In 1964, the Mustang was the car everyone wanted. How do you make it even better? You turn it into a Shelby. This is the Ford Mustang, the world’s most popular car. Does that statement sound a little outrageous? Well, consider this. The Mustang is the only car in history that ever sold a half million cars in its first six months and over a million cars in its first two years.
The Ford Mustang – A Car and an Event
When the Mustang hit the market, it was more than just a car. It was an event. In fact, it was the event that changed the automobile industry. Explains Tom Shaw: “The Mustang was really an original thought. It was not an answer – it was its own unique idea. It was aimed, primarily, at the young Baby Boomers who were coming up into car buying age.” The Mustang was the perfect blend of Ford’s marketing skill and engineering excellence.
The first generation Mustangs were sporty looking runabouts, which didn’t set any performance records. But in the years that followed, Ford managed to develop the car and sell it to millions of people as a sports car, a muscle car, and a luxury car. Because the Mustang was such an immediate hit, it was the perfect platform for America’s most memorable and sought after specialty cars: the Shelby GT 350 and the GT 500. The Mustang was one of two key elements in Ford’s plan to replace the Corvette as America’s sports car. The other key element was their partnership with an American racing legend, Carroll Shelby.
The Shelby Mustangs
The Mustang that carried the Shelby name were truly amazing cars. The Shelby Mustangs were symbols of Detroit’s ability during the muscle years to build cars that were a cut above the ordinary. Today, everywhere Shelby Mustangs go, they stop traffic and turn heads. People who restore these cars know they’ve brought something very special back to life. This Mustang magic is what led Charles and Liz Lambert to become a two Mustang family: “The blue color catches peoples’ attention a little bit and then you can see them looking. When I come behind Liz in the Shelby you can see the jaw fall down. That’s the awesome part. Catch ‘em when this comes behind the blue one.”The Shelby Mustang is a fascinating chapter in what is already the best success story in muscle car history.
Wherever they’ve competed, Fords have always been at the head of the pack. Ford has always competed in motor racing for one reason: to be #1 in sales against arch rival Chevrolet. Whatever Chevy did, Ford had to do it better. But there was one kind of racing where Ford didn’t have a car that was competitive: sports car racing. The Chevrolet Corvette had established itself, in the late 50s, as America’s sports car and as a world class road racer. Ford had nothing to put on the line against it. The Ford Thunderbird, which began life in 1955 as a sports car, had outsold the Corvette 13 to 1. But it had grown from a two seat roadster into a personal luxury car and no longer bore any resemblance to a sports car. So in 1964, Ford reached the young generation with their introduction of the Mustang. This was the car that would give them the lead over Chevrolet and become the sports car they had been looking for. Says Tom Shaw: “When Mustang hit on April 17, 1964, it was an immediate success. It was debuted at the world’s fair in NY and people were already lining up to get the cars.”
The 1964 Ford Mustang
The mid year introduction of the Mustang was timed perfectly. If Ford had brought it out in September, with ll the new models, it might have gotten lost in the clutter. But it debuted in April all by itself, sharing the spotlight with none of the other 1964 models and far in advance of the 1965 cars. It was offered only in a coupe or a convertible and its price tag was attractive. Just $2368. With its long hood, short deck styling and sports car interior, the youth market responded in numbers the automobile industry had never seen.
Tom Fraser opines: “Today, as far as cars go, the production figures run between 300 and 350,000 usually of a #1 selling car. But in 1965 and 1966 they built 1,159,000 Mustangs. It was still today the most important car in production ever made.” The Mustang was not built as a performance car, but rather it was aimed at the vast untapped market of young people who wanted all the thrills of a sports car, combined with the luxury and reliability of a good old American car. In 1965, Ford started upgrading the car’s performance. They now offered the car in the fast back called the 2+2 and it came with more engine options including the high performance 289 V8, which made the Mustang run as good as it looked.
Remembers Tom Shaw: “Just a couple months into production, Ford offered its K engine, which was a solid lifter 289, four barrel carburetor. It wasn’t a roll your eyeballs into the back of your head torque monster but it was a very strong performance engine. More like an American version of a sports car.” With the outstanding success of the Mustang, Ford was really out front and pulling away. But that old desire to go head to head with the Corvette, still lingered inside Ford Motor Company.
Ford had always believed that racing improved the breed. In ’64 and ’65, they were improving their cars every week. Ford slugged it out with Dodge and Plymouth every week from Darlington to Martinsville, banging fenders, thrilling millions, and selling lots of full sized Galaxies. Ford also wanted dominance at the drag strip. Their ’64 Fairlane Thunderbolt was a hand built car that weighed just about 2800 pounds. Powered by the big 427, the Thunderbolt had the acceleration curve of a rocket sled. The culmination of Ford’s American racing efforts was its win at the Indianapolis 500 in 1964 with their 289 V8. After conquering practically every kind of racing in America, Ford set its sights on the big prize: international sports car racing. The goal to win the 24 hours of LeMans. So Ford had designed a special car called the Ford GT and they called upon a California road racer to help them build it.
