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.