MARCH 25, 1957
Twelve years ago it appeared that Carroll Shelby was finally going to lose the foot-to-the-floor race against fate that he had been running for more than three decades. Lying in a hospital bed in Los Angeles with tubes sticking out of him, he could feel life slipping away as his diseased heart seemed to beat more faintly with each passing hour. After two teenage patients on his floor died, Shelby, then 67, said a prayer, promising that if he received a new heart, he would devote himself to helping other potential transplant patients and children with cardiac problems. Three weeks later Shelby got his heart, transplanted from a 35-year-old man who had suffered a fatal stroke in a Las Vegas casino. "They told me in 1960 that I'd probably live five years," says Shelby, who is 79. "I had no idea I'd live this long." He not only has survived but has also thrived. And in 1991 Shelby started a foundation to help increase awareness of the need for organ donations, particularly for children.
A strapping Texan from Dallas who raced wearing overalls, Shelby was in his 30s and driving on the Formula One circuit for the English team Aston Martin when he first knew that the chest pains he had been experiencing were serious. He began popping nitroglycerin pills just to finish races, and in his 1959 victory at Le Mans he needed seven or eight hits to combat dizziness and shortness of breath during the 24-hour race. Having seen both of his parents the of heart disease in their 40s, Shelby retired from driving in 1960 and moved to the hot-rod hotbed of Los Angeles to focus on building his own cars. His father, Warren, had been an automobile buff, a postman who buzzed over his route in a 1928 Whippett, and Shelby had grown up mesmerized by cars. Later, while racing throughout Europe, he'd studied the innovations of Maserati, Porsche and Ferrari; he also became close friends with Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari's son Dino, with whom he shared many discussions about race car design before Dino died of muscular dystrophy in 1956 at age 24.
Back in the U.S. in 1961, Shelby met up with a young executive at Ford named Lee Iacocca. Shelby proclaimed that he could build a car that would outperform Chevy's Corvette. Iacocca loaned him $25,000 to begin development on a machine that Shelby envisioned would combine a lightweight European-sports-car-style chassis with an American-style V-8 engine. "When you try to put 300 horsepower in a car designed for 100, you learn what development means," says Shelby, who recalls that his early prototypes would break apart because of the tremendous force exerted on the fragile frames. Eventually, though, Shelby's creation, christened the Cobra, would become what is widely considered the ultimate American sports car, with about 1,000 built between '62 and '66. Under Iacocca, Shelby also contributed to the development of the Mustang, a special edition of which, the Shelby Mustang, is now a collector's item. On the racetrack Ford not only blew by Corvette but also went on to topple Ferrari, winning Le Mans in 1966 and '67 and the world manufacturers championship in '66.
Shelby left Ford in 1970, weary of the constant travel, still plagued by heart trouble and exasperated with increasing safety concerns and emissions constraints that in his view impeded performance and left cars "no fun." He spent the next 11 years in Africa, moving from Angola to Mozambique to the Central African Republic, alternatively hunting big game and investing in companies that put together expeditions. He might never have returned to the U.S. but for a call from an old friend in 1981. Iacocca, by then the CEO of Chrysler, persuaded Shelby to join the company and to start designing the sorts of innovative cars that had transformed Ford's image in the 1960s. Over the next decade Shelby helped build such Chrysler/Dodge products as the Charger, the Ram Pickup and the Viper. Then, in 1989, his doctor told him that without a transplant he would be dead in less than two years.
That transplant has allowed Shelby to return to building automobiles and to develop the Carroll Shelby Foundation, which has increased awareness of organ donations and raised more than $1 million for patients' families. (As befits a Texan, he is also a founder of the International Chili Society, a nonprofit organization that sanctions chili cook-offs worldwide and over the past 35 years has raised close to $1 billion for charities such as the American Cancer Society and the National Kidney Foundation.) Shelby, who has three children and six grandchildren and lives in Bel Air, Calif., with his fourth wife, Cleo, now develops cars through his own company, Shelby American, which builds the new, critically acclaimed Shelby Series 1 and two to three retro Cobras a week. He hasn't lost his taste for a spirited fight: To protect his legacy, Shelby has sued some of the close-to-100 carmakers that have tried to produce replica Cobras. "I don't want my grandchildren to say 'Grandpa, I saw a Cobra, but you didn't make it,' " he says. "I'll probably run out of money before I nail them all, but I'll keep trying."