The History of the Shelby Mustang

The History of the Shelby Mustang

Last Updated October 9, 2023 | Meghan Drummond

Shelby Mustangs have been around almost as long as the Mustang itself. The first Shelby GT350 debuted in 1965 and solidified the Mustang’s legacy as a fast car, helping to build a racing pedigree for Ford’s new pony car.

Mustangs have traditionally been quick but powerful cars. Shelby took that and added to it, creating a version of the Mustang that could hold its own on the track and inspired generations of tuners.

Though there are many variations of the Shelby Mustang, the one thing they all have in common is a blend of performance features and race-inspired looks that turn heads. From 1965-today, Shelby and Mustang have interwoven their legacies so that it’s nearly impossible to talk about one without talking about the other.

Carroll Shelby: The Man Behind the Machine

Born in Leesburg, Texas, Carroll Shelby seemed to be a man obsessed with speed his whole life. He was a flight instructor in World War II before he moved on to piloting land-based vehicles. It wasn’t long before he started racing cars. For his first driving competition, a quarter-mile drag race, he drove a flathead Ford V8 powered hot rod. He proved talented enough to upgrade to racing Aston Martins in Europe, breaking land speed records at the Bonneville Flats and being named Sports Illustrated’s Sports Car Driver of the Year twice.

Carroll Shelby with Mustang

Shelby's crowning race achievement came in 1959 when he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

In 1960, heart problems forced Shelby to leave racing behind, despite his objections. That was only the start of Shelby’s contributions to motor history. In 1962, Shelby started having dreams centered around one word: Cobra. It’s a word that has since entered the dreams of many a Mustang-enthusiast, synonymous with outrageous performance.

Ford’s war with Ferrari eventually enlisted Carroll Shelby and his team into helping to develop their race program. When tasked with building a race car out of the Mustang, Shelby responded to Lee Iacocca with a famous Mustang quote by asking, “So, Lee, you want me to make a racehorse out of a mule?”

That mule-turned-racehorse was the very first Shelby Mustang: The 1965 Shelby GT350.

The Original: The 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350

1965 Shelby Mustang

Even the GT350’s appearance refused to blend in with the Mustang herd. The first Shelby Mustangs only came in one color: Wimbledon White, accentuated by Guardsman Blue rocker panel stripes. Only about 28% came with the famed Guardsman Blue Le Mans-style stripes that a contemporary reviewer fretted would be sure to make the Mustang a target for the police and have since become a target for automotive collectors.

The first GT350 featured a number of additional exterior details that distinguished it, including a one-inch thick Monte Carlo bar, a pronounced functional hood scoop, and modified steering. The handling was improved by the 15-inch wheels that were originally fitted with low-angle nylon cord Goodyear tires. Like most things on the car, the tires were somewhere between the worlds of Main Street and the racetrack: They were rated up to 130 mph.

The first Shelby was sometimes referred to as a Cobra (Shelby’s race cars were also called Cobras) and many of the internal badges featured Shelby’s original Cobra design.

There were two versions of the GT350, the other being the GT350R. The R stood for race specifications, and only 35 of these were manufactured. Those 35 were created to comply with SCCA rules and were ready to race.

Shelby American driver and engineer, Ken Miles, drove the GT350 to its first victory on Valentines Day, 1965, appropriate given how famed Miles’ affection for the GT350 was. The GT350 would hold onto the title of B-Class champion for three years.

The 1965 GT350 was equipped with a 289-CID K-Code engine, which churned out 306 horsepower, a full 35 hp more than it would have been able to produce prior to modifications. The GT350R bumped it up to 360 horsepower, an absurd number for the time, especially when coupled with the car’s light body.

Interestingly, the first three hundred 1965 Shelby Mustang GT350 produced came fitted with the battery in the trunk. This was actually an unpopular feature, as fumes would make their way up to the driver. At first, Shelby’s solution was to fit the battery with caps and hoses that forced the fumes out through holes in the bottom of the trunk. However, eventually, the battery was simply moved into the engine compartment.

The original Shelby sold for $4,547, which wasn’t cheap at the time. But it would have been a smart investment since only 513 ’65 Shelby Mustangs were sold. They can now sell for over ten times their original sticker price.

Ken Miles' GT350, chassis number 5R002, sold at the 2020 Mecum Spring Classic for $3.5 million dollars. This makes it the most expensive Mustang ever sold.

1966 Shelby GT350 and GT350H

The ’65 Shelby was uncompromisingly a racecar, but for the ’66 model, Shelby was willing to include a few consumer-friendly features. He added some backseats that folded down for extra trunk space, provided additional colors, and extended exhaust pipes to reduce cabin noise. Additionally, his team added an optional automatic transmission.

The ’66 dropped the word Mustang from its name completely, and some other exterior changes were made as well. You can tell the difference between a ’65 and a ’66 by looking for rear quarter windows and brake scoops, which were added to the ’66. Under the hood, the ’66 kept the same modified K-Code 289 engine, making it just as much of a street-legal racecar as its predecessor.

The 1966 Shelby had a unique variation: The GT350H. The H stood for Hertz, the car rental company, who commissioned all 1,001 of Shelby’s “Rent-a-Racers.”

The 1966 GT350Hs were identical to the GT350s except for their distinctive paint scheme: Black with gold stripes. The first 85 Hertz cars were manuals, but after a few of them ended up at SCCA events and came back with roll bars welded into them, Ford and Hertz rethought this position, and the remaining 800 were all automatic transmission vehicles.

After the GT350 H’s were “spent” in their rental lives, they were returned to Ford and sold to customers. Carroll Shelby himself kept an automatic transmission GT350H, which was recently sold.

1967 Shelby GT500

When reflecting on the ’67 GT500, Carroll Shelby said, “This is the first car I’m really proud of.” The 1967 GT500 came with a 427 CID engine. The 427 was a serious improvement over the GT350’s engine, though both cars were offered this year.

The ’67 GT350 model received a few race-inspired features that were new to this year as well. It was the first car to feature a bona fide roll bar across the top of the cabin. The hood got an even bigger — but still functional — air scoop than the previous year. Around back, the trunk lid combined with the tailpiece to form a spoiler lip. The lip may have been less functional than the air scoop, but it fit perfectly with the car’s borderline racecar image. The rear quarter windows of the ’66 were replaced with rear-facing air scoops that let air out of the cabin for the ‘67.

Gone in Sixty Seconds Mustang Shelby Eleanor

All in all, the Shelby Mustang really came into its own both stylistically and performance-wise in 1967. It was a 1967 Shelby GT500 that starred as the movie Mustang “Eleanor”, the ultimate dream car, in the 2000 film Gone in Sixty Seconds, starring Nicholas Cage.

1968-69 Shelby Cobra GT350, 500 and 500KR: Marking the End of an Era

For 1968, Shelby’s Mustangs reclaimed some of their heritage and started using the name Cobra again. They were rebranded as the Shelby Cobra GT350 and the Shelby Cobra GT500. The ‘68s are distinguished by their shorter hoods that have the air intakes further towards the front. They also have redesigned grilles, which gave this year’s models a distinctive “shark-like” look. They also both received an engine upgrade, with the GT350 bumping up to a 302 cubic inch engine and the GT500 moving from a standard 427 to a 427 Cobra Jet.

In terms of performance though, the new top-notch Shelby was the GT500 KR — the KR stands for King of the Road. With the unparalleled combination of power and handling the GT500KR brought to drivers, it wasn’t an undeserved title. With the KR, Shelby seemed to do the impossible and improved the V8 Cobra Jet by adding a ram air hood scoop and other performance tweaks that made the GT500KR capable of a total torque rating of 440 foot-pounds at 3400 RPM.

1968 Shelby Mustangs

Twenty-one of the KRs were produced with a white convertible top, and 1968 marked the first year the Shelby Mustang was available as a convertible.

