Carroll Shelby and his Shelby Mustangs are in that rarified stratum of people and products that truly have stood the test of time. Both Shelby the man and Shelby the car are still going very, very strong after forty-plus years.
The complete Shelby history has filled countless books, so a quick overview (fitting for our short attention span society) will obviously skip a lot. Suffice to say, the accomplishments of Carroll Shelby and his cars could easily fill far more pages than we have.
Shelby cars date back to 1962 when he created the legendary Cobra. This hybrid British sports car and American V-8 was a huge success. That racing success led to modest Cobra sales, but the halo effect was substantial.
Ford executives were very aware of the positive publicity generated by the fact that a Ford small-block 289 V-8 was at the heart of the Cobra’s winning ways. The Cobra’s racing success coincided with the introduction of the new Mustang. Shelby was asked if he could work some of his performance magic on the Mustang. The result was the 1965 Shelby G.T. 350. The competition “R” model cleaned up in SCCA racing’s B/Production class, winning the championship in 1965, 1966 and 1967.
The initial ’65 Shelby G.T. 350 cars started out as Wimbledon White 2+2 fastbacks with the 271 hp K-code 289 V-8 and Borg-Warner four-speeds. The cars were sent to Shelby’s mini assembly plant in Los Angeles. There the Mustangs were turned into 2-passenger sports cars by removing the stock rear seat and replacing it with a fiberglass cover. Significant chassis improvements were made and horsepower was boosted to 306 with an aluminum intake, 715 cfm Holley 4-barrel carb, a dual-point ignition, Tri-Y exhaust headers and a low-restriction exhaust system.
The ’65 Shelby G.T. 350 was a thinly disguised, street legal racecar and as such it wasn’t the most civilized car to drive. The Competition model--cataloged the G.T. 350 Competition—was a fully prepared racecar, turn-key ready for SCCA B/Production racing right off the showroom floor. A total of 562 Shelbys were produced in 1965.
The cars were tamed for 1966—they were much more street-friendly and the rear seat returned. Shelby dropped the R model. An order from Hertz Rent-A-Car for one thousand G.T. 350s (most had automatic transmissions) accounted for almost half of the 1966 total sales (2,380 units).
The Mustang was restyled for 1967 and so were the Shelbys. A big-block was added to the lineup creating the G.T. 500. Fiberglass components were used to differentiate the Shelbys from standard Mustangs. The new, wider Mustang meant more room in the engine compartment. That allowed room for the 390 ci V-8 in regular Mustangs and the 428 ci V-8 in Shelbys. A pair of 600 cfm Holley carbs that were mounted backwards topped the Shelby 428. Even though gas was almost free in 1967 the 428’s linkage allowed the engine to run on the front two barrels until full throttle kicked in the remaining six barrels.
The ’67 G.T. 500 proved to be very popular selling almost twice as well as the G.T. 350 (2,048 vs. 1,175). 1967 was the last year that Shelbys were assembled at the California Shelby facility. Starting in 1968 production shifted to Livonia, Michigan, under Ford’s control.
More radical fiberglass components were used in 1968 to further distinguish the Shelbys from regular Mustangs. The new nose was the most obvious change. A very welcome addition to the 1968 Shelby lineup was the convertible body style. Convertibles were available as either a G.T. 350 or G.T. 500. The G.T. 350 used the 302 ci small-block V-8 and the G.T. 500 retained the 428 V-8, although the dual quads were gone.
Later in the 1968 model run when the 428 Cobra Jet engine became available it was placed in the Shelby G.T. 500 to create the G.T. 500KR (King of the Road). Carroll Shelby cleverly snatched the King of the Road name away from Chevrolet who was slated to use it on the Corvette. He quickly trade marked the name before Chevy got around to it. 1968 marked the zenith of Shelby G.T. sales with a total of 4,450 being produced. The G.T. 500s sold almost twice as well as the G.T. 350s.
Mustangs and Shelbys were again restyled in 1969. The long, sleek Shelby nose was deemed more handsome than the standard Mustang by many observers. They were still available in fastback and convertible body styles and G.T. 350 and G.T. 500 configurations.
