The 2017 Shelby GT350 Lives Up To Its Sentimental Namesake
Still photography by Aaron Miller, track photography courtesy of Ford
For some cars, the ambition is simple: success is attained by meeting sales targets set by a boring suit with a spreadsheet fixation. Others though, others must be capable of the sort of blistering performance or next-level fuel economy that challenges your understanding of the physical world.
And then, there is a separate category of automobile, populated by cars unhindered by either metric. Cars like the Shelby GT350 do not exist because they are practical, or because they can hit 200mph. Instead, they exist to fill a higher purpose: emotional fulfillment.
For this car, that starts with the name. For any fan of American racing, “Shelby” evokes images of an outspoken chicken farmer from Texas who loved chili, wore overalls en route to winning one of the world’s most prestigious races, and proceeded to spearhead some of the most iconic cars of the 1960s.
Then there’s the small matter of “GT350,” and the legendary mandate Lee Iacocca handed down to Carroll Shelby to take the “secretary’s car” and give it bona fide sporting credentials. The result was exceptional. It was basic, brutish, and somehow still elegant in its simplicity. And on weekends at race tracks across the country, it won. Frequently. It’s not at all an exaggeration to say that the GT350 was at the core of the Mustang’s acceptance into the performance car ranks.
By the 1970s though, the GT350’s day had passed. The oil crisis turned horsepower into a dirty word, Shelby threw his keys in a bowl and ran off with other carmakers, and the automotive industry plunged into the darkness we now call the Malaise Era.
Yet, despite all the social and political distraction of the 1960s and 70s, the name Shelby was maintained with a near religious reverence by the faithful. Mustang’s performance gradually returned over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, but save for the Cobra moniker taking on the dual meaning of peak Mustang and Shelby homage, the only Shelby ties to Mustang were superficial packages and light modifications. Fine cars perhaps, but false idols, the lot of them.
The Shelby Mustang revival officially reignited in the 2000s though, first when Shelby’s own company resumed its Mustang tinkering, and then when Ford resurrected the GT500. All of that, of course, brings us to this. The Ford Mustang Shelby GT350. Aside from the odd homage here and there, it’s a sequel 50 years in the making.
Even beyond the badging, everything about this car contributes to its overall presence. The lines from hood to haunch. The deliciously evil growl emanating from the tailpipes. The hug of the Recaro seats as you wrap your hands around the suede steering wheel. The GT350 is more than an appeal to the senses, it’s a love letter to romantics who proudly let their heart rule their mind.
The cost is $60,000, which to put it bluntly is a lot of money for a Mustang. Despite that, many of the earliest buyers happily handed over six figures for the privilege of parking it in their own garage. However, if they choose to leave them there they will be liable for committing a heinous act of captivity. The reason for that lies, as is only appropriate for an American car, under the hood.
The 5.2L “Voodoo” V8’s flat-plane crankshaft is a celebrated piece of hardware, but the reason it’s so cherished actually has very little to do with horsepower and everything to do with the intangibles that imbue a car with personality. In an age where most automotive engineers are pathologically obsessed with keeping noise, vibration, and harshness to a minimum, Ford’s performance team deliberately chose an engine layout that added both noise and vibration. And the car is better for it. That might sound backwards, but once you push in the clutch and press the start button—there’s no slushbox or even a dual clutch option here—the aural assault begins, and everything makes sense.
Yes, compiling a list of great sounding motors is inherently subjective, but there are some engines that most can agree rise above, and this is decidedly one of them. No, it’s not a Matra V12, whose heavenly scream made many an ear bleed in its day, but flip the handy little switch on the dash to open up the exhaust’s valves and the GT350 is certainly a better-sounding car than anything currently available for under $100,000.
Out on the road, that sound combines with the Shelby’s corporeal presence to make for incredible theatre. While I was dodging craters in downtown Detroit, a small group of teenagers stopped, pointed, and stared as I drove past. Their eyes and their smiles went wide upon seeing a bona fide Shelby. The GT350, in a very real sense, is a celebrity. Even the top dog ZL1 1LE Camaro—which make no mistake, is absolutely the quicker track car—doesn’t have that kind of presence on the road.
On the highway, the car feels more like a throwback than a modern Mustang. The meaty front tires (295/35/19) grip the road with a vengeance, tramlining in a way most modern cars don’t. On backroads, though, the GT350 comes into its own. Over bumps, MagneRide dampers adjust to the road millisecond by millisecond, and the chassis maintains control in a way no Mustang possibly could before. On morning commutes, it’s a siren for other motorists, and its seductive V8 song makes it impossible to forget that this car is meant to be set free. On your way home, every cloverleaf exit ramp is a chance for emotional release.
Prior to driving the GT350 around the streets of Detroit though, Ford invited me to test the car at its Ford Performance Racing School facility, where every GT350 purchaser can spend a day to become acquainted with the car in a controlled environment.
Fortunately, my visit kicked off with heavy early morning snow flurries. I say fortunately because the soggy, near-freezing conditions made the car’s otherwise high limits easy to explore on an autocross course. Even in the wet, with mounds of ice forming on the windshield where the wipers couldn’t reach, I could still get my foot to the floor in between slaloms without excessive wheelspin.
Out on the race track, though, the Shelby is in its element. 526hp isn’t insignificant by any standard, and here, power climbs right along with the tachometer after the initial surge released by your right foot. That glorious sounding engine is naturally aspirated, but torque kicks up so violently halfway through the revs that it almost feels like a turbocharger’s hiding in there somewhere. Many modern engines are mechanically exquisite and perfectly smooth monuments of engineering excellence, but with all the personality of a cantaloupe. Thankfully, the Voodoo V8 retains enough of its unrefined nastiness to hold your attention.
When corners approach with increasing rapidity, those 295mm-wide front tires that grip every groove on the highway cling to the track surface, and turn-in is simply excellent. The chassis is stable, and responsive enough that even if you rotate the car too much, you can easily catch it with just a little throttle, as I learned during one particularly late braking attempt into a series of esses.
As a dance partner, the GT350 is ready and willing to flood your system with enough endorphins and adrenaline to get your heart racing right along with the gauges in front of you. And that’s kind of the reason any of us buy cars like this in the first place isn’t it? If you only want to run to the grocery store and buy eggs without inadvertently scrambling them on the way home, or drive to and from work in your quiet place of isolation, secure in the knowledge that only a few drops of fuel were incinerated, there are plenty of other cars that do a better job.
There’s one question left here that must be answered though, and frankly, I don’t think it’s a good one. This is a Shelby, sure, but it’s also a Mustang, and Mustangs will forever be compared to their Camaro counterparts. So let’s get this over with; is this Shelby better than the top Camaro?
We already know the Camaro is quicker on the track, but the full answer to that question honestly depends on what you want in your car. If you want the quickest and most track-oriented American car you can buy for under $100,000, the ZL1 1LE has the GT350 soundly beaten. But if you want a car that you can live with every single day, that will annoy your neighbor with the new M4 because everyone stares at your driveway instead, and still have a blast on the race track, the Shelby is it.
Still, Camaro owners will always buy Camaros, and Mustang owners will always buy Mustangs. Thus, there’s only one thing that really matters as far as comparisons go, and that is whether or not this Shelby GT350 is a worthy heir to the emotional depth of its name. The answer is yes, and that is, perhaps, the only praise it really needs.