We all know the sad story of how most of the muscle cars from the golden era sometime in the 1970s or certainly by the 1980s either were long gone or faced the humiliation of crappy or lukewarm performance. The dealership lots by the mid-1970s were full of pseudo performance cars which had fancy decal packages and callouts all playing up their connection to the original run of muscle cars, but only had smog choked V8 engines under their hoods with meager performance. Everyone in car circles knows this sad story, this was like the Great Depression for the American performance car. However even in these darkest hours (the late-1970s) the W72 400 CID V8 powered Trans Ams, L82 350 CID V8 equipped Corvettes, and the 1978-1979 360 CID V8 powered Dodge Lil Red Express Trucks were still offering buyers performance that would have been acceptable during the golden era. On the flip side of the coin, there are those who have this flawed image in their heads that all cars packaged as muscle cars during the golden era (1964-1971) were raging performance cars on steroids. Even during this original "sky’s the limit for performance" era, there were some pseudo muscle cars that may have had the performance pedigree but lacked the muscle under the hood to live up to the emblems or stickers on the side of their exterior sheet metal. One of the worst offenders was the 1968 Ford Shelby GT 350.
Most will read this in disbelief. After-all Carroll Shelby was the driving force that pushed the Mustang into a genuine high-performance muscle car territory. Some of the most revered muscle cars in the 1960s were the Shelby GT 350 and GT 500 models. You didn’t drive one of these back in the 1960s unless you were ultra serious about performance. These cars weren’t for the faint of heart. The 1965-1967 Shelby GT 350 models had mandatory Ford’s hottest small block V8 – the K-code 289 CID V8. Ford rated the engine at 271 horsepower but Shelby didn’t think this was enough and performed a few mods which increased horsepower to 306 which was the official horsepower rating on all 1965-1967 Mustang GT 350s. During the later part of this run, Shelby spiced up the K-code 289 by offering an optional Paxton Supercharger which produced somewhere around 400 gross horsepower.
The GT 500 which was introduced for the 1967 model year was equipped with Ford’s Cobra Jet 428 CID V8 rated (or better stated rather underrated) at 360 horsepower. The GT 500 would carry over for 1968 and a new more powerful GT 500KR (GT 500 King of the Road) was added to the line-up. However for 1967-1968 (to the surprise of some owners) a side oiler 427 CID V8 and 390 CID V8 would be slipped into a few GT 500s at the factory instead of the Cobra Jet 428.
The GT 350 which was responsible earning the Mustang its performance reputation, for 1968 had been downgraded several performance notches. Since most of the attention in 1968 was focused on the GT 500 and GT 500KR, not many noticed the 56 horsepower (20% horsepower) drop with the GT 350. For 1968 the GT 350 would be standard with Ford’s new 302 CID V8. Unfortunately the 302 was only rated at 250 horsepower. Since the muscle car competition by 1968 was really heating up, at least 300 horsepower was needed to remain competitive. The modified K-code at 306 horsepower even by 1968 standards barely met those standards. So a 56 horsepower drop was a big tumble of the GT 350’s performance capabilities. The GT 350 with its mean stance and race car like looks, gave the impression to onlookers that it had 500 horsepower. Imagine how quickly that impression would deflate for those onlookers when at a traffic light drag race confrontation the pimple face teenage male behind the wheel of his mother’s station wagon (many station wagons from this era had large displacement V8s) blew the doors off of a 1968 GT 350. Doesn’t get any more humiliating than that. To Shelby’s credit it wasn’t his fault, he was stuck in a pickle. Ford had cancelled the K-code 289 when the 1967 model year ended. The 250 horsepower 302 was as good as it got for the Ford Windsor small-block V8 back in 1968. The K-code’s replacement in the form of the Boss 302 V8 didn’t arrive until the 1969 model year. The Boss 302 was way underrated at 290 horsepower (actual horsepower was near 400). The Boss 302 would have made the perfect motor for the GT 350, but it was released too late for the 1968 model year. Even though the GT 350 lasted through the 1970 model year (the 1970 models were retitled 1969 leftovers), the Boss 302 motor was never was available with the GT 350.
To get an idea of how underpowered the 1968 GT 350 was (remember horsepower back in 1968 was measured in "gross" figures, today it’s measured in "net" figures), in today’s net figures the GT 350 would produce about 190 horsepower. This would have only been respectable power output back in the late-1970s and early-1980s. The only thing the GT 350 had going for it was that it only weighed around 3,000 lbs while most muscle cars from this era weighed on the average a few hundred lbs. more.
The horses may have been down, but the visual wow factor under the hood would have onlookers thinking there was 500 horsepower under the hood. The flashy "Cobra" oval air cleaner and valve covers dressed up this engine so very well. You will have to search long and go far to find a muscle car engine that looked as good as this one.
This didn’t mean that the GT 350 wasn’t a fun car to drive, it happened to be one of the best handling muscle cars in the late-1960s. Shelby made sure of that. And unlike most muscle cars of this era which had a heavy big-block V8 under the hood hampering handling, the GT 350’s small-block 302 V8 was a few hundred pounds lighter – greatly enhancing handling. This was also the reason why the GT 350 could corner better in the turns than the GT 500.
Another interesting transition occurred by the 1968 model year for the GT 350, on the average it had become laden with luxury and convenience options – the car in essence had moved from a serious racer to a corporate executive toy in only a few model years. And many of the 1968 GT 350s were even equipped with automatic transmissions which further hampered performance.
Even though performance was way down for the GT 350 for 1968, there was one silver lining in the downgraded performance cloud. If a buyer wanted the GT 350 instead of the GT 500 because they wanted superior handling and better performance than the little 302 had to offer, Shelby did offer an optional Paxton supercharger just as in previous years. The Paxton took the anemic 302 and gave it an 85 horsepower infusion – 335 horsepower was the total. Torque also went way up giving the impression to the driver that there was a big block under the hood. Unfortunately very few buyers opted for the supercharger. The supercharger allowed the 302 to really came to life (performance-wise). It’s too bad Shelby didn’t make this setup standard for the GT 350, had he done so automotive history would have have rewarded this car generously with accolades.
The horsepower deficit hasn’t hurt the 1968 GT 350’s current resale value which continues to rise. According to NADA, the average retail price is around $64,700 and the high retail price for an absolute pristine example is $116,400 – placing this car in the very desirable category among those in the collector car market. This is due to its low production of only 1,657 units (1,253 fastbacks and 404 convertibles) and the "Shelby GT 350" name. The 1967 GT 350 by comparison had a slightly lower production of 1,175 units (all fastbacks) and more horsepower of course, and it has a NADA estimated average retail price of $114,600 and a high retail price of $135,500. The lower power 302 versus the K-code 289 is probably the culprit in the price variance between these two GT 350 model years. One thing most can agree on is that the 1968 GT 350 was one of the best looking muscle cars of the golden era.
Written contents in this article – © 2014 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved