailing out too – to face a long walk home.
A bit like falling off motorbikes, it helped get the flying bug out of his system, so by the time he left the service in 1945 he had no ambition to carry on as a commercial pilot. Unfortunately, he had no particularly relevant training to do anything else either, so his immediate post-war career options were strictly limited – although the birth of Carroll and Jeanne’s first son, Michael Hall Shelby, in November 1946, and younger brother Patrick Burke Shelby in October 1947, meant he needed some way of paying the bills.
With long-time friend Bailey Gordon, Carroll went into the ready-mixed concrete business, starting with one truck each but quickly building up a fairly substantial business, with more trucks and employing a number of other drivers.
In 1947 Shelby expanded into his own trucking operation, mainly carrying timber for the building industry. While that was a successful move, he was always aware of the possibility of a slump in the building business, which could have taken him with it; so with a little help from his oil-man father-in-law he sold out of the trucking business and went into oil.
Like many of Shelby’s early career paths, that didn’t last long. Starting from the bottom during 1948 and working as a ‘do-anything’ roughneck, he soon found that there was little money and few prospects in that area of the business, so it was time for another change. This one would become a famous part of the Shelby story.
For all his apparent butterfly tendencies, he wasn’t afraid of hard work, or of seeking outside advice. Determined to be successful at something, he now submitted himself to a series of aptitude tests, which for some reason suggested that he would be best suited to working with animals. A Shelby legend was about to take shape.
CHICKEN FARMER TO RACER
At the time, chicken farming was a growing industry in this part of Texas; there was government finance on offer to help would-be entrepreneurs get started in the business. And Shelby had his Air Corps experience with at least one aspect of chickens.
Typically, he didn’t go for half measures. His first batch was 20,000 birds and in the first three-month cycle he made around $5,000 profit, which was a promising start. But it was too good to last, and his second batch of birds was wiped out by disease. His money and business plans went with them, sending him back to scratching a meagre living by odd-jobbing, while raising a few pheasants and Irish setters on the old chicken farm.
More as a hobby than as a job, Shelby now got involved with cars again, specifically working on a backyard-built, ladder-framed racer with a Ford flathead V8 and home-made body, owned and built by an old school friend, Ed Wilkins. Then one thing led to another.
In January 1952, Shelby (now a father of three) raced the car in a drag race meeting at Grand Prairie Naval Airbase, near Dallas Fort Worth. Without much to beat, and without the complication of having to go round corners, Shelby won quite easily, prompting Wilkins to give him a chance on the next step of the motor sport ladder, in a proper circuit race. The car was an imported MG TC – British sports car of choice for a post-war generation of US servicemen returning from Europe, and MG’s big contribution to Britain’s desperate post-war export drive, when earning dollars was top of the wish-list.
The chicken-farmer overalls started out of expediency but became a trademark, and even in later life Shelby was happy to play up to it.
In the early postwar years, the MG T Series was one of Britain’s key exports to the USA, and the way into motor sport for many a would-be driver – including Shelby.
In his first circuit race, at Norman, Oklahoma in May 1952, Shelby won his class again, in an event sanctioned by
the newly formed Sports Car Club of America. The SCCA was another catalyst; without it there wouldn’t have been any serious racing in the USA at the time. The Club was founded in 1944, essentially as an enthusiasts’ social club, but in 1948 it started to sanction and organize races across the country. By 1951 it had created the SCCA National Sports Car Championship, and although the SCCA followed a strictly amateur code until 1962, the organization itself was thoroughly professional. In that first race at No...