Cool Cars & Tech
Since the late 1950s when he first gained famed for winning the 24 Hours of Lemans as a driver for Aston Martin, the late Carroll Shelby managed to stay in the limelight and remain relevant until his recent death.
On the racetrack, the American gained initial notoriety for his rudimentary Ford-powered Cobra sports cars that regularly beat more sophisticated Chevrolet Corvettes and Ferraris. Shelby then cemented his legend status by beating the Europeans on their home turf when he took a Ford GT40 to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1967. Driven by Dan Gurney and A.J. Font, Jr., it remains the only American-made race car driven by American drivers to win the famous French race.
While race cars made Shelby a legend, developing and modifying production cars made him a living. So, chronologically, here’s a list of the top production cars old’ Shel put together:
1962 to 1965 Shelby Cobra 260 Mk I & 289 Mk II
While Ford ended up festooning the Cobra name on some questionable street cars (i.e. the 1978 Mustang II King Cobra), for many Shelby fans, the original Cobras are the beginning and the end when it comes to the street cars Shelby built.
By wedging a 260 cubic-inch Ford-sourced vee-eight into waif-like British AC Ace roadster bodies, even with only 271 horsepower from the larger 289 cu.in. Mk II versions, the Shelby Cobra’s power-to-weight ratio allowed it to be a giant killer on the track.
1965 to 1967 Shelby Cobra 427 Mk III
Of all the street cars Shelby produced, the Cobra Mk III has become the most iconic — and most copied by the kit-car industry.
During an era when “more” was considered “better”, the Cobra Mk III certainly had “more” of everything.
Under its hood was a 425 hp, 427 cu. in. vee-eight. And to make room for a more sophisticated suspension, the original Cobra’s fenders were swollen to outrageous proportions.
1965 to 1966 Shelby Mustang GT350
Despite selling a gazillion copies since it went on-sale in the spring of 1964, insiders at Ford were getting antsy their Mustang was garnering a reputation as a “secretary’s car.”
A call to Shelby fixed that.
He took the Ford Falcon-based ‘Stang and did two things: 1) whipped the car into shape to race in SCCA B Production; 2) a low number of few street-legal Mustang GT350s so it could be homologated for said competition.
Even more accessible, Shelby built just over 1,000 GT350Hs with automatic transmissions with a black with gold stripes exterior that anyone could rent from Hertz.
1967 Ford GT40 Mk III
I’m cheating a bit here. Shelby had little to do with the building of the GT40 Mark III, the road-legal version of the race car. But if he didn’t ignite Ford’s struggling sports car program in 1966 by inserting a NASCAR engine into the wee GT40’s engine bay, the legendary LeMans-winning GT40 Mk IV would never have happened.
The original Mk III road car was a bit of an orphan. Ford dealers weren’t really ready to sell exotic cars. But a well-cared-for example recently went up for auction, fetching nearly $400,000. Not a bad investment on the original car’s $18,500 asking price.
1968 Shelby Mustang GT500KR
The last Mustang Shelby would modify in the 20th century was the ’68 GT500KR. Replacing the GT500’s 428 cu. in. vee-eight mid-year, the KR (“King of the Road”) got a new 335 hp Cobra Jet eight wedged under its fibreglass hood. Only a little over 300 KRs were ever built.
Compared to the race-ready ’65-’66 Shelby Mustang GT350, these last Shelby Mustangs of the 60s were seen more as grand touring cars. Compared to the earlier Shelby Mustangs, these later Shelbys were apparently much easier to drive on a day-to-day basis.
1986 Shelby GLH-S
Skipping the entire automotive performance Malaise Era of the 1970s and early 1980s, Shelby was asked to come help Chrysler (now run by his old Ford buddy, Lee Iacocca), to squash a few Volkswagen Rabbit GTIs.
As he did with his first Mustangs, Shelby took a very ordinary car (the Dodge Omni hatchback), and breathed on its engine and suspension to make it into a boy-racer’s dream.
The first ’84 Shelby GLH (Goes Like Hell) came with 110 hp. But 500 copies of the final ’86 GLH-S (Goes Like Hell Some More) arrived with a 2.2 L turbo-four making 175 hp.
1989 Shelby Dakota
During Shelby’s time with Chrysler, trucks were the only rear-drive vehicles worth playing around with. And the mid-size Dakota was the lightest pickup in Chrysler’s garage.
To keep the package tidy, Shelby used the Dakota’s shortest wheelbase and bed combo available. Out went the wheezy vee-six, replaced by Chrysler’s 5.2 L eight.
The one-year-only Shelby Dakota was no Cobra 427. But it did inspire rival performance trucks, like the GMC Syclone or Ford Lightning that came afterwards.
1989 Shelby CSX-VNT
The compact Dodge Shadow-based CSX-VNT was the last Chrysler product breathed-on by Shelby directly (he would later be asked to advise on the 1990s Viper).
The first CSX appeared in ’87, but Shelby just kept adding letters to its badge. In an attempt to recapture the marketing magic of the mid-sixties Hertz Shelby Mustangs, the CSX-T arrived in ’88, the “T” standing for Thrifty rent-a-car.
The “VNT” in the ’89 CSX’s model name stood for Variable Nozzle Technology, which claimed to eliminate dreaded turbo lag. Horsepower from the venerable 2.2 L four Shelby used in his front-drive Dodges remained at 175. But torque was a generous 205 pound-feet, available at a diesel-like 2,100 r.p.m.
2006 Shelby Mustang GT-H
After over three decades, Shelby returned to the automaker he started with — Ford — in 2004. The first new production Shelby was the 2007 Mustang GT500. But arguably more accessible and influential was the 2006 Shelby Mustang GT-H.
Yes. You guessed right. The “H” stood for Hertz. More importantly, Shelby sold a consumer version called the Shelby GT, which saw a number of suspension and power plant upgrades that would influence the development of the regular Mustang GT.
2013 Shelby Ford Mustang GT500
The last Shelby-named road car Carroll saw launched was the 2013 Mustang Shelby GT500.
While original estimates had the GT500’s supercharged 5.8 L eight rated at 650 hp, more recently, Ford confirmed the final power rating at 662 hp, claiming it’s “the most powerful production V8 engine in the world”.
Shelby can now rest in peace knowing that his final Mustang beat its closest Chevrolet rival — the 580 hp 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 — something he’d had some experience with.
Rest in peace, Mr. Shelby.
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