There’s a great scene toward the end of John Frankenheimer’s epic movie, Grand Prix, where James Garner, as the troubled racing ace Pete Aron, drives slowly through the crowded paddock at Monza in his rental car before the season’s final round. The fact that his car was never available for rent in Europe, let alone Italy, is irrelevant. His character was American, so, logically, he drove an American car. That it was arguably the coolest ride in the film, a car eclipsed perhaps only by the Ferrari boss’s 330GT, was a stroke of genius on Frankenheimer’s part. As a nine-year-old, I saw the movie in 1966 at London’s Odeon Leicester Square, and the black fastback with the gold stripes left a big impression on me. I came to expect that, aside from Jimmy Clark, who would eternally be loyal to Lotus, all Formula 1 heroes should drive a Ford Shelby GT350H, commonly known as the Hertz Shelby Mustang.
Along with many players in the American performance-car scene in the ’60s, Hertz had fallen under the spell of Carroll Shelby, gleefully ordering 1000 of his GT350s for its Sports Car Club–a program aimed at bored, highly paid business travelers. The rental firm had switched its alliance from General Motors to Ford the year before, so the souped-up Mustangs were the obvious replacement for its fleet of Chevrolet Corvettes. The deal scratched the backs of both parties–Hertz got a hip, prestige car, and Shelby enjoyed lots of editorial coverage in magazines, not to mention posters in all of Hertz’s agencies. Mythical stories, no doubt aided by the Texan king of spin, of “Rent-a-Racers” being leased on Friday and returned on Monday with holes in the floor pan (the result of roll-cage installation for the weekend’s racing) didn’t hurt anyone’s reputation. The fact that 92 percent of all GT350Hs produced were equipped with automatic transmissions didn’t get in the way of a good yarn.
Flash forward forty years to today and an era–and an industry–where qualities such as originality are largely overlooked. From the perspective of many Europeans, Detroit is manufacturing what look like full-size versions of retro-inspired, muscle car doodles that have been conceived by the staffs of Mattel and Pixar. No sooner did Chevrolet and Dodge showcase their Camaro and Challenger concepts, respectively, at this year’s Detroit auto show than Ford and Shelby announced that they would build 500 Mustangs for Hertz. With the icons of the U.S. auto industry’s last great era so often being resurrected, marketing ploys such as the Hertz/Shelby deal were almost certain to be repeated.
Despite my reservations over Detroit’s repeated mining of its past, the modern-day Hertz Shelby Mustang seemed like the perfect ride for my Southern California vacation. From my home in the United Kingdom, I made a reservation on Hertz’s Web site, and ten days later, I bellied up to the Hertz counter at LAX. It was late Friday evening and I wasn’t in any mood to stand in line, but after an indifferent introduction, the Hertz clerk realized which of his firm’s cars I planned to drive away. It was as if I’d pulled the golden ticket from a Wonka chocolate bar. Suddenly there were assistants preparing my “high-performance automobile” while I completed the relevant paperwork, which included two forms of insurance on top of the hefty daily rate. When I confirmed my intention to keep the Shelby GT-H, as the modern iteration is known, for nine days, I thought the guy behind the counter was going to pass out. Our roles would have been reversed, though, if I’d had my wits about me and been able to calculate the forthcoming bill. Two staffers ushered me outside to the car, where I was shown under the hood. The younger clerk proudly pointed to a length of aluminum tubing and a cone-shaped air cleaner. “There it is,” he announced. “It” was the Ford Racing induction system worth an additional 25 horsepower, but much more important, “it” made the stereo redundant. The custom Shelby hood was finally lowered and secured by the two matching pins, and I was let loose.
