DETROIT (Reuters) - Carroll Shelby, designer of the Shelby Cobra and other sports cars that placed him in the pantheon of auto industry legends, has died at age 89, his company said on Friday.
He died on Thursday at Baylor Hospital in Dallas, according to the company, Carroll Shelby Licensing. The firm did not disclose the cause of death. A post on his Facebook page last month revealed he had been hospitalized for pneumonia.
Shelby was one of the few prominent designers to work with all three major American car companies, starting with Ford Motor Co in the 1960s. His last collaboration with Ford was on the 2013 Ford Shelby GT500.
Shelby's high-performance cars helped Detroit challenge the dominance of the Europeans in racing. Ralph Gilles, head of product design for Chrysler, said Shelby created cars that helped enthusiasts worldwide find "joy and self-actualization."
"My name is Carroll Shelby and performance is my business," Shelby said in an early commercial for the Cobra.
He was born in Leesburg, Texas, in 1923. He started racing cars in the 1950s, and in 1959 he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a marathon race held in France.
He was diagnosed with a serious heart condition in 1959 that forced him to quit racing. Shelby had a heart transplant in 1990 and a kidney transplant in 1996.
He drove one race with nitroglycerin pills under his tongue to prevent against a heart attack. He complained that he would have won if not for the pills.
He soon turned his attention toward designing. He approached Lee Iacocca, who was then at Ford, about building a lightweight A.C. roadster with a Ford engine. That car became the Cobra, a name that Shelby said came to him in a dream.
In 1962, the Cobra was introduced at the New York Auto Show and Shelby's company began making the cars in California later that year. In 1964, Ford asked Shelby to develop a high-performance Mustang. That same year the song "Hey Little Cobra" by the Rip Chords embedded the sports car in pop culture.
"Whether helping Ford dominate the 1960s racing scene or building some of the most famous Mustangs, his enthusiasm and passion for great automobiles over six decades has truly inspired everyone who worked with him," said Edsel Ford II, grandson of the No. 2 U.S. automaker's founder Henry Ford.
He parted ways with Ford in the 1970s and headed to Chrysler, where he revamped the K car and worked on the initial design of the Dodge Viper. He also worked for General Motors Co's Oldsmobile division.
Shelby sued Ford in the 1990s over the use of the Cobra name. That suit was settled and by 2001, he was collaborating with the automaker again.
"From his personal influence on our Dodge GLH cars to his inspiration on the original Dodge Viper concept, we've lost a true automotive legend," said Gilles, who also leads Chrysler's performance brand, SRT, which unveiled the 2013 SRT Viper at the New York Auto Show this year.
Shelby is survived by three children six grandchildren, four great grandchildren and his wife, Cleo.
Reporting by Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Xavier Briand, Bernard Orr