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Ford Shelby Mustang

The History of the Shelby Mustang

If you talk to a car enthusiast about the Ford Mustang, you’ll get a few nods of appreciation. When you talk to anyone about the Shelby Mustang, you’re going to see some jaws drop and maybe even hear some low whistles. The Mustang is an American icon. The Shelby is an American legend. The Shelby isn’t a car people dream about owning — it’s a car people dream about seeing in person.

The Shelby Mustang wasn’t designed to be practical, family-friendly or even comfortable. In its earliest years, it was built with racecar specifications and it performed accordingly. The Shelby Mustang lives on in every car enthusiast’s imagination because of its stubborn refusal to become another sensible car. The Shelby is a car you buy because you want a racecar that was made street legal almost as an afterthought.

Carroll Shelby: The Man Behind the Machine

Carroll Shelby with Mustang

Born in Leesburg, Texas, Carroll Shelby seemed to be a man obsessed with speed his whole life. He was a flight instructor in World War II before he moved on to piloting land based vehicles. It wasn’t long before he started racing cars. For his first driving competition, a quarter-mile drag race, he drove a flathead Ford V-8 powered hot rod. He proved talented enough to upgrade to racing Aston Martins in Europe, breaking land speed records at the Bonneville flats and being named Sports Illustrated’s sports car driver of the year.

Heart problems threatened to end Shelby’s racing career early, but the man was so determined to stay on the track that he was known to pop nitroglycerine tablets to alleviate chest pain while racing. The pills were only a temporary fix and not a cure, so his racing career ended at the early age of 37. Though he was done racing, Shelby wasn’t willing to walk away from the automotive world completely.

First, he opened a racing school called the Shelby School of High Performance Driving. Then, he set his sights on designing a light, agile and powerful sports car. The result of this vision would be the prototype for the Cobra, known as chasis number CSX2000. In 1999, Motor Trend called this prototype the most significant car of the previous half-century. "Were it not for this car, there would be no Shelby Cobras: 260, 289, 427, Daytona Coupes, or otherwise. Were it not for this car, there would've been no Shelby Mustangs.”

The car’s success didn’t just mean he had created an influential design and a vehicle that could generate a lot of sales. It was also the basis of a successful racing platform, and Shelby endures today as America’s answer to Enzo Ferrari. In fact, his racing team had a longstanding rivalry with Ferraris. Shelby died at the age of 89 after singlehandedly altering the course of automotive history, both as a driver and a designer.

Shelby Mustang Through the Years

Though the name of the Shelby Mustang is iconic in and of itself, each year’s models are different enough from one another to warrant looking at them in detail. Some enthusiasts believe the Shelby Mustang gets better and better every year, while others think it strayed further and further from the greatness of the original. Here are some Shelby Mustang specs and a description of each model’s different features to help you decide which year is your favorite:

The Original: The 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350

This first version of the Shelby Mustang featured the iconic Cobra emblem that supposedly appeared to Carroll Shelby in a dream. "I woke up and jotted the name down on a pad which I kept by my bedside — a sort of ideas pad — and went back to sleep," Shelby said, "Next morning when I looked at the name 'Cobra,' I knew it was right."

Another thing Shelby got right on this model: sticking a 289-cubic-inch modified K-Code engine capable of 306 horsepower — a full 35 hp more than the standard 289cid engine — in a relatively small lightweight car. The result was a light car with incredible acceleration.

Since it was the first Shelby-made Mustang, it differentiated itself from the standard Mustang. Shelby included a one-inch monte carlo bar across the front suspension, which was definitely a racing feature. He also changed the steering geometry of the Mustang to improve the steering speed by 14%. The handling was improved by the 15 inch wheels that were originally fitted with low-angle nylon cord Goodyear tires. Like most things on the car, the tires were somewhere in between the worlds of Main Street and the racetrack: they were rated up to 130 mph.

Interestingly, the first three hundred 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350 produced came fitted with the battery in the trunk. This was actually an unpopular feature, as fumes would make their way up to the driver. At first, Shelby’s solution was to fit the battery with caps and hoses that forced the fumes out through holes in the bottom of the trunk. However, eventually, the battery was simply moved into the engine compartment.

