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1968 GT 500KR Convertible - King Of The Road
That's how we felt when we had a chance to drive a low-mileage '68 G.T. 500KR convertible
It's become a tradition. Every year, right before I head off to the Mid America Ford and Team Shelby Nationals in Oklahoma, event founder and organizer Jim Wicks calls to offer me a chance to drive a low-mileage Mustang musclecar. Two years ago, it was Jim's own 21,000-mile Boss 429 survivor, followed by last year's 51,000-mile '65 Shelby G.T. 350, also a survivor from Wicks' stable. This year when I arrived at the Southern Hills Marriott, there was an Acapulco Blue '68 G.T. 500KR convertible waiting on me. The odometer read just 10,410 miles.
This one didn't belong to Wicks. Instead, it's owned by Seattle's John Atzbach, who agreed to let me drive the car during the Mid America weekend last June.
Nothing against restored cars, but there's something special about low-mileage survivors. From the stance to the panel fit, they look correct, just the way we remember them in the 1960s or perhaps as used cars in the 1970s. Oh, sure, there may be a rip or two in the upholstery or nicks in the paint, but those things add to the car's history, or patina, as they say at Barrett-Jackson. And unrestored originals always seem to drive better than restored Mustangs. Perhaps that's just the mind playing games with the knowledge that the suspension and steering have never been replaced or apart. I've driven both restored and unrestored, and I can't say that I've ever driven a restored Mustang that drove like a low-mileage, unrestored Mustang.
If you're on top of your Mustang trivia, then you know that the G.T. 500KR is the mid-year, '68¢ version of the G.T. 500. When Ford introduced the 428 Cobra Jet engine in April of 1968, Shelby took advantage of the more powerful big-block for the G.T. 500, both fastback and convertible. To differentiate the CJ-powered Shelbys from previous G.T. 500s with the 428 Police Interceptor, the KR--for "King of the Road"--was added to the side stripes. Carroll Shelby likes to tell the story about beating Chevrolet to the name when he heard a rumor that it was going to used for a new Corvette.
For reasons more related to the CJ Mustangs in Super Stock drag racing than marketing, the Cobra Jet's advertised horsepower rating of 335 was actually less than the 360hp rating for the PI engine. However, the CJ's better-flowing 427 heads and more aggressive camshaft produced more power. It didn't fool the editors at Car Life magazine, who reported in their October 1968 road test of the G.T. 500KR: "The Cobra Jet is obviously underrated at 335hp; educated guesswork and gossip puts the true output at something closer to 500."
Today, the G.T. 500KR is one of the most coveted of all vintage Shelbys, especially the convertible model. According to Wicks, nice examples change hands in the $180,000-240,000 range. In today's collector car world, they rank near the top in terms of desirability. Explains Wicks, "As a collector car, I think of the KR convertible in the same way as the high-powered classics of the 1930s."
As I approached Atzbach's KR for the first time at the Marriott, the dollar signs rattled in my head as it occurred to me that the car was worth more than my house and I was about to drive it into the midst of Tulsa traffic for Mid America's cruise to the downtown Brady District. The convertible shows signs of wear, but more from long periods of storage than actual highway use. The Acapulco Blue paint is not brand-new but appears to be a repaint from some point in the car's past, with reproduction side stripes, according to one observer. The interior, however, is almost perfect. Wicks throws open the hood to reveal the 428 Cobra Jet filling the engine compartment, complete with the functional air-cleaner that draws cooler outside air from the twin snorkel hood scoop. A recent engine compartment detailing has the big-block looking good as new.
Everything was there that makes a Shelby a Shelby--unique fiberglass nose and hood, convertible roll bar, side scoops, fiberglass trunk lid, Thunderbird taillights, and stripes with G.T. 500KR on the front fenders. The Shelby's Deluxe interior is inviting with its woodgrain trim and console with the embossed Cobra emblem on the padded storage compartment lid.
The driver's door opens easily, then closes with the confident "whap" that only unrestored cars can make. Old friend Mark Storm calls "Shotgun!" and flips the passenger seat-back forward so Kevin and Shelli Marti can climb into the back seat, ducking the roll bar at the same time. For a moment I feel like a teenager getting ready to cruise the local drive-ins with a couple of buddies and a girlfriend on a Saturday night.