Ford was placing an increased emphasis on the new Mach I SportsRoof models, plus there were the hot new Boss 429 and Boss 302 Mustangs. This proliferation of high performance Mustang fastbacks probably hampered Shelby sales.
The sales outlook had been optimistic based on the success of 1968 Shelbys. Although 3,153 Shelbys were sold in 1969 that wasn’t as many as were built, so the remaining cars were reassigned 1970 serial numbers and sold as new 1970 Shelby G.T. 350s and G.T. 500s. Two black hood stripes and a Boss 302 style front spoiler were added to differentiate the ’70 models from the ’69 Shelbys.
The Shelby G.T. Mustangs changed significantly from 1965 to 1970. They were much less the original, raw, race-bred street brawlers than still powerful but much more refined luxury cruisers. The whole corporate mentality had changed so much that Carroll Shelby no longer felt comfortable. The selling of the final 1970 Shelby G.T. (789 total units) marked the end of the Ford/Shelby collaboration.
Ford continued to stick the Cobra name on various Mustangs (some embarrassments, some near successes, and a few winners), but Carroll Shelby had become part of their past and not part of their present. That all changed in 2004 when Carroll Shelby and the Ford Motor Company renewed their working relationship. Shelby participated in the awesome Ford G.T. program, but it was the decision to build the new GT500 that really got the Ford/Shelby team back on track.
The current Ford and Shelby partnership has been nothing less than spectacular. In a very, very short time Shelby has once again lavished the Mustang GT with prestige and cachet. The new Shelbys have become instant collectibles and constant magazine cover cars.
The momentum of the new Ford Shelby GT500s makes it seem like there never was a decades-long break in production. As Chevrolet and Dodge scramble to bring back their pony cars Ford continues the large lead that it has always enjoyed.
The Mustangs and Shelby G.T.s trounced the competition in the sixties and they’re still doing it over forty years later. That’s what we call longevity.
Carroll Shelby, Ford Motor Company and fast Mustangs—that was a winning combination in the sixties and it’s every bit a winner today.
The 1965 Shelby G.T. 350 is the car that started the whole Shelby Mustang collaboration. The cars were homologated to compete in the SCCA B/Production class and hopefully trounce the Corvettes (which they did). Shelby never expected them to become hugely successful street performance cars as well.
This shot of the rear window of a ’65 G.T. 350 “R” competition car shows the spare tire mounted where normal Mustangs had their rear seats. The one-piece Plexiglas rear window had a two-inch gap at the top to help extract air from the interior.
The 1965 Shelby G.T. 350 was a terror on the racetrack when it was new and many owners still compete with them in vintage races.
The 1966 Shelby G.T. 350 was a much more civilized version of the original ’65 G.T. 350, but it still out-performed and out-handled regular Mustangs. This is a rare red G.T. 350H, because most Hertz Shelbys were black with gold stripes.
Here is a black and gold ’66 G.T. 350H. Most Hertz cars had automatic transmissions and smaller carburetors than the non-Hertz 4-speed ’66 G.T. 350s.
This is the all-important Shelby serial number tag, which designates this ’65 G.T. 350 as an incredibly valuable “R” model.
Extensive use of fiberglass components dramatically altered the appearance of the ’67 Shelbys. 1967 was the first year of the G.T. 500, which was powered by a dual quad topped 428 ci big-block. The location of the center headlights varied depending on the laws of the state where the car was originally sold.
Fiberglass components were again used to further alter the nose of ’68 Shelbys. The large capacity Shelby oil pan is visible underneath the car.
1968 saw the introduction of the first official Shelby convertible and the G.T. 500KR (King of the Road). This model is extremely desirable and rare as only 318 KR convertibles were produced.
This side-by-side shot of old and new Shelby GT500s demonstrates how well Ford has managed to integrate traditional Shelby styling cues with the new Mustang.
Many people consider the 1969 Shelby G.T. 500 fastbacks to be one of the best looking Mustangs ever produced. The unique, lengthened hood accentuates the already sleek Mustang SportsRoof styling.
These stylish wheels were unique to the ’69 and ’70 Shelbys.
This historic photo shows a young Carroll Shelby behind the wheel of one of his legendary Shelby Cobras.
Even today in his mid-eighties Carroll Shelby is a very vital, handsome man who still helps design very handsome, very fast sports cars.