There are many aspects of the story of Carroll Shelby and his Mustangs that are widely misunderstood, even by the better-informed. A perfect example is the widely-held belief by many muscle car enthusiasts that the 1965 Shelby GT350 was born on the day of the Ford Mustang’s public debut, when Carroll Shelby saw the pony car for the first time and decided to start building GT350s. While both of those beliefs are seemingly steeped in logic, in actual fact, both beliefs are not only incorrect, but— incredibly enough—the notion that the GT350 was a desire of Carroll Shelby’s is somewhat in opposition to the actual truth. In reality and in many ways, the GT350 predates by several years the car on which it was based, and the GT350 project was one in which Carroll Shelby had only minimal interest.
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Historians, both automotive and otherwise, have a natural tendency to try and organize, arrange, and straighten historical events into neat, tidy bundles; to try and make control out of chaos. Part of this obsession with organization is the desire to pin down a historical happening (even a prolonged one, such as a multi-year war) to one defining moment in time, to identify that one split second when that war was precipitated. This desire for order may well be an inherent personality characteristic (or flaw) of the type of individuals who become historians. Whatever the motive, it happens, for good or otherwise. As a subset of historians, in general, automotive historians are also not immune to this failing, and in the context of the 1965 Shelby GT350, authors often erroneously associate the Mustang’s introduction with the birth of the GT350.
Genesis of the GT350
While there is no argument that there could be no GT350 until there was first a Mustang on which to base it, the advent of Ford’s pony car only provided the basis of the GT350; the reason Ford needed a car the likes of the GT350 actually goes back two years prior. And there were events that unfolded even before then, which set the whole process in motion.
The process of developing the GT350 from the Mustang is fairly well-known throughout the Ford/Shelby enthusiast base, but the events leading up to that process are much less so. To understand the origins of the GT350, you must first understand the state of the American automobile market following World War II.
Two events combined to launch the American automobile market on a rocket-like trajectory to prosperity in 1946. One was the end of the war, which, for the first time since early 1942, allowed automakers the freedom to begin building cars again, since wartime production of the Big Three had been dedicated solely to war goods (tanks, trucks, engines, and aircraft). The other was the return, en masse, of G.I.s—most of them just kids—to the United States. The kids formed the huge consumer base to purchase all those automobiles, and their offspring continued to populate the car-buying consumer base. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the hot rod movement began, as did stock car racing on the beach at Daytona. It was all about speed and performance. But speed and power also sometimes lead to death and injury. It was this connection that prompted Wally Parks to initiate a movement for a safe and sanctioned place for drivers to drag race their cars, at places other than local roads, and this begat the National Hot Rod Association, or NHRA. Nationwide, it was becoming apparent that the sudden influx of speed on the American automobile market was having a detrimental and deadly effect, and action was needed to curtail the carnage.
Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler were members of an organization known as the Automobile Manufacturers Association, or AMA. The purposes of AMA were several, and one was to set forth a series of industry guidelines by which all members agreed to abide. In February 1957, at one of the regularly-scheduled meetings of the AMA, General Motors’ president proposed what soon became a resolution to be considered by the AMA, formally called the “Resolution on Speed and Advertising.” The Resolution stipulated that members of the Association refrain from sponsorship of and participation in speed-related events because such events condoned reckless behavior and were a danger to the public. (Although ostensibly proposed in the interest of automotive safety, conspiracy theorists, however, claim that the ban was suggested to thwart the successful beginning of Ford’s inroads into performance, efforts that threatened GM’s dominance in motorsports.)
In June 1957, at the next AMA meeting, the resolution was formally put before the membership for adoption. Ford Motor Company had much to lose by agreeing to the ban, but being a relatively new member of the Association, it didn’t want to go against the established membership, so it agreed to the resolution. The motion was carried; the Resolution on Speed and Advertising was adopted by the AMA. Henry Ford, II sent word to the organization that bore his name that effective immediately, Ford was out of the performance game. On the surface, all AMA members were officially out of the performance game. But, in reality, there was still a beehive of speed-related activity conducted, through all sorts of clandestine “back-door” motorsports sponsorship and development programs. Ford factory drivers were given their race cars, a hearty “thank you,” a pile of spare parts and were told that they no longer were employees of the Ford Motor Company.
But, as the calendar pages flipped, heralding the beginning of a new decade, Ford began to examine the demographics of the situation and reexamined its adherence to the Resolution. The Baby Boom, which began with the return of those thousands of GIs from Europe and the Pacific, was in full swing. By the early 1960s, the United States had more young people than at any other time in the country’s history. This meant that there were also more young car buyers than at any other time in this country’s history. And young people craved performance and speed. Ford began to see a valuable connection between performance, motorsports (and the dominance therein) and car sales. Ford executives theorized that they could use speed and performance to their advantage since car buyers would draw the conclusion that because of Ford’s winning ways in motorsports, its products must be superior to those of the other manufacturers. In June 1962, Ford withdrew from the Resolution. In fact, not only did they withdraw, but at about the same time, they went to full opposite-lock and launched the largest, most extensive— and some say expensive—motorsports program in the history of the American automobile.
It is a little ironic that it was Ford who launched such an enthusiastic performance-oriented program because, as an automobile manufacturer, they were decidedly vehicularly-deficient in the performance department in 1962. Their once-spiffy Thunderbird had, by now, morphed into a two-ton, boulevard-cruising behemoth and their newest sedan, the sedate Falcon, required the imagination of a fantasy writer to be considered anything even remotely close to sporty.
Ford’s Two-Word Revolution
The program was massive in scope and even more so in expenditures, and it was identified by two simple words: Total Performance. Simply put, the objective of Total Performance was to dominate all forms of motorsports. Ford’s goal was to achieve wins in all aspects of auto racing: drag racing, stock car racing, sports car racing, Indy car racing and road racing. And cost didn’t matter. This dominance in motorsports was concise evidence of the superiority of Ford automobiles over those from General Motors and Chrysler. Because of what it was intended to achieve, Total Performance (with its subtitle of “improving the breed through open competition”) became known as the “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” sales philosophy. But the overall objective of Total Performance is often misunderstood. While Ford performance junkies were salivating at the prospect of their beloved Blue Oval once again becoming the dominating force in motorsports, Total Performance wasn’t the end. It was the means to the end. The real end was, quite simply, increased sales of beige sedans and wood-on-the-side station wagons to American car buyers.
That day, in the spring of 1962, when Ford repudiated the Resolution and launched Total Performance, was perhaps the one, single defining moment in Ford Motor Company history that begat the need for the GT350. The introduction of the Mustang, in April 1964 provided the literal and figurative vehicle.
With the debut of the Mustang also came rave reviews and the tales—some, no doubt, embellished a bit but many based on likely actual events—of the Mustang’s success and popularity, which are now the stuff of automotive legend. Mustangs were flying out of the showrooms as fast as they came in, and the entire country was beset with “Mustang fever.” Sales of the popular pony car formed the comparative basis for sales of anything and everything, automotive or otherwise. One clever restaurant reportedly quipped that “our hotcakes are selling like Mustangs”; it was that big of a deal.
But for all its popularity, there was one drawback in the eyes of performance-hungry Ford Motor Company: While the Mustang was no doubt a sporty car, it wasn’t a sports car. And a sports car was what Ford badly needed, for a couple of reasons: First of all, a sporty car fell a bit short of Ford’s “Total Performance” philosophy. Then there were those other guys (the ones with the Bowtie) who had a true sports car since 1953, one for which Ford had no direct competition: the Corvette.
Sports Car Aspirations
Ford’s dilemma would be resolved if someone would declare that the sporty Mustang was a true sports car. Ford couldn’t very well do it, since such a declaration would lack credibility. But if another entity—one with all the right credentials—would declare the Mustang a sports car, all would be right in the Blue Oval world. And Ford knew exactly which entity it needed: the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), which served as the sanctioning body for amateur road racing in the United States. The plan seemed simple: Ford just needed to get the SCCA to state that the Mustang was a sports car.
Ford approached the SCCA, seeking proclamation that the Mustang was, indeed, a sports car. But if Ford had visions of a rub-ber-stamp proclamation, they were rudely awakened with the SCCA’s reply: “No.” For a company like Ford, which was accustomed to getting everything it sought—it was, after all, run by Henry Ford, II, who was likewise accustomed—this bordered on unprecedented. To be denied by what Ford must have considered a “puny” organization was certainly a bitter pill to swallow. And there was also unhappiness in the SCCA camp, which didn’t appreciate being leaned on by Ford. But, to Ford’s credit, it wisely took its defeat in stride and didn’t lean on the SCCA further, for they understood that doing so would only have served to alienate the sports car group more. Instead, Ford realized that it would be easier to catch flies with honey rather than with vinegar.
Ford turned to Carroll Shelby.
While Texan Carroll Shelby was driving race cars and winning races, not too far in the back of his mind, he had always had an idea: to build a sports car—an American sports car—capable of not just challenging, but beating the European sports car dynasty with names like Ferrari and Maserati on their home turf. After his win for Aston Martin in the 1959 24 Hours of LeMans, Shelby got another nudge in that direction by his doctors, who told him that because of his heart condition, he had only five years left to live. In 1962, fortuitously coinciding with the launch of Ford’s Total Performance marketing campaign, Shelby approached Ford with his idea of an American sports car powered by Ford’s new lightweight 221-ci V-8, which later morphed into the 260, then into the famous 289. Ford gave Shelby the nod, some cash, and a handful of engines; and Shelby American and the Shelby Cobra were born.
Shelby became Ford’s “hired gun” to show the colors of the Blue Oval in international road racing, and he did so with an unprecedented string of victories with his Shelby “Powered by Ford” Cobras. Following Ford of England’s disastrous race record with the GT40 (a vehicle that was, itself, a direct result of Total Performance), flawless in its consistency with zero finishes in its debut year, Ford turned the GT40 program over to Shelby as well. After just a few short weeks of development, Shelby and his expert staff (men with names like Miles and Bondurant and Remington and Dowd, to name a few) handed Ford its first GT40 win, on Shelby’s first try. With the Cobra program, then the somewhat lesser involved King Cobra effort, and now the ramping-up GT40 effort, suddenly, the small southern California automaker was hip-deep in racing programs.
When Ford approached Shelby about making the Mustang a racing car, initially, Carroll was somewhat reluctant to take on the project, feeling that that project would be a major distraction from the actual racing programs. He derided the Mustang as “a secretary’s car” because of Ford’s advertising that proclaimed the car’s low price and fuel economy made it affordable, even to a secretary. As Shelby, himself, retold the story numerous times, he was far less than enthusiastic about Ford’s “request,” but Shelby saw the writing on the wall: in the beginning, the Cobra was the only race car in Ford’s stable, and Shelby American was the benefactor of Ford’s bottomless corporate bank accounts. But with the advent of the GT40 and other efforts, Ford was putting less and less emphasis on (and money into) Shelby’s Cobras in favor of those other programs. And even though the Cobra and GT40 programs both ran under the same basic “Powered by Ford” umbrella, Ford didn’t want Shelby’s Cobras beating the GT40s. The Ford funding of Shelby’s Cobras wasn’t an infinite entity; it definitely had an end, and Shelby sensed that it may be approaching. True, he was ably employed running the GT40 effort, but in racing, nothing lasts forever. Partially because of that reason, and partially because the request had come from his now good friend Lee Iacocca, Shelby agreed to take on the “secretary’s car” project.
Carroll Shelby first called on John Bishop, who was both the director of the SCCA and a friend. There were few automotive or racing players back in the day with whom Carroll Shelby was not friends. Taking something of a hat-in-hand approach—unlike Ford’s more heavy-handed tactic—Shelby asked Bishop what needed to be done to the Mustang so that it could legitimately be called a sports car. John replied that in order for the sporty car to be considered a “sports car,” it would have to be eligible for competition in one of SCCA’s production sports car classes, which were delineated by the performance potential of the cars, in order to ensure relatively equal car-tocar competition.
There were requirements for such eligibility: the car had to shed two seats; sports cars were two seaters. And there had to be 100 examples produced by January of the year in which the car was to compete, which was 1965, and given that it was now already summer of 1964, Shelby had better get busy. These requirements, however (particularly the production quantity minimum), caused some consternation: Shelby American’s experience with sales of the competition Cobras indicated that 100 race cars was nearly twice as many as there were potential customers.
