To Ford muscle car enthusiasts, the two words “Shelby Cobra” will always elicit a pair of wide eyes. Of course there’s a story behind these beloved, high-performance pony cars. Heavily modified by Texas racer Carrol Shelby in his own shop, and then offered on the showroom floor by the manufacturer, the marriage was contentious and short-lived. From The Complete Book of Ford Mustang are the details of how this odd relationship began soon after the Mustang made its public debut in 1964.
Ford’s wildly popular pony didn’t exactly thrill everyone in 1964. Some witnesses who had hoped for a true sporting machine, a rival, perhaps, to Chevrolet’s Corvette, felt jilted. Fortunately, their complaints didn’t fall on deaf ears.
Taking aim at America’s sports car was as simple as putting the Mustang into the talented hands of Carroll Shelby, a snake-oil salesman if there ever was one. Since 1962, Shelby had been stuffing Ford V-8s into those teenie-weenie England-sourced AC Ace two-seaters, relying first on the 260-cube small-block, then its bigger 289 brother, and finally the ferocious 427-ci FE-series big-block. Shelby’s venomous 427 S/C Cobras didn’t just kick Corvettes’ ’glass asses, they made ’em like it.
His Cobras struck as quickly as his Shelby American firm rose from the shadows into the international racing limelight. As Car Life explained in a May 1965 report, “Fast-moving Carroll Shelby does things at such a pace, by the time the news is in print, it’s ancient history. And the news recently has been important enough to make him America’s fifth largest auto producer. The Texan’s successful midwifery to all sorts of Ford-powered performers since his original Cobra has resulted in elevation to almost division-within-a-division status at Ford, a sort of Bureau of Racing for Dearborn. [His] projects have multiplied to such an extent, [the] three-year-old Shelby American firm has had to move into the big hangars at Los Angeles International airport.”
There, Shelby not only built his super snakes, he also took Ford’s GT-40 race car in to raise up right after early racing results with this expensive, British-built beast left Henry Ford II disgusted. Dearborn officials in 1965 decided to “consolidate the construction and racing of all our GT-type vehicles within the same specialist organization,” meaning Shelby’s West Coast firm would add another Ford racer to its team, a move that soon had Henry II delighted. A year later, Ford’s 427-powered GT racer became the first American entrant to win Le Mans, putting Enzo Ferrari in his place in the process.
And as if Shelby didn’t have enough on his plate in 1965, he also found himself in the Mustang business that year. Late in 1964, Lee Iacocca gave him yet another assignment: transform his newborn pony car into a real race horse, a hot-to-trot machine able, like the Corvette, to compete in SCCA racing. Shelby obliged even though, as he later admitted, he “wasn’t real high on the project,” basically because he preferred building true race cars to street-legal hot rods.
“That was the real idea—to go racing,” said Shelby in a 1971 Sports Cars of the World interview. “I never wanted to build a lot of automobiles to make a lot of money. At the time my intention was to build 100 [Mustangs] a year, because that was what you had to build in order to race.” But Iacocca wanted more than that, and what he wanted he usually got. Along with that, Iacocca was Shelby’s best friend in Dearborn: turning him down was out of the question.
“It was Lee Iacocca who really stayed behind us all the way, encouraged us and then he got us into the Mustang program,” he added. It was this new business that forced Shelby American to trade its original humble shop in Venice, California, for those roomier digs adjacent to LAX in March 1965. Introduced earlier that year, the first of Shelby’s GT350 Mustangs was much more at home on a road course than on Main Street, U.S.A., explaining why it remains his favorite to this day. In his words, the 1965 GT350 was “a no-compromise car built to get the job done.” From Ford’s perspective, however, it was too mean a machine; its appeal was far too limited. Word immediately came west to civilize the GT350 for 1966, leaving Shelby himself a little disgusted.
“Big corporations tend to destroy the cars they create,” he told Mustang Monthly in 1990. “All of the corporate vultures jumped on the thing and that’s when it started going to hell,” he explained earlier in 1971. “I was committed because Lee wanted me to build the GTs, which I helped out with, but it just went from bad to worse politically. I’m not knocking Ford, because when you get into bed with a big company they’re all the same. I started trying to get out of the deal in 1967 and it took me until 1970 to get production shut down. I asked Lee all the time, you know, ‘Let’s knock this off.’”
Shelby’s comments concerning his days playing with Ford’s pony car have since softened, undoubtedly due to how high his Mustang variants have since been put up on pedestals by the true Blue Oval faithful. The big man behind those machines now resides on an even higher perch, so why would he want to take potshots at the cars his devoted fans love so dearly? All that aside, every Shelby Mustang built from 1965 to 1970 still impresses with its sensuality and strength. Who cares that they did grow progressively weaker over the years as far as sheer brute force was concerned? They still were among the coolest cruisers sold during their heyday, and 40 years later they remain highly valued collectibles.
Shelby’s original plan back in 1965 involved building street-going GT350 Mustangs to legalize full-race alter egos for Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) B/Production competition, which specified the aforementioned minimum run of 100 cars. No problem. Ford supplied the bare-bones 2+2s from its San Jose plant, and Shelby American took care of the rest. GT350 production began in October 1964, with the official public unveiling coming January 27, 1965, to the overwhelming joy of those left disappointed the previous April. “The GT350 is all that most of us wanted the original Mustang to be in the first place,” exclaimed Car Life magazine’s Jim Wright.
The entire history of America’s original pony car, in its full glory.
Ford’s Mustang is America’s most iconic pony car. According to many, it is the only vehicle that really earned the title “pony car.” This lavishly illustrated work walks readers through Mustang’s 50-plus years of continuous production – a rich and varied history nearly unmatched in the automotive world.
From the first six-cylindered Mustang of 1964-1/2 through fire-breathing, world-beating Boss and Shelby versions to today’s all-new Mustang, The Complete Book of Mustang offers an in-depth look at the prototypes and experimental models, the anniversary and pace cars, and the specialty packages for street and competition driving that have made the Mustang an automotive legend for more than a half century. Officially licensed and created in cooperation with Ford and providing extensive details, specs, and photographic coverage, this book is the ultimate resource on America’s best-loved pony car. No muscle car enthusiast, motorsports fan, or car collector will want to miss this book!