August 15, 2012

It's a familiar story of love and loss: Guy buys a Mustang, vows to keep it forever, then ends up selling it cheap due to the pressures of daily life. In this case, I'm the guy who sold a '66 G.T. 350H in 1984 for $7,000 because I needed seed money to start a publishing business. I've never quite gotten over it.

It didn't help that Shelby prices went through the roof in the ensuing decades, which kept a repurchase out of reach. I scratched the itch along the way with a series of Tigers, an SVO Mustang, and even a Cobra-powered TVR Griffith, but couldn't quite get the Shelby Mustang out of my head.

Fast-forward to early 2011, when Shelby prices dipped for the first time in years. Conveniently, this was the same time that I had a little extra scratch from my now 27-year-old publishing company. I sold a couple of lesser cars and went looking for another early Shelby.

At this point, I bumped into an old buddy, Tom Cotter, Cobra owner and aficionado, and mentioned that I was looking for a Shelby. While Cotter didn't know of any available '66s, he did happen to have a four-speed, factory air '67 for sale. The car had been rode hard but was still running and driving--more or less. And it was for sale at half the going rate for a nice car. I agreed to look at the survivor more as an excuse to grab lunch with a friend. But when the cover came off to reveal a dinged and dented Lime Gold mess of a Shelby with rust in the doors and rats in the interior, I fell in love.

This is easier to understand when you learn that my first car was a Lime Gold '67 Mustang fastback. The barn-find Shelby had a lot more than nostalgia to offer, though. Its power steering, power brakes, and fully intact A/C meant it would be a lot more comfortable and practical to live with than an early model, especially since it would be driven in Florida.

Once I slid into that still-familiar interior, started that small-block, and creaked the badly running car around the block, the deal was done. I bought the car on the spot.

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Making a Plan

As a longtime member of the Shelby American Automobile Club, my first call was to Pete Geisler, owner of Orlando Mustang and SAAC's main man in Central Florida. Geisler agreed to look the Shelby over, finding a very original car with the correct date codes on virtually every piece, panel, and mechanical part. The lone exception was the engine, which was a rebuilt '66 289 with 302 heads.

The next call was to National Parts Depot, a natural partner thanks to their vintage Mustang inventory, reputation, and headquarters just 70 miles from my home. NPD President Rick Schmidt, himself the owner of a '68 Shelby, took one look at the car and pledged his company's support to bring the beast back to life.

Which brought up an interesting question: How far "back to life" did the car need to go? I was surprised by my magazine staff's first reaction to the new Shelby. They all said, in unison, "You must leave this car as-is."

It's an understandable reaction, given you seldom see survivor Shelbys anymore. Did the world need another over-restored trailer queen?

The comments from friends and co-workers, combined with an off-chance email to Ford Racing, helped the final plan come together. Mark Wilson and his gang of gearheads at Ford Racing are big-time Shelby fans, and they suggested that the only thing that could make a real rat-rod Shelby any cooler would be to get rid of the worn-out, non-original 289 and replace it with one of their 500 horsepower, 363 cubic-inch engines.

A plan was soon hatched: I would leave the car looking like it just rolled out of a barn but mechanically make it brand-new--even better than brand-new. Then I decided to take this craziness one step further by making sure that any work done beneath the Shelby's crusty skin would be to Mustang Club of America concours standards. After all, this was a real Shelby G.T. 350. It was OK to have a little fun, but this was not the kind of car you butcher.

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A Final Twist

In true reality TV fashion, this slightly unreasonable plan was made completely unrealistic by the decision to complete the entire restoration in just three months of nights and weekends. The Shelby would need to be finished in time to take a debut shakedown cruise on the Texas 1000 vintage car rally, then head into Ford Racing's booth at the Performance Racing Industry show in Orlando for some high-profile publicity work because Ford wanted to showcase this ultimate use of one of their crate engines.

With help from my staff and the gang at Orlando Mustang, we soon had the Shelby torn apart. We found original pieces everywhere; only the starter, alternator, and fuel pump had been changed, adding evidence to the possibility that the 59,000 miles on the odometer were original.

Every mechanical part under the hood and on the chassis was either restored or replaced with a new part from NPD. The 9-inch rear end and completely worn-out Top Loader went to Volusia Drivetrain in Holly Hill, Florida, where the original 3.89:1 gears were traded for more highway-friendly 3.25s. And although some Shelbys came with optional Limited Slip Differentials, #1781 was not one of them, so a limited-slip differential was subbed-in at the same time.

Meanwhile, Jere Dotten handled the floorpan repair before sending the Shelby off for final prep and paint by Tom Prescott at The Body Werks in Holly Hill. Prescott followed MCA concours standards in applying the proper combination of red primer, black undercoating, and Lime Gold overspray to make the car's underside and engine compartment appear factory-fresh and original.

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Making the Engine Fit

The short timetable became even more challenging when the crew realized that the Ford crate engine, with its taller Z heads, would not be a direct bolt-in. Fortunately, Ford Powertrain Applications had performed this conversion before and was able to supply headers that fit perfectly. Sadly, however, the resulting fitment issues meant there was no way to save the stock Z-bar style mechanical clutch. The solution was to fit a combination of hydraulic clutch parts from Cobra Restorers and Modern Driveline.

With the engine installed and the rebuilt Top-loader mated to a new Centerforce clutch, it was on to the ancillaries. The Ford Racing crate engine comes nearly complete with Edelbrock water pump, extra-capacity oil pan, and an optional lightweight performance flywheel. A Griffin aluminum radiator, Crane billet distributor with HI-6 ignition system, and an Edelbrock Air Gap intake manifold with a Holley HP 750-cfm carburetor finished off the engine compartment. To keep the new engine cool, an oil cooler kit was sourced from Cobra Automotive.

To keep up with the added power, chassis refinements included 550-pound front springs, Koni shocks at all four corners, Classic Tube brake lines and braided steel hoses, and Porterfield R4-S brake pads and shoes.

The interior, formerly home to rats, was treated to new carpet, while the interior panels were painted the correct metallic near-black. The Shelby's original AM/eight-track radio was sent to Retro Radio Restoration, where it was converted to AM/FM with an iPod jack; they even got the original eight-track tape player working again. A Hurst competition shifter finished off the interior modifications.

With just three days to test and sort the beast before its big rally, a trip was planned to NPD headquarters in Ocala. I figured if I ran into problems, at least I'd be driving toward a large Mustang parts source. There was an added motivation: The guys at NPD had volunteered to create trick vintage-looking graphics to complement the car's original patina. The trip was a double success: NPD art director Kirk Hansen nailed the graphics, and after just a few adjustments, the car ran perfectly.

The finishing touch was an antiqued script naming the car the "Terlingua Terror," an homage to Jerry Titus's Trans-Am winning Shelby notchback as well as a nod to the fact that the Texas 1000 rally route often includes the Terlingua area of Texas.

With just minutes to spare and only 300 test miles, the car was loaded onto an Exotic Transport trailer headed for the wilds of Texas where it would take part on a 1,000-mile, high-speed thrill ride around the state's fabled hill country.

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Wine, Cheese, and Rat?

The vintage rally crowd tends to be an upscale group that favors Ferraris over Fords, so there was some question about how this rat-rod Shelby would be received. As it turned out, the car was a hit.

As soon as my wife, Marjorie, and I arrived, there was a crowd around the car. Everyone got it. And once the V-8 roared to life through those 2-1/2-inch Magnaflow pipes, everyone noticed. One of the best comments came from a distinguished gentleman with a '67 Ferrari GTC. He said, "Man, I really like your car." I shot back, "Yours is no slouch, either." He replied, "Yeah, but yours sounds so much better!"

I invited another guy to test drive the Shelby. When he climbed in, he wrinkled his nose and said, "This thing smells like a rat." My wife told him to look above the sun visor, where he was greeted with the sight of the little holes the previous occupant had chewed in the headliner. The look on his face was priceless!

The Shelby not only turned heads and provoked conversation, it also ran like a champ all week, racking up well over 1,000 miles and earning a class victory as well as an unexpected, and tongue in cheek, award for "Best Paint" from the rally organizers.

Tim Suddard is founder and publisher of Motorsports Marketing, publisher of Grassroots Motorsports and Classic Motorsports magazines. You can find more about the Shelby buildup at www.classicmotorsports.net.