A brand as classic and popular as Ford can’t be bound to only a couple of market segments. Beyond selling America’s most popular vehicle with the F-150 and the highly-anticipated Bronco off-roader, there’s another side to Ford entirely that driving enthusiasts should be familiar with: the performance side. The current lineup of Ford performance vehicles is an exciting and diverse one, bracketed with the ST trims for Explorer and Edge at the “low” end and the Ford GT and GT MK II hyper-cars at the high end, and stuffed full of Mustangs in the middle. While not every model in the iconic Mustang lineup is a pure performance model, the newly-revived Mach 1 and unmistakable Shelby GT500 certainly are, with the GT500 firmly placed in supercar territory despite coming in under $100,000.
The Shelby GT500’s history covers only a fraction of the Mustang’s continuous 55-year run, but its impact has been felt throughout – one only needs to consider that the Ford SVT Mustang was named “Cobra” in reference to the early GT500 models that wore the same moniker. The first GT500 was released in 1967 (you might recognize “Eleanor” from Gone in 60 Seconds) when the redesigned Mustang body proved capable of handling a larger engine than was used for the original GT350s.
Though 355 hp and 420 lb-ft were enormous numbers for the time, even-special-er editions like the GT500KR (for “King of the Road,” featuring a ram air hood scoop and 440 lb-ft of torque) and the one-of-a-kind Super Snake (capable of 170 mph) were around to push even harder against the limits of what a Mustang body could do. That kind of constant iteration and endless upgrading follows every modern Shelby Mustang model, too. Revived in 2007, the GT500 nameplate continues to live up to that expectation, with carbon fiber packages and special Shelby and Hennessey upgrades taking the ultimate Mustang to even higher levels.
The Unmistakable King of the Road
The modern Mustang Shelby GT500 represents the pinnacle of almost 60 years of Mustang development. What started out as a style-first coupe and quickly grew into a boisterous, loudmouth muscle car has graduated into true supercar-dom thanks to handling that competes with Europe’s best offerings, despite the GT500’s two-ton curb weight. It wears that mass like a bodybuilder wears sinew; no GT500 could be considered a “sleeper” thanks to its distinctive and aggressive appearance and unabashedly loud presence.
It isn’t all about looks, of course. The gaping maw of the grille opening is just one of the changes that doubles the open area on the front fascia compared to the Shelby GT350, allowing additional heat exchangers to get stuffed inside for 50% more cooling airflow. The stocky, menacing frontal appearance of the GT500, framed by splitter wickers that reduce drag over the wheels and sides of the car, is merely an added bonus. Aerodynamic components like the standard rear spoiler with an available Gurney flap complete the look of a fighter jet that’s been compressed into four-wheel form, all while serving the primary purpose of taming this famously untameable beast.
Unlike the Shelby GT500s of years past, the modern iteration benefits from technology that’s been transferred from the Ford GT and Mustang GT4 racing designs. The most powerful street-legal Ford ever built also uses a segment-first TREMEC 7-speed dual-clutch transmission – translate that into 100 millisecond shift times on the way to a sub-11 second ¼ mile run, and you’ll still be doing the math when the race is over.
Ford offers the Shelby GT500 with a couple of key performance-enhancing packages for those who’d rather drive on the track than the street. The $10,000 Carbon Fiber Handling Package is the more easily recommended of the two, adding the aforementioned splitter wickers and Gurney flap, as well as a catch can for preventing oil buildup on the intake manifold, adjustable strut top mounts for making your ‘Stang track-ready, and black 20″ carbon fiber wheels. It adds a little something extra to the ride without jumping the shark, as the exorbitant $18,500 Carbon Fiber Track Package could be accused of doing.
In addition to the above upgrades, the track package removes the rear seats, swaps your heated and vented power-adjustable seats with harness-ready RECAROs, slaps an exposed carbon fiber instrument panel on the inside, and fits the Shelby with super-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 track tires that enable shorter stopping and harder cornering (1.13 g vs 0.99 g with the standard wheels and tires).
