By: Automotive Journalist Stuart Schwartzapfel from ManOnTheMove.
I sat staring at Carroll Shelby’s signature on the passenger-side dashboard of my GT500CR tester.
It was just days before the legendary Texan left us for that big racetrack in the sky. Shelby rocked automotive culture more times than most folks move apartments in his 89 years on earth — from winningSports Illustrated‘s “Driver of the Year” award in 1956 and 1957 to building the Ford-powered AC roadster that defeated the then six-time champion Ferrari team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans two years straight.
And there I was, getting ready to drive a replica of his souped-up 1967 Mustang many have come to affectionately know as “Eleanor.” Reflecting on my experience now, a week after his passing, I can’t help but feel as if I were fated to drive the car.
Shelby raced, designed and collaborated on countless track and street machines during his illustrious campaign, but among his more widely known works are the snarling GT350 and GT500 Mustang mash-ups manufactured between 1965 and 1970.
Eleanor was one of these beasts. But of course, I wasn’t driving the real thing. My tester was a “restomod,” a version of the original metal that’s been restored accurately, but also upgraded with modern components.
According to Jason Engel, founder of Classic Recreations, the Oklahoma-based company officially licensed to build the Shelby GT500CR, a restomod is often better than the real thing. Technology and auto design have advanced considerably since the muscle cars’ heyday of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and such a machine shows its age today.
“The steering, suspension, skinny tires, heavy motor and dated cooling system mean it’s great for car shows or a quick cruise around the neighborhood, but not much fun to drive on a regular basis,” Engel says.
Restomod shops keep the vintage look, but update the suspension, the steering and the brakes, and also add things like fuel injection and A/C. The finished product has all the charm and appeal of a vintage ride, but with the reliability and driving experience of a modern vehicle. There’s certainly no denying that the restomod GT500CR possesses the soul of original, but I still wouldn’t recommend one of these babies for daily grinds to work in rush-hour traffic.
“Restomod buyers want something representative of history that actually works,” says Tom DuPont, founder of DuPont Registry, a marketplace for fancy, expensive cars, boats and other luxury lifestyle accouterments. “You want to satisfy that nostalgic urge with a current version of the real thing. Think of it as a practical car you don’t mind leaving out in the rain at the country club.”
Classic Recreations is licensed by Shelby American to build ’66 and ’67 Shelby continuation vehicles. Each one is fitted with an official Shelby serial number that’s included in in the Shelby Registry. CR has been building these cars for only a few years — it picked up the business after the previous licensee, Texas-based Unique Performance, had its door busted in by the police during a fraud investigation for VIN irregularities in 2007.
CR starts with a real ’67 steel Mustang body (not a GT500 body), stripping it down to its skivvies and stuffing it with all manner of modern upgrades: coil-over-shock suspension in the front and rear, cross-drilled and zinc-washed brakes, a Mass Flo fuel-injected 7-liter engine with 545 hp and 5-speed Tremec transmission. Any sheet metal that’s been damaged or allowed to rust over the last 45 years is replaced, and the overall structure is reinforced to handle the extra power. (The engines in ’67 Mustangs varied dramatically, running either 6 or 8 cylinders and starting as low as 115hp.) Shelby-licensed body panels — listed in the brochure as “authentic Carroll Shelby Exterior Fiberglass enhancements” — and signature accessories and gauges complete the look. And, boy, does it look real.
In all, a dozen skilled craftsmen spend some 2,500 hours — about four months — building each one.
So what’s it cost? An original, numbers-matching ’67 Shelby GT500 trades hands at auction or private sale for anywhere between $150,000 and $180,000 depending on condition and provenance. Originals are worth more, but restored models also sell at that price point — even though they’ll have likely undergone a recent “rotisserie restoration,” they will only continue to become more collectible as the years go by.
Now consider that Classic Recreations’ GT500CR starts at $150,000, and ends up closer to $200,000 when you’re done with various performance and personalization options. That’s a lot of cheese for a seemingly vintage ride that will likely never appreciate in value.
“Like most modern cars, you can expect it to be worth less once you drive it off the lot”, says DuPont, who himself drove a restomod ’69 Camaro co-built by Chip Foose for five years. “It had an LS2 crate engine and Hurst 4-speed shift with Foose wheels, navigation system and an awesome stereo. I enjoyed the hell out of it and managed to turn a small profit off it, but people buying a restomod are not looking to turn a profit. They’re looking to drive it and enjoy it.”
Alongside big-name builders like Chip Foose and Icon, who charge upward of $250,000 for some of their hot-rod and off-road restomods, the CR’s seemingly hefty price tag becomes slightly less offensive. Not to mention that if you tried to source parts and have a skilled mechanic build one of these for you, you’d probably be looking at about $100 per hour anyway. Go figure.
The CR’s spec sheet is a pretty good read. A 545-hp 427 with a Mass Flo digital fuel injection, built in-house at Classic Recreations using top-shelf parts, comes standard. For the Fast and the Furious set, a 150-hp NOS nitrous oxide system provides extra motivation. (But trust me, 545 hp is more than adequate for blowing your hair back all day long.) The upgraded coil-over-shock suspension and power rack-and-pinion steering do a pretty decent job of modernizing the car’s handling, while a Tremec five-speed manual transmission sends power to massive 275/40/17 Z-rated performance rear tires on 17×8 Shelby 427 wheels over front and rear cross-drilled Shelby/Baer brakes.
One of the obvious perks associated with writing about cars for a living is that I get to drive a lot of really cool cars — Ferraris, Lamborghinis and other exotics among them. But the GT500CR makes them all seem about as exciting as a Toyota Corolla.
I can partially base this observation on the enthusiastic responses the Shelby elicited from passersby during my time behind the wheel. Both around town and on the highway at speed, I have never seen such gratuitous thumbs-upping. People had an emotional, almost violent reaction to the car’s cool factor. It was fun to watch, and even more fun to be a part of.
Behind the wheel, the CR is impressive, not just in a straight line, but around corners too. The gearing sits on the short side, so first and second roll by in an instant. But there are endless piles of torque to play with in most every other gear, so it doesn’t really matter. Lighting up the rear end is ridiculously easy, and accelerating through all five gears from a standstill is about as much fun as one can have before the cops toss you in a cell and lose the key. My tester was a customer car, so I had to control my urges to push the vehicle’s limits and do smoky burnouts all day. But if I had to guess, I would say the sprint to 60 mph doesn’t take a whole lot longer than 5 seconds.
The GT500CR feels very much like the original in an utterly charming sort of way. It squeaks, rattles and floats like the muscle cars of that golden era. The rack-and-pinion steering, operated via an oversized wooden steering wheel, even has a bit of slack to it. The doors, complete with steel-framed windows, shut tight like bank vaults and make an addictive noise every time they close. With the exception of the extra-tall snake charm gearshift lever and a few racy extras like the five-point racing harnesses, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the interior of an original and the dressing inside the GT500CR. It’s quite stunning.
Charming vintage cues aside, I did find the level of vehicle polish lacking, especially in a classic car with a price tag just shy of a new Ferrari 458 Italia. For starters, the exterior panel fit on the hood and trunk was borderline sloppy, and the rubber moldings inside the door jambs were nearly falling off on the passenger side. And while the boosted power steering unit certainly made low-speed maneuverability a snap, it also made a ton of noise in the process — inappropriate for a car costing even a quarter as much as this one.
On the road, the GT500 CR hates going slow, thanks largely to its massive cam. Dip below 15 mph in first or second gear, and the car gives off a feeling of near stall-out before you instinctively hit the clutch to recover. The gas-rich fumes coming out of the side-mounted exhaust were also problematic. They literally poured into the cabin while driving around town and at slow speeds, and made me dizzy to the point that I was forced to close the windows. The guys at Classic Recreations tell me they’ve never heard of a problem like this in one of their cars, so I guess I’m the lucky exception to the rule. My recommendation to future buyers is to save your brain cells by opting for a rear-exit exhaust.
I can assure you I’m not still dizzy from the fumes when I say the GT500CR is still a supreme plaything. It looks like the genuine article sounds amazing and drives like a bat out of hell. Just don’t tell yourself it’s a collectible.
WIRED Vintage looks, modern reliability, and exotic-car-level performance. Sounds great. Interior is almost exactly matched to the original specs. Fully custom builds are Classic Restoration’s bread and butter.
TIRED Costs more than the real thing and lacks the resale value. Sub-par panel fit. Jerky around town and lacking in elegance at low speed. Dizzying exhaust fumes with the side-mounted pipes.