The Mustang rides again

At 84, auto legend Carroll Shelby delivers a road-ripping muscle car for Ford. Fortune's Sue Callaway takes it for a spin.

By Sue Zesiger Callaway, Fortune

(Fortune Magazine) -- "Enjoy the ride," yelled Carroll Shelby, the racing and performance-car legend, as he popped a wheelie "Hi-ho, Silver" style in his scooter-wheelchair. At 84, despite a shopping list of health challenges, he shows few signs of slowing down. He has a multiyear deal with Ford to create vehicles, including the company's latest muscle car, the Shelby GT500 Mustang. It's like 1965 all over again.

I was at Shelby's Gardena, Calif., facility to drive this stallion, which has an attention-getting 500 horsepower, 480 foot-pounds of torque, and an easy-on-the-eyes pricetag of $41,000. But I was also there to figure out why Shelby's mystique is stronger than ever. This past January at the Barrett-Jackson auctions in Scottsdale, for instance, a '66 Cobra "Super Snake," originally built for Shelby, set a sales record for an American car: The hammer fell at $5 million.

Muscle Memory: The man with two '32 Fords and the GT500
Shelby GT500
From $40,930
5.4-liter V-8
0--60 MPH:
4.5 seconds
500 hp at 6,000 rpm
Top speed:
155 mph
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Fortune's Sue Callaway sits down with car legend Carroll Shelby and talks about his future, his past and his business sense.
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One reason for Shelby's luster: He is, to understate it, an American original. Anyone who was a teen in the '60s coveted his road-ripping beasts. They were, in fact, a drivable finger flicked in the face of increasing automotive sobriety. Those boomers now have the cash to buy their early dreams. Steve Davis, president of Barrett-Jackson and a Shelby expert, says, "Shelby is an entrepreneurial maverick, and his cars mirror that spirit - you know that the second you fire them up."

Shelby, a test and bomber pilot in World War II, had a brief but shining racing career: From Le Mans to Formula One, he established himself as a big talent. A congenital heart problem forced him to retire in 1960 at 37 (before that, he popped nitroglycerin tablets midrace). And so the guy with the well-known name and the fragile heart (he is one of the oldest surviving transplant patients) turned to stuffing big engines into little cars.

Although Shelby has worked with all three of the big American car companies, Ford (Charts, Fortune 500) is his most enduring partner. His first vehicle was the Shelby Cobra, which he began building in 1961 using aluminum bodies and chassis from Britain's AC Cars and a new Ford V-8. As those fiery cars racked up wins and fans, Ford let him run part of its GT40 program, which ultimately beat Ferrari at Le Mans and put America back on top (briefly) of international racing. At the same time, he helped Ford's president, Lee Iacocca, transform the then-new Mustang from a "secretary's car" into a macho muscle machine.

Since then, he's taken twists and turns (and U-turns), including a stint with Iacocca at Chrysler in the '80s, where he worked with Dodges. Says the grand master of his return to Ford: "Some people call it a renaissance; some call it the luck of an old man. Whatever it is, I'm enjoying it."

How is his latest concoction? Despite its plastic-laden interior, the GT500 is the most powerful pony ever produced and also the most aesthetically pleasing. While you're smoking the tires off (I stomped on the accelerator with some emotion and unleashed an impressive cloud), you are sitting (finally!) in a simple yet sophisticated atmosphere of performance. The gauges are good, the instrument panel is clean, and the performance is bystander-scaring. (The '08 model hits dealers in the fall; next spring a 540-horsepower version called the KR, for King of the Road, will be available.)

Would there be traits I'd refine? Sure, but this car's objective is to deliver power and image at a real-world price. Says Shelby: "It could be improved - a lot of people ask why it still has no independent rear suspension, for instance. But in America you can't command Mercedes prices for a Mustang."  Top of page