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Shelby leaves behind smokin' legend of sports cars

Courtesy of Shelby American, Inc

Carroll Shelby behind the wheel of a Cobra, the wickedly fast car that he designed.

Dave Friedman / Wieck

Carroll Shelby with the winning Ford GT-40 Le Mans race car in 1967.

So death finally overtook cantankerous ol’ Shel. It was a hell of a contest, begun in the 1950s, when Carroll Shelby, who went on to fame and fortune as a sports-car builder, had to take nitroglycerin tablets while driving race cars to keep his iffy heart pumping.

He drove hard almost until the end. At the media introduction of the Shelby GT500 at the New York Auto Show in 2005, I asked how things were going at home in Texas. Not good, he said. The then-82-year-old had just gotten a speeding ticket. “Them sumbitches down in Texas are gettin’ as bad as the sumbitches in California,” he growled.

Against stiff odds, he made it to 1990 with his weak heart before getting a donor's heart that finally quit nearly a quarter-century later. In 1996, his son donated Shelby a kidney. There was a time when the two threatened to scavenge spare body parts from anyone who had the misfortune to expire on the premises of the Shelby American Inc. shop in Las Vegas.

Shelby was best known for his eponymous sports cars, most particularly the fearsome 427 Cobra, a car that resulted from mating a big-block 427-cubic-inch Ford V8 engine with the chassis and bodywork of a diminutive English sports car, the AC Ace.  Over the years Shelby’s car production evolved from the original Cobra line to include the GT350 and GT500, which were modified Ford Mustangs.

For a time in the 1980s he sold hot-rodded, turbocharged Chrysler economy cars – their “GLH” moniker stood for “Goes Like Hell” -- that were the precursors of the sport-compact-car movement epitomized by customized Honda Civics.

Shelby also pioneered the modern notion of intellectual property protection and licensing, spawning simultaneous industries licensing his name and designs on the one hand, and sending lawyers after unlicensed knockoffs on the other.

While this earned him a reputation for seeking credit where it might not have been due, I found just the opposite while researching a book on the Dodge Viper sports car.  He didn’t want credit for others’ work, only credit -- and payment -- for his own.

Shelby was frequently credited for contributing to the Viper, which was an overt homage to his original Cobra, down to its serpent-inspired name.  But he said he had done nothing to help design or build the car, except intercede on the car’s behalf with his longtime collaborator at Ford and Chrysler, then-Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca.

“I said, ‘I’ll go talk to Iacocca,’ because he had been turning us down for a long time,” Shelby recalled.  “So we bulls---ted him that we could do it for about $20 million. He OK’d it, but I had to meet with him and tell him we were on budget – until we got enough money in it he couldn’t back out.”

But you don’t typically plop down on the scene in an industry like the car business and achieve success without some credentials, and Shelby had them. What did Shelby do? What didn’t he do?

He was a pilot during World War II, but spent the war stateside because they made him an instructor. In the '50s he was a three-time U.S. champion sports car racer, drove for the Aston Martin team in Europe and won the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race as a driver. Sports Illustrated twice named him “Driver of the Year.”

During this time he earned his reputation as the racing chicken rancher, when he sped from tending his animals directly to a race, and drove still wearing his bib overalls.

He was forced from the cockpit by his heart problems in 1960 and moved on to car building, producing the first Cobra in 1962 after cutting his first deal with Iacocca when he was at Ford.

In addition to building and selling sports cars, Shelby’s company also raced them, developing the Cobra Daytona Coupe derivative of the open-top Cobra roadster and then the dominant Ford GT40.  The latter was a weapon specifically devised by Ford and wielded by Shelby for the purpose of defeating Enzo Ferrari’s red sports cars at Le Mans in a cost-is-no-object campaign fueled by Henry Ford II’s ego and money. Shelby’s team won in 1966 and ’67.

Shelby’s cars were so popular in the mid-‘60s that in 1966 you could rent a Shelby GT-350H from Hertz. Bill Cosby was the car-nut Jerry Seinfeld equivalent of that era, driving a custom-built Cobra that he worked into his comedy routine as the “200 miles per hour” bit.

The ‘70s weren’t kind to cars or racing, and Shelby collected a fat check from Ford in exchange for the opportunity for the company to bastardize Shelby’s legacy with atrocities like the 1978 Mustang II King Cobra.

Shelby returned to his Texas roots and in a move that pre-dated Paul Newman’s popular line of celebrity foods, launched his Carroll Shelby’s Original Texas Brand Chili Preparation mix in 1976.

After receiving a transplanted heart in 1990, Shelby founded the Carroll Shelby Heart Fund, a charity to help children get heart transplants. He called the foundation his most important work.

Author A.J. Baime spent significant time with Shelby researching his book on the Shelby Le Mans races, “Go Like Hell.”  “He contributed so much to so many — his cars, his charity, his victories against all odds,” Baime remembered. “I feel lucky to have known him. In the cars that bear his name and in the lore of the greatest motorsport victories in the history of the USA, he will live on forever.”

On May 10, 2012, 89 years after his birth in 1923, Shelby’s second heart finally stopped. 

The race car driver whose crowning creation was the Shelby Cobra has died at the age of 89. NBC's Brian Williams reports.