TO SPORTS CAR ENTHUSIASTS OF THE mid-'60s, it was the best muscle car on the market. To Carroll Shelby, who designed that sleek 200-m.p.h. roadster, the Cobra 427 SC has always been something more—"The fastest, baddest mother of all time," he boasts.

Shelby, now 70, knows something about fast. A onetime Texas chicken farmer who took up racing in the 1950s, he sped to three American driving championships during his nine-year career, won the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans marathon and chalked up 19 straight victories in one year before heart troubles forced him to put on the brakes in 1960.

After leaving racing, Shelby built only 57 of the 100 Cobras he had planned before steering off toward other pursuits. He launched his own Texas-style chili company and even dabbled in safari hunting. But then in November 1989, he found himself racing once again, this time against the clock. Even during his driving triumphs, Shelby had suffered from severe angina. Both his parents died from heart disease in their 40s, and, in fact, Shelby had only finished Le Mans in 1959 by popping nitroglycerine pills to ease the pain in his chest. After two open-heart operations failed to help and his health continued to falter, Shelby found himself facing his final option: a heart transplant.

For seven months he waited as his condition worsened, eventually leaving him unable to walk without assistance. Then on June 7, 1990, the call came. "When you hear those words, 'I think we found you a heart,' there's nothing that will ever sound as sweet," says Shelby. "Not winning Le Mans, the world championship, building the Cobra, or anything."

By the time he left L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center two weeks later, Shelby had set himself a new goal: to help others hear those same words. "After losing a couple of people on either side of me because there were no hearts available, I made my mind up," he says. So in 1991 he launched the Shelby Heart Fund (1631 Pontius Ave., Los Angeles, Calif. 90025), dedicated to increasing organ donations and helping indigent children pay the high costs of cardiac surgery and transplants—more than $300,000 in Shelby's case. "There are organs available. People take them to their graves every day," he says. "That to me is one of the greatest tragedies in this world."

So far, the nonprofit foundation has raised about $300,000 through private donations and two celebrity golf tournaments. "It's wonderful that somebody like Carroll, who has benefited from the donation of a heart, has the wherewithal and the desire to give back," says pal James Garner, who drove a Shelby-designed car in the 1966 film Grand Prix. "A lot of people take, but they don't give."

Shelby has hired a director to manage the fund's money and is concentrating his own efforts on fund-raising. And for that, he has revved up an old partner: his classic Cobra.

Although Shelby shut down production of the car in 1967, he saved some of the parts for the additional 43 cars he had planned. Now, after extensive retooling of those original components plus the use of modern, aircraft-quality metallurgy, Shelby hopes to sell the reconstructed Cobras for as much as $500,000 each (at a rate of just two or three a year, to preserve their value) and donate profits to the fund. And in the process, he says, he can also set history straight. With about 100 companies worldwide now producing replicas of his classic roadster each year (and at least one manufacturer, A.C. Cars Ltd. of England and Wales, making creation claims of its own), "I decided I'd better reinstitute the fact before I died that I founded and manufactured the Cobra," he says.

Which is not to say, of course, that Shelby plans to check out anytime soon. "I've got more energy than I've had since 1960," he booms. But since he is, as he puts it, "sliding into home plate," he figures it couldn't hurt to shift into a lower gear. Now married to fourth wife Lena, a 46-year-old Swedish-born former real estate agent whom he first met at a chili cookoff in 1968 and began dating again in 1984, he also has three children and seven grandchildren from his first marriage. Hoping to spend more time with the brood, he has begun building a family compound near his Pittsburg, Tex., ranch, one of the three homes he owns. (He also has a place in Bel Air, Calif., and another on part of a tiny island off the coast of Mexico.)

For Shelby, however, slowing down is relative. An Army Air Corps pilot in World War II, he still flies a motor-powered glider and ultralights on weekends. Safari hunting has given way to animal breeding (miniature horses, goats and sheep), and there are his ongoing business interests, including a Goodyear Racing Tire distributorship and the packaging arm of his chili company (he sold the rest of the business in 1987). He has even eased himself back into car design, taking a hand in developing the Dodge Viper for Chrysler.

For Shelby, clearly, the race isn't over. After all, he says, "there are a lot of people on the wrong side of the grass. I'm still on the right side."

CYNTHIA SANZ
LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Lyndon Stambler.