Tom Wilson
December 1, 2006
Laying down a smokescreen is child's play given the GT-H's fat torque, automatic transmission, and a willingness to power-brake a little. Simply dropping the throttle won't do the deed-that's what 428CJ's were for.

We've driven plenty of rental cars, but this is the first time we've paid attention. Or taken pictures, visited the factory where it was built, or bothered to get the story behind it. Because, obviously, Shelby's GT-H is no ordinary rental car. It's a rental car with a history.

That history stretches all the way back to 1958, when rental giant Hertz started the Hertz Sports Car Club. Designed to offer interesting performance cars to specially qualified renters, the Sports Car Club was a natural place to sell Shelbys, as Shelby American's general manager, Peyton Cramer, found out. He ultimately sold 1,000 '66 GT-350Hs to Hertz, and later those cars were sold as used cars to the public. And contrary to all those stories the local expert may have told you, the GT-350Hs were sold in various colors-although most were black and likely had gold stripes-and some were four-speed manuals, while the majority were automatics.

Today some of this seems unbelievable. If nothing else, the idea of renting a manual-shift car in the United States stretches credulity, given that clutch and shifter skills are evaporating like ice cubes in the Las Vegas summer sun beating down on Shelby Automobile's massive tilt-up headquarters. Back when race cars were street cars with the spare tire taken out, the idea of renting something so nearly track-ready spoke volumes to the GT-350H's durability.

Those block Shelby letters are the same font and size as those used on the '60s models. The only change was a move to adhesive backing compared with the early style post-and-clip retention.

That's not to mention our country's strangulation by trial lawyers, which makes the fact that Hertz, Shelby and, in a peripheral way, Ford have gotten together again all the more amazing. This time the vehicle is the Shelby GT-H, and like the GT-350H, the GT-H will be available only in selected major markets to qualified Hertz renters. "Qualified" seems to mean, "not from here," as hearsay evidence reports a local address disqualifies potential GT-H renters. You have to show a distant residence and plane tickets to have the shuttle bus drop you off in front of one of the 500 GT-Hs Shelby bolted together in 2006.

On the other hand, special driving prowess apparently need not be demonstrated, as the GT-H fleet is entirely equipped with automatic transmissions. (Well, all but four; see the accompanying sidebar.)

In fact, the GT-H is, by the admittedly fire-breathing standards of this magazine, a pleasant upgrade over stock-a bolt-on car. But, and it's a big qualifier, it's one incredible rental car and a great drive for the real world. What few upgrades the GT-H boasts are exactly those few the current Mustang needs to pique the enthusiast's interest without corrupting the S197's impressive daily driver aplomb.

Shelby's hood is stepped and pinned. Both are for looks, with the pins delivering a classic performance look that fits the car perfectly.

To start at the beginning, all 500 GT-Hs are black with gold Le Mans stripes. Ironically, back when Shelby was winning Le Mans in the '60s, Shelby called the skunk treatment "rally stripes." There is also the so-called rally stripe along the rocker panel with a SHELBY GT-H script inset, a Hertz plaque above that on the front quarter-panel, and a nonfunctional side scoop. Loud and proud across the rear trunk lid are widely spaced S H E L B Y letters. The phony gas-cap detail remains stock Ford. In keeping with Shelby Mustang tradition, the front treatment is a handsome plain grille with a Tri-bar and running-horse badge offset on the driver side set in a Shelby-specific fascia and capped with by a vented composite hood featuring hood pins. It's all quite proper and strikes an impressive image when seen on the street.

The GT-H eschews some of today's usual embellishments. The brake rotors, for example, are unadorned stock production parts no matter what the Web site says, and the wheels, thank goodness, are good old soft-riding 17-inchers, with stock tires no less. The reason for all this off-the-rack dress is economic and practical. Hertz needs to maintain these cars without unduly clogging their parts stream and couldn't afford the chance of putting cars out of service because they need a low-volume tire or specially painted replacement brake rotors. The stock stuff works just fine and is immediately plentiful from a spares perspective.

Thanks mainly to a cold-air kit and performance electronic tune from an FRPP FR1 Power Pack, the GT-H's Three-Valve V-8 spins out an extra 25 hp and 10 lb-ft of torque.

