Classics Driving the Most Perfect '65 Mustang Shelby GT350R

17:38  13 november  2017
17:38  13 november  2017 Source:   Road & Track

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More than nearly anyone alive, Jim Marietta knows exactly how the original GT 350 R was built. He laid hands on the very first one. As well as the one we're standing next to. Technically, it's a replica, a production ' 65 upfitted to resemble a Shelby racing Mustang .

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There's a famous photo. February 12, 1965, the world's first Shelby Mustang GT350R at Green Valley Raceway in Smithfield, Texas, its competition debut.



Aficionados pore over the image. It's visual proof of the way Shelby American built racing Mustangs. Every detail, they figure, is the gospel according to Carroll.

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The most track-ready, street-legal Mustang ever produced – the Shelby ® GT 350 R – features lightweight 19" carbon-fiber wheels wrapped in Michelin You just release a latch and press a button. To perfect its look, Mustang convertible sports exclusive design cues that set it apart from the fastback.

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Except that's not how racing works. "A lot of people don’t understand," Jim Marietta told me. "We would try something one day, and if it didn’t work we’d switch it the next day.”

Take the windows: The photo shows fixed plexiglas pop-riveted to the Mustang's doors. To this day, well-meaning fans insist a true GT350R can only have riveted windows.

But Marietta was there. He knows what happened. "As soon as that car came back to Venice, [Shelby driver] Ken Miles came over and said, 'take this bloody window off this car.' My job was to drill out the rivets and take that plexiglas and throw it in the trash. What would that be worth today?"

He was 17 at the time, working at the Shelby American shop in Venice, California. More than nearly anyone alive, Jim Marietta knows exactly how the original GT350R was built. He laid hands on the very first one.

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As well as the one we're standing next to. Technically, it's a replica, a production '65 upfitted to resemble a Shelby racing Mustang. But it's also the car Shelby could have built, if the crew had kept tinkering, iterating. It has an independent rear suspension that Shelby and Ford experimented with but abandoned, and improvements engineers never got to implement 50 years ago.

It's not a bolt-for-bolt match to the old-days photo. It's the ideal GT350R, designed and assembled by the men who built the originals. In that way, it's the most authentic Shelby Mustang in the world.

A few years back, Jim Marietta reunited "The Original Venice Crew," the trio that did GT350R mechanical work at Shelby American back in 1965 - himself, Peter Brock, and Ted Sutton. With the 50th anniversary of the GT350R approaching, the guys decided to build a tribute to the car they helped create, putting their hands-on knowledge to use once again.

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Then Duane Carling called. A specialist in independent rear suspension swaps for old and new Mustangs, Carling had gotten his hands on an original Ford IRS prototype from 1965. The suspension system, built around a Jaguar Dana 44 differential, had been tested in a Falcon by Ford engineers, then sent over to Shelby American for trial in a GT350R.

Marietta had worked on the IRS Mustang at Shelby as a teenager. "Because I was the youngest guy in the shop, all the crap rolled downhill," he told me. "Nobody wanted to work on the Mustangs - they had Ford GT40s there, 427s, 289 Cobras, Daytona Coupes. Little did they know 50 years from then [the GT350R] was gonna be a big deal."

Ford and Shelby abandoned the IRS Mustang project halfway through testing in '65. Now, the Original Venice Crew had the chance to finish what they'd started. They installed Carling's IRS prototype in a '65 Mustang fastback K-code (high-performance 289-cubic-inch V8, four-speed manual) purchased off the internet, and swapped in a 331-cubic-inch, 440-horse motor from Shelby Race Engines.

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And they added some new tweaks. The original GT350Rs were built in haste - the first one hadn't been completed when Carroll Shelby entered it in the race at Greenville ("he was kind of impetuous," Marietta said; the car arrived wearing damp paint). Now, Peter Brock had the chance to fix the stopgaps that had bothered him for 50 years.

a plane flying in the sky© DW Burnett/Puppyknuckles

They took the awkward hump out of the rear window, a byproduct of rushed plexiglas work that's been faithfully recreated on countless GT350R clones. They reshaped the front fascia, finessing the trademark bumper cutout to solve a 50-year overheating problem. They relocated the front brake cooling ducts for a straighter path, and fabricated new aluminum channels to feed air from the side scoops to the rear brakes.

"This was all on Pete's drawing board, in his notebooks, stuff he was going to do in '65," Marietta said. At the time, the frenzy of work at Shelby American pulled Brock away from the GT350R to work on other things; by the time he was finished, Shelby had moved on from racing first-generation Mustangs.

The Original Venice Crew finished the IRS Mustang in 2015. They had a debut party on February 14th, 50 years to the day from that first GT350R victory at Green Valley Raceway. Shelby American vice president and test driver Vince LaViolette helped tune and sort the newly-built Mustang, as did former Shelby driver and Le Mans winner John Morton, and Rick Titus, son of Shelby racing legend Jerry Titus. At the Mid-America Ford & Shelby Nationals, the car qualified third in its very first race and won with LaViolette driving.

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Marietta says the independent rear suspension can knock a full second off the car's lap time at tracks like Willow Springs. "You can get into a corner and when you hit the apex, just lay on it. Boom, it sets and goes," he told me. Compared to a live-axle GT350R, there's more traction earlier, especially in choppy or off-camber corners.

Not that I'll get to experience it. I'm here to drive the car, of course: I've met Marietta, Carling and Sutton in Monterey, California, where they brought the IRS Mustang to show at Monterey Car Week. Marietta isn't precious about the car - "we race it, we thrash it; it has a couple nicks and scrapes, that's life," he said - but I'm not about to probe the limits in a one-of-one prototype on public roads.

The interior is sparse. A wood-rim steering wheel and half a dozen black-face gauges greet the driver. The dashboard and seats are black, as is the painted metal floor. The windows raise and lower on a strap, vintage racer style.

Turn the key. The fuel pump drones like a lawnmower in the trunk, but it's soon drowned out by the engine. That 331-inch V8 sounds exactly like Lieutenant Frank Bullitt's Highland Green '68, reverberating through the gutted interior with a hollow echo.

I notch the shifter into gear. It's a stock '65 Mustang lever, long throw with a knob like a ping-pong ball and a reverse lockout T-handle that rattles with the engine's vibrations. The clutch pedal is long but not heavy.

We're off with a light whine from the straight-cut first gear. The Borg-Warner four-speed transmission is geared short; with 440 horses moving 2800 lbs, it's a hand grenade of thrust and noise. Every prod of the accelerator brings the immediate throttle response you can only get from a four-barrel carb. This example wears track-ready radial tires that sniff out the occasional road groove, talking to my hands through a firm steering rack with an inch or so of play in the wheel.

It's intoxicating - the noise, the responsiveness, the way the car moves. The suspension height would look skyscraper-esque on a modern muscle car, and the lightweight body and firm springs make for a busy ride. The brakes, Kelsey-Hayes discs at all four wheels, work through a pedal as firm and direct as the one on a 2017 Mustang.

"In my opinion, this is a great kick-around car for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon," Marietta shouts from the passenger seat. I can't help but agree with him. Especially if your weekend drives includes a few laps around a sinewy race track.

The Original Venice Crew will build and sell 36 IRS GT350Rs, the same number as the original run from 1965. The cars will keep their original VIN numbers for immediate registration, and receive continuation serial numbers recognized by both Shelby and Ford Motor Company.

In other words, they're the real deal, built in Shelby facilities in Southern California by the guys who were there to send the first run out the door. It's as close as you can get to buying an original 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350R. And better in so many ways.

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