Long-lost Shelby Mustang prototype found

The list of famous lost Ford Mustangs has just gone down by one. The “Little Red” 1967 notchback, the first Shelby Mustang coupe and prototype for the Mustang California Special, has turned up. Long thought to have been destroyed in a crusher, Little Red instead was found in a field in Texas. Craig Jackson, Chairman and CEO of Barrett-Jackson Auction Company, announced the find and plans a full restoration of the car.

Jackson is no stranger to experimental Mustang ownership, already owning another found Mustang, the “Green Hornet” 1968 Shelby EXP 500. It’s essentially a sibling to Little Red, having served as a prototype for various engine configurations as well as the first independent rear suspension on a Mustang.

Little Red was one of the first 1967 Shelby Mustangs built and, like the Green Hornet, is notable for its coupe, not fastback, roof. In late 1966 the car was shipped directly from Ford’s San Jose, California, plant to Shelby American’s headquarters in Venice, California. The nickname comes from Bill Cosby. Yes, that Bill Cosby, who was a personal friend of Shelby and reportedly drove the car regularly.

Little Red in 1967 Riverside
Martyn L. Schorr / Craig Jackson

In its life as a prototype, Little Red underwent a number of modifications over the years, both mechanical and cosmetic, according to the Shelby American Automobile Club (SAAC) World Registry. After delivery, the new 1967 Shelby nose, spoiler, and side scoops were fitted, along with complete 1967 Shelby GT500 suspension. Later in 1967 the car was updated to match the 1968 model year along with S-H-E-L-B-Y letters across the rear decklid. The factory 390 V-8 was replaced by a 428 with a Paxton supercharger mated to a Toploader four-speed. Later iterations included a dual-Paxton setup made to a C6 3-speed automatic.

“What I can’t believe is that nobody found it yet,” said Colin Comer, author of The Complete Book of Shelby Automobiles: Cobras, Mustangs, and Super Snakes. “That car’s VIN has been posted everywhere for decades.” Unlike the recently-unearthed Bullitt Mustang, which began life as an ordinary Mustang, Little Red was known for most of its history. Car and Driver even got behind the wheel in October, 1967, with author Charles Fox driving fast enough to be chased back his hotel by police (a tale recounted in the April 1978 issue). Little Red was supposed to be crushed at Kar Kraft in Brighton, Michigan, but somehow escaped certain doom.

In a conversation with Comer, Craig Jackson said Little Red was almost hiding in plain sight. The owner contacted SAAC sometime after taking possession, but was told his car couldn’t be the genuine article as the original was destroyed. Little Red was then driven for six to eight months before an overheating incident, which prompted removal of the radiator and other parts. Those parts were later stolen from the owner’s garage and Little Red was moved the field where it sat for decades. Jackson and restoration specialist Jason Billups started with the car’s VIN and followed the bread crumbs to the owner. 

Jackson plans to document Little Red’s restoration, and crowdsource any information on the car’s history, on the website shelbyprototypecoupes.com. But when it comes to history, it will be difficult to separate what is real and what is legend. “Some of the historical record is being put into question by the article itself,” say Comer. He notes that there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of that a clutch pedal was once in the car, calling into question whether or not a four-speed was ever part of the configuration. And Comer notes that no verified photo of the twin-supercharged engine is known at this time. 

Little Red found in Texas in 2018
Craig Jackson

In terms of value, it’s hard to predict numbers for one-of-one unicorns like this. Add in the complexity of the car’s multiple in-period configurations and what Little Red is worth is anybody’s guess, although it’s sure to be several times the going rate for a Shelby GT500. For comparison, the Green Hornet was bid to $1.9 million at Barrett-Jackson’s 2013 Scottsdale auction, which was shortly after Carroll Shelby’s death. That car is currently undergoing a full restoration to be completed later this year. With both cars now under the same garage, the only question is how long Jackson will hold on to these two pieces of history, and whether or not they’ll find their next home as a matched set.

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