The road to Death Valley is good for a lot of things, but mostly, it reminds you that America does big better than anywhere else. You can do triple-digit speeds in an old car with nose lift and the rear axle leaping around and not even tweak your heart rate, because the highway is wide and empty, and the exhaust is machine-gunning into the sky, and this is the continent where our fathers went west simply because the East wasn't big enough. It's like that Robert Earl Keen song: The road goes on forever and the party never ends.
I drove like hell through that desert in a Mustang. A white 1965 fastback with blue stripes, a small-block, and side pipes that could kill a squirrel at 20 paces. If you squint, it looks like a 1965 Shelby GT350, but it's not. Which is kind of the point.
We were on our way to Las Vegas. We came from L.A. on a pilgrimage to figure out why Shelby Mustangs matter, by way of the site where they were conceived and a dead track where they once ran. I learned a few truths, but mostly, I drove the bejesus out of my car.
Oh, right: The Mustang was my own Shelby replica. I wanted a piece of the 50-year-old rock but couldn't afford the real thing.
East of Barstow, the road went empty. It was the first time in miles that we hadn't been stopped every 10 minutes by someone with a story to tell. I looked over at my friend Jeff Diehl, sitting in the right seat.
"Side pipes," I yelled, for no reason, over the noise of the side pipes.
"Yes," he yelled back. "Side pipes."
There are people who scoff at replica GT350s. Those people can go suck eggs.
The backstory is legend. In the mid-1960s, fresh from the success of the Ford-powered Shelby Cobra, Henry Ford II told Carroll Shelby to make the economy-car-based Mustang into a road racer. He did. The 306-hp street car that resulted, the first Shelby Mustang, was dubbed GT350. To the untrained eye, the car was fluff, but Shelby was a salesman, and substance with a sheen of style was his thing. In an eyeblink, he and Ford sold America on the idea that "fast Mustang" and "Shelby" were the same concept. The idea wasn't original, but his cars are almost universally acknowledged as some of the best Fords ever built.
My trip began in L.A., because that's where Shelby started. He was born in Texas, but his first production shop was near the Los Angeles airport, in a stretch of industrial buildings a few miles from the water. His company, Shelby American, took over a two-story facility formerly used by Woolworth heir and sports-car builder Lance Reventlow. The building, 1042 Princeton Drive in Marina del Rey, is still there, still with its famous roll-up garage door. It's now occupied by a shoe company. Only the surroundings have changed: What was once industrial space is now a dense stand of condos.
Like the history, the GT350's recipe is known by almost everybody. For the first two years, the cars were built by Ford but reengineered by Shelby—each one rolled out of Ford's San Jose plant as a so-called "K-code" fastback, with a solid-lifter 289, quick manual steering, a black interior, a T10 four-speed, and a Detroit Locker differential. Shelby's crew, led by engineer Phil Remington and project chief Chuck Cantwell, added things like a steering quickener, traction bars, relocated front control arms, and cockpit goodies including a wood-rimmed wheel and dash-mounted tach.
There was no radio or back seat for a year, but there were deafening side pipes. The now-ubiquitous top stripes were optional, and most cars did without. More evidence of Shelby's talent-spotting: Remington was the technical genius behind the Cobra and the Le Mans-winning Ford GT40; Cantwell, a former GM engineer, went on to be team manager for Roger Penske's Trans-Am Camaros. Even the stripes, a simple thing, were designed by Pete Brock, who later drew the jaw-dropping Cobra Daytona Coupe. These guys did not fart around.
Two thousand, eight hundred eighty-nine street GT350s were built from 1965 to 1966. On top of that, 34 GT350R race cars were built, a decision that helped Shelby win the Sports Car Club of America's B-Production road-racing championship. The title ticked a box for Ford and gave the street cars endless credibility.
My car is not one of those. It's not anything, really. It began life with a three-speed automatic and a two-barrel 289. When it left Ford's San Jose plant in 1965, it was Primrose Yellow. If you told me it was sold to an interior decorator with a thing for macramé, I wouldn't be surprised. It's now got a few Shelby-inspired bits—fiberglass hood, relocated control arms, side pipes, Lincoln front brakes, Konis, GT350R air dam— modern touches like a warmed-up 302, an aftermarket Watts link, a five-speed Tremec, and an aftermarket power-steering box. When I got it, I ordered reproduction GT350R gauges, had it lowered, and mounted Avon FIA rally tires because they have a squarish profile and look the business. I also removed the "GT350" lettering on the rockers, because it let me sleep at night.
The result is a car that feels like a cross between a well-behaved truck and that time in college when I joined the rugby team because they threw killer parties. It's missing some of the balance and magic of a real 350, but the vibe is close. The car takes work, and you don't drive it asleep.
