Real sports cars are not gilded versions of passenger coupes, but sometimes, sports cars are as sports cars do. So it goes with the Shelby GT-350.
When Carroll Shelby reworked a 1965 Ford Mustang to within an inch of its ponycar life, the result was a howling, hard-riding, two-seat fastback that beat the pants off a passel of “authentic” sports cars. “It is...certainly the most sporting street machine we have driven in a long while, and anyone who tells you it isn’t a genuine sports car is nuts,” said Car and Driver in its very first test of the Shelby GT-350.
With Mustang a sales sensation after its April 1964 debut, Ford chief Lee Iacocca sought some performance credibility by going Corvette-hunting in Sports Car Club of America B-production racing. He recruited Shelby, who had just stuffed the British A.C. Ace with Ford power to create the Cobra.
Shelby’s team worked out of a small shop in Venice, California. Ford shipped over white fastback Mustangs fitted with the “Hi-Performance” 289 V-8, four-speed gearbox, front discs, and Ford Galaxie drum brakes and rear axle in place of the stock Mustang’s lighter Falcon pieces. Shelby-American stiffened the structure, supplemented the suspension, reworked the steering, and fitted 15 x 6-inch wheels with Goodyear Blue Dot highspeed tires. It added 35 hp with an aluminum manifold and larger carb, slapped on side-exit dual exhausts, and installed a 4.11:1 locking differential. All cars got a scooped fiberglass hood, and most had extra-cost blue racing stripes. By omitting the rear seat, Shelby GT-350s could race as sports cars rather than sedans. Competition “R” models had no interior trim and got a blueprinted Cobra racing 289, fiberglass nose valance with cooling ducts, plexiglas side windows, 34-gallon gas tank, and 15 x 7 magnesium wheels.
Priced at $4547 -- $1000 below a Corvette -- the Shelby GT-350 got rave reviews, while the $5950 R-model cleaned up in B-production, winning the 1965 national championship and four of five regional titles. The same cars won again in ’66 and in ’67.
The 1966 Shelby GT-350s got plexiglas rear quarter windows, bodyside air scoops, and eventually came in more colors. They had a backseat, tamer suspension and steering, and offered the locking diff as an option -- along with automatic transmission. Shelby even built about 1000 gold-striped GT-350H models for the Hertz rental fleet. Shelby Mustangs grew increasingly softer after ’66, and were eventually absorbed into regular Ford production, leaving the original editions as exemplary exceptions to the sports-car rule.