1965 Shelby Mustang

Another distinctive feature of the ’65 was a high rising air intake manifold that rose from the hood of the car. This air scoop gave the Shelby Mustang its own distinctive look, and its engine received the nickname of the “Cobra high riser." The optional Guardsman Blue Le Mans racing stripes offered personalization options. The car was only available in Wimbledon White, so the stripes were the only chance a buyer had to personalize the car. Unfortunately, one contemporary review of this model warned that those sharp-looking stripes may give drivers undue attention from the local police force.

The differences between the regular Mustang and the GT350 extended to the interior of the car, where Shelby’s team decided to remove the rear passenger seats in favor of a sloping piece of lightweight fiberglass — leaving room for a spare tire.

This Shelby didn’t just bear a passing resemblance to a racecar: it was approved by the Sports Car Club of America for class B Production racing. It became the first mass-produced car that was officially ready for the racetrack. This wasn’t just a gimmick either, as the 1966 Shelby Mustang won the B-Production championship three years in a row.

The original Shelby sold for $4,547, which wasn’t cheap at the time. But it would have been a smart investment, since only 513 ’65 Shelby Mustangs were sold. They can now sell for over ten times their original sticker price. 

1966 Shelby GT350 and GT350H

The ’65 Shelby was uncompromisingly a racecar, but for the ’66 model, Shelby was willing to include a few consumer-friendly features. He added some backseats that folded down for extra trunk space, provided additional optional colors and extended exhaust pipes to reduce cabin noise. Additionally, his team added an optional automatic transmission.

The ’66 dropped the word Mustang from its name completely, and some other exterior changes were made as well. You can tell the difference between a ’65 and a ’66 by looking for rear quarter windows and brake scoops, which were added to the ’66. Under the hood, the ’66 kept the same modified K-Code 289 engine, making it just as much of a street legal racecar as its predecessor.

The 1966 Shelby had a unique variation: the GT350H. The H stands for Hertz, the car rental company. Shelby recognized that many people chose not to buy the ’65 because of the fact that owning a racecar isn’t exactly practical for everybody. The company made 1,001 special models just for Hertz, which were rented out in locations all across the company.

The cars weren’t any different than the regular GT350, except for their distinctive standard paint scheme: black with gold stripes. Most came with the automatic transmission, but a limited number were available with the manual transmission for purists. Anyone who wanted to rent a manual had to join the Hertz Sports Car Club, which only granted membership to those who could demonstrate their ability to properly work a stick shift.

Though the GT350Hs came with the optional back seats for family and friends, they were still advertised as “Rent-a-Racer” cars. Some renters raced their GT350Hs in production class car competitions.

1967 Shelby GT350 and GT500

When reflecting on the ’67 GT500, Carroll Shelby said, “This is the first car I’m really proud of.” And he had every reason to be. The GT350 came fitted with the same K-Code 289 engine, but the real story in 1967 was the GT500’s “Cobra Le Mans” engine. The engine used in the GT500 was based on the 427 cu. in. V-8  Shelby’s racing team used to sweep the top three places in the Le Mans Race, beating the Ferrari racing team’s 270 cu. in. V-12. This 427 cu. in. was a step up from the modified K-code 289 of previous years.

The ’67 model also came with a few aesthetic changes as well. It was the first car to feature a bona fide roll bar across the top of the cabin. The hood got an even bigger — but still functional — air scoop than the previous year. Around back, the trunk lid combined with the tail piece to form a spoiler lip. The lip may have been less functional than the air scoop, but it fit perfectly with the car’s borderline racecar image. The rear quarter windows of the ’66 were replaced with rear facing air scoops that let air out of the cabin for the ‘67.

Gone in Sixty Seconds Mustang Shelby Eleanor

All in all, the Shelby Mustang really came into its own both stylistically and performance-wise in 1967. This probably had something to do with the decision to feature it as, “Eleanor,” the ultimate car worth stealing, in the 2000 movie Gone in Sixty Seconds, starring Nicholas Cage. The 1967’s mystique can also be seen in the GT500 Super Snake. This variation of the ‘67 featured a modified 427 engine capable of producing over 650 horsepower. It sold at auction for $1.2 million, making it one of the most expensive Mustangs ever.

