The relentless wind has made for a cold, high-desert morning at California’s Willow Springs Raceway. The neighboring tracks are silent, absent of any car or go-kart racing. There are no jet flybys from the fighter jocks at Edwards Air Force Base. The only sound is the howl of a single small-block Ford V-8 as it hurls a lightweight fastback through the apex of Turn 9 and heads for the finish.
Ignore the cars in the pits and it’s easy to pretend it’s 1965, except now the lap times are faster. But the car on track is no restomod stuffed with luxury amenities and modern go-fast bits. There’s no six-speed manual. There’s no supercharged, fuel-injected, 1000-horsepower V-8. There’s no air conditioning, no power windows, no back seat, and, thank heaven, no 100 pounds of sound deadening stuck to every piece of sheet metal.
There’s a place for all that, but not in this 1965 Shelby GT350.
Demand has far outpaced supply for the 36 original 1965 Shelby GT350s, with pristine examples bringing more than $400,000. To Jim Marietta and Ted Sutton—two of the men that built GT350s in Shelby’s Venice, California, shop more than 50 years ago—that means there are drivers out there looking for the kind of pure racing experience that a no-frills Shelby can deliver. So they reunited the team that worked with Carroll Shelby on it back in the day, known as the Original Venice Crew, to build 36 additional cars in honor the original 36 GT350s they built together in 1965.
The car that just flew by the starting tower and is now dissecting the corners at Willow Spring’s fast, 2.5-mile track represents exactly what one would imagine a GT350 should be. Under the skin, that means some changes from the cars that sold more than 50 years ago. And, according to the Original Venice Crew, these new ones are exactly the car they wanted to build back then.
Just as in 1965, the Venice Crew begins with high-performance K-code 1965 Mustang fastbacks, strips them down, and builds them to Shelby spec. The difference these days is that those fastbacks aren’t so easy to come by. And given their condition, there’s even more teardown involved and thus a lengthier build time.
Each car is stripped down to bare metal. The shock towers and floorboards in particular are inspected, as they’re the most likely to be damaged. “We did our best to try to do as much as we can with regard to authenticity,” Marietta tells Hagerty. “We start with authentic 1965 Mustangs. The cars are built by guys who built the original car, 52 years ago. It’s fabricated and assembled in a Carroll Shelby facility in southern California. It’s licensed by Ford, and it’s licensed by Shelby. You can’t get much more authentic than that.”
While these “new” GT350s may be authentic, in many respects they surpass a GT350 built in 1965. To begin with, for the first time since the originals, you can order one and have it built to your specifications. From a 100-percent faithful, exacting recreation of the original (that will pass FIA scrutineers for vintage road racing) to a 500-hp stroked aluminum small-block with headers and a roller cam, the choice is up to the buyer. Prices start at $250,000, which is a tall order indeed, unless you compare it to the cost of a high-quality original '65. So far, a few orders have come in, including one for FIA use and a couple that have opted for complete rebuilds on their original 289-cu-in V-8s.
The major mechanical departure is an optional independent rear suspension (IRS). Ford had considered an IRS for the Mustang but abandoned the project well into development, allegedly for cost reasons, and the setup wouldn’t appear on a Mustang until the SVT Cobra in 1999, finally becoming standard in all 2015 Mustang models. Original Venice Crew member Duane Carling picked up where Ford’s blueprints left off and finished sorting out the geometry. Similar to a contemporary Corvette or Jaguar, the halfshafts are used as the upper links of the suspensions, while solid rods are used on the bottom. Dana 44 center sections are also similar to contemporary IRS designs, but these will use one-piece proprietary hub carriers CNC machined from aluminum.
