When Ford first started selling Mustangs, sales far exceeded everyone's expectations. The car was clearly Ford's most successful model since the Model T, but Ford execs didn't want to see sales drop off. They quickly called in Carroll Shelby to work some marketing magic on the Mustang marquee through his racing endeavors, much as he previously did for the Blue Oval with his legendary Cobra.
In 1965, Shelby created the GT350, which was campaigned with success in SCCA competition, and was eclipsed only by the Mustang's continued sales success on the showroom floor. Shelby continued to build GT350s (and later GT500s) until 1970, and the cars found themselves in the thick of the Trans-Am battle throughout the latter stages of the muscle car era.
Within a few years, a perfect storm of tighter emission standards, the OPEC oil embargo, and federal motor vehicle safety standards helped spell the end of the muscle car era. As the custom van era took hold, muscle car fans went into hiding, holding out hope that technological advances would some day breathe new life into their passion. The darkest hour is often just before dawn, and it was during that time in 1978 that John Levitz's father noticed this 1966 Shelby GT350 at a Kruse Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona.
When the gavel dropped, his winning bid was $7,500-a staggering sum for that time. There might've been one schmuck at the auction who snickered to himself thinking the elder Levitz just dropped $1,000 more on a 12-year-old Mustang than he'd just spent on a brand-new Cobra II. The truth is $7,500 probably wouldn't come close to covering the commission on a '66 GT350 sold at an auction today.
John's dad drove the car for a few months, but when the summer heat of Arizona set in, he handed the keys to his 16-year-old son, making his way back to the comforts of air-conditioned driving. John soon did what you might expect any 16-year-old to do with such a car-he started collecting speeding tickets. "I can't even remember how many speeding tickets I picked up," John says. "I was one of the first guys in town to have nitrous, back in the late '70s."
Marvin Miller (nephew of Ak) made the kit that John installed on the numbers-matching motor, and although he never ran it on the bottle at the dragstrip, he did his share of racing elsewhere. "The first weekend I put in the nitrous, I cleaned up on everyone who used to beat me," John says. The GT350 continued to be his primary means of transportation all the way through his college years, but upon graduation, it went back into storage.
Riddled with war wounds and showing the 60,000 miles of hard use John had accumulated over the span of just a few years, the GT350 only saw the light of day on rare occasions. "I almost sold it twice," John says, but then one of his friends finally convinced him to take action with the car. "I've known Heath Elmer for a while, and he's always done bitchin resto-mods and just impeccable work," John says. "It was his involvement that was the deciding factor in moving forward on restoring it."
"I always knew John had the car," Heath says, "but it just sat around in an airplane hangar forever. I finally asked him why he wouldn't let me do it, and he told me to take it." The Shelby may be a valuable car, but that didn't mean John felt compelled to do a concours-level restoration. Both men knew the car was too valuable to cut up, so John gave Heath free reign and full artistic license to do whatever he wanted, provided it could all be put back to stock. Even with that agreement in place, the car still sat at Heath's shop for another three years before forward progress was finally made.
John finally decided he wanted the car to appear at the Airaid booth (the company that he owns) at the 2008 SEMA show, so Heath put together a game plan and went into action. The first order of business was stripping the car to a shell, mediablasting it, and prepping the body for a fresh coat of paint.