Shelby GT500 Super Snake 1967
When Ford redesigned the Mustang in 1967 to take the 390/320 HP big-block V-8, Carroll Shelby took the next logical step and introduced the GT500, the first big-block Shelby GT, powered by a modified Police Interceptor 428 CI engine rated at 355 HP. Buyers took to the new car immediately, and the car outsold its small-block GT350 stablemate 2,048 to 1,175 units. In addition to his partnership with Ford, Shelby was also the West Coast distributor for Goodyear, who in February asked Shelby to take part in a promotional event for its new Thunderbolt line of economy tires. Shelby judged that the GT500 would be the perfect choice for an extended high-speed demonstration of the new tire, but the decision took a twist when former Shelby American Sales Manager Don McCain approached Shelby with the idea of building a supercar that would outperform anything else in the world. Then employed by Dana Chevrolet in South Gate, California, and Mel Burns Ford in Long Beach, McCain suggested that Shelby put a racing 427 in the GT500 for the test, let him sell the car and then build 50 more for Burns.
Ever one to leap at opportunity, Shelby instructed Fred Goodell, Shelby American’s chief engineer on loan from Ford, to prepare a GT500 with a special engine for the test, which would be held at Goodyear’s high-speed test facility near San Angelo, Texas. Goodell selected GT500 No. 544 for the task: “We rebuilt it with a special lightweight 427 racing engine; special rear axle, special transmission and, of course, Thunderbolt tires.” McCain later described the engine as “the mother of all 427s at that time … aluminum heads, aluminum water pump, forged crank, Le Mans rods, just basically everything inside the engine was built to run sustained 6,000 RPM—to race at Le Mans.” Essentially, it was the same powerplant used in the GT40 MkII that had won the famous French endurance race the previous year, including a variation on the MkII’s “bundle of snakes” exhaust system and its 600 HP output. Goodell made other modifications to prepare the car for the tire test. An external oil cooler, braided lines and a remote oil filter were installed to increase the 427’s reliability; stiffer springs and shocks were mounted on the passenger side of the GT500 to counteract the high-speed cornering forces it would encounter on Goodyear’s 5-mile oval track. Goodell completed the car with one-off chrome inboard headlight surrounds and a unique version of the production Le Mans striping with two narrow blue stripes flanking a wide blue center stripe, elements that distinguish it from all other GT500s.
Upon its arrival in Texas the last week of March, the Super Snake was fitted with Shelby 10-spoke aluminum wheels mounted with 7.75-15 Thunderbolt whitewall tires, which were overinflated with nitrogen to keep the sidewalls rigid and prevent overheating. Before the test commenced, Shelby took a number of invited journalists, including the editors of “Time” and “Life” magazines, for demonstration laps around the track. Over the years, there were conflicting claims as to who actually drove the car on its 500-mile test, but the story was set straight by Goodell during an interview for an episode of Speed Channel’s "My Classic Car." After the demonstration runs, during which Shelby reached a top speed of 170 MPH, Goodell recounted, “[Shelby] came back and he handed me his helmet and he says, ‘I’ve got to go to Washington, so you go ahead and drive the test. And so I got back in the car and I drove the car in the 500-mile test. We drove at 142 MPH average for 500 miles.” The test was a complete success; the skinniest tires ever mounted on a Shelby GT, the Thunderbolts had performed flawlessly, retaining 97 percent of their original tread.
The Super Snake was then shipped back to Mel Burns Ford in California, where it remained on display while McCain worked to generate interest for a limited run of 50 427-powered GT500s. At over twice the price of a baseline GT500, the Super Snake was priced well beyond its competition, including Shelby’s own 427 Cobra. McCain was forced to admit the car was “just too expensive”; it was ultimately shipped to Dallas where it was purchased by Braniff International Airways pilots James Hadden and James Gorman, who then replaced its original 2.73 gearset with a 4.10 unit for drag racing. The Shelby Registry states the car was purchased in 1970 by Bobby Pierce of Benbrock, Texas, who cared for it for 25 years before selling it to David Loebenberg of Florida.
The Super Snake returned to California seven years later when it was bought by Charles Lillard, who later sold it to Richard Ellis, a collector of rare Mustangs in Illinois, at which point the car registered 26,000 miles on the odometer and showed almost no deterioration.
Ellis proceeded with what he describes as a “light restoration,” locating the correct wires and hoses for the engine compartment, a period-correct Rotunda fire extinguisher, NOS Shelby 10-spoke wheels and, amazingly, four brand-new Thunderbolt whitewall tires in the proper size. As Ellis explained in an interview with “Auto Enthusiast Magazine” in September 2011, “I wanted to own this piece of Shelby history worse than anything. 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 elaborated about the tires: “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.”
The Super Snake was also featured in the book, “Million Dollar Muscle Cars” by Colin Comer, and in 2013, ownership changed hands to Shelby collector John Wickey, who has fastidiously cared for this illustrious one-of-one Shelby super car for the past five years.
Built with the heart of a Le Mans champion yet ultimately destined for but one day in the sun, there is only one Super Snake, the result of a confluence of forces that could only have happened in the charmed life of one Carroll Shelby.
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