Tom Fraser pays tribute to Shelby: “Carroll Shelby is just the American icon of racing. He is it. That’s Carroll Shelby and Carroll Shelby started out as a racer. Consequently, his relationship with Ford grew and that’s when they first started bringing in the little cars from England, stuffing 260 engines into the Cobras. Then they put in 289s going to 427s. Then they started to do the Mustangs.” Charles Lambert goes on to say: “Carroll Shelby’s history just speaks on its own. He started in the 50s, late 50s, racing. The biggest one was LeMans. Ford went over to Italy to buy Ferrari. They actually wanted to buy them and Ferrari said ‘We want to keep the racing side out of it.’ Ford got mad, came back to America and said ‘We’re just gonna beat ‘em. Whatever it costs, let’s build a car and win LeMans. Let’s show Ferrari what we can do.’”
But the Corvette was still a thorn in Ford’s side. Sure, Ford had won LeMans and Indianapolis, but Corvette was a real sports car that you could buy at your local Chevy dealer. So where was Ford’s over the counter sports car? Right here, lurking beneath the skin of the sporty little Mustang. So once again, Ford turned to Carroll Shelby to make this little runabout into an all American race car. All it needed was a little modification to its performance and its image. So the first thing they did was give it a racy name and called it GT 350. Most of Shelby’s modifications were done to the engine and suspension. The high winding 289 with its bore of 4 inches and stroke of 2.87 inches already cranked out 271 horsepower. But when Shelby added a bigger 715 CFM Holley Carburetor on an aluminum intake manifold and tubular exhaust headers, this boosted its output to 306 horsepower. All Shelby Mustangs were made from the 2+2 body. Just 562 Shelbys were built in 1965, enough to let it race against the Corvette in the popular racing series sponsored by the sports car club of America.
The 1966 Shelby GT 350
By 1966, the Shelby GT 350 had made a name for itself. It had already reclaimed some road racing success from Corvette and it was now the show horse in Ford’s stable. The Shelby GT 350 was one of the most racy cars in America. It had a fiberglass hood with a functional scoop and rear brake cooling scoops. The Mustang’s roof vents were replaced by clear Plexiglas, a distinctive Shelby touch. They all sported side stripes with GT 350 lettering. These stripes were immediately copied by Ford on many of its other performance models. The driver’s compartment of the ’66 Shelby was very civilized. There were vinyl bucket seats and their seat belts were genuine competition type units. Shelbys also sported a five gauge instrument panel, a wood trim steering wheel, and a tach in a dash mounted pod. Softer springs and shocks and a conventional exhaust system served notice that the GT 350 Mustang was no longer an all out turn key racing package. However, all the go fast goodies were still available from Ford’s parts department if you wanted to make your own SCCA production racer.
The Shelby Mustang – Hertz-Style
The Shelby Mustang was so famous by now that Hertz commissioned Ford to make a version just for them. With a special black and gold paint scheme, this Hertz GT 350 was distinguished by Hertz center caps in the rally wheels and the letters GT 350 H on its sides. Hertz customers were delighted to discover that for $17/day at17 cents a mile they could pretend to be a racer until the rental period expired. Recollects Tom Fraser: “The Hertz cars, they made 1000 of them, only 85 of them were four speed and the rest of them, 915 were automatics. Everyone tells all their famous tales about renting a car from Hertz and how much fun they had. They had so much fun that Hertz abandoned the program in one year.”
The 1967 Ford Mustang
As the Mustang’s body style change in 1967, Carroll Shelby’s little GT changed a long with it. And it also sported a new engine. The Mustang was growing out of its image as a cute little car for the sporty crowd and into its new image as a rip roaring street machine. Chevrolet’s introduction of the Camaro with a 396 engine upped the performance anty for the pony car. And Ford responded with new engine options for 1967. Says Tom Shaw: “Up through ’66, the engine department could only accept the small block 289. In ’67 there was a major redesign and the engineers reworked the motor compartment to accept a Ford big block. The top engine at that time was the 390.” The 390 had another attribute. It was the same size as the police interceptor 428. This fact was immediately apparent to Shelby’s engineers. Shelby was already intimately familiar with this series of Ford motors, having used the similar sized 427 in the Daytona Cobras and the LeMans cars. But Ford squeezed it into the Mustang and it opened up flood gated performance for the Shelby Mustang. Charles Lambert explains: “The engine’s a 428 police interceptor, rated at 355 horsepower. Truly that was a rating for insurance reasons and to keep the horsepower down at that time. I believe it’s pushing about 400-410, would be more realistic.”
