Muscle Cars You Should Know: 1965 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350

mcyskshelby-stangCarroll Shelby’s name has been synonymous with Ford performance for decades, gracing everything from Ferrari-beating sports racers to tuned F-150 pickups. But if there’s one model that made Shelby a household name it would be the Mustang, and racer’s inaugural version of Ford’s high performance pony, the GT350.

Ford’s recent re-introduction of the factory-produced GT350 brings back the original philosophy of Carroll’s vision for the car – light weight, high revs, and a serious focus on road course capability. With Ford Performance returning to their roots in that regard, we couldn’t think of a better time to take a look back at that original GT350 and its racing variant, the GT350R.

The road-going '65 Shelby Mustang GT350's design follows that of the GT350R race car more closely than perhaps any other car in Ford's history. While the street car didn't use Shelby's 450 horsepower version of the 289 due to SCCA compliance issues, it did use an identical suspension system. As a result, the road-going '65 GT350 is among the best handling Mustangs ever built, though it's certainly not among the most comfortable to drive.

The road-going ’65 Shelby Mustang GT350’s design follows that of the GT350R race car more closely than perhaps any other car in Ford’s history. While the street car didn’t use Shelby’s 450 horsepower version of the 289ci V8 due to compliance issues with the SCCA’s B-Production class rules, it did use an identical suspension system. As a result, the road-going ’65 GT350 is still one of the best handling Mustangs ever built, though it’s certainly not among the most comfortable to drive on public roads. Image: Mecum Auctions

The Pony Car Juggernaut

It’s hard to overstate what a sensation the Mustang was when it debuted in April of 1964. By the end of that year, Ford had already sold more than a quarter million examples of the coupe, obliterating Ford’s most optimistic production estimates by more than 400%. Needless to say, the Ford’s newest two door was a sales success well beyond anything Lee Iacocca could have imagined at the time.

Yet in the wake of the muscle car frenzy that the Pontiac had just created with the all-new, 389ci V8-powered GTO, Iacocca saw a problem with the Mustang – it was considered a “secretary’s car” – an image model rather than a serious performer.

    While the Mustang was an immediate sales success story for Ford, executives were concerned that in a market driven by performance-minded youth buyers the Mustang was perceived as lacking the credentials to go toe-to-toe with the likes of the Pontiac GTO and L79-powered '65 Chevelle. Ford execs worried that the Mustang's popularity would be short lived and they'd end up with thousands of unsold cars on dealer lots by the end of 1964, so they started seeking out ways to bolster the Mustang's image with a high performance variant that could be homologated to compete on road courses across America. Images: Barrett Jackson

    After a recent string of factory-backed motorsport successes with both the AC Cobra and its closed roof counterpart, the Daytona Coupe, Ford turned to Carroll Shelby to transform the Mustang into a legitimate performer – both at the race track and on street.

    Getting Shelby on-board with the idea wasn’t an effortless endeavor, however, as the racer considered the Mustang’s sedan-based platform too big, too heavy and too compromised for the sake of low-cost modular mass production. “In 1964, when Lee Iacocca said, ‘Shelby, I want you to make a sports car out of the Mustang,’ the first thing I said was, ‘Lee, you can’t make a race horse out of a mule,” Shelby recalled in an interview. “I don’t want to do it.”

      Despite popular folklore, the truth is that Shelby was originally not interested in creating a race car out of the Mustang. While the Mustang platform leaned toward the smaller side of American coupes at the time, it was still huge by race car standards. Considering Shelby's previous work had focused on the AC Cobra and the Daytona Coupe - cars which were essentially purpose-built for motorsport - it's understandable that the sedan-based Mustang wasn't as attractive to Shelby in terms of building a car to compete on the track with the likes of the Chevrolet Corvette. Nevertheless, where there's a will there's a way, and with Ford financially backing the development effort, Shelby made it happen. The GT350R would go on to win the SCCA B-Production Championship in 1965, 1966, and 1967, and Trans-Am in 1966 and 1967. Images: Ford

      But FoMoCo was concerned that the sudden success of the Mustang would end just as abruptly, and they felt a sense of urgency to bolster the Mustang’s performance image with the buying public. So, with the promise of a generous amount of development money to put together a package to take on the Corvette in the SCCA’s popular new B-Production racing class, Shelby came on board to develop his rendition of the Mustang.

