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Shelby Mustangs evolved from race cars into street cars

The initial batch of Shelby GT350s was based

The initial batch of Shelby GT350s was based on the "fastback" Mustang and a warmed over 289 V8. Credit: AP

Contrary to dreamers who think the Ford Mustang was all about performance, the simple fact is that the car was not initially intended to be anything more than a hip set of wheels for a hip new generation.

Performance wasn't really part of the total equation . . . until Ford decided it was going racing. By then the Mustang was just along for the ride.

What resulted was a string of GT 350 cars that began as raucous weekend warriors and track champions and ended as street-sensible tributes to the man who created them, Carroll Shelby.

But, it took some time to get there. Soon after the Mustang's April-1964 launch, Ford vice-president Lee Iacocca approached ex-racer and Cobra sports-car builder Carroll Shelby in a quest to put together a racing program for his newest and brightest sales star. Iacocca thought that track-proven performance was just the ticket to enhance the Mustang's reputation.

In short order, Shelby's California shop began the process of converting the relatively meek Mustang into a full-blown, race-ready stallion.

The Mustang's optional 289-cubic-inch engine was given an aluminum intake manifold (instead of cast iron) complete with a big Holley carburetor, low-restriction chrome air cleaner, large tube-type exhaust headers and a special flow-through exhaust system that exited below the doors.

The much modified engine (producing 306 horsepower, which was 35 more than top-dog 289 that was available) was connected to a heavy-duty four-speed manual transmission.

The front and rear suspension were significantly beefed up, larger front disc and rear drum brakes added and 15-inch wheels replaced the Mustang's standard 14-inchers.

Visually, the GT 350 was easy to spot with its twin 10-inch wide racing stripes running the entire length of the all-new fastback body. There were also stripes along the rocker panels with "GT 350" spelled out in block type. The stock hood was replaced with a fiberglass version held in place with hood pins.

Inside, aircraft-style three-inch wide racing safety belts were fitted and the rear seat was discarded, replaced by a fiberglass shelf where the spare tire was perched. A Cobra-style wood-rim steering wheel was also installed which meant relocating the horn to a dash-mounted toggle switch.

Two different versions of the GT 350 were originally made: an "S" version for the general public; and about two dozen strictly-for-racing "R" models (out of a total-first-year production of 562 cars). The competition GT 350 featured a special racing cam, oil cooler, larger-capacity radiator and big 32-gallon fuel tank. The 340-360 horsepower that resulted from these modifications turned the GT 350 into a major contender on the track.
In its first year, the new Mustang proved its competitive worthiness, winning nearly every race it entered in convincing fashion.

The street-going GT 350 cars were no slouches, either, and were capable of 6.5-second zero-to-60-mph times and could run the quarter mile - the yardstick of acceleration - in 15 seconds at 95 mph.

On the negative side, the GT 350 was a handful to drive, demanding the driver's full attention. The non-power steering required considerable brute force and the heavy-duty brakes demanded an equal amount of leg strength to get the car stopped. If that wasn't enough, your ears took a beating from the engine racket booming into the stripped interior while your eyes and lungs filled with high-test exhaust fumes.

As much as the GT 350 was loved for its purity, so suffered the everyday folk who found one parked in their driveway. And so began the GT 350's slow metamorphosis to street-friendly from race-ready. Some might call it compromise, but others would argue it was essential to give the car broader appeal and help stave off its eventual extinction.

So, in 1966, several modifications were made, including rerouting the exhaust system to exit out the rear, changing the fiberglass hood to steel, adding side scoops to assist rear brake cooling and knocking out the fastback's rear-side louvers in favor of tiny plastic windows.

A new option was a rear seat that could be installed in place of the spare-tire shelf for those wanting both passenger room and performance.

Not surprisingly, nearly 2,400 GT 350s - a leap of more than 1,800 units - were sold. Of that total, 1,000 were dubbed the Shelby GT 350H and delivered to Hertz, which added the cars to its rental fleet. As a consequence, a number of these automatic transmission-equipped cars with their distinctive black paint and gold stripes wound up in the hands of weekend racers, and the program was soon dropped.

Professional drivers continued to achieve success with the GT 350, with the car winning its second straight Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) championship.

By 1967, the street evolution was nearly complete, with most of the GT350s destined for civilian use. As a result, many came with a more street-happy 250-horsepower 302 cubic-inch V8 and were loaded with air conditioning and other cruiser-class pleasantries. To keep adrenaline junkies satisfied, a high-performance model called the GT 500 was added to the lineup. These Shelbys originally used either 390- or 428-cube powerplants and boasted as much as 400 horsepower.

The last full year of Shelby GT 350 production (which had been assumed by Ford) was 1969. And with a new body design came a new Shelby appearance package, complete with wrap-around chrome front bumper, Shelby-only aero bits, tail lights and unique center-exit dual exhaust.

Power consisted of a 290-horse 351 V8. Leftover Shelbys, about 350 in all, spilled into the new model year to be sold as 1970 cars. At Shelby's request, production ceased. By that time, the new Mach 1, Boss 302 and 429 Mustangs could outperform the more expensive Shelby counterparts.

The line ended there, but the world remains thankful for the day Ford decided to take its little pony to the races.

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