At a time when automakers are building greener sports cars with hybrid engines and electric motors, Ford Motor Co. decided to produce its most powerful -- and quickest -- Mustang in 55 years: The Shelby GT500.
Mustangs that bear the widely recognized Shelby Cobra insignia celebrate the storied history of Carroll Shelby, the visionary Texas car designer and race car driver who is portrayed on the big screen by Matt Damon in the new movie, “Ford v Ferrari.”
Shelby was tapped by Ford in the 1960s to develop high performance Mustangs. The first, a Shelby GT350, debuted in January 1965. Shelby’s partnership extended beyond Mustang; he was in charge of the winning Ford GT40 Mark II that defeated perennial winner and rival Ferrari at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France. “Ford v Ferrari” delves into how Shelby and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a maverick British racer, were brought together to accomplish Ford’s quixotic dream.
Today, Ford produces a limited number of Mustang Shelbys to "maintain that exclusivity and value for the customer," according to Jim Owens, Ford Performance marketing manager and a former employee of the racing legend.
The majority of owners are familiar with Shelby's legacy and are willing to spend a premium on the car, according to Owens.
"The Shelby component is big but the customers also want the best," he said. "These are people who want the biggest, baddest of everything.”
The newest Mustang and third-generation Shelby GT500 is a snarling track monster that makes 760 horsepower and 625 lb.-ft of torque from a 5.2-liter supercharged V8 engine and sprints from 0-60 mph in 3.3 seconds.
"When we were in development of this vehicle, it was about all-out performance on the track," Owens told ABC News at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October, where media test drives of the GT500 were taking place.
The GT500, which starts at $73,000 versus $27,000 for the standard Mustang, had to be the pinnacle of Mustangs, Owens said: record track times, quick acceleration, graceful cornering and nimble handling. How the GT500 looked was nearly as important as its performance numbers.
“The GT500 was a challenge,” Melvin Betancourt, design manager at Ford, acknowledged to ABC News. “There were a lot of variables.”
Clay models were tested in wind tunnels and subjected to “everything that could have created some sort of drag,” he said.
“The front end is 50% wider than the [Shelby] GT350 because we had to feed that much air for the six heat exchangers that are in front of this car,” he noted.
Betancourt’s team ultimately narrowed down the designs to three choices. The one that visually screamed nearly 800 horsepower was chosen.
“I love the stance of this car,” Betancourt said. “I call it muscular, agile and sexy as hell.”
The Mustang, the best-selling sports car in the U.S., has dominated the global sports car market for nearly five years. Shelbys, however, account for a small percentage of overall sales.
Ford, the No. 2 automaker in the U.S., has also leveraged the popularity of the Mustang in its all-new “Mustang inspired” Mach-E electric SUV that will be unveiled for the first time on Nov. 17.
“Ford purists may say it’s blasphemy to associate the Mustang name with an EV, but it’s smart to use a name that people are already familiar with,” according to Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell. “One of the biggest barriers to EV adoption is consumer education, and the Mustang name grabs attention and has a built-in buyer base who will be curious to learn more.”
Mustangs are nearly tied with Corvette as one of the most collected cars by enthusiasts in North America, according to Hagerty’s Jonathan Klinger.
“While some cars only speak to certain generations, the Mustang has cross-generational appeal,” he told ABC News.
The most desirable Shelbys are the 1965 GT350 and GT350R based on Hagerty Price Guide values. The No. 2 value for the standard 1965 Shelby GT350 is $435,000 but jumps to $898,000 for the rare GT350R, Klinger said. A collector scooped up the 1967 Shelby GT500 Super Snake earlier this year for $2.2 million, making it the most expensive Mustang ever to sell at auction.
Klinger expects the newer Shelbys, including the GT350 and GT500, will continue to attract collectors down the road.
“While some Shelby GT500s will see serious track time, most are very well cared for and not used as someone’s primary daily transportation,” he said. “This means there will be high survival rates with many examples being preserved in excellent condition for many years.”
The GT500 and “Ford v Ferrari” movie will likely drum up more excitement for the brawny pony car. Owens said Mustang owners now span six of seven continents, a major feat for Ford since Mustangs were only sold in North America and the Middle East until 2015.
Betancourt, who has been a fan ever since his father brought home a 1970 Mustang Boss 302, said he already has visions for the next GT500: “A monster beast.”
Will this “beast” succumb to the latest automotive trends?
“We have not started sketching an all-electric Mustang,” he said. “But we can’t say it will never happen.”