In the world of automotive development, for huge corporations like The Big Three, planning for a given year’s model occurs far in advance of that model’s unveiling and its ultimate arrival in the dealer’s showroom. The lead time for a new model car is commonly several years prior to its eventual release in the final, physical form. For a company like Shelby American, however, there must be much more flexibility because development of Shelby’s product must occur after development of the production model on which it will be based has been largely finalized.
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An example of Shelby’s ability to react relatively quickly to consumer demand was demonstrated in April of 1965, when Ford queried Shelby about inclusion of other-thanwhite Mustangs in the upcoming builds. At the time, Shelby said “no,” but just five months later, red, blue, green, and black GT350s were rolling out the double doors at 6501 West Imperial Highway.
Shelby American’s much shorter lead time allowed it to react to perhaps the largest change in the Shelby Mustang’s existence, an alteration of not only the car itself, but actually where and how it was produced. The change was not precipitated by a single event, but rather it was a combination of events that forced Shelby American to do business differently.
Overcoming Past Challenges
The first factor concerned the 1967 Shelby production. Because of the techniques implemented for producing all the fiberglass components for the cars (none of which were really suited to high-volume production), the 1967 Shelbys were forced to be literally hand assembled in a process that would have had Henry Ford spinning in his grave at near redline speeds. Almost every car had to have the fiberglass components custom fitted because the quality of the ’glass componentry varied from part to part.
This was a time-consuming and, therefore, a moneywasting process. Add to it the fact that some parts (notably the hood) were fabricated in molds that were taken off a master body buck that had a slight twist to it, and the problem was compounded. Another difficulty encountered with the fiberglass parts was that none of them were fabricated by vendors who had the production capability to meet the demands to supply Shelby American with parts for the entire 1967 Shelby production run. This drove the production of fiberglass to be spread out among several vendors, each with different quality control standards, in order to meet the production quantity needed. If production was to continue and Shelby American wasn’t to lose tons of money in the hand-building of its cars, a vendor capable of producing fiberglass parts in the quantities and to the quality standards required was needed. Ultimately, Plaza Fiberglas from Canada was able to supply relatively consistent quality fiberglass in the quantities needed.
Another aspect of the production issue concerned not only the parts vendors, but Shelby American itself. The company was never intended to be a mass-production house and the quantities of 1967 Shelbys severely overtaxed the small production staff at 6501 West Imperial Highway. In short, there weren’t enough people to build the cars in the quantities being demanded. A better production capability was needed, with a better source of raw materials to match. Though not a technical issue, political pressures also drove change at Shelby American. The inner workings may have been complex, but the basic premise was simple: Ford was essentially Shelby’s parent company, and it was beginning to exert ever-increasing control over the Los Angeles automaker. The cars being produced by Shelby were less and less “Shelby” and more and more “Ford” models, and the physical separation was being seen as a hindrance to maintaining adequate control over Shelby’s operation.
The final obstacle to the status quo at 6501 West Imperial was perhaps a bit more significant than the others: Shelby American’s lease was up on its two-hanger home at the Los Angeles International Airport. Had this occurred apart from other factors, a solution likely could have been found, but as it was then, the L.A. automaker, race car builder, and parts seller had to find a new home.
A Fresh Perspective
No one was in denial; everyone at Shelby American was keenly aware of the issues confronting them. But the issues were something of a two-by-four between the eyes to a man who came to work at Shelby American in October of 1966. His name was Fred Goodell and he was an extremely knowledgeable and very well-connected on-again-off-again employee of Ford, who was back in the on-again mode after having run into the Fords at a restaurant one day; by late morning of the next day, he was back at work at the Blue Oval.
A short while after that, he was called into the office of Don Frey, who asked him to go to California to look at an operation run by a guy named Carroll Shelby. Reluctant to uproot his family, Fred succeeded in blowing it off, for a while, at least. A late-evening phone call from John Kerr, who was headed to Los Angeles to become the new General Manager of Shelby American, got Fred on a plane headed west. At the end of Goodell’s week-long visit, Carroll Shelby called him into his office and offered him the job of Chief Engineer, which he accepted and held until 1970. His immediate task was to sort out the problematic 1967 Shelby production, and find a new home for Shelby American.
