Driving the new-old Shelby Mustang GT350 Competition

Shelby American’s Original Venice Crew is putting the spurs to the reborn, back-in-business 1965 GT350 Competition. Read on for the full story

Back in the day, the late, great Carroll Shelby often summarised one particular meeting with Ford president Lee Iacocca as: ‘So, Lee, you want me to make a race horse (the GT350) out of a mule (the standard Mustang GT)?’ Mr Iacocca agreed that this was indeed his plan.

It made sense only because Shelby and his merry gang of hot rodders, designers, engineers, fabricators and racers had somewhat magically turned the outdated, engineless AC Ace into the Corvette-killing Shelby Cobra. Nobody could ever accuse Iacocca of not possessing crateloads of intuition about what auto buyers wanted, and what sold cars.

The ‘K-Code’ Mustang GT, running a 271bhp V8 and four-speed transmission, was no slouch, but Iacocca and Shelby knew it could be something so much more. Thus was born the original GT350, developed and built in Los Angeles, California.

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It was only logical that, shortly thereafter, Shelby and company decided to turn its new stallion into a winning racehorse. So a small race shop was set up in a corner of one of the Shelby American buildings in Venice, California. The GT350 was further tuned, fettled and developed into a committed racing car, aimed squarely at the Sports Car Club of America’s B Production class.

It featured a revised front facia, sans bumper and incorporating a pair of brake-cooling ducts. The Shelby-fied 306bhp 289ci V8 was hopped up as much as the rulebook would allow, and the rear window was slightly reconfigured to include a scooped-out, reverse-bubble-shaped leading edge open to the cockpit.

The resultant machine was officially called the GT350 Competition, and later earned the nickname GT350 R, often referred to as the Shelby ‘R Model’. A small group of Shelby mechanics, engineers and fabricators built 36 out of that Venice shop in 1965, and the GT350 Comp positively made hash out of the SCCA’s B Production classes all over America, handily winning the national championship. These rare cars are among the most sought after, and valuable, early Shelby Mustangs, and are easily worth a million or so bucks today.

A young teenager from Ohio named Jim Marietta was among the group that built that first Competition model Shelby Mustang, and the 35 units that followed it. He’d started work at Shelby American at age 17, and for a time was the company’s youngest employee. He is proud of his tenure at Shelby American, and of his subsequent distinguished career in other areas of the automotive industry. He maintained a strong relationship with Carroll Shelby, and stayed in touch with his old teammates from Venice.

Marietta, now 71 and technically otherwise retired, got a hankering to have a GT350 Comp just like ‘he and the boys used to build back in the day’. He got to jawing over the idea with Shelby American’s chief designer Peter Brock, who agreed that executing the concept wouldn’t be too hard based on today’s restoration methods and parts availability. Brock even offered to help Marietta with the project, welcoming Jim to build the car in a corner of Brock’s own shop in Nevada. An idea was born.

The pair further connected with mid-’60s teammate Ted Sutton, as well as long-time Shelby historian and Shelby American Automobile Club majordomo Randy Richardson, and branded themselves the Original Venice Crew (OVC). The goal was to make the reborn GT350 Comp as faithful and authentic to the original ’65 as they reasonably could.

‘There was never any interest in building a modern resto-mod with a six-speed transmission, fuel injection or computerised anything’ says Marietta – although a few concessions were made in the name of enhanced safety measures. Also, Brock chimed in with his desire to give the new car a few of the improvements he’d dreamt up for the original back in the day, but which had never made production in time due to Brock’s temporary assignment in Italy and a shop relocation at Shelby.

These enhancements don’t in any way diminish the car’s period-perfect flavour and make-up, but only serve to make it the best it could have been in 1965 if the original vision had been fully realised. Among them is an independent rear suspension that Ford had begun developing early on for the Mustang, but was nixed last minute due to cost. Also Brock designed a (to most eyes) better-looking and more aerodynamically efficient front facia with improved brake-cooling ductwork than the first incarnation’s.

Brock wasn’t pleased with the original’s ‘humpdeck’ rear window, so the rear glass has been mildly reconfigured in the name of better outward visibility and improved aero. Another Brock-mandated update is the addition of the Plexiglas sail-panel quarter windows that ultimately showed up on all ’66 Shelby Mustangs in place of the ’65’s vented gills or the Comp’s metal block-off plates that replaced them. It’s a handsome design touch, and improves the driver’s rearward visibility.

Safety enhancements include up-to-date multipoint racing harnesses and a foam-filled fuel tank. The latter makes use of a hand-welded and modified original tank and quick-fill cap and splashguard, and does NOT resort to using a modern fuel cell or square-edged aluminium racing tank, which would work fine but just look wrong. Other than that, Jim’s car is about as 1965 as it can be made.

The Original Venice Crew began to wonder whether more folk would want one. They developed a business plan and took it to Shelby American, to see whether the mother shop would be interested in licencing, producing and selling a limited production run of these born-again Shelby Comp cars.

The answer was, of course, yes, so room was made in the current Shelby Los Angeles property, which formerly housed one of Carroll’s offices and his Goodyear tyre distributorship warehouse. The OVC shop was set up and flavoured to resemble what it may have looked like back in the day, including Carroll’s desk and certain ephemera. Naturally, it was outfitted with much more modern equipment than the boys had back in 1965.

A few young-gun mechanics and fabricators were hired, and the Original Venice Crew was in business, fully authorised by Shelby American and licenced by Ford Motor Company. As with the original, only 36 OVC Shelby Comp Mustangs will be built, and now each one is built to order.

Each and every OVC Comp transformation begins with the acquisition of a genuine, 1965 K-Code Mustang GT 2+2 – the same model as all the originals were built from. That means a ’Stang with a 271bhp, adjustable-lifter 289ci four-barrel carburetted V8 and four-speed trans.

OVC could have built the cars based on all-new, aftermarket, steel body/chassis, but then it wouldn’t have been based on a real Mustang as the originals were. It also wouldn’t have an authentic Ford vehicle identification number, which could cause registration and licencing hassles in certain US states and in some other countries. No, to build a real car they begin with a real car.

Marietta says: ‘Some of the cars we’ve sourced are very nice, and seem almost too nice to tear into a million pieces and restore. Others are tired and worn, but authentic.’ Rest assured, no OVC Comp buyer need fear that his car was born as a six-cylinder, automatic trans-equipped Mustang. Only verified K-Code fastbacks need apply.

Each car destined for the OVC rebuild is inspected down to the last detail, and then stripped to the nubbins, prior to a serious visit with a media blaster to strip it of all paint, undercoating, filler and rust. Marietta adds that ‘many of the cars have ended up needing replacement floors’ after more than five decades of exposure to who knows what climates and conditions. Any other rot or damage is fully addressed with new steel.

If the original engine block is still solid and viable, it will be fully rebuilt so the car can retain ‘matching numbers’ status. The engine is then built up using the most authentic raceworthy internals as possible, although the original cast iron heads are replaced with new aluminium units; the Texas-based Shelby Engine Company takes care of the engine builds.

While the original GT350 Comp motor might have been good for 350bhp, these OVC-fortified 289s crank out 440 horses. The transmission is a Borg-Warner ‘side-loader’ four-speed manual, the carburettor an air-filter-less four-barrel Holley, and every bushing and bearing in the car is new.

Meanwhile, the original speedometer and dash binnacle are replaced with a racy array of period-looking Stewart-Warner gauges. The wiring harness is also new, and likely lighter than an old production street-spec piece, since the new electrics don’t need to make way for things such as air-conditioning or a heating system.

The OVC team offers a choice of a wide-open racing exhaust or a vestigial (meaning short and loud) muffler system that exits from the side of the car just forward of the rear wheels. IRS-equipped OVC Comps run solid rotor disc brakes all around, but if the customer wishes to have an even more production-proper live axle rear suspension, they get drum brakes aft, as it was back then.

For rolling stock, each OVC car gets American Racing Torq Thrust D wheels and high-performance Goodyear rolling stock. All road-required head and taillights are present and accounted for. Don’t even ask about power steering, power brakes, Bluetooth audio or (forsooth!) an automatic transmission.

The cars aren’t designed or intended as show cars or trailer queens, but the fit, finish, paint, chrome and overall build are of show quality – and surely to a much higher standard than could be delivered back in 1965. Resplendent in Wimbledon White with dark Metallic Blue twin Shelby stripes, the look is compelling and decidedly old school. Brock’s design graphics that were so perfect in 1965 remain so today; with just the slightest rake, the car’s stance is purposeful and all business.

The doors remain fully functional and open as normal, so entering and exiting the car is easy; it is equipped with a substantial roll-bar structure, but not a full cage that impinges on the front-seat area. You fire up the car almost as you would any other ’65 Mustang, but in this case you first ensure that the master power switch is on, and then give it a little throttle pedal and turn the key.

After a few cranks, the protein-fortified small-block Ford lights with a healthy blast from its dual pipes. It takes a bit of warming, as it has no choke (and definitely no electronic fuel-injection warm-up cycle). Throttle response is very crisp, the engine arcing quickly in response to your right foot. Depress the somewhat heavy clutch, select first through the standard Ford four-speed shifter, modulate the throttle, be smooth off the clutch, and you’re away.

The initial thing that strikes you when revving up through first and second gears is the glorious sounds this car happily produces. The short dual pipes bark and snort with the baritone voice only an uncatalysed, Yankee V8 can have. And this car pulls long, strong and hard through the lower gears; you can feel how well it balances high rpm power and low-end torque in a way that few highly strung racing engines can do.

While it won’t rev in quite the way so many overhead-cam motors can, it’s safe to run shifts up to 6000rpm (and maybe a smidge beyond), as the engine is so precisely balanced and hand assembled it can take more stick than just any old Mustang can.

Our venue for this drive – The Streets at Willow Springs, in Rosamond, California – is relatively tight and technical, boasting a few medium-length straights, so it’s a third and fourth-gear track all the way. It’s particularly satisfying to snap off quick three-four shifts, and equally so to manage heel-and-toe four-three downshifts with a growling throttle blip in the middle.

Given that there is no power steering or brake assistance, you might guess that the driver inputs are heavy – and you’d be correct. Heavy and manual, yes, but not without feel or communication. There’s no one-handed driving of the GT350 Comp through any corner (as there should not be with any car, particularly on a race track), but the steering loads up nicely in the corners, and provides you with good communication about what the tyres are up to.

With enough throttle and hamfisted driving you can certainly induce some serious oversteer, but with smooth inputs both ends of the car grip solidly and can be leaned on with confidence. The IRS certainly helps here; the GT350 Comp is generally neutral and trustworthy, and very solid feeling, utterly ’60s racecar like and barrel-of-monkeys fun to flog hard.

Considering the car’s mission, the ride quality is also quite palatable. The old-style Ford shifter works well enough, and the clutch is relatively smooth on the uptake. You’ll want to lap this thing until you run out of gas – or at least until your arms and legs do.

Marietta and his team are very clear about what the GT350 Comp is and isn’t, and the buyer has a few choices that they can specify to make it absolutely their car. If you want your model more purely old school, you can have the older-style front facia and rear-window treatments, even if they are a bit less efficient.

And if you prefer a live rear axle, leaf springs and drum brakes out back, you can have that, too. If you’d rather have a brand-new aluminium engine block instead of cast iron, the Shelby Engine Company can also provide that for your OVC build.

Some naysayers will certainly grouse that this can’t be a ‘real’ GT350 Comp since it wasn’t built in 1965, nor is it based on a ’65 GT350. OVC makes no bones about this being a reborn, continuation product. Recall that the original GT350s were built up out of K-Code Mustangs – as is this one.

Furthermore, the cost would likely double (or more) if the OVC Comps were built out of period GT350s, plus imagine the hue and cry from the collector community if original, built-in-’65 GT350s were torn apart, restored and modified into an OVC Comp. Remember, the car doesn’t know all that ‘numbo jumbo’ talk – and when you’re out there muscling an OVC through a corner, or banging gears through the four-speed, neither will you know or care.

It is what it is – and Marietta and company have done everything they can to make it a legit car, as well as being completely transparent about the programme and process.

Given that the model has a full Ford VIN, an exhaust system instead of open pipes, and fully functional lighting, it can be registered anywhere and legally street driven. One point; you may consider the aftermarket addition of power-assisted steering, which is not a factory option from OVC, if you plan to travel much in it or just tool it around the street.

At what cost old-school speed, beauty and historical connection? Around $250,000 depending on your equipment choices, which vary the pricing only a few dollars here and there. Remember that this is a complete ground-up restoration using countless piles of new parts, built at Shelby American, and authorised and licenced by Ford, and your car will be a serialised member in a club of only 36. There’s little doubt you’ll be the envy of all you meet at the vintage races, open track days, or your nearest ‘cars and coffee’ cruise-in. Learn the rest here.

Words and photos by Matt Stone and courtesy Randy Richardson, Shelby Original Venice Crew

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