“It’s more of a race car than a street car,” says Bobby Rahal when explaining his reasons for tracking down and restoring a 1965 Shelby GT 350. “The whole idea was to homologate it for racing and it was built with that in mind. Obviously, Shelby was successful at that.”
Racing and race cars are not foreign concepts to Rahal, who drove to Indy Car championships in 1986, 1987, and 1992. He also won the Indianapolis 500 as both a driver (1986) and team owner (2004). At 61, Rahal is now retired from racing and spends much of his time overseeing his Bobby Rahal Automotive Group chain of new-car dealerships in Pennsylvania. But he still appreciates vintage performance cars, especially first-year models that were built with racing in mind.
After a divorce separated Rahal from a previously owned ’65 GT 350, he set out to find another one in 2009, enlisting help from longtime friend and former racing associate Don Hoevel, who had recently retired from a crew chief career after 22 years with the Newman-Haas race team to start Don Hoevel Racing, a vintage racing and restoration shop near Chicago. In a conversation with Shelby expert Craig Conley in California, Hoevel learned that a restorable ’65 Shelby was for sale in South Carolina. The seller, Chad Odum, had acquired the car after it had sat beside the original owner’s garage in Riverside, California, for over 30 years.
“Bobby didn’t want to lose the opportunity to buy this all-original Shelby,” Hoevel says. “He called Odum and did the deal based on me looking at the car. And it was everything that Conley and Odum had said it was—too far gone to call it a barn find or survivor but it was all there, a nice solid car with a couple of rust issues here and there. The cool thing was that most of the hard-to-get parts were still on the car. It had never been taken apart; even the engine had never been out.”
Rahal was also intrigued by the fact that 5S558 was built just four cars from the end of ’65 Shelby production.
Hoevel started the restoration in 2011 with the knowledge that he was tackling the resurrection of a “cult car,” meaning his work would be compared to some of the finest ’65 GT 350 restorations in the world. Hoevel began his research by contacting several ’65 Shelby restoration experts. But when he started getting different answers to the same questions, he decided to put the research into his own hands.
“I made the decision that we were putting the car back together the way we took it apart,” Hoevel explains. “We put it on a rotisserie, rolled it upside-down, and hand-washed the floorpans and undercarriage before we started stripping it. We took pictures to document everything—all the paint runs, finishes, markings, and various shades in the transmission tunnel.”
By starting with such a complete and original car, Hoevel set out to restore the GT 350 with as many of its original factory parts as possible. When that wasn’t possible, he tracked down the correct date-coded parts, including a hard-to-find Hi-Po water pump. Unfortunately he was not able to save the original doors. “The owner had parked the car next to his garage and it sat there from 1978 until 2010 or so,” Hoevel says. “Every time his lawn sprinklers came on, the water ran down the windows and into the doors, so it rusted the bottoms out. I ended up finding a set of perfect doors in California.”
While tearing down the engine for a rebuild, Hoevel was amazed to find rod bearings dated September 1964. Three of the Koni shocks were dated November 1964 while the other was March 1965, so they were all rebuilt and reinstalled. Because much of the original front suspension was too pitted to restore and reuse, Hoevel searched for NOS pieces for stripping and refinishing in the correct coatings.
With body work and paint handled by nearby Performance Restoration, Rahal’s GT 350 was completed in time for the November 2012 Hilton Head Concours d’Elegance, where it won Best in Class. Since then, Hoevel has been maintaining the GT 350 at his shop and showing it at various events. Hoevel refuses to say that it’s the best ’65 Shelby restoration in the country, but he feels that it’s in the top ten.
For Rahal, the former racing champion enjoys owning the first year of the Shelby Mustang, plus he remembers watching a friend of his dad, Bill Stroh, race a ’65 GT 350 in the SCCA Midwest division in the 1960s. “The first year cars tend to be the purest,” Rahal explains. “They basically get civilized after that. As a teenager in the late 1960s, I watched the Ford GTs, Shelbys, and Cobras. It’s such a thrill for me today to own a piece of that time period.”