1967 Shelby GT500
Skinny tires give away the secret identity!
Story Brad Bowling Images Al Rogers - September 19, 2011 12:00 PM
The 1967 G.T. 500 Super Snake is a good way to explain irony to a car guy. The fastest-ever street-legal Shelby Mustang was built at tremendous expense to showcase a skinny, bargain-priced tire designed for very slow cars.
Carroll Shelby was the king of the high-performance world in 1967. He was a Le Mans-winning driver (1959 in an Aston Martin) whose association with Ford Motor Company produced the Cobra 289 and 427 roadsters, Mustang-based G.T. 350s and G.T. 500s, and GT supercars.
Next to Ford, no one benefited more from Shelby’s glamour halo than Goodyear Tire and Rubber, for whom he distributed tires in the West Coast region. In February 1967, Goodyear asked Shelby American to participate in a high-profile publicity stunt that would prove the durability of its bread-and-butter Thunderbolt tires. A set of Thunderbolts would be driven for 500 miles at high speeds at the Goodyear Proving Grounds’ five-mile track north of San Angelo, Texas.
Unlike its plump Polyglas models, Goodyear’s skinny Thunderbolts were aimed at budget-minded owners of station wagons and family sedans who hoped to cruise at interstate speeds with minimal drama. A standard G.T. 500 would have turned impressive numbers on the track, but Don McCain encouraged Shelby to build a supercar that could outrun any Ferrari or Corvette on the street.
McCain had been Shelby American’s sales manager from 1964-’66, hawking the company’s Cobras and Mustangs all over the country before taking a job with Dana Chevrolet in South Gate, California, and Mel Burns Ford in Long Beach.
“I was picking up a Shelby for Burns when I ran into Carroll,” McCain remembered. “He told me he was going to do the tire test in a regular G.T. 500. At Dana, we stuffed a Chevy 427 into the new Camaro; I told Carroll he needed to put a 427 race engine in his car for the test, then let me sell the car and build 50 more just like it.
“It would have to retail for nearly $8,000 to make any money, but it would be one of the fastest cars in the world.”
Shelby instructed Fred Goodell, Shelby American’s chief engineer on loan from Ford, to build a truly spectacular machine. Goodell fitted G.T. 500 number 544 with what was essentially a GT40 Mk II competition engine – a lightweight 427ci side-oiler, medium-riser V-8 with aluminum heads, an aluminum water pump, mechanical lifters, a single Holley 780cfm four-barrel, and a variation of the famous “bundle of snakes” exhaust headers. Output for the road race powertrain was 600 horsepower.
Nothing was done to the stock Toploader four-speed transmission, but the rear axle received 2.73:1 gears to give the unique fastback some long legs. To increase the Shelby’s reliability at the expected super-high speeds, Goodell added an external oil cooler with braided lines mounted between the grille and radiator support. A unique version of the Le Mans stripes in blue – measuring three, 10, and three inches – and chromed inboard headlight surrounds made this G.T. 500 look like no other Shelby.
During the last week of March, the white fastback was shipped to Texas, where it received a set of Shelby 10-spoke aluminum 15x7-inch wheels mounted with 7.75-15 Goodyear Thunderbolt four-ply tires. (Those Thunderbolts fit somewhere between today’s 195/75-15 and 205/70-15 tires sizes; in other words, they were the skinniest rubber ever worn by a Shelby Mustang.) Nitrogen was used to keep internal temperatures down, and the tires were overinflated to make the sidewalls more rigid. Mechanics installed stiffer shocks and springs on the car’s passenger (or outboard) side, where weight would be transferred during the high-speed corners.
A Goodyear promotional film records Carroll Shelby turning laps at the wheel of the special G.T. 500, reaching speeds as high as 170 miles per hour. He also treated a few members of the media to ride-alongs.
There is disagreement, however, as to who served as primary driver for the 500-mile endurance run. Some sources claim Goodell was responsible; others have reported a Goodyear employee did the deed. Goodyear engineers checked heat and wear characteristics at the end of each 100-mile segment. After four hours, during which time the 427-equipped car averaged 142 miles per hour, the Thunderbolts retained 97 percent of their original tread.
Its goals as a high-speed laboratory accomplished, the special G.T. 500 went to Mel Burns Ford, where McCain tried to drum up enthusiasm for a limited-production series. After many months with no success, he finally admitted there was no market for what Drag Strip magazine was calling the “Super Snake.”
“It was just too expensive,” McCain remembered. “You could get an SS 396 Camaro for $3,500. A Hemi car was much cheaper. Even the 427 Cobra cost less.
“We shipped it to Dallas, where two pilots finally bought it for $5,000.”
James Hadden and James Gorman were pilots for Braniff International Airways who briefly drag raced the Super Snake after installing a set of 4.10:1 rear axle gears (leading to incorrect reports that the Goodyear endurance tests were performed with unbelievably steep gears). There were two owners after Hadden and Gorman whose names have been lost to history, but the paper trail picks up in 1970 when Bobby Pierce (of Benbrock, Texas) purchased the G.T. 500. Pierce kept the car for 25 years before passing it along to David Loedenberg (Florida), who sold it seven years later to Charles Lillard (California).
Three years ago, rare Mustang collector Richard Ellis (Illinois) purchased the Super Snake, which showed 26,000 miles on the odometer and almost no deterioration.
“I wanted to own this piece of Shelby history worse than anything,” Ellis said. “It was well cared for by its previous owners, but I’ve put a lot of effort into returning it to the state it was in on the day of the tire test.”
Ellis has put his stamp on this one-off supercar’s legend. His “light restoration” work includes locating the correct wires and hoses for the engine compartment, a vintage-correct Rotunda fire extinguisher (for $3,500!), a new-old stock set of Shelby 10-spoke wheels, and – in an astounding bit of good luck – four brand-new Thunderbolt whitewall tires in the proper size.
“The Thunderbolts were made for … well, boring family cars in the ’60s, which is why nobody reproduces them or has even heard of them for 35 years. I found what has to be the only surviving set in a warehouse in Akron, Ohio. I’m sure Shelby pulled the original Thunderbolts and threw them away when the car got back to California.
“Now, when you see a picture of the Super Snake and it’s got skinny whitewall tires, you’ll know it is either from the Goodyear test or from the time it’s spent in my collection.”