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Ford’s latest Shelby GT350 is a Mustang worthy of the name

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2016 Ford Shelby GT350R. Photos by author.

It was no coincidence that a 1965 Shelby G.T. 350 R sat center stage at Ford’s “Track Tour” introduction of the latest Mustang to carry that hallowed name. Jim Owens, marketing manager for the brand’s newly formed Ford Performance group, was clearly trying to deliver a not-so-subtle clue that, while the cars share a title, they also share more than a little DNA. In fact, the new GT350 and its slightly harder-core stablemate, the GT350R, were designed with the same thing in mind: To give buyers a track-ready Mustang whose capabilities will surprise far more prestigious (and expensive) automobiles.

1965 Shelby G.T. 350 R

1965 Shelby G.T. 350 R.

To understand the present, perhaps it necessary to visit the past. Ford’s initial Mustang was an undeniable hit with consumers, but fell short, in the eyes of Ford’s brass, of projecting its “Total Performance” image. To correct this, and to sell more cars, Ford executives asked Carroll Shelby for help in creating a track-ready Mustang that could be raced on the weekend but still driven to work from Monday through Friday. The end result was the G.T. 350 and its SCCA-legal equivalent, the G.T. 350 Competition, later called the G.T. 350 R.

The original G.T.350 featured a Shelby-tuned 289 V-8 that produced 306 horsepower in street trim, up from 271hp in stock form. The car also received a stiffer suspension, a Detroit Locker rear differential and a side exit exhaust, while it lost its rear seat in the name of SCCA compliance. The removal of the seat also made the fitment of over-riding rear traction bars easier, while shedding a few pounds of performance-robbing weight. For better balance, the battery was moved to the trunk, and G.T. 350 models received larger rear drum brakes and Kelsey-Hayes disc brakes up front.

1965 Shelby G.T. 350 R

For buyers seeking a do-it-all Mustang, the G.T. 350 proved capable on the track, if a bit punishing on the street. Changes made for 1966 in the name of cost savings also (slightly) improved the car’s civility, but in SCCA competition, the G.T. 350 R models proved unstoppable, capturing B Production championships in 1965, 1966 and 1967.

Ford and Shelby American have offered other Mustang GT350 models over the years, but none really managed to capture the true spirit of the original. For well-heeled buyers, Shelby American’s 2011 and later GT350 offered an ala carte menu of appearance, engine, and suspension upgrades, but those serious about building a Mustang for track days over collectability likely shopped elsewhere.

5.2 liter Voodoo V8

The heart of the matter: The GT350 and 350R’s 5.2-liter Voodoo V-8. Each carries a plaque signed by the worker who assembled it.

Enter the 2016 Ford Shelby GT350, based upon the sixth-generation Mustang introduced by Ford in 2015. Like the original, this version features enhanced output, courtesy of a 5.2-liter flat-plane crankshaft engine that Ford engineers dubbed the “Voodoo” V-8, partially for its ability to exceed output expectations during testing. On paper, the engine makes 526 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque, all without the help of forced induction. More remarkable, especially for a Mustang, is that peak horsepower comes at 7,500 RPM, on the way to a redline of 8,200 RPM. Peak torque comes at 4,750 RPM, but throughout the engine’s entire range, the Voodoo V-8 produces a wondrous noise unlike any Mustang that’s come before.

2016 Ford Shelby GT 350R

The underside of the GT350, explained.

The Voodoo V-8 (not available in crate form) is big news, but there’s much more to the new GT350 than that. From the A-pillar forward, the car shares no bodywork with other production Mustangs. Front fenders are wider, to accommodate the car’s 10.5-inch front wheels and 305-width tires, and the aluminum hood is lower, to provide better sight lines on track. Those fender vents are functional, too, and the GT350 even uses sculpted under body trays to enhance downforce and funnel air to transmission and differential coolers.

2016 Ford Shelby GT350

Ford is deservedly proud of the engineering behind the GT350.

The suspension is a bold step for Ford, which has now licensed the same magnetorheological damper technology from Delphi used by GM and even Ferrari. Aluminum is used on suspension components whenever possible to shed pounds, and even the massive 15.5-inch front brake rotors (and 15-inch rears) use aluminum center “hats” to shed pounds and further dissipate heat. The GT350R models take weight savings to the extreme, using carbon fiber wheels that cut a whopping 13 pounds per corner of unsprung weight.

2016 Ford Shelby GT 350R

Front brakes use 15.5″ rotors, grabbed by six-piston Brembo calipers.

To give an idea of how hardcore the GT350R model is, in standard trim it comes sans radio and air conditioning (though these can be added back in as options), and all GT350R models lose their rear seats. Other distinguishing features of the R models are red Cobra badges instead of silver, a deeper front air dam and a larger rear spoiler; in keeping with their track-centric nature, 350R models also come with summer-only, R-compound tires, which will wear quickly (but stick like glue) if driven on the street.

2016 Ford Shelby GT 350R

Track time in the 350R at Pocono.

My track time in the new Shelby GT350R was all-too brief, but it was enough to learn that the car is surprisingly communicative (even better than the live-axle Boss 302, previously my pick as favorite Mustang for its engaging handling), a joy to wind out to redline, and blessed with brakes that are, in a word, superb. For those seeking a Mustang that can be tracked regularly but still driven to work, the GT350 is the answer, assuming one has the $47,795 price of admission (and can find a dealer willing to sell at list price). For those who exist only for track days, the GT350R starts at $61,295, though finding one of these limited-production variants may prove tricky.

2016 Ford Shelby GT 350R

Order a 350R, and a back seat isn’t an option.

Bravo, Ford Performance, on a job well done with the GT350 and GT350R. Here’s to continued surprises from your enthusiast division.