Reality returns when I try to start the Shelby. After a couple of pumps on the accelerator pedal, the engine turns over but refuses to fire. Pumping the accelerator a few more times and holding the pedal to the floor doesn't do the trick, so before I kill the battery, I hand over the keys to Jeff Yergovich, Mid America's man in charge of display cars. If anyone is going to flood the engine in front of the hundreds of people gathered for the cruise, I prefer that Jeff do it. With his more aggressive pedal pumping, the engine finally fires, bellowing black smoke out of the tail pipes. Everyone stares.
As I slip the shifter into Drive for the idle over to our spot in the cruise line-up, I note that the exhaust is quiet, almost barely audible even though the top is down. The single transverse muffler is not the original, but at least someone replaced it with NOS or an accurate reproduction. Maneuvering through the crowded parking lot is easy thanks to the power steering. Like all P/S Mustangs from that era, the steering is effortless, almost too easy, although I'm glad it's there with the heavy big-block over the front tires.
The cruise itself was uneventful thanks to the Tulsa Police Department shutting down the major intersections so the 500 or so Mustangs and Fords could pass. Trapped between other cars, there was no chance to try out the Cobra Jet's abundant torque, so Mark, Kevin, Shelli, and I compared impressions about the KR, noting that the car is much more luxurious than the earlier '65-'67 Shelbys. It's quiet, comfortable, and easy to drive. Even with wind-noise, there was no problem conversing with Kevin and Shelli in the back seat.
After a fun evening of checking out cars and dinner at a downtown Tulsa restaurant, our group reconvened at the KR for the trip back to the Marriott. Unrestricted by the cruise or afternoon traffic, I was able to dip into the Cobra Jet's torque, which brought back memories of the '69 CJ Ranchero I once owned. With a CJ, there's no waiting for the rpms to climb--power is there at the touch of the throttle and the rear Goodyears chirp as the C6 snaps into Second gear.
The plan was to jump onto the Red Fork Expressway for a quick trip back to the hotel, but thanks to either the engaging conversation or just age-induced lack of concentration, I missed the exit and took the CJ on a detour down the Keystone Expressway. Mark tried to find music on the AM radio, but that resulted in talk radio or static. No matter, it was more interesting to listen to Kevin's stories about his Ford production database and the special Mustangs he's discovered while producing Marti Reports.
Later in the weekend, I got another chance to drive the KR, this time for Jerry Heasley's action photography. With Wicks in the passenger seat, we headed out of town in search of a long stretch of highway so Jerry could grab his road shots. Of course, the long stretch of highway also provided an opportunity to stretch the KR's legs, which I did on several occasions. Yes, the 428 pulled hard, just like a CJ should, at least until we hit the upper limits of its rpm range when it started to cough and stumble. I think the big-block just needed some serious exercise. Then, after numerous runs at slow speeds for Jerry's camera, we also experienced that common big-block malady--vapor lock, or fuel percolation. Getting the car moving again cleared it up.
As the sun set and darkness moved in, we headed back to Tulsa with the top down to enjoy the cooler evening air. That's when the lights shut off. So there I was at the controls of a very expensive KR survivor, perhaps the lowest mileage example in existence, while driving into Tulsa traffic at night with no headlights or taillights. Maintaining plenty of distance between the cars in front of us and with Jerry following closely in his vehicle, we made it back to the hotel without incident or a TPD traffic ticket.
As I've learned over the past three years, low-mileage survivor Mustangs are not perfect; time takes its toll whether a car is driven or not. Still, they are the closest we can get to the look, feel, and driving experience of vintage Mustangs when they were new or almost new.
Then and now, it doesn't get much better than a '68 G.T. 500KR convertible.
At A Glance
'68-1/2 Shelby G.T. 500KR Convertible
- The 1968 model was the first Shelby built outside of Shelby American in Los Angeles. Instead, they were built by the A.O. Smith Company in Detroit.
- All '68 G.T. 500KRs came with the mid-year 428 Cobra Jet engine.
- KR stands for "King of the Road."
- Production: Of the 4,451 Shelbys built for '68, only 517 were KR convertibles.
- The huge majority of '68 Shelbys came with the standard hubcaps on 15-inch steel wheels. Most have been replaced today by the optional 10-spoke aluminum wheels.
- The KR's 428 Cobra Jet was rated at 335hp, 25 less than the 428 Police Interceptor it replaced.
- A convertible model was added to the Shelby line-up for the first time in '68. It incorporated a unique roll bar.
- Taillights on the '68 Shelbys came from the '65 Thunderbird.