To start at the beginning, all 500 GT-Hs are black with gold Le Mans stripes. Ironically, back when Shelby was winning Le Mans in the '60s, Shelby called the skunk treatment "rally stripes." There is also the so-called rally stripe along the rocker panel with a SHELBY GT-H script inset, a Hertz plaque above that on the front quarter-panel, and a nonfunctional side scoop. Loud and proud across the rear trunk lid are widely spaced S H E L B Y letters. The phony gas-cap detail remains stock Ford. In keeping with Shelby Mustang tradition, the front treatment is a handsome plain grille with a Tri-bar and running-horse badge offset on the driver side set in a Shelby-specific fascia and capped with by a vented composite hood featuring hood pins. It's all quite proper and strikes an impressive image when seen on the street.

The GT-H eschews some of today's usual embellishments. The brake rotors, for example, are unadorned stock production parts no matter what the Web site says, and the wheels, thank goodness, are good old soft-riding 17-inchers, with stock tires no less. The reason for all this off-the-rack dress is economic and practical. Hertz needs to maintain these cars without unduly clogging their parts stream and couldn't afford the chance of putting cars out of service because they need a low-volume tire or specially painted replacement brake rotors. The stock stuff works just fine and is immediately plentiful from a spares perspective.

Inside the up-trim cockpit, the only changes are lightly cosmetic. The doorsill proclaims allegiance to Hertz and Shelby, there's a sticker on the dash center noting the car's Shelby serial number, and Carroll Shelby has autographed every GT-H dash, just like a bear scratching a tree.

Mechanically, the GT-H sticks close to the Ford fold. The Shelby Automobiles (www.shelbyautos.com) strategy is to work as closely with Ford as possible, and part of this plan is a tight working relationship with Ford Racing Performance Parts. Thus, the GT-H wears FRPP's FR1 and FR3 kits, the upshot being a 90mm cold-air intake, a performance electronic tune, and an X-shape crossover pipe. Low-restriction mufflers have upped the Three-Valve V-8's power rating to 325 hp while 3.55 gears in the differential multiply that power to better advantage. Chassis improvements are a strut-tower brace and a spring, bar, and shock package featuring slightly enlarged sway bars, firmer ride tuning, and a slight lowering. As noted, the brakes, wheels, and tires remain stock Mustang fare.

Shelby and Hertz didn't make a big deal out of serial numbering the GT-H, other than this dash appliqu. This one says "prototype," while regular production cars have a number. Shelby insiders say documentation of all modern Shelbys is excellent, with full records of serial numbers, VINs, options, and so on.

Getting these parts on the stock Mustang GT starting point was the job of two-man teams at Shelby Automobiles in Las Vegas. This is the same Shelby company that builds 289 and 427 Cobras in fiberglass and aluminum versions, plus provides fabrication and development services. The GT-Hs were assembled on an expansive shop floor using a station approach, not an assembly line. Shelby Automobile's philosophy is to give small teams "ownership" of each car they build, so as a black Mustang GT arrives, it is seen all the way through by a two-man team assisted by a floating third technician who helps wherever necessary. Shelby has its own in-house paint shop, so no time was wasted trucking cars and parts to a separate facility. As the assembly process is almost entirely a bolt-on exercise, the cars went onto a hoist, and parts were pulled from the warehouse and brought to the workstation. The actual assembly was blindingly fast, each pair of technicians normally converting three Mustangs per 10-hour working day. Our visit was at the end of GT-H production in late July when temperatures average 110 degrees, sometimes with oppressive humidity as the desert Southwest monsoon season arrives. Temps on the shop floor are a few degrees cooler thanks to the high ceiling, but still, the four-day, 10-hour Shelby workweek is not for slackers.

One notable detail of GT-H production was having Carroll Shelby autograph every car's dash. It's a fun touch, for sure, but more significantly, it will give each Hertz car a personal connection to The Man himself. And in case you're wondering about our use of the past tense, only 500 GT-Hs were built, with production finishing early in August 2006.

We had to keep reminding ourselves that this was a rental car-a fact that probably says more about the GT-H than anything else. The black-and-gold scheme is traditional with Hertz-Shelby Mustangs, and it is derived from Hertz's own pre-war car that featured black paint and polished brass trim.

Our driving impressions were made in the jack-of-all-trades photo car, which is also the GT-H prototype. A minor point perhaps, but the prototype is owned by Shelby Automobiles and can be put at risk by journalists and others, whereas all other GT-Hs are property of Hertz from before they arrive at Shelby's. We didn't put too much at risk in the prototype, but we definitely drove it long and hard enough to know its character. The first thing we must mention is the car's looks, which are aggressively handsome. Like a powerfully filled tuxedo, the GT-H demands attention without looking the least part boy racer; it's a profile any enthusiast would enjoy and one absolutely hard-core in the rental car context.

Second, the GT-H is blessed with a superior exhaust note. Ford uses an H-pipe crossover on stock GTs. Shelby cuts the H-pipe just forward of the H, then clamps in a nicely-built X section, the exhaust pipes, and low-restriction mufflers. The exhaust manifolds are untouched. The result is a surprisingly deep bass at idle-it sounds especially stereophonic and rumbly when you make an excuse to go fiddle around the rear of the car-coupled to a quiet cruise and lightly expressive output at full chat. It's too quiet for the all-out racers among us, we understand, but what it lacks in volume going down the road it makes up for in quality, as there is no hiss or drone. Just right for a daily driver, in other words.

Does it look like it's 111 degrees? We searched for the coyote and roadrunner in the GT-H but came away with nothing more than a good time. That's a first for a rental car.

Past the visual and aural, the center of the GT-H experience is the competence of the late-model Mustang tightened up to "firm" by the chassis improvements. Shelby makes no secret that the spring, bar, and shock package is Eibach, and we found its character well matched to the late-model's rigid chassis and competent strut and three-link suspension. On a demanding, undulating two-lane, we found the GT-H points smartly into the corner and holds its line with minimal understeer. There's enough body roll to communicate what's happening, but no more. The steering is definitely more direct and responsive than stock, and generally the chassis composure is a pleasure to experience. This was at 7/10s open-road driving, and behavior at the limit is likely a modest understeering affair should the Hertz renter decide to live the legend by taking his GT-H to an open-track event.

Ride quality is also a triumph of real-world excellence. We'll call it one and a half notches firmer than stock, there is the slightest baby-buggy bounce on freeways prone to hop, and some grain on rough pavement, but that's about it for gripes. On backroads the GT-H sucked up big dips without a hint of bottoming, and there are no meaningful issues with jiggle or nervousness so common in overly hard aftermarket suspensions. All the square-edged junk-potholes, speed bumps, approaches-were firmly damped but not harsh. In meaningful part, this near-plushness could be due to the 17-inch tires with their more compliant sidewalls rather than the more typical 18-inch rolling stock typically fitted with lowered suspensions; something to keep in mind if you want the lowered look but not the lowered ride on your own Mustang. We also found the ride height not too low as the GT-H slides nicely over parking-lot stops or curbs. The doors don't ding into tall curbs, either, and if you're over 6 feet tall it doesn't feel as if you're doing deep-knee bends getting in and out.

In the dynamic realm, braking is improved over stock thanks to the firmer, less diving suspension, but it's otherwise familiar stuff to the experienced late-model Mustang pilot. The power is a strong hint better with the extra horses and slightly steeper gears, although the extra exhaust noise psychologically augments the positive side of this equation, while the automatic transmission is a bit of a negative. With ample V-8 torque on tap, however, the automatic transmission makes easy work of urban traffic and gives the GT-H that "easy speed" personality where all you have to do is mash the pedal. On winding country roads the automatic is, of course, hopeless to those swaddled in Nomex, but it's great the instant you relax to cruising mode and won't hinder the mainstream enthusiast who occasionally finds himself cornering in the country. If Ford would only fit the Mustang with more manual shift options than 1, 2, 3, D, it would help. In addition to all that, we'll say the electronic throttle on our tester was acceptable, offering about 91/410 the precision a cable-throttle would have given thanks to the FRPP tune. Progress, we suppose.

To keep their spare parts inventory manageable, Hertz specified the GT-H ride on the stock 17-inch Mustang wheel and 235/55ZR17 tires. For the same reason the brake calipers are not dolled up with powdercoat and logos, although there is plenty enough "Shelby" and "Hertz" signage around to know what's up.

So, how to get your hands on the latest Shelby Mustang? For now you'll need to jet over to some distant Hertz counter. These are rent-only cars, just like the original GT-350Hs. But also like the first Hertz Shelbys, the GT-Hs will be sold to the public as they are surveyed out of Hertz duty. That takes place between each car's 15,000 and 18,000 mile of duty in the rental fleet. Sales are indirect, all being sold to Ford dealers via private auction, then to the public through the dealer's used-car outlet. So, eventually you can add one of these historic late-models to your private collection, but in the meantime you'll need to rent your place in Shelby history.

