Take Cover, Chevy: In 1965, Corvette heard hoof beats of the Shelby GT350
By WILLIAM JEANES/AUTOWEEK
Those of us who remember 1964 with clarity recall the introduction and later success of the Ford Mustang with enduring wonder. Suddenly, Mustangs were everywhere, proliferating with the speed of Bugs and the Bunny family. The media covered the Mustang's success with the breathlessness usually accorded earthquakes and kidnappings. Lee Iacocca, who never shrank from claiming fatherhood of the Mustang, appeared on the cover of Time. Mustang owners learned how good the receiving end of envy could feel while non-owners went to bed sulking. The Mustang was the last American car to become an overnight, runaway success.
Though it can properly be called a phenomenon, the early Mustang was neither a muscle car like Pontiac's GTO nor a sports car like the E-type Jaguar. It wasn't even as much a sports car as the Corvette. It was just a honking success in the marketplace. The money rolled in at Ford, but the car got no respect from serious car enthusiasts.
Ford, in '64, had a vigorous NASCAR racing program based on the "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" theory of marketing. Under Iacocca, Ford's ad campaign based on a "Total Performance" image was well under way. Iacocca wanted the Mustang position-ed under the company's performance umbrella, and he knew just the man to do it.
Carroll Shelby, progenitor of the Cobra-still the only American-built car to win a world manufacturers' championship-says Iacocca asked him how to take the Mustang racing. The answer was simple enough: Build a version that could be competitive on the SCCA racing circuit. Ford had earlier tried- heavy-handedly-to get the Mustang into SCCA racing, but had been rightly rebuffed by the purists in charge.
To compete, Shelby had to build a minimum of 100 of the would-be participants. Shelby produced these cars first at the Shelby American facility in Venice, California, and later at a larger compound at the edge of the L.A. airport. He based his unnamed car on a stock Mustang fastback powered by the 289 High Performance V8, optional in certain Ford models. After several meetings failed to produce a name for the racing Mustang, Shelby named the car GT350-because 350 feet separated the Shelby American production shop from its race shop.
Beginning with a plain vanilla '65 Mustang, Shelby American performed numerous modifications to the car's running gear, massages that included relocated A-arms, a larger antiroll bar, improved brakes, a Borg-Warner T-10 close-ratio manual transmission and larger wheels and tires. By removing the rear seat, the car met the SCCA's demand that it be a two-seater. By SCCA diktat, the engine was left alone, except for those engines in the GT350s configured for racing and known unofficially as R models. These were balanced and blueprinted. Their published horsepower was 350-a statistic often incorrectly associated with the GT350 designation.
Roger West and Richard Macon drove this privately owned GT350 in the 1966 Daytona 24 hour. 1966 saw 2378 GT350s made.
With its larger wheels and tires, a loud exhaust system and the muscular 289, the GT350 projected a persona astonishingly different from normal Mustangs. The appearance was further distinguished by the double "Le Mans" racing stripes conceived and executed by Peter Brock, who designed the Cobra Daytona. Only because the drugs were essentially unknown in 1965, no one wrote the GT350 looked and felt like a Mustang on steroids-which would have been the truth.
It's fitting and proper that the first mention of the Shelby GT350 appeared in AutoWeek's predecessor, Competition Press & Auto Week's Nov. 7, 1964 issue. Referring to the car as a "Cobra-Mustang," the piece revealed the SCCA had accepted the car for its B Production class.
The Shelby GT350 first flexed its muscle for the automotive press at Riverside Inter-national Raceway on Jan. 27, 1965, only nine months after the nation's car buyers had gone into a swoon over the Ford Mustang. The press had never seen anything quite like it. One journalist aptly encapsulated the car's style and soul by calling it "a brand-new, clapped-out race car."
In February, at Green Valley Raceway in east Texas, Ken Miles put the GT350 in a winner's circle for the first time. Miles, who did most of the engineering and development work on the GT350, won three separate races before a crowd of 18,000 fans. Notice was served that GT350s would have XKE and Corvette racers jumping from office windows.
GT350s won five of six SCCA division championships in 1965 and Jerry Titus and Walt Hane finished 1-2 at the American Road Race of Champions. Only a tire failure on then-unknown Mark Donohue's GT350 prevented a 1-2-3 sweep. Hane won the B Production title at the 1966 ARRC, and Freddy Van Bueren won in 1967, the last year a GT350 won a national championship. Beginning with the 1967 models, GT350s made inferior competitors, though original R models remained competitive into the 1970s.
The GT350 and the more powerful GT500s survived until 1970, but for purists then and now, the real Shelbys are the 1965-66 versions. Shelby, ever the canny market-er, realized early on that the market for a rough-riding muscle car was limited. The car's relatively stiff price tag ($4,547 for the street GT350, $5,995 for the R model) quick-ly put it into the affluent buyer category. Accordingly, as the years passed, the cars became more Ford and less Shelby, more style and less substance.
The first year's production of GT350s amounted to 562, including 36 R models and a handful of oddball versions. In 1966 Shelby American built 2378 GT350s, including 1000 GT350Hs, the car you could rent from Hertz and, theoretically, race. These cars spawned a wealth of undocumented tales of racing the car unbeknownst to Hertz. A few renters did some low-level drag racing and autocrossing, but most storytellers conveniently overlook the inability of a street-trim GT350 to pass technical inspection at any organized race. Some bits-including an engine or two-got swapped for stock Mustang components, but scant credibility attends any "racing the renter" stories.
In 1967 Shelby American built 3225 GT350s and introduced a model powered by Ford's hefty 428-cid V8. Shelby named this car the GT500, a numerical designation chosen only because he thought it sounded right and looked good.
The end of 1967 marked the end of Shelby American's California production activity. Subsequent Shelby GTs were built at the A.O. Smith Co. in Ionia, Michigan. That the Shelbys built in California were replaced by increasingly soft cars built in Michigan by a company named Smith seems somehow appropriate.
The GT500KR replaced the Smith-built Shelby GT500s in 1968. The KR stood for King of the Road but was unrelated to Roger Miller's 1965 chart-topping song of that name. According to the 1997 Shelby American World Registry, a 1336-page compendium of Shelby cars and lore, GM had planned to use King of the Road to identify a high-horsepower version of its Chevelle. Ever ready to spike the General, Shelby snookered the GM marketers.
In September 1969 Carroll Shelby ended the GT350/500 program after building 13,769 cars. The last Shelbys were 1969 models changed to 1970 models via VIN transplants, and were as different in spirit from early Shelbys as chili is from tapioca pudding. Yet all Shelbys-including Cobras-are today gathered under the tent of the Shelby American Automobile Club (saac.com). The SAAC knows as much or more about the cars it reveres as any marque club anywhere, and its members have made permanent the GT350's place in the pantheon of performance cars. The club's membership of 5500 shows the cars still exercise a hold on enthusiasts.
Even Carroll Shelby is a member.