Why the '65 GT350 might be the best sports car ever built ?
It wasn’t the first.
There were Muscle Cars long before the Shelby GT350 hit the tarmac. The Pontiac GTO beat it by a year, the Chevy Bel Air 409 made its debut in 1961. Similarly, Carroll Shelby’s modified Mustang never reached a high level of performance. Cars with more powerful engines and faster acceleration were built during the GT350’s 1965-1970 production period. In fact, Shelby himself created a large number of performance cars. So how can we be so bold as to suggest that the ’65 GT350 could be the best sports car ever built?
What began on April 17, 1964 was simply Ford’s best sales success since the Model T. More than 100,000 Mustangs were sold in their first four months on the market. However, by August of that year, Ford’s marketing managers sensed that the magic sales bubble was about to burst. They feared they would be faced with a large number of Mustangs that had no buyers.
Lee Iacocca, Ford’s General Manager, approached Caroll Shelby. It seemed natural. The pugnacious Texan had done wonders with the Ford-powered Cobra project and had wreaked havoc on almost every racetrack in the world. So how could he stand a chance of modifying a Mustang into a limited edition? Run a few to build up his image and sell them at Ford dealerships – right alongside the production Mustangs. Shelby gladly agreed.
His first appeal was to the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). Its B-Production class seemed perfect for the Mustang’s size and power, although existing rules stated that only two-seaters were allowed. All that was needed was a few fasteners and the back seat could be thrown out. What happened next? Cars could only be homologated with modified engines or modified suspensions, not both. In other words, the stock suspension had to be strong enough to handle the high-powered engines Shelby planned to install in his race versions. This also seemed feasible with the GT – Mustang Fastback chassis code K. Finally, the SCCA required that at least 100 production versions of each of the eligible race models be made to meet the homologation requirements.
The K-code GT Fastback Mustangs destined for Shelby began life on Ford’s regular production lines, but were assembled without a bonnet, grille, rear seat, exhaust system or badging. Modifications included a Borg-Warner T-10 close-ratio four-speed gearbox, a Detroit Locker differential, 11-inch front disc brakes, larger rear drums and special underhood bracing. The cars arrived at the Shelby-American plant in Los Angeles with the 289 Hi Po and 271 horsepower V-8s, but were quickly treated to the Texas recipe of a cast aluminum oil pan and rocker covers, tri-Y headers, Glasspack mufflers (exiting the side of the car just ahead of the rear wheels), and a Holley 4-barrel carburetor with a 715 cm diameter on an aluminum Cobra intake. An open filter connected to the fibreglass bonnet. Engine power was 306 hp at 6,000 rpm, 0-60 mph times were 6.8 seconds, the quarter mile was done in 15 flat at 91 mph, and the top speed was close to 135 mph.
Improvements to the GT chassis also included relocating the front suspension mounting points and installing Koni shocks, traction bars, larger anti-roll bars and special Goodyear “Blue Dot” tyres on 15-inch steel or aluminum wheels. A quote from Motor Trend magazine’s original test of the GT350 (May ’65) says “The handling is much better than the stock, kit-equipped Mustang. There is so much force in the corners that the idiot light came on and the dipstick wobbled due to an oil overload in the crankcase.”
A total of 562 Shelby GT350s were built in 1965, 37 of which were “R-model” or GT350R light race cars. All of these 1965 GT350s are Wimbledon white with racing blue stripes and a black interior. But is this machine the fastest muscle car ever? No, far from it. The best handling? It’s certainly near the top. The best looking? You be the judge. In short, what makes the ’65 Shelby GT350 a serious contender for the title of “best muscle car ever” is that there’s an actual racing record to back it up, not just catchy phrases from the pen of a copywriter. In SCCA racing the GT350Rs competed with the Corvette Stingray, Jaguar XKE (E-Type), Sunbeam Tiger with a Ford V-8 and the Ferraris. The GT350 won the national B-production championship in 1965.
It’s also worth noting that the GT350 won races with a mechanic closer to that of its street versions than any of the famous Camaro Z28s, Firebirds, Barracudas, Challengers, or the AMC Javelin of the SCCA Trans-Am series. The GT350 perfectly accomplished its task of building the Mustang image, which led directly to the creation of the Boss 302 and Mach 1 models, and positioned Carroll Shelby as the man who led Ford’s huge push into motorsports, including a double 24-hour Le Mans victory.
Shelby GT350 production by year:
– 1965: 562 cars including 504 GT350s, 34 GT350Rs, 24 prototypes and others,
– 1966: 2,378 cars including 1,365 GT350s, 1,000 GT350Hs, 13 prototypes,
– 1967: 1174 GT350,
– 1968: 1657 GT350 of which 1253 Fastback, 404 convertibles,
– 1969: 1279 GT350 of which 1085 Fastback, 194 convertibles,
– 1970: 798 GT350
Today, the 1965 GT350s are the rarest and most sought-after cars for collectors. In fact, prices can soar to over $500,000. It is not uncommon to find a GT350 in the top 10 of US auctions. The 1965 GT350R driven by Ken MILLES became the most expensive Mustang in the world at the 2020 MECUM auction: sold for $3,850,000, beating the previous record held by the famous 1968 Mustang GT “Bullitt” driven by Steve McQueen in the film “Bullitt”.