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GT350 Déjà vu in the High Desert

Published on Wed, Mar 13, 2019

By: Dave Wolin

Dave Wolin spends a day taming wild horses at Willow Springs Raceway. Not just any horse, by the way, these are a continuation of a classic, built by the “Original Venice Crew”.

Back in 1965, an acquaintance of mine bought a new Shelby GT350 Mustang … one of the 500 (give or take) produced that year. The original GT350’s (not to be confused with the new Ford GT350) were K code (that meant the 271 hp “hi po” V8), 4-speed fastbacks, built by Ford at their San Jose plant and then shipped to Shelby for modifications.

The author, the desert, and the GT350 … what could be more fun?

They were all “Wimbledon White”, modified with a different (larger) intake manifold, a bigger carburettor, racing style tube headers, and some mild (but happily quite noticeable) suspension upgrades.

Thirty-six of those stallions were so-called “R” models, built strictly for competition with roll cages and a multitude of other non-street modifications. I got to race my buddy’s pony (unfortunately not an R Model) a couple of times, and bested by some iconic names in racing like Mark Donohue and Bob Johnson, whose race version “R” models “somehow” had just a bit more (of everything) than mine. I’ll hereby stipulate to the fact that there may have been just a bit more driving talent involved as well!

Here’s about 200-300 years of Shelby people … can you name them?

So … we fast forward to 2018, some Shelby veterans from the old days, Jim Marietta and Ted Sutton, calling themselves the “Old Venice Crew” after the original Shelby workshops in Venice, got together and decided to build some continuation* GT350s. There’s no record of how and where this meeting took place, and if any adult beverages were involved in the enclave. The good news is that these gents (and a few more like-thinking individuals) got together and our world is all the better for it, if you know what I mean.

Starting with a 1965 Mustang Fastback, these cars are reformatted to the exact GT350 specs of old and the conception (and the work) is licensed by both Ford and Shelby.

I recently had the opportunity to drive one, along with factory test driver Rick Titus at a test session to break in a car going to a customer in Norway. The OVC guys were kind enough to bring along a new factory test machine, this one outfitted with independent rear suspension an option that had been planned by Shelby way back in ‘65 but that never got past testing. We tested these cars a Willow Springs Raceway in the high desert near Palmdale and Edwards Air Force Base.

For readers who have never been to Willow Springs, the big track is two and a half miles long and claimed by the management to be the fastest road course in the country. Whether it’s THE fastest or not, there are a few places where you’re under 100 mph negotiating some hold-your-breath high-speed corners with minus-zero room for error. Built in the high desert, any unplanned off-track excursion is not a fun ride and usually results in some bent underpinnings.

On tracks that have been around as long as this one, certain corners are almost assured of a nickname.

Looks easy on paper, not always so in person.

Turn 9 at Willow is one of those !@#!%##^$!!!.  It beckons the fast and fearless to get in there just a half-click faster than planned and then often sees to it that one’s enterprise was more of a “good idea at the time” than a masterstroke of driving prowess. The old-timers call it “The Antelope Valley Cutoff” most call it overcooking T9 and plowing tumbleweeds for what often seems like a very long time.

Turn 1 is flat and, at the outrun of long, long turn 2 turn 3 starts climbing the side of a hill. The climb ends at the top of 4 and the turn 5 to 8 downhill chase is the fastest part of the day. Once through the very long turn 8,  9 beckons, halfway through you start to think that you were way too conservative, could have gone faster, and then the turns winks and says: “Ha! Gotcha Sucker!”. Ask anyone who’s raced there in the past 60+ years, they’ll likely half-smile and nod knowingly.

And, now … back to our test drive: Since one car was being readied for delivery to a customer, I was fairly certain my crashing it (even in the name of pushing the limits for dear old LACar) would not produce any conceivable shot at an invite back.

Here’s what they were looking at above … no fancy stuff/all grunt & grit the way a real Shelby came new and now.

Which means the one that I drove this one at what racing drivers call 8/10ths or at about 80% of its ultimate performance peak. I can report that the car felt like a brand new 1965 GT350, with precise turn-in, and genuine four-wheel drifts while steering with the throttle. That sort of exhilarating performance was, in great part due to the period correct Goodyear Blue Streak cross-ply racing tires that these machines come fitted with from the OVC people.

Not bragging, but just for the record, I saw close to 130 down the long straights, braking early and enjoying the drive at “somewhat” (not very much mind you) less than race speeds.

What’s round, black, and VERY grippy? … GOOD guess!

The other Mustang, with radial tires and independent rear suspension, was an even better animal, faster and more precise in the corners with better handling characteristics, not having that original cross-ply tire feel. That being said, if asked, I’d sure opt for radials and the IRS every time.

These days, an authentic GT 350 in good condition brings $500k plus at auction so the OVC authentic “continuation”*, looks like a bargain (!) at (gulp!) $250,000 or so.

You can make an appointment to see one these masterpieces in person at the Shelby facility in Gardena, California just off the 405 right across from where the Goodyear Blimp takes off and lands.

STORY: Dave Wolin

PHOTOS: Randy Richardson

More information –

*“Continuation” is a funny word that, like the word “provenance”, is given great notice and authority in the collector and special interest automobile world.  Here it is meant to mean that the production line for these cars stopped one day and was restarted some 40 or so years later.  That’s to say the builder certifies everything is the same, the cars, the components, the construction methods, the specs, the performance, the family tree, everything  … as the original … the workers might just as well have taken a (very, very) long lunch break.   -Ed.

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