Shouldn't NASA test-flight engineers be strapping J-2 rockets onto the backs of cars to set world land-speed records, or designing nuclear pellets to power cars and end America's dependence on foreign oil? Instead, outside his job, Jeff Fox is not a whole lot different than us car-wise. During the day, he may be working on the cockpit design of NASA's CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle), but after hours-when the Houstonite isn't playing championship pool-he's fawning over his Candyapple Red with white-stripe GT500 fastback.
OK, it's a clone (Jeff labels his Mustang a restomod hybrid), but that was the fun for a NASA engineer, to actually go out there and build to plan. His goal was to highly modify the car to look unmodified. You have to get up close and personal to uncover most of the differences from Shelby's original.
Engineers are not the easiest people with whom to hold a technical dialogue. Ask them the time, and they'll build a clock with quartz movement. "If this is boring you, let me know," Fox cautioned us. The affable and good-natured engineer was elaborating on NASA's CEV, which very much interested us. "It's going to start off going to the space station and then to the moon."
Ferreting out the clock stuff, we ascertained the CEV was not a car for planet exploration as we first thought. It was actually a living environment for space exploration. Those tiny capsules can get cramped, especially on long trips to Mars, another possible destination for the CEV.
Meanwhile, for getting around on planet Earth, a '67 Mustang in the style of the Shelby GT500 captured Jeff's fascination. It all started with a likely suspect, our longtime friend and confidant, J. Bittle.
"I was in a Texas A&M Sports Car Club from 1979 to 1984," Jeff says, "and J. Bittle showed up with his red Shelby. I always remembered his car. He ran in much more interesting circles and was always racing. I didn't have a car that raced. I'll never forget his car; it was the coolest." In 1985, J. Bittle opened up JBA Racing in San Diego. The company is going stronger than ever, and Bittle still has his awesome Shelby GT500-an original, but not a stocker, of course. It's powered by an old-school 427.
There's no denying the sexiness...
There's no denying the sexiness of a '67 Shelby, clone or otherwise, with the rare center-mounted headlight configuration. Jeff's Shelby clone is correct in every detail from a visual standpoint, with modern upgrades for safety and enjoyment everywhere else.
Twenty years after meeting Bittle, Jeff finally decided to do it, to go all the way and build the Shelby of his dreams. He even called Bittle in San Diego. It turns out the racer/vendor likes flying. Jeff was on one of his NASA test-flight missions to Edwards Air Force Base in California, so he invited Bittle.
"He came with his son and trailered his '67 GT500 Shelby from San Diego, which is about a four- to five-hour drive. In exchange, we got him in to see a flight test of the B-52 bomber."
We won 't go into the scientific details, but for reasons known mostly to engineers (gathering data on aero-surfaces and such), Jeff and his NASA engineers had to drop a prototype space vehicle off the wing of a B-52 from 45,000 feet. They then deployed a 150-foot long parafoil-the largest in the world-to slow the valuable craft from 300 mph to 40-60 mph for landing.
In this country, the space program and high-performance cars have a common bond-astronauts blast off to the moon; guys like Jeff and Bittle blast off in big-cube Shelbys. What do you think those big red lights are on the back of a GT500? They emulate rocket exhausts burning brightly on blast-off, of course.
The two spent a lot of time discussing Jeff's coming Shelby build. At first, Jeff figured he'd do about a $30,000 clone, with a nice engine and a stock interior in a '65-'66 fastback. "The more I looked at J.'s, the more I thought I can do what J. did. I can do a '67 and I can build it better." After all, Bittle's GT500 was an original and first modified decades ago.