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While car-buyers have made a dedicated and convincing swing to compact crossover SUVs, there remains a small but stubborn sub-market for hot cars. High-performance cars. Fun cars.
For a week, I had the chance to live with a 2019 Mustang GT350, in “race red,” which is slightly more subtle than “arrest-me red,” but the same implied warning accompanies this sleek, fastback descendent of the original ponycar craze of the 1960s and ’70s. The shape is roughly the same, whether you prefer the Mustang, Camaro, Challenger, or the old-breed Barracuda, Javelin or Firebird Trans-Am — long hood, short rear deck, fast-sloping roofline, and room for only those passengers who will put up with the pain of limited legroom for the thrill of going for a drive.
And it is thrilling. Just to start it up. Make sure the clutch is in on the 6-speed stick shift, then hit the push-button starter and you can’t miss the crackling roar of the engine. Rev it and it sounds better, and if you flip the little toggle switch at the far right of the lower center-stack panel, the one with the little image of dual exhaust pipes, you can switch from normal to “sport,” and the sound changes from light grey-cloud thunder to dark, almost black, severe-weather thunderclaps of roar.
Having fiddled with various other switches to get to sport — but maybe not track-day — you take off, with the acceleration pushing you back into those form-fitting Recaro bucket seats, which encapsulate you in all manner of turns and twists. Those thrills are there, included and waiting for you, in every Shelby GT350.
The GT350 is equipped with a 5.2-liter, dual-overhead-camshaft V8, normally aspirated, with the flat-plane-crankshaft engine turning out 526 horsepower at 7,000 RPMs, and 429 foot-pounds of torque. True, you can get a supercharged version in the even newer, just about to be introduced Shelby GT500 — same 5.2 engine but supercharged to deliver 750 horsepower and 700 foot-pounds of torque.
Ford has clearly been influenced by Dodge, which shocked hot-car drivers and buyers when it came out with a Challenger Hellcat with a Hellcat, then a Demon, and then a still-hotter Redeye, with a monster 6.2-liter, 797 horsepower, 707 foot-pound supercharged screamer. Apparently anticipating that Chevrolet would scurry to build a hotter Camaro, and maybe even looking ahead to the mid-engine Corvette, Dodge wanted to keep its spot atop the power notches.
Ford, naturally, was not about to yield, so it has brought out the new Shelby models.
There is a little nostalgia involved, whenever I drive a Mustang Shelby GT350, which I just had occasion to do, during a gorgeous week in mid-August, where the blue of Lake Superior’s water and the sky rising up from the Wisconsin horizon were in harmony, and the newest version of the GT350 seemed properly frisky for carving through the curves of the North Shore Drive.
The nostalgia dates back to the mid-1970s, when my wife, Joan, and I, decided between buying a Shelby Mustang GT350, or a new 1970 Boss 302 Mustang. Tough decision, but the Boss 302 was a better price, and it won out as a “family car” for our young family. It was an awesome vehicle, and we drove it hard, but not abusively hard. We put a lot of miles on it in a few short years, and I had gotten it repainted into the Dodge hot color of the day, “Plum Crazy.” The Vikings would have loved it.
Writing at the Minneapolis Tribune at the time, I was driving out to Fairmont to do a feature story on the thriving dirt-track stock car racing facility there. I stopped for a flagman at a construction site, and was rear-ended by a large truck, whose driver had neglected to pay attention, or to hit his brakes, after he somehow realized the car ahead of him was stopped. I let out the clutch like a drag-racer and lurched forward in a 20-foot burnout before the impact, which probably saved my life. Saved most of the car, too, although the left rear corner was turned to shrapnel. Amazingly, a dealership in Blue Earth was able to pry and bend the metal clear enough so I was able to drive back to the Twin Cities.
It was a sad day when the insurance company told me the car was totaled, but my feelings were soothed when I found a 1969 Shelby GT350 that had not been treated well. The engine was a 351 V8, but not the “hot” Cleveland engine, but the mundane Windsor 351 with flashy valve covers to make it look cosmetically hot. We were able to buy the Shelby GT350 and hire Bill Schifsky — who raced a Funny Car out of White Bear Lake — to do the transplant professionally, all out of the insurance settlement.
We had that repainted too, with four coats of white over four coats of black, and then eight coats of cobalt blue over the whole thing. If you could get that paint job today, it would cost $10,000, at least. Anyhow, no Shelby GT350 ever had an engine like that sizzling Boss 302, and the Trans-Am style suspension and transmission aloft perfectly under the fiberglass Shelby body.
Through the years, still writing about cars, I’ve driven every Shelby model that has come along, and we didn’t sell our “Boss/Shelby” until Ford had vaulted into the modern era by leaving the pushrod-engine-powered competition behind and engineering a dual-overhead-camshaft V8 that made the Mustang sing. It wasn’t quite as swift as the Boss 302, but it was technically advanced enough that we could part with our beloved car, even though it was like selling the third son we never had.
The new fleet of Mustangs are of particular interest these days, because Ford has said it was going to stop producing most of its cars, turning those plants into SUV-makers. The Taurus, the Fusion, and even the Focus and Fiesta are all headed for closeout status, and the only car Ford will continue making will be the Mustang.
You can get a very neat base Mustang with a 2.3-liter turbo 4-cylinder that has 320 horsepower, and then you can start climbing the high-performance steps. The Ford GT has beefed up suspension and a 5.0-liter DOHC V8 with 460 horsepower and 420 foot-pounds of torque, you can go up a step to the Bullitt, a well-balanced fun machine with the same 5.0-liter V8 pushing out 480 horsepower and 420 foot-pounds. Next, the GT350 switches to the hotter, more high-tech flat-plane-crank 5.2-liter V8, also with dual overhead cams, and the 526 horsepower and 429 foot-pounds of torque. That leads to the penthouse suite of the GT500, with the same engine but supercharged up to 760 horses and 700 foot-pounds.
I have not yet driven the GT500, but impressive as its numbers are, the fact you can approach those figures with a normally aspirated 5.2 is an engineering gem. Car and Driver magazine did a recent comparison in performance between the Camaro SS1LE and the Mustang GT, and it gave the nod to the Camaro. Interesting. The Camaro had a 6.2-liter pushrod V8 with 455 horsepower at 6,000 RPMs, while the Mustang had the 5.0-liter V8 with 460 horsepower at 7,000 RPMs. Nowhere do they point out that with dual-overhead cams, the Mustang can give up more than a full liter of displacement and still produce more horsepower at higher revs.
In addition, they could have moved up to the Bullitt for 20 more horses, or to Ford’s flat-plane-crank 5.2 V8 in the GT350 for still more.
But except for the muscle-car power duel, I would say the GT350 has just about the right combination of stay-alert power and performance handling, while the GT500 seems to be straight over-the-top for power. The feel, the refinement, the comfort of the seats — front, at least — and the steering/handling, exhilarating sound, plus the look, make the GT350 the perfect car for Ford fanatics, muscle-car fanatics, and one-upmanship gambits.
And did I mention nostalgia?