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Classic Muscle Cars That Made Carroll Shelby A Legend

Vukasin Herbez May 18, 2023

Many people in the car industry have been called legendary, but very few actually deserved that recognition. Carroll Shelby is one who does. He’s famous for his line of performance Mustangs and Le Mans-winning Ford GT40 cars. But he is also renowned for his chili products and humanitarian work. Shelby was one of those larger-than-life characters whose life looked like a screenplay for a Hollywood blockbuster. The 2019 movie “Ford vs. Ferrari” is a visualization of Shelby’s fight against Ferrari in Le Mans. Although Carroll Shelby died in April 2012, he still inspires people worldwide.

Shelby started his racing career in the early 50s and soon achieved worldwide success. He even won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959 in an Aston Martin. However, behind the triumph and fame, Shelby experienced immense pain. The pain was the result of his worsening heart problems. Shelby often raced under heavy medication. But, in 1960, after a few close calls, his doctors forbade him to race again. So Shelby’s professional career was over. As a retired racer, Carroll decided to fulfill his lifelong dream and built a sports car under his name. Here are the classic muscle cars that made him one of the biggest legends of the car industry.

Photo Credit: Auto Evolution

Scaglietti Corvette

Even before Shelby retired from racing and started building cars under his name, he became a part of a team that produced one of the most exclusive Corvette Chevy ever made: the Scaglietti Corvette. If Scaglietti’s name sounds familiar, it is because they are an Italian coachbuilder responsible for some of the finest Ferraris of the ’50s and ’60s. They were an integral part of the Ferrari legend.

Photo Credit: Pinterest

So, Chevrolet wanted to honor the company by naming their four-seater coupe the 612 Scaglietti. However, it is less known that Scaglietti produced three Corvettes in 1959 for Texas millionaire and car enthusiast Gary Laughlin. Jim Hall and Carroll Shelby, both notable racing drivers and constructors from Texas, saw the potential in the 1959 Corvette’s engine and power. Although the Corvette had a light fiberglass body, two of the constructors wanted better aerodynamics. So, they contacted Scaglietti to design and produce a bespoke body on the 1959 Vette chassis. Scaglietti delivered three cars in different colors but with exquisite designs. They looked more like a Ferrari than a Corvette. There were plans to start regular production. However, after careful consideration and cost projection, they abandoned those plans.

Photo Credit: Edmunds

Shelby Cobra 289

The story of the Shelby Cobra 289 is widely known, but it’s interesting enough to tell it again. In 1962, Shelby heard that AC Cars from England was planning to shut down the production of their Ace sports roadster because Bristol engines weren’t available anymore. In just a few days, he got several engineless bodies on a transport ship to his Venice Beach shop. He went to work installing Ford’s 260 V8 engines in the new bodies. A small but powerful American V8 in a light and nimble body proved to be a match made in heaven. Soon, Shelby installed the 289 V8 with 271 HP, bringing serious performance to this little roadster. But Shelby’s main goal was racing.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

After all, it dominated all the domestic championships, beating all Corvettes, Ferraris, and Jaguars. But Shelby wanted to go to Europe and prove his concept. So, in 1963/64, with some help from Ford, Shelby campaigned his Cobras all over Europe’s finest racing tracks, repeating his success. His small V8 roadster proved extremely capable, dominating the GT class. Shelby’s knowledge and racing know-how was crucial in setting the car right for different tracks. Also, Shelby sold factory-prepared “competition” Cobras to private teams. Numerous amateur races enjoyed success with this fierce car.

Photo Credit: Auto Evolution

Sunbeam Tiger

In 1959, Sunbeam presented the Alpine. It was a nice-looking roadster with dependable and conventional mechanicals. It came with small 1.5 or 1.7-liter four cylinders. But the company soon realized it needed more than four cylinders to compete in the sports car market. So they called Carroll Shelby and asked him to turn the docile Alpine into a performance car. The Sunbeam management figured that since Shelby was building Cobras as Euro-American hybrids, he could do the same with the modest Alpine.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

So Shelby designed the Sunbeam Tiger as a muscle car version of the Alpine. He installed a Ford 260 and later a 289 V8 engine and redesigned the suspension and steering. It was the first British roadster with the proper V8 rumble delivering an impressive performance. Back in 1964, this was one of the best power roadsters money could buy. Most of the cars went to U.S. buyers. When they ended production in 1968, Sunbeam had built around 7,000 Tigers.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

Shelby GT350R

Shelby started building Mustangs in 1965 as fire-breathing machines. And they brought Ford some much-needed recognition and performance credentials. But the cars responsible for Shelby’s racing success were 34 “R” models they produced in 1965 for privateers and racing teams worldwide. These cars were not street-legal. Those R models were purely for racing purposes, something they did exceptionally well. The GT350R had numerous modifications. It was lighter, faster, and sharper than the regular GT350. The R version had the same 289 V8 as the regular Shelby GT350. But it produced close to 400 HP and came in numerous racing modifications.