One day, Fred and John Kerr were chatting, discussing the problems. One of the topics concerned several issues: a supplier for good fiberglass parts, a place to assemble the 1968 Shelby cars and a production staff capable of handling the production run of 1968 Shelbys, which was still an undetermined quantity but certainly larger than 1967’s 3,300-plus cars. By this time, it is safe to say that the two were getting somewhat anxious about finding a new home.
Kerr made an off-hand comment, the kind of which likely launched many partnerships over the years: “I’ve got this buddy…” The “buddy” to which he was referring was friend George Macfarlane, the sales manager of a company in Michigan called the Smith Plastics Division, which was a subsidiary of the A.O. Smith Corporation. Smith was located in Ionia and was housed in what was, at the time, a 50-plusyear-old, multi-story, brick factory building. What made Kerr’s comment intriguing to Goodell was that Smith’s contract to produce fiberglass bodies for Chevrolet’s Corvette had just ended; the company would likely be hungry for work and willing to talk. The pair visited Smith and indeed, the company was not only amenable to taking on the production job, but was eager to do so. The prospect of a multi-year production contract made Shelby appealing to Smith; and Smith’s method of and capacity for fiberglass parts fabrication made it appealing to Shelby.
Up through the 1967 Shelby production cycle, all of the fiberglass components had been fabricated by their respective vendors, using what could be described as an open-mold process. In this fabrication technique, a mold (usually of fiberglass) is made of only the upper surface of a component, such as a hood; the inside (or underside, in the case of the hood) of the part is the raw cloth that has cured in the mold. It is rough and relatively unsightly. One of the big drawbacks of open molding is the lack of part-to-part uniformity, which results from randomness during the curing cycle of the fiberglass. Shelby American was all too well-versed on the subject of part-to-part uniformity issues—or rather, the lack of it—with its 1967 Shelby parts. The lack of a vendor in the southern California area with the capacity to supply all of the needed parts when they were all needed was another problem that beset the 1967 Shelby program.
Smith used a considerably more sophisticated technique known as “matched metal molding.” While being pretty much standard to the plastics molding industry, it must have seemed truly space-age to Shelby. As the name implied, matched metal molding made use of two metal molds, one for the outer surface of the part, and one for the inner. The molds are machined so that when closed, the space between them forms the thickness of the hood.
A substance called SMC, or sheet molding compound, is laid into one of the molds. SMC is produced in sheets about a quarter of an inch thick, and is comprised of ground fiberglass, resin, and fillers; it is analogous, in both consistency and concept, to cookie dough. After the mold is loaded with SMC (this is called the mold “charge”), the mold halves are closed and heat and pressure are applied, which cures the charge. After the charge has cured, the mold is opened, the part removed, and the edges trimmed. The result is a finished component of exceptional dimensional stability and part-to-part consistency. An added bonus is that the underside of the hood, because it is also formed via its own half of the mold, presents a more finished and professional appearance. After the 1967 experience, Kerr and Goodell were likely salivating at the prospect of good quality parts, and plenty of them.
After a series of meetings, at the end of May 1967, A.O. Smith had prepared and submitted to Shelby American, a proposal for the production of the 1968 Shelby GT350 and GT500 and tentatively for the next model years up through 1971. As is often the case of proposal submissions, the offeror, in this case, Smith, proposed bids for several production quantities. It is safe to assume that they had some guidance as to what the tentative production quantities could be; it’s doubtful that they pulled quantities out of thin air, and those quantities indicated that Ford (especially) and Shelby had high hopes for future Shelby Mustang production; the quantities bid were 6,000, 8,000, 10,000, and 12,000 cars. Several revisions of the proposal went back and forth and by early in the second half of 1967, terms were finalized for the production of the 1968 Shelby. A.O. Smith would basically be responsible for three phases of Shelby production: Smith would fabricate the components; Smith would paint and install them on the vehicles; and Smith would finish the vehicles, by adding ornamentation and decoration—such as badges, fuel caps, grille trim—that was procured elsewhere.