The Six SolutionAs we noted in our '05 SEMA show coverage, Shelby is offering a $14,999 V-6 package-CS-6-for owners of bent-six '05-'07 Mustangs. Unlike the GT-H, the six-cylinder cars are dealer-built, so they don't go together in the Las Vegas facility.

What you're eye-feasting on here is one of two Shelby in-house CS-6 prototypes. It's referred to as "The Parts Car" because it represents both the parts-sales side of Shelby Automobiles and the constant stream of prototype parts on it, such as the three-gauge dash-pod mock-up in the photos. The black coupe is a real hot rod.

Putting the hot in this rod is a Paxton Novi 1200 blower with water-to-air chargecooling (a Shelby exclusive, as the Vortech equivalent is not charge-cooled). The chassis is augmented by Shelby's spring, bar, and shock package, the brakes are Shelby-branded Baer Racing calipers, and the wheels are 20-inch American Racing units. At press time, Shelby had only one style of bodywork for the S197 Mustangs, so The Parts Car is wearing the same hood, fascias, and such as the GT-H. The V-6 grille is unique to the V-6 car, including its projector-beam auxiliary lamps.

Since we photographed the car, Shelby has added a Hurst shifter to the five-speed manual, which the Shelby boys said helped big time.

We briefly drove the car and liked it a lot. The blower huffs up 8.5 pounds of boost, which hits hard and positively zings the V-6 through the powerband until it dies as if shot through the heart at 6,000 rpm. It's definitely a fast tear around the tach, and some technique is required to anticipate the power shut-off at redline. In absolute terms, the power is easily as strong as a prepped Three-Valve V-8, but with a raspier personality (sorta fun). The chassis felt great, a little lighter than a V-8 over the nose, but not necessarily Lotus-like as the blower adds weight high and forward. Then again, our ride was up an on-ramp, six miles of freeway, and down another ramp, so we'll have to await some track action for a full report.

All GT-Hs were built in Shelby Automobile's Las Vegas facility. The center car in the trio ahead of the yet-to-be-striped car is one of the four manual-transmission GT-Hs.

Need a Rental Car?If you have the approximately $150 per day tariff (it varies by location), renting a GT-H is not such a bad idea. It's a fun ride, and if you haven't tried a new Mustang yet, it could be an extended testdrive of sorts. The GT-H Mustangs are part of Hertz's Fun Collection, their latest group of 36 models of specialty cars and SUVs spanning everything from PT Cruisers to the Shelbys. Available only in selected cities, the GT-H portion of the Fun Collection can be rented at the airports in Phoenix, Arizona; Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, and San Francisco, California; Denver, Colorado; Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and West Palm Beach, Florida; Maui and Honolulu, Hawaii; Las Vegas; and Boston. Call Hertz at (800) 654-3131 or see www.hertz.com for more details or reservations.

One SoldOK, it turns out you could have bought one GT-H Shelby Mustang before they hit Ford dealerships. The trick is, you needed to be the highest bidder in an auction, and the winning bid, says Ford, was $250,000.

Wow. That's a huge sum for a new specialty car that will soon be available for far less, but at least it was for a great cause, Young Eagles. The Young Eagles program is conducted by the Experimental Aircraft Association; it organizes EAA member pilots so they can give airplane rides to children 8 to 17 years of age. So far, more than 1.2 million Young Eagles have flown (several of them by me).

The press release from Ford, EAA, and Shelby does not say who the high bidder was or what might have become of the first private-owner Shelby GT-H. But we're sure they are enjoying it.-Tom Wilson

One thing you can bank on is Carroll Shelby building extra-special versions of his special cars. In the case of the GT-H, there are four extra-specials included in the 500 unit build count. Going together during our visit at the tail end of GT-H production, these four Mustangs are perks for three Hertz executives, with the fourth car remaining for Carroll Shelby.

Normal GT-Hs in all other respects, these four cars boast four exclusive features. Most importantly, they use the Mustang's standard five-speed manual transmission, a Hurst shifter, sport 4.10 gears, and wear the standard Mustang's optional 18-inch polished wheel and tire package. They are the only GT-Hs so-equipped, giving them instant exclusivity and proving once again you can build what you want and call it what you want when you own the company.