The ’69 Shelby Mustangs ditched the Cobra label from their name, and just like in ’66, they were simply referred to as Shelby GT350s and Shelby GT500s. 1969 brought further changes to the body of the Shelby GT350 and Shelby GT500, including making the body four inches longer.

Carroll Shelby was less involved in the design of the ’69 model, and a combination of slower sales and creative differences caused the Shelby-Ford partnership to end in the summer of 1969. Leftover ‘69s were sold as ‘70s, and Shelby only produced his special brand of Mustangs per the request of a Belgian Shelby dealer for the next two years. These ’71 and ’72 models were known as “Shelby Europas” and were exclusive to Europe.

S197 Mustangs: The Shelby Mustang Returns

2007-2009 Shelby GT500

It wasn’t until 2007 that we saw the return of the GT500. Ford’s SVT team collaborated with Carroll Shelby in order to design a suitable return, and they delivered. The GT500s that were produced between 2007-2009 were incredible machines. They featured a Tremec 6060 transmission, which was a great decision since the modular 5.4L engine could crank out 500 horsepower and 480 lb-ft of torque.

The engine’s power partially came from the fact that it was supercharged as opposed to being naturally aspirated, but numerous body kit upgrades and suspension tunes were added as well.

Only 10,000 GT500s were produced each year.

2010-2014 Shelby GT500

The 2010 model featured a four-cam 32-valve V8. The engine added 40 more horsepower to the previous year's engines. This revamped GT500 Shelby Mustang went from 0-60 mph in 4.6 seconds.

The one problem with the 2007-2010 Shelbys was that the weight of their massive engines tended to make them a bit front-heavy, negatively affecting handling. The Shelby team addressed this in the 2011-2012 modes by creating a 5.4 liter V8 that had ten more horsepower than previous models but weighed a full 100 pounds less, a change that was possible once they went to an aluminum engine block instead of the heavy cast-iron block of the previous year.

Other improvements seemed specifically sculpted to address driver’s experience. Ford and Shelby added Electric Power Assist Steering (EPAS) and lowered the stance of the GT500. The result was a car even more powerful with much crisper steering.

Then, just when you thought they couldn’t possibly add more horsepower, Ford released the 2013-2014 Shelby Mustangs.

The 2013-2014 models featured a 5.8 L 32-valve V8 supercharged engine. This engine was capable of producing a mind-blowing 662 horsepower and 631 lb-ft. of torque. Capable of reaching illegal-everywhere-top-speeds of 200 miles per hour and a blazing 3.5-second 0-60 time, the GT500 lived up to its reputation. Though it doesn’t come cheap, its sub-$60,000 price tag was unheard of for its performance capabilities.

2011-2012 GT350

In 2011, Shelby unveiled a new Shelby GT350 designed to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the “mule-turned-racecar.” This version had a supercharged 5.0L V8 engine. Reviewers were quick to note that the GT350 was even faster than the 2011 GT500.

For the first year, the GT350 was only available in its customary white with blue stripes, but by 2012 it returned with a variety of colors, and, for the first time ever, a convertible GT350 was offered.

Special Edition Shelby Mustangs 2006-2014

2006-2007 Shelby GT-H

The next time a Shelby GT was put on the market was as a rental for Hertz in 2006. Like its 1966 forbearer, this Shelby GT-H had a distinctive black paint with gold stripes color scheme. It differed from the Mustang GT because it had an FR1 Power Pack from Ford Racing Performance Group which gave the GT-H an additional 25 horsepower and 10ft/lb of torque. It also came with a handling pack from Ford Racing to give it the racecar feel of the original.

Ford only built 500 of these GT-Hs, but demand was so high that they produced 6,000 retail versions of the GT-H in 2007.

2007-2008 Ford Shelby GT

A throwback to the way old-school Shelby Mustangs were made, these Shelby GTs were stock Ford Mustangs sent to Shelby American. There, they were equipped with performance exhaust, a Hurst shifter, hood scoop, sport bar, billit grille, Shelby ID, and Ford Racing and Suspension packages.

Oh. And stripes.

2008 and 2010 GT500 Barrett-Jackson Edition

Barrett-Jackson is a prestigious auction house located in Scottsdale, Arizona that has sold some of the rarest and most expensive Mustangs in the world. Barrett-Jackson has played a part in so much of Mustang history that in 2008 Ford decided to release a special edition Shelby that paid tribute to that history.

This regional only variant was only sold in Arizona. 100 were made and sold in 2008. Essentially it was a Shelby GT, but with the auction house’s signature red used for its Le Mans hood stripes.

The auction house teamed up with Roush to produce an additional 25 of these vehicles for 2010.

2008-2009 GT500KR

Much like the first iteration of the GT500KR, this Shelby started with a GT500 and then added a supercharger, intercooler, cold air intake and then gave the whole vehicle a specialized calibration. Limited to only 1,000 40th anniversary editions in 2008, an additional 571 2009 models brought the total number to 1,571, the same as the production run of 1968.

2007-2009 Shelby GT500 Super Snake

Dark blue Mustang with white accents and a pronounced hood scoop

These Shelbys were done through Shelby American and involved sending your GT500 to Shelby’s Las Vegas shop for an additional performance enhancement.

Inspired by the original one-and-only Super Snake, one of the rarest Mustangs ever produced, these Mustangs could go from 0-60 in 3.5 seconds.

2009-2010 Prudhomme Edition Super Snake

Don Prudhomme’s nickname is “the Snake” so, really this was going to happen eventually.

100 drag racing packages were added to the 2007-2010 GT500s to honor the racer. A not at all street-legal add-on, it included a supercharger, air intake, safety hardness, side exhaust, racing suspension, and drag tires. You could buy street tires if you wanted, but you would absolutely be pulled over.

2011-2014 GT500 Super Snake

Much like previous Super Snake packages, this was a post-title package that involved sending your new GT500 to Shelby and letting him add a laundry list of performance upgrades. Some of the biggest improvements were a supercharger kit that helped to push the engine into a whopping 660 horsepower. With an upgraded driveshaft and throttle body, it could be pushed into 750 horsepower. This package also included a short-throw shifter and more Shelby badging than you’ve ever seen.

In 2013, the first fifty GT500 Super Snakes were sold with limited edition colors: Black or white with a triple-gold stripe.

2012 GTS

The GTS was an idea that Ford tried out in 1995 where they wanted to introduce a line between the base and GT, something for young people who didn’t care as much about luxury features, but who wanted a car that catered to performance. Shelby brought this idea back, introducing the Shelby GTS. GTS conversions were available for V8 and V6 engined Mustangs between 2011 and 2014. The GTS conversions brought Baer brakes, a Borla exhaust, a Ford Racing Handling package, and a lot of Shelby lettering, upgraded upper grille, and stylish front fascia. The general consensus was that you could probably purchase most of the upgrades less expensively elsewhere, but there wasn't anywhere else where you could get the full "Shelby" experience for such a low price. Adding on the GTS package cost a mere $9,950. Affordable for a Shelby upgrade.

2012 50th Anniversary

One trait that Shelby seems to have caught from Ford is the desire to celebrate every anniversary, so you can hardly blame them for celebrating the big five-oh. 50 black and gold Super Snakes were manufactured. For the same anniversary, Shelby also produced a special anniversary Shelby GTS. 50 black and 50 white units were produced total.

S550 Shelby Mustangs

2016-Present: GT350 and GT350R

The return of the GT350 was maybe predictable. After all, it’s one of the most iconic cars of all time. But a GT350R? Available for sale?

It’s as ridiculous as it is brilliant. The GT350 and GT350R have brought in award after award since their rerelease, and they show no sign of stopping. Though there are significant differences between the two, the one thing they share is that they’ve established themselves as enthusiast cars.