I lasted two blocks before I nailed the throttle from a stoplight. To be honest, the car didn’t feel that fast. There was no breaking of traction. I was not thrust back into the firm black seats, and the traffic behind didn’t instantly turn into specks in my mirrors. But the car did let out one of the most intoxicating, guttural growls that any fool drunk on gasoline can experience in a modern production car. My cynical quip to the clerk that, surely, in this day and age, the Shelby could be nothing more than a paint job and an exhaust system appeared to be right on the money. I soon had visions of Ol’ Shel and his team sitting around at their Las Vegas compound tuning the note of the Mustang: “Add a dash more glass pack to the muffler, Frank . . . “
As we drove away from the Shelby’s ancestral neighborhood (the original GT350Hs were built in a North American Aviation hangar at 6501 West Imperial Highway, right next to the airport) and onto northboundI-405, the car’s stiff springing soon became apparent, because the nose started bobbing up and down like a nodding Chihuahua over the freeway’s undulating surface. Since it has a strut brace between the shock towers, the Shelby feels as taut as a drum, an asset that L.A.’s roads immediately turned into a liability. Storm drains and speed bumps also had an appetite for the car’s front air dam, so I had to be extra cautious on the city’s secondary streets if I didn’t want to lose my damage deposit. By the time we reached Hollywood, I’d worked out that at about 80 mph the car starts to flatten out, probably not an acceptable excuse for your average overzealous highway patrolman.
It was eleven o’clock on Friday evening, and Sunset Boulevard was buzzing. The traffic was barely moving, but the Shelby started scoring big points. Unbeknownst to me, the car had been available from Hertz for only two days prior to my arrival, and there were only thirteen of them at LAX. For many onlookers, then, my car represented their first sighting. The reaction to the black car in the dead of night was overwhelming. High-school jocks whooped from their parents’ BMW 5-series. Limo drivers nodded with approval. Even the Mischa, Lindsay, and Paris wannabes let out unreserved “oh my gawds.” It wasn’t just the broad gold stripes that turned heads. Black reduces the awkwardness of the Mustang’s rear quarter-panels, giving the whole shape a more svelte, understated profile. Then there’s the aggressive stance, aided and abetted by the large aluminum wheels; the oversize hood, which appears to be bulging due to the enormity of what lies beneath; and the aforementioned air dam. Throw in the snarling V-8 sound track, and the Shelby has just as much, if not more, presence than any number of Day-Glo, turbocharged, bewinged, Tokyo-drifting rockets. Just before I reached my destination, I drew up to a light alongside two Latino guys in a late-1980s Mustang. The driver blipped the throttle and looked for a reaction. Obligingly, I put the car in neutral and gave them a reply, and they broke into broad grins.
The next day my wife and I made the trip over to the San Fernando Valley and the Saturday-morning gathering at Autobooks in Burbank. The reaction of fickle kids on a Friday-night bender was one thing, but I reasoned that real car enthusiasts would be much harder to impress. Not at all. The minute we pulled into the parking lot, the guy with the Mercedes-Benz Gullwing suddenly found himself alone. I’d totally underestimated the strength of Shelby currency and was immediately bombarded with questions. “Have you worked out how to switch off the traction control?” one guy inquired. If I were going to fiddle with the mechanics at all, I’d want to disconnect the odometer, because the first seventy-five miles–a distance easily covered just finding a post office to send a card home–are included in the daily rental rate, but it’s thirty-nine cents for each additional mile.
Everyone assumed that, even though the GT-H is badged as some sort of badass hot rod, it had been detuned for public consumption so that any renter would yearn to get under the hood and unleash the beast’s full potential. Ah, the smell of snake oil. So strong is the Shelby legend that the return checklist features not only the usual possible damage spots, but agents also are required to check that the chassis plate and the dash panel bearing the man’s autograph are still on the car.
Everyone we encountered loved the GT-H, from the valet at Trader Vic’s where it was immediately parked in the VIP spot to “Supergirl,” who was entertaining tourists outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Driver of a 1968 Mustang notchback, she teasingly observed that the back seat was much bigger in her Mustang. On a day trip to San Diego, we met an old-timer who had rented one of the original GT350Hs and who was both enthralled and delighted that a new one exists. Most tourists, though, just stared and made comments like “beautiful car, man.”
Yes, the GT-H was expensive, but imagine a rental car that introduces you to an entirely new circle of friends, actually makes you smile every time you hit the gas pedal, gives you instant credibility among gearheads, and is a car you are reluctant to give back. Some aspects of the Shelby are flawed, such as the amateur paint job on the rear edge of the hood. But is the Shelby as cool a rental car today as its predecessor? Most of the current crop of apparently personality-free Formula 1 drivers wouldn’t touch it, so, yes, it’s very cool. I got a kick out of it, and so would Pete Aron.