A Deeper Dive: The Shelby Mustang Story

Contrary to those who think the Ford Mustang was all about performance, the car was initially not intended to be anything more than a set of wheels for a hip new generation. Performance wasn’t really part of the equation until Ford decided to get into racing.

Shortly after the Mustang’s April 1964 launch, Ford vice president Lee Iacocca approached former race and sports car builder Carroll Shelby to put together a racing program. Iacocca believed that track-proven performance was just the way to improve the Mustang’s reputation.

Shelby’s California boutique has begun the process of converting the relatively sweet Mustang into a race-ready stallion. It made a number of changes including its exhaust system and suspension, and modified its 289 cubic inch engine to produce 306 horsepower.

Visually, the Shelby GT 350 was easy to spot: it had two 10-inch-wide racing stripes running the length of the all-new fastback body. There were also stripes along the rocker panels with “GT 350” spelled out in block. Inside, three-inch-wide, airplane-style racing seat belts were installed and the rear seat was thrown out, replaced with a fiberglass shelf where a spare tire perched.

Two different versions of the GT 350 were originally made: an “S” version intended for the general public; and about two dozen “R” models strictly intended for racing (out of a total production of 562 cars in the first year).

In its first year, the new Mustang won nearly every race it entered convincingly. GT 350 street cars were no slouch either and could complete the quarter mile – the measure of acceleration – in 15 seconds at 95 mph (150 km/h).

On the negative side, the GT 350 demanded the full attention of the driver. The manual steering required considerable brute force, and the heavy-duty brakes required equal leg strength to stop the car. If that wasn’t enough, there was engine noise in the stripped-down interior and the pronounced presence of exhaust.

Thus began the slow metamorphosis of the GT 350 into a street-ready, race-ready version. In 1966, several changes were made, including rerouting the exhaust system to exit out the rear. Another option was that the rear seats could be installed in place of the spare wheel shelf. Unsurprisingly, nearly 2,400 GT 350s were sold.

By 1967 the street evolution was nearly complete, with most GT350s being intended for civilian use. Many came with a more street-friendly engine and were loaded with air conditioning and other cruiser-class banter. To satisfy adrenaline junkies, a high performance model, called GT 500, was added to the lineup.

The last full year of production for the Shelby GT 350 was 1969 (some were sold as 1970 cars). Along with a new body design, a new appearance package was added, featuring a wrap-around chrome front bumper, taillights and a unique mid-exit dual exhaust.

The line ended there (Ford revived the name in 2005), but the world remains grateful for the day Ford decided to take its pony to the races.

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