      Creating A Legend

      The Sports Car Club of America’s homologation requirements stated that at least 100 examples of a model competing in the series had to be made available to the public for purchase, and the B-Production class rulebook would end up dictating much of Shelby’s design decisions for both the GT350 and the GT350R race car. The rules stipulated that only two seaters were eligible, so Ford’s solution was to simply ditch the Mustang’s rear seats in order to comply.

      A batch of built GT350s await delivery after modifications were completed at Shelby's facility in Los Angeles, California. Image: Ford

      A batch of built GT350s await delivery after modifications were completed at Shelby’s facility in Los Angeles, California. Image: Ford

      The rules also stated that cars competing in the series could use either modified engines or modified suspensions versus their road-going counterparts – but not both.

      In order for the new race car to remain competitive with Chevrolet’s Corvette at the races, Shelby knew they’d need to use an engine that was substantially more powerful than the 271 horsepower 289ci V8 that was installed in the top-spec “K Code” Mustang, so that meant the road-going GT350 would receive the motorsport-spec suspension bits in order to make sure the GT350 would comply with the B-Production rules.

      Construction of the Shelby GT350 would begin on the standard Mustang production line, but the cars were assembled without hoods, grills, exhaust systems, rear seats and badging. For the road-going GT350, Ford pulled a handful of performance parts from the parts bin to bolster performance, including a Borg-Warner close-ratio four-speed, a Detroit Locker differential, uprated brakes at all four corners and additional structural bracing to improve the car’s rigidity.

        While the race-spec GT350R shown here shared its suspension components with the road car, it featured a number of enhancements that took its performance well beyond that of the GT350 sold to the public, including a 450 horsepower version of Ford's 289ci V8, larger wheels wrapped in race slicks and competition-spec seats. Images: RM Auctions

        The cars arrived at Shelby’s Los Angeles-based facility with stock K Code 289 motors. Shelby was also tasked with giving the road car some more grunt as well, so his team installed headers, side-exiting glasspack mufflers, and an aluminum intake manifold from the AC Cobra that was topped with a 715-cfm Holley four barrel carburetor and an open element air cleaner that was fed through the GT350’s ducted hood scoop. To distinguish the motor further from the standard engine, the GT350’s 289 also got a bit of under-hood bling from a cast aluminum oil pan and valve covers.

        This new set of ingredients brought output up to 306 horsepower and 329 lb-ft of torque, which was enough to put the GT350 through the quarter mile in 15 seconds flat on its way to a top speed of 135 mph.

          The SCCA's B-Production rules stated that all models competing in the series must be two seater vehicles. Ford's solution was to simply toss the rear seat, which had the added benefit of reducing weight as well. Images: RM Auctions

          But handling prowess is where Shelby really put his mark into the ’65 GT350, relocating the front suspension mounting points and installing Koni shocks, traction bars, larger sway bars, and special Goodyear Blue Dot tires on 15-inch wheels. Shelby’s work on the Mustang’s suspension transformed the handling of the car, as expressed in this quote by Motor Trend from their May 1965 review of the car: “There’s so much cornering force that the idiot light came on and the gauge wavered due to oil surge in the sump.”

          A Lasting Legacy

          A total of 562 Shelby GT350 Mustangs were built for the 1965 model year, with 37 of those in GT350R race-only specification. Production of the Shelby-tuned Mustangs would continue throughout the 1960s, though the design of the street car would continue to lean more toward grand touring comfort and straight line performance as the years went on.

          Shelby helped distinguish the GT350's 289ci V8 from the standard K Code 289 with a cast aluminum oil pan and valve covers, along with an aluminum intake pulled from the 289 Cobra parts bin, which was topped with a 715 CFM Holley four-barrel carb and an open element air cleaner. Image: Barrett Jackson

          Shelby helped distinguish the GT350’s 289ci V8 from the standard K Code 289 with a cast aluminum oil pan and valve covers, along with an aluminum intake pulled from the 289 Cobra parts bin. It was topped with a 715 CFM Holley four-barrel carb and an open element air cleaner. The upgrades bumped the motor’s output to 306 horsepower and 329 lb-ft of torque. Image: Barrett Jackson

          As a result, the original 1965-66 Shelby GT350 Mustangs – and the ’65 model year in particular – are among the most sought-after Mustangs in the Ford catalog today. Due to their place in history as well as their rarity, the GT350 can currently fetch more than $300,000 at auction while an original GT350R race car hammered at nearly a million dollars at the RM Amelia Island auction in 2014.

          About the author

          Bradley Iger

          Lover of noisy cars, noisy music, and noisy bulldogs, Brad can often be found flogging something expensive along the twisting tarmac of the Angeles Forest.
          Read My Articles

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