Eric English
August 10, 2011

Hard-core Shelby enthusiasts will recognize the name of Chuck Cantwell as readily as anyone associated with the genesis of the GT350. For the rest of us, a bit of an introduction may be in order.

As plans for a high-performance Mustang were coming together at Shelby American in late 1964, Cantwell was hired as the "Cobra Mustang" project engineerùor as he was sometimes known, the project manager. "Titles weren't so important back then," laughs Cantwell today, but no matter the label, the responsibility of his new post was clearùhe was the man in charge of the GT350 program. Of course, even those who aren't particularly familiar with individual contributions understand that the GT350 became a winner on all fronts, and quickly became an automobile of legendary stature. With this as background, one would have to view Cantwell as a father figure of sorts for the Shelby Mustang, while his approachable nature and keen memory of the glory days makes him one of our hobby's veritable treasures.

Cantwell is a man whose life is now dedicated primarily to family, but also filled with pertinent speaking engagements and special appearances at various automotive museums and conventions. By all accounts, he's happy to relate the past as often as asked about it.

"I joined Shelby in October 1964 after spending some years in the styling department of General Motors," he relates. "Ken Miles and Phil Remington had pretty well determined what the GT350 would consist of, but the rest of the work remained. Specifications had to be worked out, designs finalized, suppliers identified, etc."

Those chores and many others would fall under Cantwell's direction, and he describes the early days at Shelby American as crazy-busy with long hours melding day and night, weekdays, and weekends.

Cantwell had a hand in virtually all aspects of the early Shelby Mustang, including on-track development and an occasional SCCA B-Production outing behind the wheel of the earliest R-model. He soon found himself wearing even more hats when given the engineering reigns to Shelby American's new Trans-Am team in late 1965, a role he continued to play through the end of his tenure with the company in late 1968. After contributing mightily to the success of Shelby American through the heydays of the mid-1960s, Cantwell sensed the end of the race program was near. In October 1968, he took a position with Roger Penske to manage his race shop and Chevrolet/Sunoco road race teams, which would prove greatly successful in the ensuing years.

With a brief introduction of Cantwell complete, we move on to the Sapphire Blue '66 GT350 before you. Yes, this is Cantwell's personal GT350, and while you might surmise that he's held the pink slip to this and other Shelby products over the years, the startling truth is that this 2009 purchase was Cantwell's first Shelby American automobile.

"I could drive just about anything I wanted at work," recalls Cantwell when asked why he didn't own a Shelby earlier. "And at home I needed something more practicalùit just never happened."

Timing had much to do with the final impetus, as well as being more involved in all things Shelby since his 2002 retirement from Lockheed Martin. As for this car, serial number 6S796, "A friend of mine named Stan Hallinan owned it for some 37 years and ended up selling it to me in 2009. Stan and I first met during the 1967 Trans-Am season when our team set up shop at the Ford dealer where he worked in preparation for the nearby Bryar race."

Cantwell tells us his '66 was originally purchased in New Hampshire but was repossessed when the first owner shipped out with the Navy. "By the early 1970s, it had been purchased by an acquaintance of Stan's," Cantwell says. "He did some autocrossing with it before selling it to Stan." Hallinan may have raced the car a bit himself but soon parked it in his garage where it would remain virtually untouched for over 35 years.

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When Cantwell and Hallinan came to terms on 6S796 in November 2009, the day it emerged from hibernation was cause for celebration. Die-hard enthusiasts Curt Vogt, Rick Kopec, Howard Pardee, and Bob Aliberto were present for the occasion, with Vogt loading the car on his trailer for a trip to his Cobra Automotive shop. The engine was stuck after sitting for so long, and numerous other components needed attention to ensure reliable driver duty. Over the next six months, Cantwell and the Cobra Automotive crew selectively restored or rebuilt many components on this largely untouched car, getting it to what Cantwell was striving for--a nicely prepared driver that he and his long-supportive wife Joanne could enjoy together, along with their grandkids!

Including Hertz production, nearly 2,400 GT350s were assembled in 1966, making Cantwell's a modestly early car in the build sequence. As such, it sports over-ride traction bars and hollow-letter Cobra rocker covers--components that were revised on later cars. The Sapphire Blue paint is the original hue, but is believed to have been resprayed in the early years after a fender-bender. Cantwell tells us the LeMans stripes and 10-spoke wheels are original to the car, with the latter being resurrected via the skilled hands of Craig Conley.

The area of most intense restoration effort was the engine compartment and mechanicals. Vogt and company treated the original Hi-Po 289 to a .030-inch overbore and rebuild to stock 306-horsepower specs--likewise the aluminum-case T10 four-speed. In the rear, 3.50 gears replaced the original 3.89s, but the dealer-installed Detroit Locker differential remains. While the heavy lifting was going on, Cantwell spent long hours cleaning and prepping the engine bay for a fresh coat of black paint and attending to a myriad of detail items. The results speak for themselves.

As progress continued on Cantwell's GT350 through the spring of 2010, a movement amongst a group of early Shelby enthusiasts began to gain traction. Initially unknown to Cantwell, the gist of the effort would be to see that his newly freshened ride was brought to California in August for SAAC 35, figuring the event to be too far for Cantwell to consider doing on his own. Even better, what if a scenic coastal road trip could be organized with fellow '65-'66 GT350 owners, where the Cantwells could enjoy their first real miles in the new/old car? With the organizational and financial support from some dedicated people, all went according to plan. The terrific drive was charted out by local Brian Ferrin (see the "GT350 Road Tour" sidebar in our January 2011 coverage of SAAC 35), and suffice to say the opportunity to spend a day with the Cantwells will not soon be forgotten.

We suspect it was a memorable trip for Chuck and Joanne as well, for what better way to shake down their new purchase than a drive in the company of fellow enthusiasts? Welcome to the party!

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