Photo Credit: Ford

The car was light and well-balanced, so it proved extremely fast. It won races in America, Europe and South America, as well. Each car had numerous wins under its belt. Car fans consider every R model to be an extremely valuable piece of Mustang and racing history.

Photo Credit: Auto Evolution

Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe

Even though the Cobra roadster dominated the international GT racing scene in the early ’60s, Shelby noticed the roadster body was unsuitable for all tracks and races. The Cobra lacked top speeds even with the hard top due to poor aerodynamics. On long straights like the Le Mans, it was slower than the competition. So his answer was to redesign the car and make a racing missile capable of insane top speeds.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

To do that, Shelby needed to modify the Cobra entirely. So with the help of his talented team of engineers and hot rodders, he constructed a longer chassis. Also, he relocated the suspension and design for a longer, sleeker, and more aerodynamically efficient body. They called it the Daytona Coupe. It was a pure racing car barely suitable for street driving with the intent to destroy the competition. They finished the car just in time for the legendary 1965 racing season. So they shipped it to Europe, where it continued the dominance of American engineering. The Daytona Coupe won the 1965 GT Championship. That was an extraordinary success for Ford, Carroll Shelby, and his talented drivers and mechanics team.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

Ford GT40

Interestingly enough, the Ford GT40 wasn’t Shelby’s project. He came on board after they had already designed and engineered it. However, Shelby played a crucial part in its legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans wins. Shelby’s experience as a driver, team leader, and constructor led their team of motivated racers who wanted to dethrone the mighty Ferrari. Also, Ford backed his Cobra and Mustang projects so Shelby could accept. After a failed attempt to buy Ferrari in the early ’60s, Ford was highly angry with Enzo Ferrari. So they decided to beat him on the race track to prove who the real boss was.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

They found the basis for the Ferrari-beating race car in England in a Lola Mk6. Soon, they re-engineered and redesigned it. Also, they gave it a new racing 289 V8 engine, turning it into the first Ford GT40 in 1964. However, the car could have looked better in the beginning. But meticulous work and money transformed the GT40 into a world-conquering machine in months. It humiliated Ferrari between 1966 and 1969. This was when the GT40 won the 24 Hours of Le Mans four times in a row. It was a fantastic success and achievement for a company that never appeared in the Le Mans race before the mid-60s. The GT40 became the symbol of American race cars. It dominated the European racing scene, which was a big success for Ford, Shelby, and his team.

Photo Credit: Mecum

Shelby GT350 Convertible

At the end of the 1966 model year, Shelby decided to produce a limited, secret run of six GT350 convertibles to give to his family and friends. This commemorative edition would celebrate the success of the GT350, as well as serve as a prototype for the potential production of future convertibles.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

Each car got options like air conditioning and a roll bar. Then they painted each car in a different color, adding its signature white racing stripes. For years, most mainstream muscle car enthusiasts were unaware of the ’66 GT350 convertible. The reason for that is that GT350 convertible owners kept them in private collections, rarely showing them in public.

Photo Credit: Mecum

Shelby GT500

The Shelby Mustang started as a stripped-down version of a Ford pony car. They were road racers with minimal comforts and maximum driving involvement. But after the 1967 model year, the Shelby Mustang line evolved into a GT coupe. Bigger and more powerful than before, the 1967 GT500 featured a new design and modified front and rear end. But the big 427 V8 engine with 335 HP and 420 lb.-ft of torque was the best feature. In those days, Ford was notorious for underrating the power output of their engines, so a 335 HP sounded too little for the big 427. Some car enthusiasts claim the real power was closer to the 400 HP range. The performance figures backed that claim.

Photo Credit: Mecum

That was good for the day, and thanks to their suspension modifications, the GT 500 could handle the curves well, too. The new GT500 model was a hit since it offered powerful performance, luxury, and comfort. However, it lost the purists who adored the earlier GT350 models for their uncompromising character and raw nature.

Photo Credit: Motor Authority

Shelby GT500 Super Snake

This GT500 Super Snake was produced as a rolling laboratory to showcase the possibilities of the Mustang platform as well as for testing Goodyear’s “Thunderbolt” tire line. Goodyear was proud to announce that their Thunderbolt tires are capable of running at 170 mph, and Shelby was quick to build a car capable of that speed. Using a Le Mans-winning race engine and modifying the transmission and suspension, Shelby created the Super Snake, the ultimate 170 mph Mustang. Even though today, 170 mph isn’t that uncommon top speed, back in the late ’60s, most muscle cars struggled to reach 120 mph.

