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First Drive: Classic Recreations’ Ford Mustang GT500CR
A hauntingly vivid dream
LOS ANGELES, California — Jason Engel is a mentalist. Engel, with his preternatural powers of divination, has been able to reach deep into the collective consciousness of gear-heads young and old, and pluck out a fantasy. His chosen apparition is built around a logical deduction of what a brand-new 1967 Shelby GT500 must have felt like. But don't let Engel's powers of persuasion delude you, for his GT500CR is no replica.
Like the car it's built to mimic, Classic Recreations' GT500CR is a brawler through and through. Unlike many other resto-mod muscle cars, though, this one doesn't have a modern powertrain residing in the engine bay. Instead, power comes from a Ford Performance-sourced 427 cubic inch big block V-8. The only difference from the original is fuel injection, which Classic Recreations added for daily drivability.
The powerhouse powertrain is backed up with a beautifully notchy Tremec T5 five-speed manual transmission that sends the full 545-hp to the rear wheels, while braking duties are handled by upgraded bits from Wilwood; 13-inch discs sit up front, 12-inch ones at rear. Needless to say, there's no traction control other than your foot and the Nitto 275/40/17 NT555G2 rear tires.
Getting the GT500CR to turn, however, required more than just cosmetic surgery. A hydraulic unit now powers the steering rack, while tubular subframe connecters, a partial roll bar, oversized front and rear anti-roll bars, and coil-over suspension allow the car to handle more like a '17 Mustang than a '67.
The behind-the-wheel experience lulls me into a sort of trance. I'm not shifting gears through orange orchards in one of the many canyon valleys that litter Los Angeles' infrastructure, but pounding through the Tremec's heavy gate as I pass Corvettes, Porsches, and Ferraris at Le Mans—or the SCCA Runoffs—in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It's an intoxicating hallucination, one that has me pushing the car faster through each successive corner. But hucking the GT500CR into corners isn't life-threatening; you don't need Steve McQueen's cojones or Paul Newman's pitch-perfect car control thanks to the modern updates.
Even in the damp and cooler fall weather that accompanied our first foray in the GT500CR, the Nitto tires maintain traction as if they were race-spec rubber, burning up any number of racetracks around the world. Their grip level gave me more self-assurance than likely prudent. I was able to lean on the Wilwood brakes going into turns to dive the nose of the GT500CR and give the front end more traction, before slowly releasing the brakes mid-corner. With the thin, old-school wooden steering wheel finally straight, noise, and fury can safely emanate from the engine bay.
The Coyote V-8 in today's Mustang GT sounds good—glorious, even, with an aftermarket exhaust fitted—but it lacks a certain fidelity that only a big block V-8 can deliver. Descriptors can only describe the raspy violence so far as it's more about the thundering reverberations that impact your chest and eardrums. There's a certain character to the way the fuel-injected big block behaves that separates it from the car's modern cousins, to how it sends a powerful surge that multiplies the further you bury your right foot into the throttle. While the GT500CR can turn, that engine and its dynamic character will have you searching for straights.
You'd be hard-pressed to feel uncomfortable in the GT500CR's cabin. The seats, sporty in their bolstering, are comfortable, meaning long trips are a definite possibility. The rest of the interior is well-appointed with leather, wood and aluminum, and a modern audio system that's Bluetooth enabled so you can blast Paul Simon's Kodachrome roaring down the highway in vivid Technicolor. My only gripe with the interior is that the seat itself sits all too high. Without putting the seat into a semi-reclined position, my head scrapes the roof and there's no way in hell I'd be able to wear a helmet for a spirited day at the track.
Parking the GT500CR and handing the key back felt akin to waking up from a dream. Except that Engel's creation remains tangible—and it's better than the original as it's not brought down by primordial technology or engineering. Classic Recreation's $179,000 version more closely supports the reactions to those first pieces of literature, reviews, and videos that molded our nascent car-loving minds.