Two Holley 600 CFM four barrel carburetors on an aluminum intake manifold, cast iron factory headers and a 12.5/1 compression ratio completed this engine, which was in reality, a slightly detuned racing motor. “Just a little bit of torque…”
The GT 500
This engine in the all new ’67 Mustang deserved a new name, so Shelby christened it the GT 500. There was no mistaking it for any other car on the street. The GT 500 for ’67 sported some new fiberglass vents and a pair of large driving lights in the middle of the grill. At the rear there was an all new spoiler and new tail lights. One of America’s foremost authorities on the value of collector cars, particularly Mustangs, is Tom Fraser: “The car is, to me, the favorite of the American muscle cars. Wood steering wheel, massive power. They underrated them at 355 horsepower and I just personally think that the ’67 GT 500 is a fabulous car.”
The 1968 Mustang
If the ’67 Mustangs were memorable, then the ’68s were definitive. The emergence of the 428 Cobra jet engine was big news on the street. And even bigger news on the drag strip. Points out Tom Shaw: “The Mustang really came into its own in the spring of ’68 with the introduction of the 428 Cobra jet. The engine was developed by a Ford dealer in Rhode Island and this guy was very in tune with what was going on with the young guys on the street.” 1968 marked another turning point for the Shelby Mustang as Ford and Carroll Shelby parted company. In 1969, the Shelby’s sports racer image was just about gone. It was now more luxurious and refined. But it still had Ford horsepower. This combination would make it the best selling Shelby of all time. Plush bucket seats, a lavish dash, and more chrome and wood trim adorned an interior that now rivaled Thunderbird for high style. The Shelby GTs with an all new body style were one level higher with its scoops, air dams, spoilers, and of course the all important graphics and Cobra badges. The front fenders, hood, and valance panel were all fiberglass. And the hood incorporated new air ducts, inspired by America’s space program. Ford still offered two Shelbys for 1969, the GT 500 with the 428 Cobra Jet engine and the GT 350 with an all new 351 V8, built in Windsor, Ontario and called the Windsor engine. Says Tom Fraser: “The 351 engine in the GT 350 actually is one of the best street cars that you can have. A beautiful shape that a lot of people love, and easy to drive with massive power.”
The 1969 Shelby Mustang
The Shelby cars had been the jewel of Ford’s line up ever since 1965 but in 1969, the Shelby faced its first real challenge to its image and the challenge came from another Mustang. In a bit of irony, the racing body that helped created the Shelby Mustang back in 1965 now made it obsolete. The new racing series for pony cars was called the Trans Am and Ford had built this Mustang especially to dominate the Chevy Camaro Z 28 in this series. Ford had finally built the car that would give them the sports car panache they had always wanted and without Carroll Shelby.
Like most of the muscle cars, Mustangs carved heir own niche in the automotive landscape. Theirs just happened to be the largest one. The original pony car had many imitators. But when Shelby put his stamp on the Mustang it had no equal. Explains Tom Shaw: “Mustang has had to evolve and change and adapt with the times and the market pressures at work but it’s always stood for a sporty car that’s affordably priced and delivers a lot of driving excitement” Many great muscle cars have come and gone, but it makes sense that the most popular car of all time would still endure. With the same magnetic attraction to car lovers. Charles Lambert talks about the dream of owning a Mustang: “I dreamed about getting a Shelby and it was one of those that you don’t think you’re going to obtain and we looked for two years to find one that I could work on and save some money.” “Save some money?” Asks his wife, Liz Lambert. “It’s an oxymoron when someone’s talking about a Shelby. Saving money?” He laughs: “But after two years, we did find this one and it was something I could work on and put back together and I’m just very happy that I was able to do that.”
The Mustang Lives On
Unlike many of the great muscle cars, the Mustang is still alive today and just like in the 60s and 70s, it’s one of the most powerful and desirable muscle cars in the world. Its heritage of performance and styling attracts today’s young people and still appeals to those who loved the Mustang thirty years ago. Restoration expert Keith Maney says: “Fortunately now, we’re in a situation where performance is coming back into vogue a little. However, it’s going to take a while and we as Americans tend to romanticize things that have happened in the past anyway. So as we look back on the muscle car era and enjoy, we remember the good things, tend to not remember the bad things.” As for the Shelbys, they were the most special version of a car which itself was an automotive landmark. Collectors will tell you that the reason they wanted one of these cars was because they were different and because of the name Shelby. Liz Lambert says: “They named their children, their daughter, their dogs, their cats Shelby.” Even people who don’t really realize what these cars are, what they are worth, what we do with them. I think that people are still very aware in this country and the world over that Carroll Shelby does exist and what he has done.”
This is what happens when you take the world’s most popular car and give it the name of a legend.