And so I took my Shelbyish mutt to its spiritual birthplace. I asked Jeff to come with for grins. Jeff has a house in Chicago but lives in something like a permanent state of Fordery. He gave me my first ride in a weird Mustang—his Fox-body track rat, sideways, at an autocross in my twenties—and he loves the car in all its forms. (Sample text message: "SAM: FRAME CONNECTORS SMALL BLOCK SMALL BLOCK Shelby club track meet want to go?") When I called and said I was buying a '65 after years of owning European iron, he seemed to shrug over the phone, as if it was inescapable: Of course you bought a Mustang. You have a soul.
We walked around the outside of the Princeton Drive shop, took a few snaps, and talked to the current tenant, a nice East Coaster named Don Weiss. He was nice enough to move his Mercedes SL for pictures.
"I work in Carroll's old office," he said, smiling. His shoe company, Blowfish Malibu, is new in the building. After he went back to his office, Jeff plugged the brand into Google. "They're apparently a big deal in shoes," he said. "Lucky building," I said.
The building has been remodeled, but the outside looks much as it did in period. Cobras came from here, and the GT350 was dreamed up somewhere behind that famous garage door. You could walk from one end to the other in under 30 seconds. It was hard to imagine someone engineering championships from that tiny footprint.
The street was quiet, but the few people who drove by slowed to glance at the car. A sunglassed blonde woman of indeterminate age pulled up in a Lincoln MKZ, spoke briefly with Jeff, then left. As she drove away, he chuckled. "She said she loved the car," he said. "And I thought, yes, of course you do. You don't know about the loud yet."
I wondered. I lit the car off for my non-car-freak sister once, right after I bought it, in an enclosed garage. The echo was deafening. She just laughed.
Former Shelby employee John Morton recently wrote a book about his time at Princeton Drive. In it, Shelby wrench Ted Sutton describes Carroll's first drive in the prototype 427 Cobra. Shelby was on crutches and recovering from knee surgery, but he still managed 80 mph on the area's short blocks, ripping through intersections sideways. It was insane, Sutton said, and he loved it.
I looked at my car, then down the cramped, narrow road. Old-school, L.A.-when-the-land-was-cheap stuff.
He's right. It was insane. And awesome.
The best story I have about the impact of Shelby Mustangs doesn't involve a real Shelby. It features my friend Kurt Niebuhr's red-with-white-stripes '66 Mustang coupe. He tells it like this:
"I was on my way to a company picnic in Santa Monica. I'd just had a rollhoop installed and the side pipes mounted. I think I might have even wiped it off with a wet rag. I hit a light just before Lincoln, four or five cars back from the front. As I sat there, I noticed this homeless woman walking up the middle of the road, asking for change. When she got to my Mustang, she shook her head. Wagging a finger at me, she smiled and laughed: 'Everybody thinks this is a real Shelby, but I don't! I know better!'
"I was gobsmacked. I wanted to get out of the car, ask her how she knew, buy her lunch, and dig up the past 50 years. I didn't, of course, and she walked off laughing. I wonder what flashed in front of her eyes when she saw the car."
Kurt's Mustang isn't a GT350 clone; the stripes are the only Shelbyish thing about it. But there's a truth in that story. With Mustangs, everyone knows something. These cars are a kind of universal currency, like Porsche 911s or Chevrolet Corvettes. Even if you don't care about the culture, you are likely aware of their existence and what they say about the people who like them. Grandmas in Georgia know that a striped Mustang equals Shelby. And while there are only so many to go around, fake Shelby Mustangs don't have the stigma of, say, a fake Shelby Cobra: As long as you're not trying to pass one off as real, the response from the faithful is generally just, "attaboy."
The appeal makes sense. In the early Sixties, "American sports car" was a half-oxymoron limited to Corvettes and backyard specials. The Cobra didn't count because most people saw it as a hot-rodded Brit. But the GT350 turned. It stopped. It won things. It was based on an accessible car, so if you couldn't afford it, you could have something a lot like it. It was a universal ticket into a rarefied world.
Along the same lines, the Mustang itself began as a style exercise, but it evolved into an open-ended question, a special idea somehow within everyone's reach. The GT350 is the part of the story that works for sports-car nerds. But the broader Shelby idea, making a lot from a little, works for almost everyone.
In Playa del Rey, waiting at a stoplight, I absentmindedly wriggled the shift lever. It clicked loudly in the gate.
"You know," Jeff said, "back in the day, in a Fox-body, that noise meant, 'let's go.' Drag racing."