Perhaps the thing that’s the most notable about this generation of GT350 is its engine, a Voodoo Coyote variant that uses a flat-plane crankshaft instead of the more traditional cross-plane for a sound that’s out of this world.

In 2019 the GT350 received additional performance enhancements that included an updated suspension and summer tires as well as a gurney flap.

2020 GT500

Three GT500s on a desert road

Though the 2020 GT500 hasn’t been released yet, early reviews indicate that this might be the most powerful production Mustang ever built with a reported 760 horsepower. The GT500 will be using a cross-plane crankshaft variant of the Voodoo engine that's been named the Predator.

Right now, Ford is capping its speed at 185 mph, but considering the reputation of Mustang tuners, we have no doubt that it’ll be spotted going significantly faster than that.

Special Edition Shelby Mustangs: 2015-Present

2015-Present Super Snake

Without a GT500 to build off of, many assumed that the Super Snake was toast for the start of the S550 generation. They were incorrect. The S550 Shelby Super Snakes are based off a Mustang GT which is then equipped with a Whipple style supercharger. It also includes a carbon-fiber Super Snake hood with a forced-air hood scoop. There’s more carbon fiber on the front and rear diffusers as well as the rear spoiler.

The most recent Super Snake boasts an 800 horsepower Supercharged Ford V8 engine and can go from 0-60 mph in 3.5 seconds.

2016 Shelby Terlingua

Only fifty of these Shelbys were made as a tribute to the Terlingua Racing Team.

2016 Shelby GT-H

Black Mustang with gold hood stripes

Instead of using a GT350 as the base, the Shelby GT-H started with a Mustang GT. 140 of these were rented out through Hertz, creating a modern Rent-a-Racer program, though admittedly with a little less “racer” than when they were built off of a GT350. The cat-back exhaust these came standard with helped lend it a racing sound though.

2019 Shelby GT

The Shelby GT is certainly more affordable than its Shelby siblings but comes with a fair number of performance features as well. Of particular note is the deep draw hood, a unique feature that looks incredible. Sure. You can buy 20” wheels and a Borla Cat-back exhaust. But the hood, upper grille, front fascia, and Le Mans striping makes this GT a Shelby.

One of the great parts about this Shelby is the way it blends affordability and performance. Yes, it’s still more expensive than the base Mustang, but it comes with a lot of style. Also, if you opt for the supercharger, it comes with a lot of power. With the supercharger, the GT package pushes the Mustang up to over 700 HP.

2019 Shelby GT-S

With the GT-S, Shelby calls back to its days as the Rent-a-Racers. Twenty of these sports cars will be manufactured, and then sent out to select SIXT rental centers where they’ll be available for rental. That’s right, you could drive a Shelby as your next rental.

Each of the twenty will come with an automatic transmission, a good call considering these are rentals and no one wants to drive a Shelby that’s got a burned-out clutch, but with the supercharger, these rentals will have over 600 horsepower. These come with a deep draw hood, similar to the ones you can find on the Shelby GT. Many of the other features are also similar to the Shelby GT, including the 20” wheels, the Borla cat-back, and Brembo front brake system.

Available in black with orange stripes and orange with black stripes, these are guaranteed to be a ton of fun.

Two Shelby Mustangs, one black with gold stripes, the other gold with black

Shelby and Mustang

Though Carroll Shelby isn’t alive today to see the latest incarnation of the first car he was ever “really proud of,” there’s no doubt he would be glad to see Ford’s dedication to delivering racetrack-level performance in a street-ready car.

One of the best parts about looking over how Shelby and Ford’s history intertwines is that it becomes increasingly clear that it’s the story of people who love speed finding a car they love the lines of and, in Shelby’s words, building “a vehicle that could blow the doors off of most anything on the planet.”

Carroll Shelby and his teams of engineers, racecar drivers, and wrenchers of every variety showed the importance of getting under the hood and making a good thing better, inspiring generations of modders to come and leaving us a lot of beautiful cars to admire.

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This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.