Among many other achievements in a supercharged life, Mr. Shelby was one of world’s longest-surviving recipients of a heart transplant, having received a new heart in 1990. He was also a principal founder of the International Chili Society, which sanctions thousands of chili cooking contests each year and has raised more than $1 billion for charity.
Mr. Shelby made and lost fortunes, trained pilots during World War II, ran a safari business in Africa and was married at least six times, but he is best known for his daring automotive achievements, first as a driver and later as a designer.
Fresh off his chicken farm, Mr. Shelby won the first race he entered in 1952 and, in short order, became the country’s leading sports-car driver. Once, hurrying to get to a race from his farm, Mr. Shelby didn’t have enough time to change out of his bib overalls. He got more attention for his outfit than for winning the race and, from then on, always wore overalls in the driver’s seat.
He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1957, when he won 19 consecutive races, and twice was named the magazine’s driver of the year. In 1959, he became the second American-born driver to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in France (along with his British teammate, Roy Salvadori).
When a heart condition forced him to retire from racing in 1960, Mr. Shelby turned to automotive design. Determined to make the fastest, sexiest sports car on the road, he put a Ford V-8 engine in the chassis of a little-known British roadster, dubbed his new car the Shelby Cobra and created a legend.
As the engine displacement rose from 260 cubic inches to 289 and finally 427, Mr. Shelby almost single-handedly defined the modern muscle car — all horsepower and wide tires, rumbling engines, dual side exhaust pipes and unbelievable speed.
The Cobra was the fastest street-legal car in the land. It could go from zero to 60 mph in four seconds. The speedometer went up to 180.
Although Mr. Shelby manufactured only about 1,000 cars before closing the first edition of his business in 1967, Automobile magazine ranked the original Shelby Cobra as one of the 10 most important sports cars ever built.
“In my opinion,” auto executive Lee Iacocca said in 1995, “Shelby invented the muscle car in this country.”
In a 1995 article in Texas Monthly magazine, journalist Carol Flake described the feeling of being a passenger in a 30-year-old 1965 Shelby Cobra with a 289-cubic-inch engine: “After riding in a Cobra, you may never feel the same way about cars again. It’s a little like riding a runaway thoroughbred after trotting around a ring on a pony. Fear melts into awe.”