The original Shelby GT350s from 1965 were Ford Mustangs tuned by then-newcomer Carroll Shelby from everyday pony cars into track-ready rides, ones that proved their capabilities by beating Corvettes and Ferraris on circuits across America. Today, after a 43-year hiatus, Ford resurrected the name with the 2016 Shelby GT350 Mustang — and by its reckoning, the mission hasn’t changed much.
Based on the new Mustang chassis, Ford says the GT350 will boast not just ample power — more than 500 hp — but better handling than any Mustang the company has produced in the past 50 years, with technology far beyond what Shelby could have envisioned in 1965.
The biggest news lies in the engine bay, where the GT350 brings the term “flat-plane crankshaft” into the limelight for the first time in decades. If you imagine a see-through version of a typical V-8 engine, the pistons move in a stair-step fashion — alternating power strokes in a way that maximizes the engine’s smoothness. It’s the reason a Corvette, Mustang or Challenger sounds the way it does; the traditional V-8 burble comes from exhaust pulses created by so-called cross-plane crankshafts.
Cross-plane crankshafts have been the standard for V-8s since the 1920s. If that see-through V-8 had a flat-plane crankshaft, a pair of pistons would always raise and lower in concert, like two four-cylinder engine banks bolted together. It’s called a flat plane because the connecting rods of the pistons lie 180 degrees from each other, rather than being offset 90 degrees as in a cross-plane.
The first V-8s were built with flat-plane cranks, but fell out of favor because the firing order creates harsh vibrations that have to be dulled with special weights or more expensive engine parts. Yet a flat-plane V-8 can rev higher and produce more power pound-for-pound, which is why it’s usually chosen for racing machines and modern supercars; every Ferrari V-8 is a flat-plane design.
Ford says the new 5.2-liter V-8 unveiled in the GT350 will be the most powerful naturally aspirated production engine it's ever built, with an unspecified power of more than 500 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque, all of which routes through a six-speed manual and limited-slip differential.
And it’s not just the engine. For the first time, a Mustang will leave the factory with magnetic shocks, which allow for millisecond-level adjustments. The bodywork from the windshield forward is unique to the GT350, as are the 15.5-inch brake rotors with six-piston Brembos on the lightweight 19-inch front wheels. Inside, the GT350 has five driver modes for street-to-track work, and Ford even ripped out brightwork trim to lower glare.
On paper, the Shelby GT350 — the first time Ford has used that name since 1970 — looks less like a fire-breather in the vein of the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat and 662-hp Shelby GT500, and more like a direct challenge to the Chevy Camaro ZL1 and Z28; hence the spy shots of track testing at the Nürburgring and the shyness about final power specs. Carroll Shelby often told a (likely) tall tale about naming the first Shelby GT350 in 1965; it was, he said, the number of steps between buildings at his shop. We won’t have to wait long to find out how many steps separate the new GT350 from the pack on the track.