I looked at him and chuckled. The light changed, and I nailed it. Shelby built a few GT350 drag racers. They always looked a little weird, but I suppose it fit—the car was so adaptable, and at the root, it was still a Mustang. I found myself wanting to hit a drag strip. So many subcultures.
Shelby American left Marina del Rey in 1965, just as the GT350 project was ramping up. The firm and its race teams were outgrowing the Princeton shop, and everything was moved to a hangar at LAX. The address, 6501 West Imperial Highway, is now home to a Thai Airways facility. Most of the period PR shots were taken on the nearby hardstand—Mustangs and Cobras lined up post-build, Cantwell crouching next to a 350, and so on.
It's the kind of place you want to see but can't explain why, so we went. Unsurprisingly, there isn't much there. Jets take off a hundred yards away. In a nice coincidence, the building is white with a blue stripe. And like at Princeton Drive, you can smell the ocean.
Chuck Cantwell has talked about Carroll not wanting to take on GT350 production, paying gig or not. You have to assume the cash was nice, but he certainly didn't need the rep. For a short time in the Sixties, working for Shelby was basically a ticket to glory. The LAX move emphasizes that—in a swoop, Shelby American went from homespun shop to honest-to-God dream factory. And both Cantwell and John Morton claim that, until the Mustangs began to win, those cars were scoffed at, a bill-paying weak sister to the company's other products.
In that light, the growth of the car's legend is astonishing. The sharp end is the GT350R, of which only 28 survive. One recently sold at auction for just under $1 million, the kind of cash that will get you a good GT40. (Cantwell on R-model values, when we spoke this winter: "It's crazy. I mean, I don't know what to say about that." There was a wow in his voice.)
The car itself also evolved over time. The 1965 models were streetable race cars; 1966 brought an optional back seat and the famous Hertz GT350H rental cars, with their optional automatic transmissions. After that, Ford took advantage of the Shelby name and further diluted the car to boost sales. Production was moved to Michigan, and by 1969, a Shelby Mustang was little more than neat looks and power.
Fifty years on, it's no surprise that the early cars are worth more than later ones. You can't look at the LAX hangar without hearing a carnival barker in your head. ("Icons done cheap! Get your icons right here!")
Our next stop was the former site of Riverside International Raceway, off I-215 and roughly 60 miles east of downtown L.A. The track, once a SoCal landmark, opened in 1957 and was active until its closure in 1989. It starred in a handful of movies (The Love Bug; Grand Prix) and hosted everything from Can-Am and IndyCar races to the Carroll Shelby School of High Performance Driving. (In the Sixties, chief instructor Pete Brock taught people how to drive in Bugeye Sprites, among other things.) GT350s raced and were developed there, along with Willow Springs in the north. But Willow never hosted big-league races. Fast, dangerous Riverside was a mecca.
And two decades ago, they tore it up and built a mall.
As with the LAX hangar, I had this weird East Coaster need to see Riverside, even though I knew there wouldn't be much left. I've been to a handful of dead racetracks, and the one thing they have in common is a thin fog of sadness. Riverside is no different.
Rumor holds that certain mall roads echo the track layout, but the only obvious callbacks are a few roads in a nearby condo complex (Andretti Street, Penske Street) and a mountain in the distance that can occasionally be seen in period photographs. Ken Miles died here, and now there's an assortment of luxury homes and a sale at Penney's.
We parked, had lunch at a chain diner, drove around a bit, got hassled by a mall cop who asked us to stop photographing the Macy's because it wasn't "mall policy." Unruly types, you know, they carry cameras and drive shiny old Fords. So Jeff and I got back on the road.
An old friend once noted that there are two kinds of good cars: those that mean the same thing to everyone, like a 911, and those that mean a million things, like a Mustang. Cars like the former work because their personalities and talents are rigidly defined, no matter how much you modify them. Cars like the latter work because they're a blank canvas: You can turn them into what you want, no matter what that is. But the American adaptability impulse is not without its downside. When we commit, we do amazing things. When we get complacent, we make malls and the Mustang II.
We pressed on. I tried to not think about malls and failed. When I went to bed that night, at a hotel off Route 66 near Barstow, the exhaust was still ringing in my ears. I brought earplugs to avoid headaches, wore them for a while, then didn't. Like most loud places now dead, Riverside never got a proper funeral. I figured the least I could do was go a bit deaf.
This car, it makes you talk to people. In Riverside, a dude in a lifted Silverado pulled alongside in a parking lot. I had the hood up, checking the oil, and he wanted to know if we needed help. Then he asked if the car was for sale.
A few weeks after the trip ended, my company-issued laptop went on the fritz. I called tech support, and our in-house digital savior, Paul MacGown, noticed a few files on my desktop with "Mustang" in the name. "Oh, man," he said. "I love Mustangs. You guys doing something with one? Had a '65. Miss it."