1968-69 Shelby Cobra GT350, 500 and 500KR: Marking the End of an Era

For 1968, Shelby’s Mustangs were known as Cobras and were marketed as the Shelby Cobra GT350 and the Shelby Cobra GT500. The ‘68s are distinguished by their shorter hoods that have the air intakes further towards the front. They also have redesigned grilles, which gave this year’s models a distinctive “shark-like” look.

As far as performance, 1968 is all about the GT500 KR — the KR stands for King of the Road. With the unparalleled combination of power and handling the GT500KR brought to drivers, it wasn’t an undeserved title. With the KR, Shelby seemed to do the impossible and arguably added an even better engine to his version of the Mustang with Ford’s 428 cubic inch V-8 Cobra Jet. This engine had Ram Air Induction and was capable of a total torque rating of 440 foot-pounds at 3400 RPM.

1968 Shelby Mustangs

To support this incredible amount of torque, the car featured a “Monte Carlo” bracing bar that helped stiffen the chassis. Twenty-one of the KRs were produced with a white convertible top, and 1968 marked the first year the Shelby Mustang was available as a convertible.

The ’69 Shelby Mustangs ditched the Cobra label from their name, and just like in ’66, they were simply referred to as Shelby GT350s and Shelby GT500s. 1969 brought further changes to the body of the Shelby GT350 and Shelby GT500, including making the body four inches longer. Carroll Shelby was less involved in the design of the ’69 model, and a combination of slower sales and creative differences caused the Shelby-Ford partnership to end in the summer of 1969. Leftover ‘69s were sold as ‘70s, and Shelby only produced his special brand of Mustangs per the request of a Belgian Shelby dealer for the next two years. These ’71 and ’72 models were known as “Shelby Europas” and were exclusive to Europe.

The Rebirth

The next time a Shelby GT was put on the market was as a rental for Hertz in 2006. Like its 1966 forbearer, this Shelby GT-H had a distinctive black paint with gold stripes color scheme. It differed from the Mustang GT, because it had an FR1 Power Pack from Ford Racing Performance Group that gave the GT-H an additional 25 horsepower and 10ft/lb of torque. It also came with a handling pack from Ford Racing to give it the racecar feel of the original.

Ford only built 500 of these GT-Hs, but demand was so high that they produced 6,000 retail versions of the GT-H in 2007. 2007 also saw the return of GT500, which has subsequently been produced every year since its return. This new generation of the Shelby GT500 is featured model after model that is even more high performance than its predecessors. The 2007-2009 models both were rated at a remarkable full 500 horsepower, thanks to a supercharged 5.4 liter V-8.

The 2010 model took its engine from the limited edition 2008-2009 GT500KR. A four cam 32 valve V-8, the engine added 40 more horsepower to the previous years’ engines. A 540 horsepower engine was used to set a Bonneville record or win the Indy 500, but here it is helping a Shelby Mustang get from 0-60 mph in 4.6 seconds.

The one problem with the 2007-2010 Shelbys was that the weight of their massive engines tended to make them a bit front heavy, negatively affecting handling. The Shelby team addressed this in the 2011-2012 modes by creating a 5.4 liter V-8 that had ten more horsepower than previous models, but weighed a full 100 lbs. less.  The result was a car even more powerful with much crisper steering.

Then, just when you thought they couldn’t possibly add more horsepower, Ford released the 2013-2014 Shelby Mustangs.The 2013-2014 models feature a 5.8 L 32-valve V8 supercharged engine. This new engine is capable of producing a mind-blowing 662 horsepower and 631 lb-ft. of torque. This model is capable of reaching illegal-everywhere-top-speeds of 200 miles per hour and a blazing 3.5 second 0-60 time. Though it doesn’t come cheap, its sub $60,000 price tag is unheard of for its performance capabilities.

Though Carroll Shelby isn’t alive today to see the latest incarnation of the first car he was ever “really proud of,” there’s no doubt he would be glad to see Ford’s dedication to delivering racetrack-level performance in a street-ready car.

Learn more about the Shelby Mustang in this definitive guide with facts, figures and features about the legendary Shelby.


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