As automakers continue their relentless pursuit of refinement, there’s precious little “magic” to be had behind the wheel of a new car. Sit down, and you instantly know where everything is and how to operate it. Start it up and drive and few sensations are overly vivid. In short, most new cars are about as surprising as a toaster. Ford’s Mustang Shelby GT is the un-toaster. I recently braved the perils of California’s Mojave Desert (e.g. bad road food) to sample the Shelby at the Willow Springs Raceway. The experience was not bland. On the contrary, it was, erm… memorable.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Shelby GT is a for-the-people version of 2006’s Shelby GT-H, a special-edition ‘Stang available only for rental through Hertz. The same upgrades apply: a one-and-a-half-inch drop, stouter springs, dampers and anti-roll bars, a front strut tower brace, and a freer-breathing intake and exhaust. There’s also—wait for it— a numbered and Carroll-Shelby-signed commemorative plaque on the dash. Ooh. Aah. Sorry, just yawning.
Now, this may seem like the umpteenth special-edition ‘Stang Ford has released to pump life into its retro pony’s sales (Warriors in Pink Edition, anyone?). But the car’s pert, chunky lines still draw stares. And while Shelby’s visual additions put the “tack” in tack-ons (eighteen-inch imitation “mags,” hood pins, billet grille, the usual suspects), they can be taken in good fun. Early in the day, journalists waited in line to drive this car. When’s the last time someone got excited about a rental Ford?
I mentioned memorable sensations. The first arrives when you swing open the Shelby’s heavy door and drop yourself into the dark, leather-trimmed interior. Half-filling your bunker-slit view is a hood scoop. Not a WRX-style mail slot, but the real dream-cruise deal, racing-striped and stamped into place with rivets. It’s nonfunctional, of course.
At the base of the console sits another shameless, self-conscious grasp at the past: a cue-ball-topped Hurst short shifter. Try to grab a gear with this thing and it feels broken. Improbably high effort is required to scritch-scratch the lever through its tiny, gritty H-pattern, as if someone used sand as a lubricant. Stylistically, it gels seamlessly with the rest of the ‘Stang’s ‘60s-revival interior décor. And hey, at least the five-speed is a manual; the Hertz GT-H, as some may recall, was auto-only.
The salience of that last point becomes apparent upon turning the key. The noise that issues from the Shelby’s exhausts is the stuff of teenage fantasies: dense, rumbly, woofly and loud. Spine tingles come standard. And with a manual at your disposal, this luscious soundtrack inspires all kinds of delightful antisocial behaviors, from unnecessary revving at a stop to unnecessary displays of WOT on the move.
According to Ford, the exhaust and intake combo are good for an extra 19 horses versus the standard Mustang GT, for a total of 319. That’s more than enough for serious fun, especially since the 4.6-liter V8 pours on torque thickly and smoothly in the midrange (low-end grunt is surprisingly modest). Zero to 60mph runs take just about five seconds. But the Shelby’s dynamics are, um, less than contemporary.
Readers who’ve driven the standard-issue ‘Stang are doubtless already familiar with its light, numb steering, its proclivity to understeer and the general sense of squidge in its suspension. Truth is, the Shelby’s starched suspenders don’t improve matters much. Body motions are nicely taut, and its stride feels a bit more hunkered-down. But the Shelby still left my neurons reeling as its helm scribed gloopy, too-fast arcs into Willow Springs’ sweeping high-speed corners.
And braking? Talk about “memorable.” The middle pedal feels weaker than a wine spritzer and mushier than Mills & Boon. Worse, the Shelby GT evinces a spooky live-axle weave when you drop anchor at triple-digit speeds. Its rear end gets loose and queasy as the front end dives to sniff the pavement. I didn’t notice any pucker marks on the seat cushion’s leather upholstery. Must be tough stuff.
Okay, so the typical Shelby GT buyer isn’t looking to run it around a track. More likely they’ll use it to cruise the main drag, luring envious glances from other aging rodders. Or maybe they’ll canter down a mountain road, reveling in the echo of its exhaust. Under such circumstances, I, too, would surely fall under the Shelby’s spell.
But hey, that’s easy to do while driving on someone else’s dime. The MSRP for this nostalgic bit of blue-oval bluster? $36,970. Seriously. And all of the performance parts are, as they say, “also sold separately.” Check ‘em off in your Ford Racing catalog and you’ll total $2,656. Budget a couple thousand more to have everything bolted onto your $25,840 Mustang GT.
Have you driven a $6,970 commemorative plaque lately? I told you it left an impression.