At a gas station and taco shop in Pahrump, Nevada, I splurged and bought a tank of $7-per-gallon 110 race gas (sold at the pump, go figure). The car, tuned for midwestern fuel, had been loading its plugs on California gas, and I figured the pure stuff might help, which it did. As I put the pump away, a woman walked out to change the garbage bags. White sneakers, gold chains, cigarette, in her sixties.
"What's it like?" she said.
"Well, it's loud," Jeff said.
"They're supposed to be. You race it?"
"No, just a street car."
"Awww." Shoulders slumped. She lit another cigarette. "You boys drive carefully."
As she walked away, Jeff raised an eyebrow. "Sweet lady. She looked at the car like it was her next meal."
I climbed back behind the wheel. Jeff ducked inside for a soda and got cornered on the way back by a desert-weathered guy in a trucker cap. I couldn't hear much, but I caught the word "289." "That has to have been the 20th person who's come up and just randomly shared his past," I said to Jeff when he returned. "It's like the opposite of a 911—the car's some sort of unspoken, universal proof that you're not a jerk."
He was silent for a second, staring out the windshield as we turned on to the highway. "You roll into a small town in an old Mustang," he said, "you get stories. Shelby had a piece of it, but it's something bigger. Everyone has a story. Everyone had one or knows someone who had one or had sex in one or raced one or crashed one—they wanted it to be a Shelby but they couldn't afford one, so they bought a fastback or a coupe or anything, something close, just to get a piece of it."
We hit Vegas an hour or so later, checked into the Tropicana, and collapsed into a pair of double beds. I had the odd sensation that my bones were twitching, the Mustang's engine vibrations still humming through my spine. As I drifted off, Jeff started daydreaming.
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"You have no idea," he said. "My aunt Odett! My God. Dark-green '67 with wire wheel covers ... she was afraid to sell it, her ex-husband, my uncle Glen, had a fastback ... My dad. The Mustang he bought from my uncle. Three kids, no money, red, black interior, '66 coupe. Or Don's green '67. He bought it from our friend John. Sport Sprint 200. He had big plans for that car ..."
The next morning, we drove down to Shelby American's new home on the southern Strip. Carroll took the company to Las Vegas in 1995 after deciding to reawake the brand following years of dormancy. The new facility, giant Shelby American sign visible from the freeway, supplanted the company's old home at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last year. The business was moved, Shelby Vice President of Operations Gary Patterson told me, because the Strip is "where the people are."
Patterson is equal parts test driver, salesman, and executive, and he's been around since the Oldsmobile-powered Shelby Series 1 of the Nineties, which he helped develop.
"The demographic has completely changed," he said. "I now sell old Shelbys to people who buy our new cars. They just started reading about the old stuff. When we got into doing Mustangs again, in '06, those guys wanted new cars to go with old ones. It's flipped."
We took a facility tour, talked with Patterson a little, then hung around the gift shop looking for souvenirs. There were a lot of new Mustangs getting post-title Shelby conversions done, along with a few supercharged Shelby 1000s and the odd Shelby F-150 Raptor. I bought a coffee mug in the shape of a smiling Carroll head—he's even wearing the right hat—for seven bucks. I poked around a few continuation Cobras and briefly pondered selling everything to buy one. We drove a Shelby GT/SC Mustang out to the desert for a future review, did burnouts, came back.
The car felt new but old at the same time. Mostly, it felt like a Ford that had been made into ... something.
But that's it, isn't it? As a country, America is particularly good at reimagining purpose. Maybe it's our bootstrap origins, or maybe it's just how you think when your continent was a blank slate only a few hundred years ago. Vegas is a perfect example: often seen as gutter America, but it produced one of the best pieces of 20th century literature and countless pop-culture touchstones. The Sixties Mustang was a cheap rebody of a Ford Falcon, then it was a winning racer, now it's a collectible. R&T's 1964 review called the car more of the same from Detroit and oozed disappointment that the V-8 coupe wasn't more of a sports car. But a year later, when we tested the first GT350, it was raved over.
The draw is potential, not purpose. Shelby and his crew simply made the car into what most people wanted it to be when they first saw it. This kind of reinvention is part of our national myth, and the best and worst thing about it is that it never stops. You may hate change, but you have to appreciate how good we are at it.
Carroll Shelby died in 2012. He gave us a lot of things, but his best work reminds you that fast cars are about possibility. And while his ghost undoubtedly wishes I had a real GT350, my car works—it's an attainable, evocative piece of a larger, cooler idea. That concept is Shelby as hell, but it's also so American you can feel it in your bones.