The Legacy of Carroll Shelby: A Champion of American Automotive Innovation

Shelby was best known for his development of the Cobra 289 and 427 and Shelby GT-350 and GT-500 “Mustangs,” as well as Shelby Cobra “Daytona” Coupe. Shelby American Inc. secured its place atop the high-performance auto hierarchy when it won the FIA World Manufacturers’ Championship in 1965 and Carroll Shelby’s team led Ford’s GT-40 “prototype” class car to 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race of 1966. Shelby’s team was the first and only American winner of this historic race, defeating rival Ferrari.

Shelby was also a pioneer in modern automotive licensing programs. Some of his company’s clients through the years have included Mattel, Sony, Electronic Arts and Ford. Beginning in the 1960s, he started licensing his name and designs for products. He founded Carroll Shelby Licensing Inc. in 1988, which is the exclusive holder of trademarks and vehicle design rights for his muscle cars and high-performance vehicles. It also holds trademark rights for Shelby-branded apparel, accessories and collectibles.

Still an Icon

Today, Shelby American manufactures and markets performance vehicles and related products that remain in great demand among collectors and enthusiasts. In 2007, a 1966 Shelby Cobra sold for $5.5 million at auction. In 2012, a total of 50 50th-anniversary Cobras sold for between $90,000 and $160,000 each, depending on body type.

The company builds authentic continuation Cobras, including the 427 S/C, 289 FIA and 289 street car component vehicles. Shelby American offers the Shelby 1000, GT500 Super Snake and GTS post-title packages for the current-generation Ford Mustang, as well as the 2013 Shelby Focus ST and Raptor.

Shelby’s Story

Born in 1923 in East Texas, Shelby served as an aviator in World War II. When he returned to Texas after the war, he farmed briefly and then went into the auto business. As co-owner of a Dallas auto dealership, he helped create Scaglietti Corvette designs and then started racing cars such as Aston Martin, Maserati, Jaguar and Ferrari. He won his first road race in an MG.

Wearing his farm clothes behind the wheel garnered him publicity as he rose through the ranks of the auto racing world, winning three national championships before retiring from racing in 1960. He then went into auto manufacturing, partnering with Ford Motor Co. to create high-end, high-performance sports cars as a racecar team owner, designer and manufacturer. His Shelby GT-350 and GT-500s earned kudos from across the auto industry, turning the relatively tame Mustang into an American muscle car icon.

In 1992, the Carroll Shelby Foundation was created to provide medical assistance for people in need, including children. The foundation also supports educational opportunities for young people through automotive and other training.

After working in California for decades, in 1995 Shelby American opened its new headquarters facility at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to expand and continue his Cobra operations. Shelby passed away in 2012 at the age of 89.

“With Carroll not around anymore, that means we have to work all that much harder,” CEO Neil Cummings says.

That work includes capitalizing on the Shelby brand for additional marketing opportunities.

Carroll Shelby Licensing has done so with the creation of the Shelby store. This store includes two retail locations, mobile stores, online sales and will soon be in dealerships and mod shops. The trailer program attended 50th anniversary Mustang events in Charlotte, N.C., and Las Vegas. The company also works with auto dealers across the nation. “There is a huge amount of receptivity to our brand and product. We have now brought it to the next level,” Cummings says. “There is an incredible amount of brand awareness and pent-up demand for Shelby product. We have a real stable of fantastic licensees.”

One challenge is to keep up with global growth. It has also updated its relationship with Ford, and after 40 years apart, Ford is once again teaming with Shelby.

Shelby has licensed products since the 1960s. Occasionally forced to resort to lawsuits to battle knock-offs, Shelby’s marketing prowess proved helpful to his licensing business. Shelby himself would often give away free t-shirts, as he knew this would attract people to the brand.

Shelby’s cars have been in more than 100 movies and have been featured in every Electronic Arts auto racing Need For Speed video game. Target has sold more than 500,000 Shelby licensed t-shirts at its retail outlets created by Carroll Shelby Licensees.

Carroll Shelby’s traveling store has an incredible breadth and depth of authorized products, the company says. From apparel to memorabilia, limited-edition prints, legacy items signed by Carroll Shelby and even golf carts, every item passes arduous standards for the honor of bearing the world-famous name. Most are limited edition and will disappear once the initial production run is completed, the company says.

Solid Success

With so many Shelby racing fans engaged with the brand, Shelby American opened its 135,000-square-foot headquarters in Las Vegas in 2013. As the only auto manufacturer based in Nevada, it builds the Cobra and upgraded Mustang, Raptor and Focus onsite while operating the Heritage Center and the Carroll Shelby store, as well.

In addition, plans are underway for the construction of the Carroll Shelby Automotive Museum in Gardena, Calif. The facility will be located at the Carroll Shelby International facility and offices where Shelby lived, worked and created his magic for decades.

It will include a portion of Shelby’s car collection, a center for multimedia exhibits and an auction area. The centerpiece will be Shelby’s Snake Pit, an area exclusively for museum sponsors to share stories in an atmosphere of valuable archival documents and trophies commemorating Carroll’s many racing victories and achievements.

“It will be a great place for people to come look at cars and experience American history,” Cummings says.