With all of that comes the ability to hang with Porsches and Lambos on the track. The sheer power output of the V8 engine gives the GT500 an edge on straights, massive Brembo brakes and the aforementioned handling upgrades make it competitive in the corners, and the roaring engine is as overpowering next to an Italian car’s whine as any other aspect of this ultimate pony car. What more could you ask for?
There’s Always a Bigger Snake
As it turns out, you could ask for more power, please. If 760 hp and 625 lb-ft weren’t insane enough, there’s a couple of upgrades available from two of the most prominent performance names in the industry that squeeze even more out of the aptly-named Predator engine: the limited-run Shelby Edition and the Hennessey Venom 1000.
The $30,000 Signature Edition (SE) package is limited to only 100 units per year, but to collectors and Shelby fans, it’s a small price to pay. That’s because the modified car, in addition to sporting the Carrol Shelby name, makes over 800 hp thanks to the modifications made by the Shelby team. The extra power comes from using a smaller supercharger pulley with upgraded intercooler and heat exchanger components enabling higher airflow and better thermal management. A stronger axle is installed to deal with the excess power, and then as if that wasn’t enough, the already aggressive GT500 hood is replaced with a ventilated carbon fiber unit saving 30 lbs.
Owners will also enjoy Monoblock forged aluminum wheels and unique leather seat recovers. Those who choose it will get a carbon fiber package or even the Shelby widebody kit to customize their special ride even further. This ultra-refined $106,000 Mustang is sure to catch eyes, ears, hearts, and minds for decades to come, making it more than money well spent – this thing will be an investment.
Yet somehow, even that may not be perceived as “enough.” If any of our readers would rather drink 93 octane gasoline than coffee in the morning, you may fall into the category of Shelby GT500 driver that needs to get in touch with the insane engineering crew at Hennessey Performance. For three decades, they’ve been making aftermarket modifications to standout American models, as well as designing their own hypercars, cluttering “fastest cars in the world” lists with the Hennessey name. These guys are all about horsepower; for them, three digits simply isn’t enough.
Enter the Hennessey Venom 1000, an upgrade package available for the 2020 and 2021 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500. With upgrades to everything from the supercharger drive pulley to the fuel injectors and transmission calibration, Hennessey tweaks just about everything to get the absolute most out of the GT500 platform. Their professional installation includes dynamometer testing of the upgraded vehicle, up to 200 miles of road testing, and a 3-year / 36,000-mile warranty. However, even high octane pump gas isn’t enough to wring all the power out of this monster – E85 is the Venom 1000’s poison of choice. When filled up on E85, the Venom 1000 is tuned to crank out – you guessed it – 1000 hp at 7000 rpm and 850 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm! Fortunately, Hennessey does tune the car to run on 93 octane as well; you’ll just get a slightly lower 900 hp.
What kind of company does that put it in? Consider the list of hyper-cars that don’t make 1000 hp:
- McLaren P1
- Porsche 918 Spider
- Pagani Huayra
- Koenigsegg CCR
And some of the ones that just barely do:
- Bugatti Veyron
- Zenvo ST1
- McLaren Speedtail
- Aston Martin Valhalla
- Mercedes-AMG One
Throw in the oddball Tesla Model S Plaid as the only normal-looking, remotely accessible member of the 1000 hp club, and it’s clear that the Hennessey Venom 1000 lives in rarified air, without a 7-digit price tag. Yes, you can race against some of the fastest (and most expensive) cars on Earth in a Mustang.
Coiled Up and Ready to Strike
The Shelby name is synonymous with high-performance Ford Mustangs, and Carrol Shelby’s association with the AC Cobra has led to an inextricable link between top-tier Mustangs and formidable snake imagery too. It’s fitting that the normally attention-grabbing but otherwise pedestrian Mustang, when handled by the legendary engineering crews of Ford SVT, Shelby America, and Hennessey Performance, is transformed into one of the world’s premier sports cars.
Like the lethal king cobra, a dangerous creature that may look like any other snake until it rears its distinctive head, the Shelby GT500 is clearly more than a garden-variety sports coupe, but just how much more isn’t obvious until it opens up the throttle on a track. Drivers of European sports cars beware – as everyone around the world ought to know, you do not want to antagonize a snake.