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 winning Sports 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 accoutrements. “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.