We’ve just recently celebrated the 57th anniversary of the venerable Ford Mustang, with its official release on April 17th, 1964. In those 57 years, the Mustang has pretty consistently been the consumer choice for an affordable American GT sports car, almost to the point of being cliché. Base models of the pony car have ranged from “good for the price” to “mediocre at any price.” There are, however, several instances that Ford (and Ford-adjacent companies) squeezed some real performance out of the platform. These Mustangs more than proved their worth in motorsport, and become collectors’ items in their own right, often fetching more than double the price of their more common kin. Now, let’s take a look at some of the best cars to wear the prancing horse badge.

First Mustang prototype    Image by Ford

First Mustang prototype Image by Ford

Shelby Mustangs (1965-1970)

After coming off of the successes of the Ford GT40 and AC Cobra projects, renowned race car builder Carroll Shelby was contracted by Ford to make the Mustang competitive against the Chevy Corvette in SCCA road racing. That first car was little more than a Falcon compact coupe in a trendy outfit, and Shelby basically hated how it drove. To make it perform, he threw out the rear seats, redesigned multiple suspension components, and upsized the brakes. Thus, the Shelby GT350 was born.

Carroll Shelby posing with a new GT350    Image by Shelby American

Carroll Shelby posing with a new GT350 Image by Shelby American

Each 350 came with the 289 (4.7-liter) V8. Largest available from Ford at the time, with a few carb and exhaust upgrades bumping it up to 300 horsepower. A track-ready GT350R was also made with lighter body parts, a front-mount oil cooler, roll cage, and about 350 horses. The Shelby Mustang became popular with pro and amateur racers alike, and the lineup expanded in 1967 with the now-iconic GT500.

The '69 and '70 Shelbys also featured uniquely styled front ends

The ’69 and ’70 Shelbys also featured uniquely styled front ends

Unlike the nimble 350, this new Shelby was strictly a highway and dragstrip weapon, sporting a massive 428 (7-liter) V8 putting out 355 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. Both the GT350 and 500 would evolve alongside the Mustang until Shelby severed his ties with Ford in 1970. Only a few thousand of these cars were made every year, and the lowest production years was 1965, with only 562 built. Rarer still is the 1965 GT350R, with 34 examples total. Good condition Shelbys will easily fetch six figures these days, and the sky is the limit with R models.

Look closely at this GT350R detail shot, and you can see the oil cooler peaking through the grill.

Look closely at this GT350R detail shot, and you can see the oil cooler peaking through the grill.

Of course, the Shelby-Ford schism didn’t last, and the GT500 returned as a supercharged highway bomber in 2007. A new GT350 would also fulfill its track toy role in 2015 through 2020, with handling upgrades paired to a high-revving naturally aspirated V8.

Image by Ford

BOSS Mustangs (1969-1970)

The Boss 302 and Boss 429 were created to create to homologate the ’69 Mustang for Trans Am and NASCAR racing, respectively. The 302’s V8 skirted just under Trans Am’s 5-liter displacement limit, and saw plenty of success in that series with prolific drivers like Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones at the wheel.

1970 Boss 302 race car under pit inspection

1970 Boss 302 race car under pit inspection

This Mustang’s namesake engine had quite a few upgrades over Ford’s standard small block, chief among them being oversized intake and exhaust valves. These allowed the Boss to make 90 horsepower over the regular 302’s 200 and rev up to 6,250 RPM. It also got a lower ride height and beefier suspension over the base model. In race trim it got even more significant upgrades, with engine moved towards the center, four-wheel disc brakes installed, and tubbed fenders for wide, slick tires. The Trans-Am spec engine also revved to a crazy 8,000 RPM and made 470 horsepower while doing it.

Unlike the finesse in its little brother, the Boss 429 was a pure oval track bruiser, The 7-liter big block received a suite of upgrades, like a forged crankshaft and piston rods, aluminum heads, and an improved coolant channel design. Horsepower was rated at 375, which became more than 600. Both ’69 Bosses feature the iconic four-eye fascia, which replaced by integrated high beam lamps in 1970.

1969 Boss 426    Image by Mecum

1969 Boss 429 Image by Mecum

The Bosses are even rarer than their Shelby counterparts, and sell around $150k at the very lowest. The ’70 302 is the most common, with just over 7,000 made. The ’69 is much more rare at 1,628 examples, and only 1,359 Boss 429s were made over the two years.

The Boss 302 also saw a two-year revival from 2012 to 2013. This new Boss carried the road racing torch with handling upgrades, Trans-Am style wheels, and a modern 5-liter V8 with forged components.

SVT Cobra R (1993-2000)

The Cobra R represents the pinnacle of performance for the Fox platform Mustangs, and had three separate models released over its run by Ford’s Special Vehicle Team. The 1993 Cobra came with a pretty standard 235-horsepower 302 V8. Upgrades went to the car’s distinct appearance, chassis stiffening, Koni shocks, bigger brakes, and weight reduction bringing the Mustang down to 3,100 pounds. 107 were produced.

1993 Cobra R    Image by Mecum

1993 Cobra R Image by Mecum

The Cobra R moniker returned two years later, in the new SN-95 Mustang. This version came with a more impressive Windsor 5.8 liter V8 making 300 horsepower in addition to the previous suspension and chassis mods. The car’s fog lights were also replaced with air ducts to cool front brakes. Production was capped at 250 units.

1995 Cobra R    Image by Ford

1995 Cobra R Image by Ford

One last time, the Cobra R appeared for the “New Edge” styling refresh. This time with a brand new dual overhead cam 5.4 liter V8 putting out 385 horsepower. This engine would be further developed into the upcoming Ford GT, and a large hood bulge was necessary to accommodate the massive powerplant. It carried over previous handling upgrades while adding sidepipe exhaust, and a massive rear wing and front splitter providing extra downforce. Production increased slightly with 300 Cobra Rs sold.

2000 Cobra R    Image by Ford

2000 Cobra R Image by Ford

If you happen to be looking for some Ford racing heritage, you should check out the 289 Shelby Cobra replica in The Starting Line’s inventory. That car will also have its own featured piece real soon.

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