"This is what we call 'Just a good, old G.T. 350.'" That's how Jim Wicks introduced us to John Atzbach's '66 Shelby G.T. 350, a 68,000-mile survivor that looks like a blast back to the early 1970s when vintage Shelbys were little more than used cars. For those of us who experienced that era, the low-mileage cars with dinged up, faded paint and period-correct aftermarket speed equipment churns up nostalgia even more than concours perfect examples. Atzbach's Guardsman Blue G.T. 350 exudes 1970s nostalgia, bringing back memories of lusting after these cars on used car lots back in the days when the $2,500 on the windshield was more than we could afford.
The G.T. 350 is the latest of a series of survivor Mustang musclecars that Wicks has arranged for us to drive during his Mid America Ford and Shelby Nationals, an event that he started as a picnic in 1977. We've driven a 21,000-mile '70 Boss 429 and 51,000-mile '65 GT350, both owned by Wicks, followed last year by Atzbach's 10,400-mile '68 Shelby G.T. 500KR. Younger than most vintage Shelby collectors, Atzbach says he's always loved early Shelbys and is fortunate that his career success allows him to maintain a collection. He keeps some at his home near Seattle, while Wicks stores and maintains others, including the survivor '66 GT350, in Oklahoma.
According to the Shelby American Automobile Club's SAAC Registry for '65-'67 Shelbys, 6S1769 was ordered on April 18, 1966, and shipped to El Paso Auto Center in Texas with an invoice of $3,755, which included Le Mans stripes and freight. Horn-Williams Motor Company in Dallas sold the G.T. 350 to its first owner, Del Lanier. It went through four subsequent owners before being acquired by Atzbach several years ago. For some reason, none of the previous owners added a lot of miles to the odometer. When we arrived at the Tulsa Southern Hills Marriott, the faded blue G.T. 350 was parked in front of the lobby among the concours show cars and newer Shelby Mustangs. Wicks handed over the keys with no further instruction other than, "Just give it about a half-throttle tap and it'll fire right up."
My first opportunity to drive the Shelby comes during Mid America's evening cruise from the hotel to the Brady Arts District in downtown Tulsa. First, I open the fiberglass hood to see what's underneath. The 289 Hi-Po is clean – Wicks says he thinks it was rebuilt years ago - yet there's still plenty of patina, which is enhanced by the yellow Accel spark plug wires and red replacement heater hoses. The Shelby mods are all there – finned aluminum "Cobra – Power by Ford" valve covers, Holley carb on an aluminum intake, Try-Y headers (a bit rusty, as expected), export brace, Monte Carlo bar, and orange Koni shocks peeking out of the shock mounts. Shelby rated the Cobra version at 306 horsepower, 35 more than Ford's 271hp rating for the Hi-Po.
After sliding into the black vinyl bucket seat, I survey the surroundings. Yes, the interior is showing its age, as expected from a 46 year-old Mustang. The door panels are wrinkled, the carpet is faded to a dark reddish tint, and there's a crack in the dash pad, but that's the way they were in the 1970s. Other than the Shelby items--wood steering wheel, dash-mounted tachometer, and competition seat belts--it's your basic '66 Mustang interior.
The seat belt latches with authority, but adjustment is tough due to the aged and stiff belt material. I finally tug hard enough to feel secure. Following Wicks' earlier starting instructions, I lightly tap the gas pedal and twist the key. The 289 Hi-Po fires instantly, just as Wicks promised, and settles in at a 900 rpm idle, as indicated by the original yet still working tach. The exhaust is louder than expected; someone from the car's distant past installed glass packs, another common 1970s modification.
Old pal Mark Storm climbs into the passenger seat for the cruise. Ever observant, he notices that someone has cut holes into the door sheetmetal and door panels for round speakers. We look at each other and agree--we can't believe we used to do that. However, turns out the radio doesn't work. Again we agree - who would want a radio, especially AM only, in a car like this anyway? And besides, you wouldn't be able to hear the music over the glass packs. The clutch feels stock and not overly stiff unless you compare it to today's clutches. Easing out on the pedal, the clutch engages smoothly with no chatter. The factory 4-speed shifter is tight, but the throw feels uncomfortably long after driving modern Mustangs.
The cruise to downtown is uneventful, mainly because we're stuck in a parade of several hundred Mustangs and Fords, leaving little room to test the G.T. 350's power. I notice that the Shelby's rear quarter windows, which replaced the Mustang fastback's vents for the '66 model year, are quite helpful with rear vision, especially when pulling into traffic from an angle. If you read my previous reports on survivor Mustangs, you may recall my experiences with overheating. No problems with this G.T. 350, even on a warm Oklahoma evening during long periods of idling in a cruise line. To my relief, the temp needle stays left of center.
Later in the evening, after the cruise-in, the drive back to the hotel provides the first chance to truly experience the Shelby. There's nothing like driving on old Mustang musclecar on city streets at night; must be something about the lighting, from the street lights reflecting on the hood to the soft green lighting from the instrument panel. With side windows down, the exhaust echoes off the buildings and you feel on top of the world. The chattering of the G.T. 350's solid lifters adds to the ambience.
When I arrived in Tulsa, the...
When I arrived in Tulsa, the "good, old" G.T. 350 was waiting on me in front the Tulsa Southern Hills Marriott.
With my cruise partner, Mark...
With my cruise partner, Mark Storm (left), after our drive to downtown Tulsa for Mid America's annual cruise-in at the Brady Arts District.
For the trip back to the hotel, Mark and I take the quickest route to the I-244 expressway on the west side of town. This will give me a chance to dip into the Holley's secondaries for a run through the gears onto the entrance ramp. The old Shelby still has plenty of get up and go, revving to 6,000 rpm between shifts and pulling harder as the revs climb. At speed, the glass packs are loud, and I can't recall ever driving a car that sounds so much like Steve McQueen's '68 Mustang fastback in the movie Bullitt. If I owned this car, I would be tempted to replace the glass packs with stock mufflers, but I don't know that I could.
With 3.89 rear axle gears, the Shelby feels fast all the time. There's plenty of torque down low and lots of rpm at speed, about 3,400 rpm at 60 mph and 4,000 at 70 (compare that to the '13 Shelby GT500 that loafs along at 1,600 rpm at 80 mph!). Just touch the throttle and the car rockets forward. Like most older Mustangs, the steering wanders at highway speeds, requiring small but frequent steering adjustment. It turns nicely at speed and handles well around corners, but the lack of power steering makes slow-speed turning, like parallel parking, which I have to do when I return to the hotel, equal to about 10 push-ups.
Later in the weekend, I get another chance to take the G.T. 350 out for a more leisurely drive. Looking out past the tach and over the Le Mans-striped hood, your mind drifts and you can easily imagine that you're on your way to a race track in the 1960s. I find myself getting really comfortable with the car – it runs good, drives good, starts every time, never overheats, and doesn't make strange noises. Who cares that the radio doesn't work? Like Wicks said in the beginning, it's truly a "good, old G.T. 350."