The visual differences that set these cars apart are easier to spot. The front valence of the new car was reshaped by former Shelby driver and designer Pete Brock. For the uninitiated, his resume features the Shelby Daytona Coupe and the Corvette Sting Ray. Not too shabby. Brock restyled the opening in the GT350’s lower valence as he would have liked to have done in 1965, and he did the same for the rear window. The top of the rear window is dropped and doesn’t seal to bodywork, allowing for pressure to escape the cabin when hitting triple-digit speeds with the windows down. Original GT350 rear windows achieve a similar result, but with a noticeable kink in the polycarbonate three quarters of the way toward the roof, rather than this new variant that lays the entire rear window down a few degrees, resulting in a flowing, uninterrupted shape. According to Marietta, “Those items were on his drawing board when (Pete) was sent off to Europe to work on the Daytona coupes when they were campaigning them in 1965.”
The OVC has been scouring the country looking for suitable K-code 1965 Mustang fastbacks, and we asked to have a go in one so we could get a feel for the foundation they’re using to build their latest batch of GT350s. The next fastback awaiting its conversion is relatively well preserved and had some nice factory options. It’s powered by a K-code 289, as it should be, and it even has a dealer-optioned dual-four-barrel intake with twin Carter carbs.
Even with skinny, P215/65R15 BF Goodrich T/A radials, it proves to be tough to turn at parking lot speeds with the factory manual steering. But, as expected, everything evens out on the track at speed. We were warned that the steering wasn’t perfect, (there’s a dead spot on center) but that’s par for the course on a daily driver of this vintage. Still quite fun on the track, the old Mustang’s lack of grip and braking power don’t inspire confidence. But we can sense the potential.
Brock had a great career after he left the Shelby, teaming up with driver John Morton to take back-to-back SCCA Trans Am championships with Datsun in the 2.5-liter class. Morton went on to race for Porsche and Jaguar, and participated in a number of different racing classes including stints in IMSA, Can–Am, and FIA endurance racing where he won his class at Le Mans.
Morton stops by Willow Springs to take some laps in the new car (the first prototype OVC built all these years later), letting us sit shotgun as he expertly hustles it through several laps. From our vantage point in the passenger seat, strapped securely into the four-point harness, we can feel just a bit of oversteer on some tight corners that Morton quickly corrects with little input from the quick, unassisted steering. The ride is firm, yet even on Willow Springs big course it’s not jarring, maybe because we expect it to be much worse having driven more unforgiving late-model cars on the same corners. Even when the GT350 is at its limit there’s no tire squeal.
Back in the pits, Morton noted the instances of oversteer and also reported that he had experienced a little bit of understeer on a couple of the corners. He gave us some pointers for piloting the 400+ horsepower missile around the nine-turn track.
We make a couple of spirited (yet much slower) laps and found that the car feels surprisingly planted and nimble. Its light weight and short gearing don’t provide much resistance to the free-revving small-block V-8. The car catapults out of corners, pulling hard in third gear. It’s easy to hit triple-digit speeds on the straights and the brakes are always there to scrub speed at corner entry. The crisp throttle response and fast manual steering provide great analog control.
Everything about the car is responsive, except the shifter. True to the original, the Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed isn’t precise, with long, nebulous throws modern drivers might associate with an old pickup. On the other hand, with only four targets to hit, missing a shift just isn’t a possible and the relatively long shift throws are of no concern. On the other hand it’s all too easy to get lost the amazing song from the small-block Ford. It sounds like it’s charging hard even at part throttle, well away from redline. With the windows down and the small-block roaring from each side exit exhaust it feels every bit a race car.
When it comes to which vintage Shelby this final batch will represent, Marietta tells us, “We’re doing it based on the competition model in early ’65 because we’re hand-flaring the fenders and we’re putting in aluminum door frames and Plexiglas windows.” Still, like the original run of GT350s, these cars will likely vary throughout their run. “When it comes to the Shelby stuff, you kind of have to pick a month, or even a week. The cars were so close to being handmade, it makes it difficult to restore.”
Marietta assures us this Shelby magic isn’t likely to be duplicated again. “When these 36 cars are done, that’ll be the end of any automobile being done by any of the guys that worked in the Venice shop.”