Photo Credit: Auto Evolution

However, Super Snake debuted in 1967 and broke several production car records with Shelby himself behind the wheel. In fact, Super Snake was so successful that there were production plans, but when Shelby realized that the finished product price would be around $8000 (big money for 1967), he killed the project because he realized that nobody would buy the car.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

Shelby GT500KR

Back in late 1967, Carroll Shelby learned that Chevrolet was planning to introduce a special performance version of the Corvette they called “The King of the Road.” He liked the name, so when he found out the name was unregistered, he put the copyright on it. Shelby wanted to present a special version of the GT500 to spite Chevrolet. Since Ford had just introduced the 428 Cobra Jet, its legendary muscle engine, this was the perfect time to install it into a Shelby. Also, they wanted to add some performance goodies and go-fast options to create one of the most sought-after muscle cars of all time, the Shelby GT500KR or King of the Road.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

Although they rated the 428 Cobra Jet at 335 HP, everybody knew the engine delivered more than 400 HP and 400 lb.-ft of torque. Ford limited the production and loaded the GT500KR with interior trimmings and luxuries. Unfortunately, they only produced the GT500KR for the 1968 model year, dropping the version for 1969. Also, in 1968, Shelby stopped making Mustangs for Ford. So, they moved the Shelby Mustang assembly from California to Michigan. Even though Ford continued to offer Shelby Mustangs until 1970, Carroll was not a part of the engineering team after 1968.

Photo Credit: Auto Evolution

Shelby Lil Red

After almost 50 years of searching, in early 2018, the famous Shelby Lil Red was located in Texas. Known to only a handful of car enthusiasts, the Lil Red was the long-lost Shelby prototype and a missing piece of the Shelby puzzle. Technically it wasn’t a barn find since the car was sitting in the open but still.

Photo Credit: Auto Evolution

So what makes this old Mustang so essential and this barn find so significant? Well, it was a special 1967 notchback model, loaned to Shelby American and fitted with numerous experimental parts and a supercharged 428 engine. The car was the development car of the famous California Special package. However, in the late ’60s, the car was gone, and everybody thought that it was long gone. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

Shelby EXP “Green Hornet”

During the Mustang’s heyday, Ford and Shelby worked hard to explore the possibilities and limits of the Mustang’s platform and engineering, and they produced several interesting prototypes. One of the most popular is the “Green Hornet” from 1968.

Photo Credit: Driving

Although it wasn’t the only car, the Green Hornet featured the most innovative features like 390 V8 equipped with fuel injection, unique disc brakes on all four wheels, and an independent rear suspension. With this layout, the Green Hornet was a capable car that handled and stopped better than any other sports car on the market. Unfortunately, the cost of producing those features was too big, and Ford and Shelby decided to go with more conventional technology.

Photo Credit: Auto Evolution

Shelby Lonestar

By the end of the ’60s, Shelby decided he needed to build a successor to Cobra 289 and Cobra 427. But he didn’t settle for just a restyled version or an improved old model. Rather than that, he constructed a new car with a mid-mounted V8 engine and racing suspension to provide performance on a whole new level. Shelby took the modified GT40 platform, along with the engine and transmission, and designed a different body that was even lighter than the standard GT40.

Photo Credit: Auto Evolution

Initially, they called the car the Shelby Cobra III. But soon after that, Shelby declared they had built the prototype in England. So, the Ford executives said they owned the rights to the “Cobra” nameplate, forbidding Carroll to use it. And because Ford didn’t want to build another Cobra, Shelby was on his own. He decided to rename the car the “Lonestar” after his home state of Texas. They only completed one Shelby Lonestar in 1968. But due to the name and lack of Ford’s financial backing, that one Lonestar remained a sole example. For decades, enthusiasts thought it was gone.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

Toyota 2000GT SCCA by Shelby American

Only a few people know that Shelby was one of the people behind Toyota’s racing success in the SCCA championship in the late ’60s. Toyota presented this car in 1967, turning the eyes of the car world to a small company from war-torn Japan. All the big car magazines of the period praised the ride and driving dynamics of the Toyota 2000GT. Despite getting only 150 HP from the high-revving 2.0-liter six-cylinder, the 2000 GT offered decent performance and almost racecar-like handling.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

Despite the performance and construction, it is evident that the 2000 GT wasn’t a race car and that it would take a magician to make it work. Shelby was that magician, and with his team of experts, he made the 2000GT one of the most accomplished cars in the series.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

