While Carroll Shelby’s name rightly belongs before GT350, you’d be hard pressed to find another person more instrumental in bringing the super Mustangs to life than Chuck Cantwell. As project engineer for the GT350 program, he was the driving force behind the design and production of the street and track-attacking R model. He was even a GT350R test driver for a while. “That became the fun part of my job,” he said. No kidding.
We caught up with Cantwell, 81, during this year’s Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, which honored the GT350’s 50th anniversary.
“The object of the GT350 program was to beat the Corvettes in SCCA racing,” Cantwell explained. “So we had to first get a car the SCCA would accept as a sports car.”
That would be the GT350R, which the SCCA eventually approved.
The GT350Rs started as special-order cars from Ford’s San Jose, California, factory, minus such items as side window glass and sound-deadening material. “We’d run them through our assembly line with the street cars,” Cantwell said. “They would get a partial build and then went to the race shop where we added racing equipment, like a race engine and instrumentation.” The R’s (some 34 production models were built in all) would go on to win the SCCA’s B Production title in 1965, 1966, and 1967. And now they are $1 million machines.
As for the production GT350s, “They had to be driven off the [San Jose] assembly line, so they came with parts we weren’t going to use, like the manifold, exhaust, and carburetor, which were removed,” Cantwell said. “The first 30 cars were built in Venice [Shelby’s California Cobra facility] on jack stands until we got the hangars equipped on Imperial Highway next to the airport [Los Angeles International].”
As for Shelby, “Carroll didn’t get involved with things too much. He kept track of what we were doing, but he didn’t meddle,” Cantwell recalled. “He was a good person to work for in that regard.”
In 1968, Cantwell could see the end coming. With Ford taking over production of the cars and Shelby rapidly losing interest, it was time to move on to a new challenge. Cantwell eventually left Shelby American to work for Roger Penske as team manager for Trans-Am cars and general manager of the race shop. He later joined Mark Donohue’s Porsche 917/30 effort before eventually moving on to Lockheed Martin, where he retired in 2002.