The current automotive landscape has way too many vehicles trying too hard to be everything for everyone. And in doing so they compromise on some things, ignore other things, and become identity-challenged bland-mobiles. The Shelby GT500 is none of that, and plenty more.
Words that should never be used to describe this Mustang-based 2011 Shelby GT500:
The Arrest Me-red, two-door arrived at the house on Monday, announcing itself a couple of blocks away with a hearty, lion-esque roar. Complete with white Le Mans stripes, flared fender wells, hyper-aggressive aerodynamics, carbon black wheels and a heavenly short throw shift knob at the pleasure point of a manual Six Speed, the Shel had the road presence of a professional wrestler fully engrossed in his “What are you looking at, Punk?” rant.
It almost had an aura around it.
What is a Shelby? Or more appropriately, who is the man that inspired this poke in the face of mediocrity? Carroll Shelby: A failed East Texas chicken rancher, speed merchant, successful racer, one time fighter pilot instructor, longest surviving double-organ transplant recipient, genuine American icon and the best natural salesman the world may have ever seen. That’s all he is.
After becoming a fighter pilot instructor during World War II, Shelby went home, got married, and started raising chickens on a ranch while racing on weekends. The weekend activities revolved around the now ghostly vapors of old race tracks that used to dot the countryside around north Texas and throughout the South. Many of those legendary old tracks have been swallowed up by suburban sprawl or lawyered out of existence, but in the early 1950’s, the racing world revolved around north Texas.
This was a time of legends, time of men like Hap Sharp and Jim Hall, who’s oil fortunes gave them opportunities to race anything, anywhere. There was also Lloyd Ruby, who is considered one of the greatest American racers ever, and AJ Foyt, a man that could drive, break and fix anything with an engine. It was a time of no seatbelts, leather helmets, and no one talked about NASCAR outside of the South East, and Road Racing was king.
In that past world, the foundation of what would later become a formula for success was laid when Carroll Shelby started racing someone’s car for them. It was a MG that had been outfitted with a small block V8 Ford. It was small, light, nimble and had more motor than most could handle. Carroll drove with such abandon and determination he very rarely lost and eventually earned a chance to drive another light, Anglo-American mutt; a Cadillac-powered Allard. It was this car that made him. His success in races around North America in the CadAllard propelled him to drive “Bird Cage” Maserati’s Ferrari’s, and eventually to win the most prestigious race in the world, The 24 Hours of Le Mans, driving for Aston Martin.
At the same time, as he became one of the most famous drivers in the world and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and pretty much every magazine in America, there was a ticking time-bomb ready to go off. Shelby’s heart was dying. Today, we would probably be able to just take a pill and go on, but in those days, a faulty ticker ended racing careers.
A masterful opportunist, he parlayed his celebrity into Gillette shaving commercials and also joined up with Jim Hall to import European race cars to America via Shelby-Hall Race Cars, located in Dallas. It didn’t last very long as Hall was racing Formula 1 and Endurance racing in Europe, and Shelby wasn’t exactly a man easily given to an office job.
Shelby got hold of a light aluminum British race car called an AC Bristol and found out the company had lost its engine supplier. He managed to convince them to send him rolling chassis of the little race car by telling them Ford was going to supply him engines. Of course, Shelby then had to convince Ford to actually supply the engines to him.
At the time, Lee Iacocca was a rising star at Ford, and as legend has it, the master salesman Iacocca was bulldozed by another like him, and was reported to say, “Someone give this guy an engine before he hurts someone.” The Shelby Cobra was born.
The Cobra formula was a light and nimble British car, big friggin’ engine. It worked (Note: I will explore this later in another article). The Cobra beat all comers and became a legend of its own, spawning the Pete Brock-penned Daytona Coupe Race car, which put Shelby back in the winners circle at Le Mans as a manufacturer, embarrassing the Ford factory team attempting to win the race with their new super car, the GT-40. After the Daytona soundly beat the GT-40 in tests, Ford made a deal with Shelby to take over the GT-40 team. But as a part of the deal to bring him in, the Cobra had to die.
Out of the ashes of the death of the Cobra and the now legendary friendship between Shelby and Iacocca grew the Shelby Mustang GT350, GT500 Program. When the Mustang was introduced in 1964, Iacocca knew he needed a performance package on what was initially an underpowered grocery-getter, but politics at Ford and an industry wide self-imposed ban on direct involvement in auto racing gave Shelby the ability to become the Ford racing proxy.
Original Cobra production was only around 1,000 cars. Six Daytona Coupes, and 20,000 Shelby Mustangs made it to the track and to the road, but a combination of his sponsor Iacocca being fired by Ford, the spike in oil prices, falling sales and that pesky now-faltering heart forced the end of the Shelby Mustang in the early 1970’s.
The Legend of the Shelby Mustang is a fascinating one, indeed. I can not think of any other car that has become a legend unto itself, blending its own history and that of the man who inspired it, along with some fanciful inaccuracies (some coming from Shelby, himself) into a story all its own. It has become a movie character (Gone in 60 Seconds), an object of desire as well as abuse. At any event where Shelby is present, there are usually dozens of children who have been named after him and people who approach him, as well as the car, with a blending of respect and fear.
There has been more ink devoted to this car and man amalgam than any other I can think of, and I have written for many magazines, and I’ve even consulted on a couple of books on both principals.
A few years ago, that faulty ticker was replaced and Shelby is now one of the longest surviving heart transplant recipients. Later in time, he needed a kidney transplant, as well. He has also founded the Carroll Shelby Children’s Charity, which raises money for kids in need of transplants.
These days, his health is said to be not-so-great, but remember that he is well over 85 now and has been married at least 6 times. This man has jammed more life into one than most could possibly imagine.
When Ford and Shelby decided to get the old band back together with the current Shelby GT500 they had a lot to live up to, some of it even fact-based. The decision was made early on that there would be no muddling of this legend, and Ford came out of the box with a loud, brash, thirsty, powerful, no-compromise car of unequaled, swaggering bravado.
It arrives like Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now with a blast of Wagner, and the smell of Napalm in the air. It has a supreme confidence in its stance, letting no one assume it is anything but a serious chunk of car.
The exterior is garish with almost obnoxious sculpted, aerodynamic wings, splitters and curves over big Goodyear racing tires mounted on black powder-coated wheels which give-off a no-nonsense curb appeal. The tail has a high mounted wing, but it’s what is under the other end that counts. The engine. And what an engine it is. A 5.4 liter, four valve V8 lurks under the hood and where most would consider that enough, the Shelby has a SuperCharger to boost an astounding output into the realm of HOLY CRAP! 550 Hp and 510 foot pounds of torque.
All that power results in a snarling beast of aural wonders that make you want to roll the windows down and drive through the Addison Airport Tunnel, over and over again, just to enjoy the roaring sound. The six-speed manual is effortless and really is amazing at dropping all those buckets of power to the ground.
The interior is rather amazing in its own right. Combining “retro” styling that is needed to complete the muscle car redo, combined seamlessly with modern expectations like satellite radio, Sync-integrated GPS, along with every other desirable option in the catalog. One that I personally like is the high-mounted PowerPoint, at the center top of the dashboard, where you can easily plug in a radar detector (yeah, you’re going to want one of those).
This is a far cry from the utilitarian interior one got in the 1960’s Shelbys, but one thing remains – this is not a car for the timid.
On the center console, next to the shifter, there is an understated little button. When pressed, the button turns off the traction control. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON’T TOUCH THAT BUTTON!
The traction control on the Shelby GT500 overpowers its own tires quite easily, with the happy, little, unassuming button deployed, an average driver is in a whole bunch of trouble where enthusiasm is defeated rather quickly by the reality of kinetics. It is way too powerful for anyone without at least as much high-performance driving training experience as I have.
The old school rear-end on this beastly car gets upset rather easily by bumps inconveniently placed at the apex of corners, and the super-tight suspension makes attempting to drink coffee while driving make you look like an ill-advised, near-sighted epileptic trying to exercise with a shake weight.
During the course of week, the $55,000 Shelby GT500 was gulping high-octane like a kid with a garden hose. While running all over north Texas, I came to a couple of conclusions: It’s a brash handful of a car, not for those who fancy themselves in any way environmentally minded, but in a time when so many cars muddle their way to mediocre, the Shelby is one of the most satisfying, over-the-top ways to consume fossil fuels in a multi-sensual, true muscle car experience there is to be had.
And yes, it is just the sort of thing that should have a name like Shelby.
My life has always revolved around a Ford Mustang.
Ford’s original Pony car was first introduced as one of the biggest new car projects in history as a 1964 1/2 model. I was introduced as a 1965… born in October. Now, over the last 45 years I am willing to concede the Mustang has had a much greater impact on the world than I have, but it seems like I have never been more than two steps away from one.
My earliest memories revolve around a hunter green Mustang my mom had as her car. My dad was the General Manager at a big Ford store and she always claimed a personal vehicle out of the inventory. Thankfully, her choice was always a Mustang. To this day, she still remembers her cars fondly.
The Sixties were good to the Mustang; the early Seventies were as well, but with the Arab oil embargo of 1973, EPA emissions, changes in safety standards and a general malaise at Ford, a neutered Mustang Cobra II, the Mustang II and other forgettable and anonymous renditions were the result. In 1979 the third generation plopped down on the scene, in our driveway and into the hands of my older sister.
It was the first new car she had ever bought and I remember it fondly, even though it was underpowered and a quality control problem poster-child. At this time, I was just coming of age and into my own automotive desires. A few years later I found myself selling cars at the local Ford dealership where my father had worked decades before, and I managed to get a 5.0 GT as a demo. This was the early 90’s and Ford had just backed away from replacing the Mustang’s Fox chassis with the front wheel drive, Mazda-originated car that eventually reached the market as the Ford Probe.
At the time Robert Van Winkle, a.k.a. Vanilla Ice, had emerged from “the hood” in Carrollton, TX and was “rapping” about cruzin’ in his Five Point-O. In fact, I know there is at least one picture of me with one company car, skinny tie, and a hair cut close to what we would call a mullet. Still, I thought I was pretty cool.
By the time the mid 90’s came around I was back in school and a guy at Ford called Alexander Trotman had risen to the big chair and he was being hailed as the savior of the Mustang, as low sales and build-quality issues had threatened to swallow up the entire rear wheel drive sports car market. The cross-town GM products, Camaro and Firebird, were about to end their production and Dodge had gotten out of the rear wheel drive world completely. While in college Ford recruited a bunch of us as part of a focus group on the then NEW Mustang, so again the car cut a swath through my life.
Years later, after moving to Dallas and being one of the founders of Texas Driver Magazine, there was yet another Mustang being introduced and I got the chance to ride it pretty rough while covering the Great Carrera Pan-American Road Race in Mexico where the newest mustang was the pace car. I wrote an article about the experience racing across Mexico in this newest stallion riding shotgun in the pace car through the mountains.
To be certain: The entire event is still something I consider a high water mark in my Auto-journalistic life.
Arriving back in Dallas I was pulled into the world of Carroll Shelby and the Mustang via some articles of many mutual friends who helped me write articles for TDM, Automobile Quarterly and other publications.
It has been a while since one made its way into my stable, but the original pony car looks pretty good after 45 years. In fact, Ford sent over a 2011 Mustang 5.0 GT,recently and yup, the Five OH is back. When the old 5.0 was replaced, it really was a 4.8l v8 and Ford put its corporate-wide modular 4.6 under the hood of the late 90’s early 00’s.
The newest Mustang continues with the formula of the relatively small car with the pretty big motor, as pioneered back in the 60’s. It’s a well sorted-out rear wheel drive whose evolutionary chassis upgrades and Big Brembo brake package makes for a car with plenty of go and stop.
19-inch, optional tire package brings both the right look and considerable grip to the short wheel base. Also, 412 horsepower and 390 foot pounds of torque make this pony get up and go in a hurry with considerable growl from the free flowing exhaust. It sounds WONDERFUL when you mash down on the go stick.
The interior is pretty much flawless as long as you take into consideration that the back seats are more ornamental than functional, and realize that the car is really intended for a maximum capacity of two. With subtle tweaks and a proper 6-speed MANUAL transmission, the Mustang is one of the most satisfying go-fast coupes on the market. But, keep in mind, the ads that claim 30+ mpg are based on the 6-cyl driven by the hypothetical little old lady.
Each time you make the ‘Stang growl, and your fuel gets sucked down into the 5.0., the result is grin-inducing but thirsty. Really, complaining about fuel economy in a car like this is kind of silly as there is an expectation of such. If you want mileage out of a gallon of gas, go buy something else.
With the history I’ve had with multiple Mustangs over the years, I would be hard pressed to find one that was better “out of the box.” And knowing how many modifications there are available, you can begin with a really well-handling, fast car like this and start screwing on bit and pieces using the Mustang as a platform for virtually limitless numbers of enhancements.
The Modern 5.0 Mustang GT comes across the checkout at $38,000.00 as tested. For most of the last 15 years there has been no real competition, but recently Chevy brought back the Camaro, and Mopar has stoked up the Challenger. The Challenger is really not direct competition as it is much bulkier and just not the same type of car. The Camaro is really the only natural rival, with Nissan’s 370z being the closest non-domestic option.
If I were in the market for a car like this, I might be tempted to stick with the clean, understated look of the GT, rather than the more attention grabbing Shelby that basically screams at you of its intent. I have always appreciated the “sleepers” that surprise you.
After 45 years in the market the Mustang is still young and vibrant - me not so much. But I did call my mom and tell her I was driving down the road in a new Mustang and at the age of 83, with a brand new aftermarket knee, she told me she still wants her old Mustang back.
Me too, Mom.
Jim Muise is a regular contributor to The Squawker. His Any Driven Sunday column appears regularly here, so keep checking back.