Another difference from previous years’ Shelby production was that, for the first time ever, Shelby would not receive its base Mustangs from San Jose; instead, the 1968 allotment was to come from New Jersey’s Metuchen Assembly Plant. The selection of Metuchen was based solely on that plant’s capacity being sufficient to “spare” cars for Shelby, without affecting its overall Mustang output. The increased distance over the trip from San Jose to LAX (a little more than double the distance) was felt not to pose any insurmountable logistical problems. One issue that did need to be addressed, however, was that the cars were no longer making a day’s trip, they would be spending at least two days on the railcar, so protection had to be incorporated for the cars’ open trunks and engine compartments, since the cars were to leave Metuchen sans deck lids and hoods. “Slave” deck lids and hoods were used, which were likely returned to Metuchen for reuse on subsequent cars. There is some documentation that suggests a molded plastic cover was used in place of some of these slave hoods.
In the midst of the back-and-forth negotiations and discussions between Shelby American and A.O. Smith, a major event occurred in the spring of 1967, or thereabouts: automaker/race car builder/parts and accessories manufacturer Shelby American was split into three separate entities. The trisection resulted in the Shelby Racing Company and the Shelby Parts Company remaining in California, but Shelby Automotive moved east and was headquartered in Southfield, Michigan. Shelby Automotive also maintained engineering offices and a shop in Ionia, to oversee A.O. Smith production; it was housed in a former Buick dealership and garage. Shelby American still existed on the organizational chart, but effectively was a “holding company” for the other branches. Things were changing fast, and, clearly, they were not like they were just a few months before.
Planning the 1968 Shelbys
If the impression being conveyed is that the entire planning cycle for the 1968 Shelby concerned itself solely with dealing with an unplanned-for set of catastrophes, that was only half of the story. While a macroscopic eye was cast toward the “where are we going to live?” issue confronting Shelby American on the corporate level, there was the usual automotive planning on the microscopic level that accompanies the anticipated introduction of a new model.
Over the years, the 1968 Shelby planning has been seen as a pair of competing, parallel plans with the big picture set of plans almost totally overshadowing the more detailed ones. But with the programmatic issues removed, it can be seen that planning of the 1968 Shelby followed a path very similar to that of any other year. Just a fortnight into 1967, Shelby American sent a letter to Gene Bordinat, head of Ford’s styling center. It sought Ford’s styling expertise and requested that styling proceed, at once, with the design of the 1968 Shelby, using the guidelines outlined in the memo.
The approach was similar to that undertaken in 1967, where Shelby American laid out the general philosophy of the 1967 Shelby and Ford supplied styling and model making expertise to make the concepts come to fruition. As in the case of all factory documentation, the memo is telling in that it gives an indication of what was planned and what actually occurred, as the two are not always the same. Items recommended by Shelby for incorporation by Ford included a revised hood with two smaller scoops instead of the single type used in 1967.
Additionally, the memo called for the louvers from the 1967 GT500 hoods to become standard fare on all vehicles. Bright metal accents were to be used in or around the grille, and consideration was to be given to moving the high beam headlights back to an outboard location.
The inner taillight assembly of the 1967 was to be simplified and integrated into a new taillight panel and another Ford Motor Company product taillight was to be substituted in place of the Cougar units, as it was felt that the taillights were “too gross,” in the words of the memo. Also desired was a unique GT500 stripe, different racing stripes, and different emblems and ornamentation, all emphasizing the Cobra emblem. The 427 Cobra was not planned for production in 1968, a victim of an ever-increasing set of motor vehicle standards established by the Government that the aluminum two-seater could not possibly hope to even approach meeting. The “Cobra” name was to be carried forth by the Cobra GT350 and Cobra GT500 Mustangs.
The second part of the memo dealt with the biggest styling change for 1968: the introduction of a convertible Shelby. It requested Ford Styling come up with a new deck lid and rear quarter extensions for the Model 76 (convertible) Mustang that was identical in appearance to the fastback, but otherwise adaptable to the convertible. It also suggested a molded Landau cover, similar in appearance to that of the 1962 Thunderbird, and a styled roll bar that was adaptable for top-down use as either a ski or surfboard rack, showing that while the 1968 convertibles may have been built in Michigan, they were conceived in California. Ford was requested to provide “their best as program timing is of the utmost importance.”
It is interesting and somewhat disappointing that, to the degree that the design and styling process of the 1967 Shelby was documented for posterity, there is an equal degree to which the 1968 styling is a mystery. Stylist Charlie McHose, who worked on the 1967 Shelby, did some work on the 1968 grille; boss Gene Bordinat took over from there and stylist John Chun had some design input, as well, but all of this information is lacking in specificity. By the end of 1967, Shelby American had realized that the Shelby buyer’s demographics had shifted considerably. No longer was the car the target of frustrated Mario Andretti wannabees who cared nothing of style and appearance but everything of performance, it was almost 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Now, the Shelby buyer was a 50-ish professional who was more interested in being seen behind the wheel of a stylish automobile than how to turn that wheel to efficiently negotiate, in the words of the advertising for the very first GT350, a “blind apex closing radius bend.”
Style was now more important than ever and design focused on even the smallest details that might negatively impact appearance. One example of Shelby’s attention to detail was evident in a late February 1967 memo, in which Shelby American General Manager John Kerr criticized the appearance of the 1967-type shoulder harness, from an appearance standpoint, on the upcoming convertible Shelby. He directed Engineering to investigate developing a cross-chest harness that emanated from the interior trim panel, below the window lower belt line. If that didn’t work, a harness that was mounted on the roll bar (as in 1967), but with a belt that could be detached to eliminate the “dangling straps” look of the present harness.
Kerr’s memo went on to further direct that if the detachable strap method was preferred, it should be fitted to both fastbacks and convertibles; the end result was that the converts got the cross-chest strap and the fastbacks kept the “danglers,” but they were detachable from the retractor mechanism, which made rear seat ingress a bit easier without the hanging straps. The suspended harness was a viable, workable concept that provided adequate levels of protection, but there was a desire to implement a less functional alternative because it was more aesthetically pleasing. It was not like it was in 1965, when function was all that mattered; now, it was clearly form over function.
While considerable emphasis was being placed on the new car’s appearance, performance wasn’t totally forgotten, it was just more of a minor player. Discussion of the engine destined for the GT350 focused on two choices: the 302 or the 289. By this time, the solid-lifter-equipped, High Performance 289 had been discontinued, so both engines had hydraulic lifters, which never need adjustment. And discussion of the GT500’s performance ensued when Shelby American admitted that there was some dissatisfaction with the car’s performance. An intercompany memo requested that Shelby engineering investigate ways to improve the car’s performance so that it was not only equal to, but better than that of Pontiac’s GTO. Performance was no longer king, but it still mattered.
More of the Same, But Not
In the spring of 1967, styling details of the 1968 Shelby were finalized enough so that A.O. Smith was able to fabricate a pair of prototype hoods, noses, tail panels, and consoles. The parts (manufactured at considerable expense because of their handbuilt fabrication method) were shipped to Shelby American, which was still in Los Angeles at the time, bumping and thumping along with ill-fitting 1967 Shelby fiberglass. The parts, along with some 1967 components (side scoops, quarter panel end caps, and the deck lid) were installed on a prototype 1968 convertible and fastback GT500. The convertible was a 1967 Mustang chassis mocked up as a 1968 ragtop; less is known about the fastback; it, too, likely had 1967 underpinnings. These cars were used to illustrate the concept of the 1968 Shelbys and appeared in the early-release promotional materials.
Shortly after their completion, in June of 1967, an event called the “Long Lead Technical Conference” was held at Riverside Raceway. Here, the two prototype 1968 Shelbys were shown to a by-invitation-only audience, which was admonished not to release any of the cars’ technical details until the beginning of October. The specification sheets handed out delineated the features of the new Shelbys: the biggest news, of course, was the availability of a convertible model, in both GT350 and GT500 trim. Especially unique was the car’s roll bar, which was covered with a thick, molded rubber cover that provided both bump protection and gave the car a “targa” look from the side. Two small chrome eyelets atop the roll bar might have gone unnoticed save for specific mention of them in the literature: they were to secure skis or a surfboard to the top of the car when the top was down.
Successful carryovers from the 1967 Shelby were highlighted; these included the air extractor scoop, the lower body side brake cooling scoop and the deck lid, with its distinctive molded-in ducktail spoiler. The basic theme of the taillights was carried over also, except that in place of the 1967 Cougar lenses used on 1967 Shelbys, 1965 Thunderbird taillights were used, which provided sequentially-blinking. The T-Bird lights featured chrome trim dividing the long, horizontal light into five sections, and these were mounted in a fiberglass taillight panel that was painted silver on all cars of all body colors. Convertibles, with no hard roof, lacked the air extractor scoops, although the same brake cooling scoops as used on the fastback were installed. Unlike the early 1967 scoops, however, the lower scoops were purely decorative.
On the other end, the nose of the 1968 Shelby was similar, yet different, from its predecessor. Fiberglass extensions were used to stretch the nose over that of the base Mustang, as before. The 1968 hood, however, featured an integral air inlet at the very front edge; this intake was divided into two halves. The car went back to single headlights and Marchal (later Lucas) driving lights were mounted in the large grille opening that was trimmed in bright metal. The car continued to use the standard Mustang front and rear bumpers.
A point highlighted in the technical handout was the use of matched metal dies for production of the fiberglass components, which gave a much better fit and finish than existed in the Shelby of the previous model year. Shelby wanted it known that they recognized the fit issues of the 1967 cars and that they had been corrected. The hood was of all-fiberglass construction, instead of the steel-framed early hoods as before, and the bigblock ventilation louvers of 1967 appeared on all 1968 hoods, in basically the same size and location, the only difference was that the louver assembly had a slight tapered shape to it, to provide visual interest.
Hood locking pins, which had come to be known as something of a Carroll Shelby trademark, returned . . . sort of: instead of the lanyard-tethered pin inserted through a protruding stud, Dzus-type quarter-turn fasteners secured the hood. These were felt to be more in-line with the more sophisticated car the Shelby Mustang had become. Most of the exterior colors came from the Mustang line and included Wimbledon White, Raven Black, Candy Apple Red, Highland Green, Acapulco Blue, Lime Gold, and a color that proved to be particularly troublesome later on, Sunlit Gold.
In the cockpit, the 1968 Shelby saw a drastic appearance change from the 1967 models: substitution of the 1967’s brushed-aluminum trim with simulated walnut. While the size and shape of the woodgrain was identical to the 1967’s aluminum, the wood conveyed a much richer sense of luxury that was more in-keeping with the direction in which the Shelby Mustang was headed. The dash layout was the same as it was the year before, and this perpetuated the dilemma of the “missing” oil pressure and ammeter gauges. Again, these were mounted below the dash, under the radio, but were integrated in a floor console that swept up into the dashboard.
The console also featured a padded armrest (embossed with a large Shelby Cobra logo). While the aluminum trim and the upside-down Rally-Pac suspended below the dash in the 1967 cockpit conveyed sort of a light, stripped race car feel, the interior of the 1968 Shelby said luxury all around. As in 1967, a second interior color was available other than black, and this year it was Saddle, a beige leather color. Under the fiberglass hood of the GT350 lay a hydraulic-liftered 302 fitted with a Cobra aluminum intake, atop which sat a Holley 600 carburetor, although some early cars kept their asbuilt cast-iron intakes because the Cobra units hadn’t yet passed emissions testing. The 1967 GT500 aluminum air cleaner was used, as were black, die-cast COBRA valve covers.
GT500s were propelled by the Police Interceptor 428 of the same type as was used in 1967. However, performance was improved through the use of a single, large, 735-cfm Holley carburetor atop the aluminum Police Interceptor intake, in lieu of 1967’s dual carb set up. Suspension modifications were minimal; the car’s underpinnings were Mustang GT almost all-around, save for the heavy Shelby front stabilizer bar.
While the 1967 Shelby has become somewhat notorious for myriad running production changes, the 1968 models were likewise notable for their consistency. High-quality fiberglass parts underwent virtually no design or manufacturing changes throughout the entire build cycle of the car, and with all the parts manufactured in-house at A.O. Smith, vendor supply issues were virtually nonexistent. But this is not to say that there weren’t any running production changes, for there were a couple.
The first was relatively minor, encompassing a slight geometrical change to the lower side scoop molds that resulted in an almost unnoticeable detail difference between early and later molded scoops. A more substantial change resulted from the 1968 Shelby production process and one of the selected colors for the Shelby line: Sunlit Gold, a stunning, heavily-metallic color. A.O. Smith manufactured fiberglass components, then pre-painted them the appropriate body colors. The conversion process entailed Smith installing the already-painted parts onto the partiallybare Mustangs to finish them as Shelbys.
However, dramatic car-to-car variation in the gold paint as it was applied at Metuchen resulted in very few of the gold Mustangs actually matching the “specification” for Sunlit Gold. Smith’s pile of “correct” gold parts were not a match and in one instance, Smith had to disassemble 38 gold Shelbys and paint the parts a special off-color mix so that the parts matched the Metuchen-painted cars. Then the parts had to be reinstalled on the cars. Smith and Shelby went back and forth on responsibility issues and the final result was that Sunlit Gold was dropped from availability early in calendar year 1968. It was replaced by an unusual yellow color taken from the Ford Fleet Color palate.
At the same time, five other fleet colors were selected and used for an extremely short production run, just three cars of each of the five other colors; only 144 cars were painted the special yellow color. The special colors had no names, only numbers, and were simply known as WT 6066 Yellow, WT 4017 Red, WT 7081 Green, WT 5185 Orange, WT 5014 Orange, and WT 5107 Orange. While the reason for the substitution of yellow was evident (the inconsistency of the gold paint), this was not the case for the incorporation of the other special colors, the choices thereof, nor the extremely small quantity of cars painted each color. The “tradition” of unique Shelby design features being carried over onto the base Mustang line a year or so later also held for the colors: WT 5185 Orange became Calypso Coral, which was available on Mustangs in 1969, and WT 5014 Orange became Grabber Orange, which was offered in 1970.
The Cobra Jet Strikes
Halfway through the 1968 Shelby build came a substantial change that far exceeded the scope of the few, minor running production changes that had occurred so far: Ford’s introduction of a new engine to the Mustang line, the 428 Cobra Jet, and Shelby wanted the hot new engine for his cars.
The “CJ” was basically a conglomeration of parts: a 428 Police Interceptor block was topped off with a set of 427 medium-riser heads; a high-nodular iron crankshaft spun inside. The engine was (under)rated at 335 hp although everyone in automotive circles knew full well the actual output was closer to, and maybe even topped, 400 hp.
The new V-8 inhaled through the Shelby’s ram air hood, which consisted of a molded plastic plenum attached to the underside of the hood. It connected the two air inlets to a circular chamber that sealed to a circular air cleaner via a rubber gasket. To properly utilize the engine’s substantial torque, staggered shock absorbers were used in the rear (one forward of the axle, the other behind it) to minimize spring windup. Also the bottoms of the front shock towers were wrapped with sheetsteel “doublers” in the area of the engine mounts. In concert with the new powerplant was a new set of badging. The gas cap and wheel center cap decals still used the same coiled snake logo, but replaced the former SHELBY COBRA nomenclature with COBRA JET. A Cobra Jet badge was designed for the dash as well.
To go along with the more muscular big-block, Shelby wanted a new name for the upgraded model and this culminated in one of the best-known and most misunderstood tales of Carroll Shelby and his cars. According to Carroll Shelby, he had learned of an impending version of the Corvette that was to be called the “King of the Road.” Shelby called his attorney and queried whether General Motors had yet trademarked “King of the Road.” The attorney initially replied that he would get back to Shelby in a week; Shelby countered that if the attorney wished to continue in the employ of Carroll Shelby, he would get back within an hour, which he did. The answer was “no,” General Motors hadn’t yet trademarked the designation, so, by the next morning, Shelby Automotive had grabbed it for itself. Shelby’s ability to react to changes or situations facilitated such action, while the slow, bureaucratic General Motors didn’t know what hit it. The new model replaced the Cobra GT500 in Shelby’s two-car lineup, and was called the GT500 KR, ”King of the Road.” It was a matter of beating General Motors to the punch with its own weapon and—despite what had been conjectured over the years—really had nothing to do with country singer Roger Miller’s honky-tonk hit of a few years prior.
One way in which the 1968 Shelby differed from its yearbefore predecessor was something defined as producibility—the concept in industrial and production engineering that relates to the ease of producing a given item, as well as the inherent complexity of the item itself. On each 1967 GT350 and GT500, there were five separate emblems that had to be keyed to the car’s engine, since each one indicated either a GT350 or a GT500. This meant that every production station that installed the badges (two on the fenders, one in the grille, one on the fuel cap, and one on the deck lid) had to have an adequate supply of the two kinds of badges.
And every production station had to have the kind of car readily identified so that the right type of emblem could be installed. These factors, though small by themselves, all contributed to the complexity and costs of producing the cars. And this does not take into account the additional cost of having to design and produce two almost identical badges and the eventual warranty cost of replacing the few that were mixed up in production. The solution was to simplify the badging scheme. By 1968, the Shelby Mustangs were being referred to as the SHELBY COBRA GT350 and SHELBY COBRA GT500. The SHELBY COBRA part was common to both, so for the fuel cap decal, producibility improvements were implemented: the rearing-up snake emblem remained, but was flanked by the words SHELBY and COBRA. Actually, this was identical to 1967, except that, then, GT350 or GT500 had accompanied the wording, making the decal modelspecific.
The result was still a unique Shelby fuel cap emblem, but one that was easier to install. The same went for the former GT350 and GT500 fender emblems: these were replaced by a three-dimensional Cobra medallion perched above the word COBRA. Again, simpler in that it fit both the 350 and 500, but still gave the car unique identification. The former GT350 or GT500 grille and deck lid badges were eliminated, replaced by individual letters that spelled out S-H-E-L-B-Y in chrome. These, of course, were independent of the type of car, and provided unique product identification, while being simpler to keep track of.
Another area of simplification concerned the wheels. In 1967, the customer had a choice of three types of wheels; the inventory and accountability issues were obvious. For 1968, one type of wheel was offered by the factory: a simulated mag-type wheel cover (often mis-identified as a “hubcap”). The use of a wheel cover wasn’t new, it was the standard wheel last year, but unlike in 1967, the wheel cover was generic; in other words, it was neither a Ford nor Shelby product (1967 Shelby hubcaps, it will be recalled, were Thunderbird items with “COBRA” center cap decals placed over the T-Bird logo).
Manufactured by Garwood Industries, the cover was used by several automobile manufacturers, including Dodge and Oldsmobile. The cover was a heavy die-cast and stamped piece that had a strong resemblance to the 1965 Shelby Cragar wheel. While generic to several manufacturers, the Shelby application was unique in that it featured a center cap made just for Shelby that accepted the SHELBY COBRA fuel cap decal as its center logo, eliminating the need for three different-sized center cap decals as were used in 1967, one for each of the three available wheels. The wheel cover was the only wheel choice for the 1968 Shelby; optional cast-aluminum 10-spoke wheels were added by dealers or later by individual owners. Production records show that 99.8 percent of the entire 1968 Shelby build left A.O. Smith with wheel covers, the only “factory” exceptions being a half dozen or so cars bound for export sales.
Rekindling an Old Relationship
Corporate partnerships are often compared to marriages and if this is also done with the 1966 union of Hertz and Shelby, the beginning of 1967 brought their separation. Often referred to as a divorce, “separation” is truly a better word, as there was no permanence to the parting of the ways. After a brief and exciting fling in 1966, the two parties had grown apart because Hertz had realized that Shelby’s product was a far cry from a perfect fit for its own needs.
Shelby built sports cars, but Hertz wanted sporty cars—cars that looked the part, but were easy to operate; the GT350H was lacking in that department. In November of 1967, Shelby tried to rekindle the 1966 romance that was the GT350 Hertz: at Shelby’s request, A.O. Smith built two cars especially for showing to Hertz. One was a GT350 convertible, the other a Cougar with special wheels and a sunroof. Not much more about their unveiling is known, but what is known reveals that Hertz was apparently not enamored enough with the idea of a special “for-Hertz-only” Shelby convertible to begin writing checks. Hertz did pop for a couple hundred of the special edition Cougars, however.
While the idea of a special edition Hertz Shelby convertible didn’t catch on, the idea of Hertz once again renting Mr. Shelby’s fastback Mustangs did: February and March of 1968 saw the rental company take delivery of around 230 GT350s. Unlike the “special edition” GT350H of 1966, the 1968 models were standard, off the rack Shelby small-block fastbacks. They were almost all identically equipped with power steering and brakes (which were mandatory Shelby options, anyway), automatic transmissions, and most had air conditioning. The cars were delivered in the standard Shelby colors available for 1968 and, like the non-rental cars, all wore wheel covers. These GT350s, the Cougars, and a handful of other cars formed the nucleus of the toned-down Sports Car Club. They were nothing like the unique “H” models of 1966, but they were Shelbys and Hertz was making them available for rent. The idea of a rental Shelby didn’t die in 1966; it just went into hibernation, awaiting the right type of vehicle for Hertz’s clientele. When it returned, it did so in a more moderate fashion, more conducive to the user’s demands
Success from a Certain Perspective
The answer to a given question often depends on one’s perspective, and sometimes, two individuals could have completely opposing answers to the same question based on their perspectives. Such is the case with an assessment of the 1968 Shelby.
From Ford’s perspective, it was wildly popular, with the 4,450 cars built representing just a tad short of eight times as many 1968 Shelbys built as had been constructed in the first year of the model’s existence. But from Carroll Shelby’s perspective, the cars represented his loss of control of the program; he was no longer able to build the kind of cars he wanted to.
The day after Ford won its second 24 Hours of LeMans, the LeMans racing program ceased to exist. Shelby was out of a job, a job for which he had a true passion: racing. There was still the Trans-Am effort, but even that was becoming less and less enjoyable, with Ford corporate dictating more and more what the Shelby racing folks could—and worse yet, couldn’t—do to prepare the Ford cars. The 1968 Shelby was the furthest yet from the kind of car he envisioned the Shelby Mustang ought to be. Added to that, he was no longer calling the shots; Dearborn was and he was becoming little more than a company pitchman. Things were considerably different from when Shelby was 2,000 miles away in California. What started out as a fun project—to build a handful of street versions of a race car to pay the bills— was turning into a full-time job, and not a fun one at that. Carroll Shelby began to entertain thoughts about calling it quits.
1968 GT350, GT500 AND GT500 KR PRODUCTION STATISTICS
Body Style Available: 2-door fastback and 2-door convertible
Quantity Built: GT350: 1,053 fastback; 404 convertible GT500: 1,020 fastback; 402 convertible GT500 KR: 1,053 fastback; 518 convertible 4,450 Total 1968 Shelby Production
Colors Available*, **: Acapulco Blue (17.1% of total build) Highland Green (17.2% of total build) Raven Black (6.00% of total build) Lime Gold (14.6% of total build) Sunlit Gold (8.1% of total build) Wimbledon White (14.0% of total build) Candy Apple Red (19.7% of total build) WT 6066 Yellow* (3.2% of total build) *One of six special paint colors, three cars each were also built in WT 4017 Red, WT 7081 Green, WT 5185 Orange, WT 5014 Orange and WT 5107 Orange. **Three cars were painted Royal Maroon, two Brittany Blue and one Meadowlark Yellow.
Interior Colors Available:
Black (85.7%) Saddle (14.3%)
Base Prices: GT350: $4,116 fastback; $4238 convertible GT500: $4,317 fastback; $4,438 convertible GT500 KR: $4,472 fastback; $4,594 convertible
Available Factory Options: Air conditioning; tinted windows (mandatory with AC); automatic transmission; Paxton supercharger (GT350 only; advertised but not actually offered, could be dealer-installed); 427 medium riser engine (GT500; advertised but not actually offered); Traction-Lok rear.
Running Production Changes: Early cars: Some early cars had dual serial numbers stamped on fender ID tag. Some GT350s delivered with cast-iron intake manifolds and Autolite carburetors (until COBRA intake received emissions certification). Early cars had rectangular rear side marker lights and were fitted with Marchal driving lights. Tilt steering wheel not installed. Early cars used 1967-type Shelby American fender ID tag blanks (and door sill labels); door tags lacked “Special Performance Vehicle” warning.
Late cars: COBRA aluminum intake with Holley carburetor; single-stamping ID tag and pointed rear side marker lights. Later cars used “Shelby Automotive” fender ID tag and door sill labels and carried the wording “Special Performance Vehicle” on the door tag. Tilt steering wheel became a standard Shelby feature. Driving lights changed to Lucas types. Slight differences exist in the shape of the lower body scoops, likely due to a mold change; not generally correlated to “early” or “late” cars.
Written by Greg Kolasa and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks