In 1965, Ford paired up with an L.A.-based shop run by Carroll Shelby to breathe a dose of race-bred muscle into its new Mustang. The resulting GT350 helped turn Shelby — the man and the hot-rodding shop he built — into a legend.
Monday afternoon, nearly 50 years after that initial partnership, Ford and Shelby American reunited to pull the wraps off an all-new Shelby GT350 Mustang, a track-savvy but street-friendly version of the recent sixth-generation Ford Mustang.
The car was unveiled inside a warehouse at the future site of the Carroll Shelby museum in Gardena. It will be on display for the public at the L.A. Auto Show, which opens this week.
"We wanted to build the best possible Mustang for the places we most love to drive — challenging back roads ... and the track on weekends," said Raj Nair, Ford's product development chief.
The GT350 Mustang is the first of several performance-oriented versions of the new Mustang expected from Ford over the next few years. It joins a growing number of 21st-century muscle cars from the same brands that ruled the segment a generation ago.
"It's nice to see," Nair said of this recent renaissance. "There have been so many times in this industry when people have predicted the death of these vehicles."
Current standouts in the muscle world are the 707-horsepower Hellcat versions of the Dodge Challenger coupe and Charger sedan, and Chevy's supercharged, 580-horsepower Camaro ZL1 and the $75,000 track-oriented Camaro Z/28 with 505 naturally-aspirated horsepower.
They'll make for heady competition for the Shelby GT350 Mustang when it hits the roads in 2015.
"I certainly respect those other cars," Nair said. "But this GT350 is going to give them a real run for their money."
The heart of the new GT350 is a race-derived 5.2-liter V-8 engine. Final specs haven't yet been released, but Ford is promising that it will be the most powerful naturally-aspirated production engine it has ever built, pumping out more than 500 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque.
This new engine is unique for a production car, using what's known as a flat-plane crankshaft, a feature common in racing cars but difficult to adapt for the street.
That's why it's usually seen only in exotics from companies with extensive racing pedigrees, including Ferrari's 458, Porsche's 918 Spyder supercar, and McLaren's P1 and 650S.
A lighter flat-plane crankshaft enables the engine to rev quicker and more easily than one with a traditional and heavier cross-plane design. This gives the car a broad torque curve, for power throughout the rev range, and quicker throttle response for blasting out of corners.
Only a six-speed manual transmission will be offered.
The Mustang's chassis — already excellent, with the addition of independent rear suspension for this new sixth-generation — gets another upgrade for the GT350. The car will have continuously-variable suspension dampers that read road conditions and driver input, then adjust accordingly. Drivers will be able to select various stiffness levels from within the car.
"We really believe the GT350 changes the dialogue about performance within Ford," said Jim Farley, who switched from Ford's global marketing chief to president of Europe, Middle East and African operations last week.
Presenting the car to a crowd of Shelby enthusiasts and reporters in Gardena, Farley said Ford hopes this Mustang will draw in a more sophisticated buyer.
"It really brings world-class performance to a larger audience, an audience we think will be new to us," he said.
The GT350 will also have five settings for its anti-lock braking system, stability and traction control, exhaust and powertrain. Other highlights include Brembo brakes with 15.5-inch rotors in the front and 15 inches in the rear, Recaro race seats and a flat-bottom steering wheel. Ford even went so far as to take out any chrome or bright trim inside the car that might cause glare on the track.
The outside of the GT350 Mustang gets the familiar bolt-on styling, with functional air vents carved into the aluminum front fenders and hood. The grille opening is carbon fiber, while the front and rear bumpers have been rethought to add extra downforce.
Nineteen-inch alloy wheels poke out of the wheel wells. At the back, a quartet of exhaust pipes stick out from an aggressive rear diffuser. Ford went conservative on the rear spoiler, adding only a thin strip across the trunk lid.
Pricing will be announced closer to the car's on-sale date in the second half of 2015. It won't be cheap. The loaded Mustang GT we recently tested went for a hair over $44,000, and this GT350 Mustang will probably cost a good bit more.
Ford chose the Gardena location to pay homage to the late Shelby's Southern California roots. Shelby built his eponymous cars first in Venice and later near Los Angeles International Airport. Carroll Shelby International is headquartered in Gardena.
The parking lot at the Gardena site was packed with dozens of candy-colored Shelby models from every vintage, driven by owners eager to see the newest GT350 in person.
"That is where the car was born, and tested and built," said Jim Owens, Ford's Shelby/Boss brand manager. "The LAX runways were Carroll's test track in the 1960's. The entire hot-rodder culture was born in SoCal, and it pre-dated Mustang and the Pony Car."