Family agree to share ashes of frozen millionaire

Two and half months after Carroll Shelby's death, lawyers say he can be cremated, but his children and widow stay at loggerheads

As the creator of the muscle car, Carroll Shelby devoted his life to getting from A to B in the shortest time possible. But since his death almost three months ago, he's travelled exactly nowhere.

A bizarre legal battle between the famed car designer's widow, Cleo – she is wife number nobody is exactly sure how many – and his three children – Cleo is not their mother – reached a surreal head this week, when attorneys announced that, after an extended period of legal wrangling, his corpse can finally be cremated.

Shelby died on 10 May, aged 89, and his body was transported to a Dallas morgue soon afterwards. It has been sitting there ever since, at a temperature close to freezing, while both sides trade lawsuits over what should become of his ashes.

In an unlikely compromise, reached shortly before a scheduled court showdown on Thursday, he is to be cremated imminently. The remains will then be weighed by a mortician and divided into five equal portions: three will go to his children; one to Cleo; and one to a family plot in East Texas.

"We're not happy with it but we want to get my dad in the ground," Shelby's oldest son, Michael, declared. In a statement, Cleo described herself as thankful that "both sides have agreed to immediately halt the litigation involving the burial of my husband, and he will soon be laid to rest".

The agreement caps an undignified dispute that began when Cleo alleged that Michael had "arranged to exclude her" from Carroll Shelby's bedside in her husband's final months, accusing him of having "secretly spirited" Carroll from Los Angeles, where he had originally been in hospital, to Dallas.

With Cleo thousands of miles away, Carroll Shelby apparently signed written instructions for his body to be cremated, and for the ashes to be given to his children. His widow promptly alleged that the document was "forged" and said that she was instead entitled to control over his remains.

The children, for their part, say they are merely trying to carry out their late father's wishes. Carroll Shelby had filed for divorce from Cleo in 2010, and again in February this year. But the dissolution of the marriage was never formalised by a court.

That's unlikely to be the end of it, though: the children are concerned that the battle over control of Shelby's remains could represent the opening salvo in a bid by Cleo to get her hands on his multi-million dollar estate. His will is believed to have stipulated that it should instead go to his eponymous charitable foundation.

"By leaving his estate to the foundation, Dad put us above the fray, and we're fine with that," Mike Shelby told reporters.

His brother Pat added: "She [Cleo] wants control. But it won't be our battle."

The posthumous dispute opens what is expected to be the final chapter in a Carroll's swashbuckling story. He entered the public arena in the 1950s when he abandoned an unhappy existence as a chicken farmer in order to seek fame and fortune racing motor cars.

In a career spanning several decades, he managed a historic win at Le Mans in 1959, despite suffering from dysentery during the race, made several Grand Prix appearances for Aston Martin, and broke no fewer than 70 class records with an Austin Healey at Bonneville. He was twice named Sports Illustrated's Driver of the Year.

His greatest legacy, however, was the muscle car. He created the vehicles in the early 1960s, by sticking large Ford engines on a British chassis. When they were first shown at the New York Auto Show in 1962, they were the fastest production cars ever built. Their bullish styling continues to influence American car designs of the modern era, most notably the Ford Mustang.

Away from the car industry, Shelby launched, with varying degrees of success, careers as a safari tour operator, public speaker, and creator of a successful brand of chilli sauce. That same energy shaped his personal life: he married so many times that, following his death, friends were unable to confirm exactly how many former wives he'd clocked up, although Cleo, who was 25 years his junior, claimed to be the seventh.

High living may have also contributed to health problems in later life. His son Michael donated a kidney to him in 1996, six years after he'd been forced to undergo a heart transplant. At the time of his death, Shelby was believed to be the longest-surviving recipient of a new heart.

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