Rare Rides: The 1969 Shelby GT500 Convertible

Sometimes, paradigm shifts of momentous proportions happen at the most unexpected of moments and in the most unlikely of places. Such was the case for the car world on April 17th, 1964 at the New York World’s Fair.

On that crisp and cool Friday in Flushing, Queens, a curtain was raised to reveal a vehicle that would forever change the landscape of the automotive industry, and redefine what was cool for millions of consumers to this very day.

This epic-magnitude earthquake was the first public viewing of the 1964 ½ Ford Mustang.

Lee Iacocca, second from right, at the Mustang launch in 1964. (Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company.)

With its long hood/short deck proportions, aggressive, yet classy styling, and availability in coupe, convertible, and heartbreakingly beautiful Fastback configurations, the Mustang became an instant classic.

What’s more, its everyman price-point made the car accessible to those in the Baby Boomer generation who had just started to graduate from school and enter the workforce – and buy Mustangs they did. An astonishing 22,000 were sold on the first day, 263,434 by the end of ’64, and a record 418,812 by the end of the model year.

There was one thing missing from the Mustang’s formula of success though.

A 1965 Ford Mustang Fastback. (Photo courtesy of Bringatrailer.com.)

At the April launch, Ford vice-president Lee Iacocca had stated that the Mustang would be a high-performance vehicle, capable of both street and racing use. In actuality, the car lacked chops both in terms of power and handling prowess to qualify as a sports car, and, because of this, the automotive press began using a new moniker to describe the Mustang: a pony car.

In order to fulfill his promise, Iacocca was forced to seek out a contractor that could modify the car and transform it into a legitimate performance vehicle.

Carroll Shelby already had an association with Ford via his use of the company’s engines in his Cobra roadsters, and through helping to develop the GT40 race car that would later go on to beat Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966. As such, he and his company, Shelby American, was the obvious choice for Iacocca to turn to.

Carroll Shelby in the early 1960s. (Photo courtesy of The New York Times.)

This union of these two fabled companies would yet again yield an icon of the performance car world: The Shelby Mustang.

Rare beasts to begin with, there have been a number of Shelby Mustang models whose production numbers have been low enough to make them some of the scarcest muscle cars in history. In this installment of Rare Rides, we’re going to have a look at one of them, the 1969 Shelby GT500 convertible.

The 1969 Shelby GT500 convertible. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

The Shelby Mustang story starts just a few months after the Mustang’s reveal. In August, 1964, a deal was struck between Ford and Shelby, and shortly thereafter, the first 110 Mustang Fastbacks arrived at the Shelby American garage in Venice, California to be metamorphosed into beasts with claws and teeth.

Mustang Fastbacks being modified at the Shelby American garage. (Photo courtesy of Mustang Monthly.)

The first generation 1965 Shelby Mustang, given the random nomenclature “GT350” for the number of feet between the production and race shops at Shelby American, was bestowed with a 289 cubic-inch K-Code V8 engine featuring a Holley four-barrel 715 cfm carburetor, a Hi-Rise manifold, cast-aluminum valve covers, a larger radiator, and tubular Tri-Y exhaust headers feeding short side pipes.

A four-speed, Borg-Warner T10 transmission with close ratios and a limited-slip differential rounded out the drivetrain.

The 1965 Shelby GT350. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

Other goodies included quick-ratio steering, oil coolers for the differential, robust anti-sway bars, Koni adjustable shocks, front disc brakes, and a trunk-mounted battery for better weight distribution.

The cars featured a number of exterior modifications as well. Amongst them was a fiberglass hood with functional scoop and hold-down pins, a revised grille, and 15-inch Kelsey-Hayes mag wheels shod with Goodyear Blue Dot tires.

1965 GT350s were only offered in Wimbledon White with Guardsman Blue rocker panel stipes. Roughly thirty percent of the cars came with the matching Le Mans style racing stripes over the top.

Inside the GT350, there was a dash-mounted tachometer and oil pressure pod, 3-inch competition seat belts, and, as a nod to the seriousness of its racing aspirations, no rear seat.

The business end of the ’65 GT350. (Photo courtesy of MustangForums.)

Power was a stated 306 ponies. Performance was a 0-60 mph time of 6.8 seconds, with the quarter-mile tripped in 15 flat at 91 mph.

The Shelby GT350 made its public debut on January 27, 1965, and was lauded by the press, which heralded the coming of age of the Mustang.

1966 was a continuation year for the GT350, with changes being limited to several new colors, functional brake cooling scoops on the flanks, new rear-quarter windows, and extended exhaust pipes. A few consumer-friendly options such as a SelectShift 3-speed automatic and fold-down rear seats were offered.

Additionally, the famous Shelby GT350H models were built for Hertz Rental Cars, featuring a unique black and gold color scheme. Wanna-be racers could now trash someone else’s Shelby for a weekend at the track.

The 1966 GT350H made for Hertz Rental Cars. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

1967, however, was not a carryover year. Ford had completely restyled the Mustang, making it both larger and heavier. Carroll Shelby took this as an opportunity to do what he originally wanted with the ’65-’66 cars, and make the Shelby’s aesthetics markedly distinct from their lesser Mustang brethren.

To that end, Shelby outfitted the ’67 GT350 cars with bespoke fiberglass body pieces, including a gorgeous, elongated nose, a hood with twin, functional scoops, and four body side intakes located at the quarter windows and ahead of the rear wheels.

A fiberglass tail featured an integrated spoiler and sequential turn-signal/tail lamps pilfered from the Mercury Cougar. Twin, round driving lights were mounted in the center of the grille (rectangular ones were later located in the grille corners to comply with differing state laws.)

More than just giving the Shelby Mustangs a unique appearance, the changes to the front of the car allowed for a big-block to be fitted. This marked the genesis of a second Shelby Mustang model, the legendary GT500.

An exquisite 1967 Shelby GT500 in Nightmist Blue. (Photo courtesy of BJ Motors.)

Mechanically, the GT500 was a significantly different beast from its GT350 stablemate. Shoehorned into the engine bay was an FE-series 428 cubic-inch Police Interceptor V8. Shelby outfitted the motor with twin 600-cfm Holley four-barrel carbs atop a cast-aluminum medium-rise intake manifold raided from Ford’s 427. Output was a sarcastically underrated 355 brake horsepower and 420 lb-ft of twist.

Mated to this lump was a choice of a RUGS-1 four-speed manual transmission with a limited-slip differential or a three-speed auto. Rear-axle ratios ranged from 3.50:1 to 4.11:1.

Stiffer springs front and rear, a larger anti-roll bar, Gabriel adjustable shocks and standard front disc brakes differentiated the GT500 from a standard Mustang GT. A choice of three different 15” wheels was offered, fitted with Goodyear E70-15s.

The GT500’s monster 428ci Police Interceptor V8. (Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)

Inside, the GT500 received an upgraded dash with a 140 mph speedo and 8000 rpm tach, and an ammeter and oil pressure gauge located in the center. Shelby badges were present on the wood-rimmed steering wheel and dash, while a backseat and roll cage – the first ever fitted in an American production car – were standard.

Performance was heady for 1967, with the standard GT500 able to do 0-60 in six seconds, and cover the quarter-mile in 14.6 seconds at 99 mph.

The interior of the GT500. (Photo courtesy of Drives Today.)

The second model year of this iteration saw only minor exterior changes, with the primary difference being a new hood with revised scoops at the leading edge. Under the hood, though, the 1968 GT350 had its 289 replaced by a 302ci V8, and beginning in April of 1968, the GT500 received a new 428 cubic-inch powerplant known as the Cobra Jet. Cars equipped with this motor were known as the GT500KR for “King of the Road.” Also, 1968 saw the introduction of convertible versions of the GT350 and 500.

1969 would again see major aesthetic changes to the Shelby Mustangs, however.

Whereas the first generation GT350s were dyed-in-the-wool race cars in pony car clothing, and the second gen cars somewhat more road friendly, a decision was made to make the third iteration a grand tourer rather than a competition car. This resulted from the fact that Ford had largely taken over Shelby design decisions, and decided that Shelbys needn’t be track-oriented anymore, since the Boss 302 had become Ford’s primary race Mustang.

The 1969 Shelby GT500. (Photo courtesy of the American Muscle Car Museum.)

The ’69 Shelbys were still based on the then current Mustang platform, but received extensive body modifications to differentiate them from standard Mustangs. With its front section elongated by four inches, a full-width, recessed grille encompassing the dual headlights, and a rear dominated by Thunderbird taillights and pass-through, center-mounted twin exhausts poking out through the bumper, only the roof, doors, and quarter panels remained from the Mustang.

It was a love-it-or-hate-it look, and many gravitated towards the latter sentiment.

NACA ducts aplenty. (Photo courtesy of MustangAttitude.com.)

Other differences included a hood that sported no less than three NACA ducts – two for allowing cool air into the engine compartment, and one feeding directly to the air cleaner – semi-functional brake cooling ducts, and twin Lucas driving lamps below the front bumper. Shelby Cobra logos abounded, and full-length stripes with the engine call-out residing at the leading edge adorned the cars’ sides.

The new car’s interior. (Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)

Inside, the Shelby’s sported more refinements than previous models, in keeping with the grand tourer direction the cars were taking. While most parts present were lifted from the Mustang’s Deluxe Package, Shelby-specific bits included simulated woodgrain on dash and doors, a roll bar, a 140mph speedometer, color-keyed floor mats, and a special center console including additional gauges and a pair of toggle switches that controlled the fog lamps and interior lighting. The Rim-Blow steering wheel was standard with a Shelby logo dead center.

Mechanically, the GT350 received the M-code 351 Windsor V8 good for 290 ponies and 385 lb-ft of torque, while the GT500 received a fire-breather in the form of the 428 Cobra Jet, previously found in the ’68 GT500KR.

Topped by a single Holley 735cfm four-barrel fed directly via the NACA duct on the hood, the Cobra Jet featured larger intake and exhaust ports than the Police Interceptor 428. Other upgrades included heavy-duty connecting rods, stiffer valve springs and reprofiled hydraulic camshafts, better suited for higher RPM performance. A cast-aluminum exhaust manifold connected to the steel exhaust system.

The massive 428 Cobra Jet. (Photo courtesy of MarshallGoldmanOH.)

Combined with a 10.6:1 compression ratio and a higher flowing intake, the Cobra Jet made about 40 horsepower more than its predecessor. Torque was a stump-pulling 440 lb-ft at just 3400 RPMs.

Backing the big block, one could find either a close-ratio, four-speed Toploader manual, or Ford’s vaunted C6 three-speed slushbox. Putting power down to the road was a Ford 9-inch diff with semi-floating type rings and pinions. Air conditioning equipped cars were mandated with a 3.00:1 ratio, but a wide range of gears, up to a 4:30:1, were available depending on the transmission type. Traction-Lok limited slip was an option.

Front end details. (Photo courtesy of Jill Reger.)

Gone were the heavily massaged suspensions of the race-bred Shelbys of the past, and in their place was a more supple setup, consisting of independent upper A-arms with stabilized lower control arms, coil springs, adjustable shocks and an anti-sway bar in front, and a Hotchkiss-type live axle with leaf springs and adjustable shocks out back.

Also a casualty of the GT500’s taming was its brakes. Standard Mustang 11.3-inch vented front discs and 10 x 2-inch rear drums were all that was offered for stopping. Surrounding them were a set of five-spoke cast-aluminum 15 x 7-inch Shelby wheels wrapped in Goodyear bias-ply E70-15 tires.

There were a wide array of options available for the 1969 GT500, and included tinted windows, F60 x 15 tires, a heavy-duty battery, intermittent wipers, AM/FM stereo, 8-track player and a tilt steering wheel.

The 1969 Shelby GT500 convertible. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

At the top of the options list, though, was the convertible which continued on from the ’68 model. Choosing it also brought a host of additions to the frame of the car to counteract loss of torsional stiffness.

They included double rocker-panel channels connected directly to the front and rear torque boxes, and additional 3/16th-inch steel plates welded to the floor risers for improved lateral strength.

Top down beauty. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

These modifications, in addition to the top mechanism and the heavy Cobra Jet motor ballooned the GT500 convertible’s curb weight up to 4,230 pounds, a massive increase over the original, nimble Shelby models. Weight distribution was also not ideal at 56/44 front-to-rear.

The rear haunches. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

These factors ate into the GT500 convertible’s performance and handling, limiting the car to a 6-second zero-to-sixty time and a 14-second quarter-mile at 102 mph when it could have been much faster.

By 1969, Carroll Shelby had tired of the Mustang program and convinced Ford into discontinuing it after that model year’s production run was finished. Unsold ‘69s were given new VINs and marketed as 1970 cars, but no new Shelby Mustangs would be produced, marking the end of a legendary chapter in the performance car story.

The end of an era. (Photo courtesy of WallpaperUp.)

Of the 3150 Shelby Mustangs produced in 1969, 1871 were GT500s. Of those, a mere 335 were convertibles. Far fewer exist today, and when they come up for auction, they fetch as much as $250,000.

Although they lack the raw performance of the ’65 and ’66 models, and the startling beauty of the ‘67s and ‘68s, the 1969 Shelby GT500 must still be considered one of the top offerings from the Golden Era of muscle, and one of the period’s great Rare Rides.

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Rob combined his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and Street Muscle Magazine. He is an avid automotive enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and muscle cars.
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