But there was an angle that Shelby could take advantage of: All competition cars were allowed a series of general deviations, for the sake of performance, as well as for safety, from the production version of the vehicle. In addition to these general modifications, SCCA allowed a specific set of modifications, which were more limited in scope and number, that had to be submitted to and accepted, beforehand, by the SCCA, in a process known as homologation. With an improved suspension system including better brakes, steering, shock absorbers, and wheels and tires, the additional use of a close-ratio transmission, headers, special manifold and carburetor defined the base configuration of the Mustang GT350, as the car was now christened. Specific modifications for racing went further still and were made over and above the general spec, to produce a race version. In other words, there could effectively be two versions of the GT350: one for racing and one for street use. And both counted toward the 100-car production total.
Total Performance and Ford’s Racing Program
Development of the Mustang into a race car was the primary emphasis of the new GT350 program, but there was also the secondary task that produced a version (slightly detuned and a tad more refined) to be built and sold for use on the street to meet the build quota. This caused a huge sigh of relief at Shelby American because because it was envisioned that there were far more buyers of the street GT350 than there were for a race-only version. Ultimately, this was proven to be true by the fact that while there were just shy of 15,000 street Shelby Mustangs built and sold in the five years that the car was produced, only three dozen race-spec competition models (plus a handful of factory drag cars) were built. And unlike the Mustang on which they were based, the Shelby models sold like anything but hot cakes.
An unusual aspect of the GT350’s history was the somewhat convoluted route that the car took to becoming a race car, a route that was quite different from that of other sports cars participating in SCCA competition. Normally, production sports cars were developed to satisfy a consumer demand for such a vehicle; in other words, to sell cars to the public. Once the cars had landed on the showroom floors (or perhaps it is more correct to say that once the cars were introduced to the public, as car buyers were almost always aware of a new model’s upcoming introduction well before dealers actually received cars to sell) the state of automotive affairs in the United States in the 1960s almost demanded that there be a performance version and ultimately a competition version of those cars, so efforts were undertaken to turn the street cars into race cars. It was a two-step process: street cars that morphed into race cars and the street cars that more than satisfied the production requirement for that particular make and model.
But the Mustang GT350 happened somewhat differently. Once it was decided that a sports car version of the Mustang was needed, work was so begun on that endeavor, which gave rise to a derivative for use on the track. This allowed the Mustang to legitimately lay claim to the title of “sports car.” In order to satisfy production quantity minimums of this Mustang derivative, however, a street version was needed and subsequently developed. In this rare instance, it could be said that the race car (which, itself, was derived from the street Mustang) gave way to a street version. The unique GT350 process entailed an additional third step, and ended up being street car (Mustang) to race car (Mustang GT350 competition model) to street car (Mustang GT350 street car).
Of course, the GT350 also contributed to another almost revolutionary aspect of the Mustang. Just as the Model T defined an entirely new class of automobile—affordable, basic transportation for the masses—the Mustang was the first of a new category of car, named in its honor, the “pony car.” As the first of its kind, the new class of automobile naturally took on certain key characteristics of the original, such as its sporty, four-seater configuration and long hood/short deck lid design. Before long, cars like Chevrolet’s Camaro, Plymouth’s Barracuda, and Pontiac’s Firebird were developed in response to the new market created by Ford’s Mustang.
But the Mustang did more than define a new class of automobile helped by the GT350, it also redefined the muscle car. Prior to the arrival of the GT350, muscle cars were large cars, such as the Chevrolet Impala and Pontiac GTO, powered by large engines. The Mustang GT350 took a pony car and gave it true performance potential; it made the pony car Mustang a contender in the muscle car arena. The two different classes of automobile—the pony car and the muscle car—converged in one package, and muscle cars were never the same from that point on.
The first Shelby GT350 was the product of the coming together of a number of planetary forces, all of which teamed up to create the Total Performance program.
It was the Total Performance program, the realization that speed and performance could be used to sell thousands of cars to those not necessarily interested in those qualities, that gave rise to the need for the Mustang to be turned into a real sports car. In short, a car was needed in order to satisfy the Mustang’s needs for speed and performance (and the all-important title of “sports car”), and those needs were met and exceeded by Shelby American’s 1965 Mustang GT350.
While the Mustang defined an entirely new class of automobile—the Pony Car—its sports car derivative, the Mustang GT350, helped to rede fine muscle cars, which until that time, had been large sedans with massive powerplants.
Written by Greg Kolasa and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks