Embellishment is as old as the art of storytelling itself, and given the creative nature of some instances of exaggerated storytelling, it is perhaps more correct to refer to it as art form as well. Embellishment is often the result of many factors, such as emphasizing the accomplishments of the subject; compensating for (or taking advantage of) a lack of substantiated facts; and the passage of time.
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Perhaps no stories in the automotive world are more prone to embellishment than those of Carroll Shelby and his cars. One such specific tale is that of how Ford supplied Mustangs to Carroll Shelby’s companies for transformation into Shelby GT350s and GT500s, which for years had been something of a mystery to automotive historians and enthusiasts alike.
In the mid 1980s, when factory documents began to reveal the true nature of those events, it became apparent just how exaggered and embellished the telling of those tales had become. There were many versions of the process, ranging from the almost-correct to the ridiculously far-fetched. One absurd version of the story had it that mixed in randomly among the plethora of Mustangs produced at Ford’s San Jose Assembly Plant, between the red six-cylinder convertibles, green eight-cylinder coupes, and blue eight-cylinder fastbacks, every so often, a pony meeting Shelby American’s exact requirements for a white 289 HiPo fastback with a black interior and a 4-speed transmission emerged from the massive factory. It was surreptitiously spirited off by a Shelby worker, with Ford none the wiser, until, of course, it received payment for the purloined pony car, bound for 6501 West Imperial Highway and rebirth into a GT350.
Such stories were amusing, entertaining, and made for great bench racing, but were, quite incorrect.
In fact, the Mustangs destined for Shelby American were not random statistical occurrences, but instead were specifically and very deliberately built for that purpose, based upon a great deal of planning, preparation, coordination, and communication between Ford and Shelby. Having dispelled some of the myth to this tale, there is now room in the story for that space to be refilled with documented fact and to set the record straight about two Mustang myths: that Shelby’s Mustangs were simply grabbed as they rolled off the assembly line and that the Ford assembly plants simply spat out Mustangs in random, helter-skelter configurations.
It had long been mistakenly believed that the Mustangs destined for transformation into GT350s were complete, finished models. This is simply not so. The configuration of the cars leaving San Jose (and in later years, Metuchen, New Jersey, and Dearborn, Michigan) bound for Shelby were the result of many meetings between the supplier and the recipient. Shelby American had very specific requirements for its Mustangs and these requirements were determined long before the first Shelby-bound Mustang rolled out the door from San Jose. The requirements, themselves, have been the subject of some misinformation and misperception, so in order to use that as the groundwork upon which the Shelby GT350 story is built, a detailed telling of that story is needed.
It is fairly well known that Shelby American’s involvement in the GT350 development process began in late summer of 1964, when Ken Miles and Phil Remington began playing around with a couple of notchback Mustangs supplied to Shelby American by Ford—the fastback version of the Mustang, on which the GT350 was ultimately be built, was still a couple of months distant. The pair began determining exactly what modifications were needed to put a little hair on the little mare’s chest, but they weren’t working in a vacuum. Ford was providing considerable assistance beyond merely shipping a couple of used Mustangs to Los Angeles. Before Shelby had agreed to transform the Mustang, Ford’s chassis engineering and engine design staff had begun determining the changes that were needed to upgrade the Mustang. From these tests, analyses and discussions came features that have come to be associated with the GT350: modifications such as the lowering of the front suspension upper A-arms; the cross-engine compartment “Monte Carlo Bar”; large, Fairlane station wagon rear brake drums; and the aluminum, high-rise intake paired with a Holley 715 carburetor. It was Ford that also opened up discussions with its San Jose Assembly Plant on what could be added to and left off of the Shelby-bound Mustangs, while they were making their way down the assembly line.
Cantwell’s Creative Problem Solving
In October, Shelby American gained a new employee: Charles “Chuck” Cantwell left General Motors when he heard of a small automobile manufacturer in Los Angeles who was building race cars. Intrigued by the prospect, Cantwell interviewed and in very short order, found he not only had a job, but also a title—Project Engineer—on the yet-to-be-named GT350. His first assignment was in Dearborn, at the big building with the Blue Oval on it. There, he spent three weeks attending school, in a manner of speaking. His “curriculum” was Ford Mustang 101, and his assignment was to learn the new pony car inside and out. For that three quarters of a month, he worked with Ford and laid out long, detailed, hand-written spreadsheets of components and the functions of those components, planning ways to improve the performance of the Mustang. This was the first time anyone had looked at the car and the ways to hop it up, from a part-by-part point of view.
The next phase of Cantwell’s education/employment took place back in California, not in Los Angeles, but nearly 350 miles distant, at the San Jose Assembly Plant. It was from here that the Mustangs bound for Shelby American in Los Angeles originated, and in sort of a “shopping trip” manner, Cantwell toured the assembly line to see firsthand how the cars went together, picking out parts to fulfill the Miles-Remington-Ford objectives. They had determined, for example, that the Mustang chassis could benefit from some stiffening in the engine room.
Cantwell saw that Mustangs built for sale outside of the United States, where the roads were presumably not as smooth, had extra-tough support bracing running from the firewall to the shock absorber towers, as well as specially reinforced shock- absorber mounts. Known as export bracing (for obvious reasons), Cantwell specified that Shelby’s Mustangs be built with these features added on the Ford line, and Ford agreed. He also worked out how the planned addition of Fairlane rear brake drums, which were wider than the Mustangs’ and thus added stopping power, would be facilitated on the line. And it was decided that the transmissions would be aluminum-cased Borg-Warner T-10s with close-ratio gears, in lieu of the Ford Top-loader boxes. These and other items items (all from the Ford production-parts lineup) could be added relatively easily to the Mustangs as they made their way down the San Jose assembly line, once the planning had been done. That planning was Cantwell’s job.
Chuck’s “shopping trip” also dealt with parts to be deleted at the Ford plant—parts that Shelby American removed anyway—once it received the cars. There were obvious and multiple benefits to this, perhaps the largest being that as the unnecessary parts were removed from the Mustangs, Shelby American didn’t have to figure out what to do with all those take-off parts. A simple solution was to simply return them to San Jose for reuse, but Ford was not set up to do this. Their production setup took brand-new, quality-verified parts, and used them in vehicle construction. They were neither able, nor did they want, to deal with utilizing what were effectively used parts in new car construction. In addition to huge product liability issues, it was also an accounting headache to keep track of these parts upon arrival back at San Jose, even if the parts were only reused on Shelby cars. These “reuse” schemes were initially explored by Cantwell and summarily dismissed as unworkable by Ford.
Cost was another benefit to Shelby of deleting parts on the assembly line: it was less expensive to simply have Ford leave certain parts off than for Shelby to pay for the parts then pay its workers to remove them. Many of the parts deletions specified by Shelby American concerned items that were simply not bolted on during Mustang production. An example of this “bolt on” parts deletion was the standard Mustang hood, since the GT350 utilized a different design. Had San Jose not been able to accommodate the deletion of that component, it could have been performed after the cars arrived at LAX. But some deletions had to be made at San Jose because they could not (at least not economically) be performed after the cars got to Shelby. One such item was the seam sealer, filler and dashboard “eyebrows,” which were all omitted from Shelby-bound Mustangs, in the interest of reducing the weight of the race cars-to-be. It would have been a massive undertaking if Shelby American had to scrape all the seam sealer from the interiors and chisel off the welded-on dashboard structure, but it was literally a non-event for Ford to skip those steps.
Cantwell also learned that there were some hard and fast rules that Ford wouldn’t break, not even for a subsidiary like Shelby American. The first of these concerned the cars’ drivability. Simply put, Ford would only build customized Mustangs for Shelby American that could be driven off the line. It would have benefitted Shelby American greatly if their Mustangs were received as “rollers,” sans exhaust manifolds, intake manifolds and carburetors. These components were to be replaced by Shelby, and this involved disassembling completed engines, but, here, Ford would not bend; those parts were required installations at Ford, so that the cars were drivable off the line at the San Jose Assembly Plant to the waiting transporters.
Shelby simply had to suck it up and remove the factory-installed parts, in order for the special headers, carbs, intakes, valve covers and oil pans to be added. There were also rules— mostly determined by issues of product liability—related to which parts Ford would install. A company like Shelby American could not simply hand Ford a pile of parts to be installed on the assembly line, unless Ford was completely satisfied with the parts’ engineering and functionality. For example, from the very first car built that year (“Job 1” in automotive speak), Shelby wanted Ford to install wooden steering wheels that it was to supply. It wasn’t until the middle of 1967 GT350/500 production that Ford finally consented to add the Shelby-supplied wooden steering wheels to the cars on the Ford line, and that was only after the wheels passed rigorous government safety tests.
These are a few examples that illustrate that Shelby American couldn’t just grab cars that happened to meet their needs—each Mustang destined to become a GT350 was specially built by Ford to meet Shelby’s needs. While this truth may be less romantic than certain previously-held beliefs, nonetheless it sets the record straight on exactly how things were done.
District Special Orders
Just as there was nothing random about the selection of Mustangs to be shipped to Shelby American for conversion to GT350s, neither did Ford randomly churn out regular production Mustangs by the thousands. In actuality, Dearborn used a logical and systematic means to determine what kind of Mustangs were built. The production process began with the very important concept, but one that is widely misunderstood by both Ford employees and enthusiasts alike: the “DSO.”
While the special order form itself is correctly referred to as a DSO, the group of cars that made up this order was also itself referred to as a DSO. It should be noted that even within the Ford organization, the DSO abbreviation has alternately been referred to as either “Dealer Special Order” or “Domestic Special Order,” but for the sake of consistency, the most prevalent term, District Special Order, is used here. What determined how many cars were built within a single DSO was the mechanical configuration of the car(s) requested.
In order to keep track of its vehicle status across the country and the world (although in this instance we are concerned only with the continental Unites States), Ford divided the country into a series of about 40 areas, called Districts. For the most part, a District was a geographical area, usually identified by the largest city within that area, and each District was assigned a unique number; Boston was 11, Richmond was 25, Cleveland was 32, Dallas was 61, and Los Angeles was 71. A District could encompass several states or several cities, such as the Twin Cities District, 44, which encompassed Minneapolis and St. Paul. Each city and its surrounding suburbs likely had more than one dealer, so a given District could have several Ford dealers within it.
Some Districts, however, were merely quantities of cars set aside for a special purpose and had no geographical area associated with them. One such non-geographical District was number 84 and was known as the Home Office Reserve. The District was the lowest level of breakdown with which Ford corporate headquarters in Dearborn dealt; to deal with each individual dealer across the entire country would have been a monumental task. This system allowed each individual District to focus on its dealers, yielding a much more manageable system for Ford corporate headquarters, whose focus was on the worldwide, not city-by-city or dealer-by-dealer level.
The term Special Order almost always brings to mind exotic combinations of wild, high-performance options, but in reality, every car built by Ford was in fact a “special order,” whether it was a beige station wagon ordered for dealer stock or a huge-engine muscle car requested by a single individual. Every car scheduled for production was ordered by someone (an individual or a dealer) and no car was built unless there was a predetermined customer who specifically requested that that car be built. Likewise, there was no default configuration to which cars were built, in the absence of a firm order. As the configuration for a car for each individual, dealer or group (ranging in size from something as small as a township police department to as large as the entire United States Navy) was determined, those characteristics were written down on a Ford form with the very descriptive but somewhat cumbersome title of “Special Order—Combined Sales Order and Manufacturing Authority to Produce Vehicles as Scheduled.” (Over the years, this form has been renamed to things like “Special Vehicle Order and Parts Specifications,” but the function has always remained the same.) This was the piece of paper that began the process of building a car or group of cars; once the form received the necessary bureaucratic approvals, each vehicle ordered was scheduled to be built, and at this point in the production cycle, the still-unborn vehicles received their identity, their vehicle identification number, more commonly known as the VIN.
If the car ordered contained a specific set of customer (or dealer) requirements or options, and there was no other vehicle of a similar mechanical configuration being ordered within that same District, that car was built under its own unique DSO. If there were multiple cars with identical configurations—such as many Mustangs with the same mechanical configuration but different colors, which were all destined for Shelby American—then that DSO contained multiple cars. Note that while all cars within a DSO must have identical mechanical configurations, there could be cars of several colors within that DSO. Because of their physical location, Shelby American fell within the confines of the Los Angeles District (District 71) and although they were a company unto themselves, they were considered by Ford to be no different from any other Ford dealer within that District, and Shelby American received its own dealer number, 999.
History shows that in 1966, fewer than 2,400 Ford Mustangs were delivered to Shelby American and turned into GT350s. Given Ford’s enormous production capacity and the fact that all the Shelby Mustangs were fastbacks with black interiors that were built in either of just two configurations: vehicles with manual transmissions, and vehicles with automatic transmissions. Each required its own DSO. A seemingly logical question to ask is: Why weren’t 2,400 Mustangs just run down the line in one shot and shipped to Shelby American? This “lump sum” delivery schedule was never a consideration for myriad reasons.
Every annual production run of Shelby Mustangs was fulfilled by a number of separate DSOs, each constituting a portion of Shelby’s annual total. While it may seem cumbersome to fulfill a 2,400-car order via two dozen 100-car deliveries (which are approximately the actual characteristics of the 1966 run), supplying the cars in multiple DSOs had certain benefits to either Ford or Shelby American or both corporations.
One reason for receiving the cars in smaller batches rather than one huge lump of 2,400 cars was a simple matter of real estate: where would Shelby American have put them all? Even in 1966, Shelby would have had difficulty storing 2,400 cars at the huge 12½-acre Los Angeles International Airport facility, and you can only imagine the challenges of storing even a few dozen 1965 cars at the company’s previous Venice location, where only four or five cars could be worked on indoors at a time, as was done to build the first few dozen GT350s. There, aside from scant on-street parking, the only other parking available was a small vacant lot across the street from the shops, so receiving the full 1965 allotment of more than 500 cars would have been a storage nightmare. And even though it never rains in Southern California (or so they say), large lots of cars sitting in the hot summer sun would also have been subject to corrosion issues while they were waiting to be rebuilt into Shelbys. Corrosion issues actually occurred with the tires on some 1965 cars after sitting outside at Los Angeles International Airport for just three weeks.
Cost was another substantial reason for delivering the Mustangs in batches. Had Shelby American received its entire annual allotment at once, the company would have suffered a catastrophic financial crisis: it would have had to pay for all those cars at once, and Shelby had nowhere near enough cash lying around to buy 2,400 Mustangs at one shot. Shelby American relied on cash from sales of previous vehicles to finance the purchase of successive batches of vehicles, so it would have been fiscally impossible for Shelby to finance the entire run of cars at one time, before any revenue had been generated.
While there were clearly benefits for Shelby in receiving its Mustangs according to a flexible delivery plan, this practice also benefitted Ford. And while it may be disingenuous to say that it was the primary reason for so doing, it was certainly a reason not without considerable importance—fulfilling Shelby’s entire 2,400-car supply with just a few days of production from San Jose would have caused major Mustang shortages across the country. The Mustang was the fastest-selling car in Ford’s recent history—if not ever—and dealers all across the country were clamoring for ponies to sell, and Ford was only too happy to help out. But during any given time period, Mustangs were being built for and shipped to Districts all across the country, and to delay these builds to dedicate a full week’s production run for Shelby would have caused even more Mustang shortages than there already were—and this was with all the Mustang plants running at full tilt. Ford simply wasn’t willing to let its dealer network suffer by delaying cars in order for Shelby American’s full production build to be satisfied, so Shelby received its allotment in smaller doses. Those smaller doses were built and shipped without the overall nationwide Mustang production even noticing.
Cars built in multiple DSOs also allowed for the accommodation of production issues at Shelby, in that as requirements or other circumstances changed, each successive DSO could be tailored to accommodate for these eventualities. One example concerned the plan to find a lower-cost supplier of hoods for the 1966 cars. The original plan, reflected in the first few 1966 DSOs, had it that the hoods’ supplier furnished the hoods to San Jose, which agreed to paint and install the bonnets, since they were dimensionally identical to the existing Mustang hoods, from which they were actually made. But when those first Shelby hoods arrived at San Jose, workers there found that improper paint prep by the manufacturer did not allow Ford’s paint to adhere well. Ford was unwilling and unable, given its production priorities, to try to correct the problem with the hoods, so the next few DSOs were altered to reflect that the Mustangs would be shipped to Shelby sans hoods. Multiple DSOs allowed easy accommodation of such unexpected situations. Shipping hoods back and forth from the vendor to Shelby and Ford was beginning to incur damages to the sometimes improperly packaged hoods; so later, yet another change prescribed the hoods to be installed by Ford, but not painted.
Another benefit to utilizing multiple DSOs was that the scheme allowed changes to be made to later DSOs based on either efficiencies in production, or subsequent decisions concerning the cars’ configurations, based on sales information or cost. The flexibility of the batched delivery of Mustangs to Shelby American also allowed perhaps the biggest change of the entire 1966 model year: The introduction of “other-thanwhite” colors to the GT350 line to be made in just a few short months, and well after 1966 production was underway. Had the entire 1966 delivery been scheduled prior to the commencement of production, it would not have been possible to incorporate color changes until the following model year.
It’s interesting to note that the DSO sizes were actually a finely-choreographed balancing act of not too large, but not too small either.
Given the importance of not disrupting Ford’s Mustang outflow to its dealer network, you might wonder whether it might have benefitted the Blue Oval to simply intersperse a single or very small handful of Shelby cars in with its normal Mustang production.
On the surface, this might appear to have the least impact on Mustang output to dealers in different districts, but it would actually have been more disruptive than running a hundred or so Shelby cars at once because because of the substantial difference in configuration between the cars for Shelby and those for any other dealer. Because of their significant omissions and additions Shelby cars were a very different breed of horse than the norm, and it took some carefully calculated planning and accumulation and staging of the right parts on the line for the job. San Jose was very cooperative toward and willing to help out Shelby American, but its main focus was on producing Mustangs for the masses. Mustang production could adapt to a disruption of 50 or 100 Shelby cars at a time, so this quantity seemed to be optimal for both Ford and Shelby American. In later years, this number rose to as large as 300 or so cars in a single Shelby DSO.
Perhaps the best explanation for not scheduling and delivering Shelby’s total 1966 built in one massive dose was the timing. While it ended up that there were 2,400 cars built, it wasn’t known at the very beginning what that final total would ultimately be. It wasn’t until the production of cars destined for Shelby American was well underway that it was learned that there was an additional 1,000 needed to satisfy the Hertz production. The benefit to the flexibility of multiple DSOs was that, as in this case of a rather significant production quantity increase, adjustments to the steady inflow of cars could be accommodated with minimal disruption to Ford’s production system.
So, aside from some story-telling bubble-bursting, what does all of this mean? Perhaps because of his Texas background, there has always been something sort of “wild west” to Carroll Shelby and the building of his Cobras and later, the Mustangs. With the romantic notions cast aside and replaced by documented facts, it becomes apparent—and not surprising—that what was formerly thought to be almost a totally “shoot from the hip” process was actually orderly, systematic, and well-thought-out business and engineering practices performed by a cadre of extremely talented and capable individuals. The somewhat wild tales of virtual carjackings of new Mustangs from the Ford plant may have made for good storytelling, but in actuality it discredited the technical capabilities of an entire group of very talented people at both companies. Telling the true tale doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of Carroll Shelby, Shelby American, or its people, it just alters—and in fact, corrects—the perceived path in getting there.
Written by Greg Kolasa and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks