Carroll 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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.