Dodge Omni GLH

For the better part of the ’70s, Shelby stayed away from the automotive business. The muscle car era was gone, Ford closed its racing program, and it looked like Carroll was out of work. He concentrated on some other ventures, including his famous chili products. However, when Lee Iacocca, his old pal from Ford, took over Chrysler, Shelby got an invitation to return to the performance game. But this time, it was under new circumstances. While Europe embraced the hot hatch class, developing it further in the mid-’80s, America seemed uninterested. The Golf GTI sold well in the States. But the domestic manufacturers didn’t produce any models that could be considered hot hatches.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

But then Shelby teamed up with Dodge and introduced his version of the compact Omni model. They called it the Omni GLH, and it was a proper hot hatch. It was also one of the best affordable performance models money could buy in those days. Shelby took the 2.2-liter four-cylinder and added a turbocharger to produce a total output of 175 HP. Its 0 to 60 mph acceleration time of less than seven seconds was impressive and highly competitive for the day. But the best thing about this car is the name GLH, which means “Goes like Hell.” Shelby and Dodge produced an improved version they called the GLHS. That stood for “Goes Like Hell S’more.” They made just 500 of those models.

Photo Credit: Mopar

Dodge Shelby Charger

Those L-Body Chargers they built in the ’80s were forgettable cars that were less popular and fast. But when Carroll Shelby, who was involved with Chrysler at the time, introduced the Shelby Charger, the car finally gained some respect.

Photo Credit: Mopar

But Shelby’s recipe was simple. He turbocharged an existing 2.2-liter four-cylinder to deliver 175 HP. He then equipped it with a close-ratio five-speed manual gearbox. Also, he stiffened the suspension and improved the braking. All those changes turned the boring regular Charger into the Shelby Charger with a vivid performance. And it could outrun most production muscle cars of the period. They sold the Shelby Charger along with the regular models in the Dodge dealerships. However, Shelby bought the last 1,000 of them, turning them into the Charger GHLS. It’s similar to the Shelby Omni GHLS with the same engine and platform.

Photo Credit: Mecum

Shelby Dakota

The Dakota was a compact pickup truck from Dodge sold between 1987 and 1996, which was dependable, tough-looking, and came with a wide range of engines and trim levels. But Dodge wanted more, and in the late ’80s, the company conceived a performance version created by legendary Carroll Shelby, who was working with Chrysler Corporation at the moment.

Photo Credit: Mecum

Shelby took the regular production Dakota and installed a 5.2-liter V8 engine with 175 HP. Even though the power output was relatively small, the Dakota was light and had lots of torque which meant that this compact truck had some convincing performance. Shelby also dressed up Dakota with special paint, trim, roll bar, and wheels, which made this little truck stand on the streets. However, the price of over $15,000 was too much for most buyers, and in the end, Dodge managed to sell only 1475 of them.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

Dodge Viper RT/10

The original Viper in the early ’90s showed what happens when talented individuals with clear goals want to make the perfect car. Chrysler enjoyed solid sales and wanted a model to celebrate their success. They also wanted a car to connect them with their muscle car roots from the ’60s and ’70s. But they wanted a car with more power, refinement, and performance to show that a light but powerful roadster was still attractive. Thanks to their influence, the team soon gathered over 80 engineers and designers, officially starting Project Viper. In 1989, they revealed the Dodge Viper concept at the Detroit Motor Show. Automotive fans went crazy over the aggressive but elegant lines with a prototype V10 engine.

Photo Credit: Mecum

The public’s reaction was so overwhelming that Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca rushed the car into production. They wanted it to be ready for its 1992 release and pace car duty at the legendary Indianapolis 500. Under the hood was an 8.0-liter fully aluminum V10 with 400 HP and 465 lb.-ft of torque. The performance secured the Viper’s place as one of the most powerful new models on the market. With a price of just over $50,000 and 0 to 60 mph times of 4.6 seconds, the Viper beat those European exotic machines.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

Shelby Series 1

After the success of the Viper, Carroll decided to return to the sports car manufacturing business, but with a new project. His idea was to introduce a retro-styled car. It would be a power roadster with sharper handling, more direct driving dynamics, and a modern drivetrain. The idea materialized in the form of the Shelby Series 1. It was a world-class sports convertible and the only vehicle Shelby ever built from the ground up.

Photo Credit: Shelby American

Its low silhouette and design went back to the mid-’60s. However, everything was new under the body, including the Oldsmobile 4.0-liter V8 engine delivering 320 HP. Since the car was light, the performance was impressive. Accelerating from 0 to 60 mph took approximately four seconds. And that was fantastic for the late ’90s. Unfortunately, U.S. regulations regarding car manufacturing forbade Shelby from producing the Series 1 as a regular model. They only allowed him to build it as a kit car, which he refused. Due to limited availability and high price, they only made about 250 until 2005.

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