The Approachable Legend & Shelby’s One-Off Green Hornet

A rare countenance in 1968, and one that today would have you grinning every time the right pedal touched the metal, is Shelby’s one-off Green Hornet.

Certain marques are rightfully surrounded by mystique, and the Shelby nameplate casts a wider net than most for a very good reason. Before we delve into why that is, and the one-off seen here, a quick primer on how Shelby was a comet blazing across the automotive skies in the 1960s is in order.

Carroll Shelby was a former Le Mans winner who hung up his racing gloves in late October 1960. His Cobra burst onto the scene less than 18 months later, and within three years Shelby as a manufacturer had captured numerous U.S. racing championships, and the FIA’s international crown. Then, from 1965-67, the only Ford GT40s that chalked up victories at Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring were Shelby-prepped cars.

That side stripe says much, indicating this Shelby’s experimental nature. Much like the exclusive, high dollar European manufacturers would tinker so would Carroll Shelby and his men.

Not Just A Legend

If the marque’s history stopped there, it would still be the stuff of legends. But concurrently with the Cobra and GT40, Carroll and crew turned America’s nascent (and soon burgeoning) ponycar/musclecar scene on its head. In 1964 Ford wanted its recently released Mustang to be recognized as a sports car, and approached the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) to have it designated as such. SCCA racing was a big deal back then, so Shelby was charged with converting the Mustang into a racecar.

After several months of intense development, in early 1965 Shelby’s GT350 R won its first ever race. From that point on E-types, Corvettes and everything else saw nothing but taillights, as GT350s won the prestigious B/Production class championship three years in a row. Additionally, Shelby won the first two Trans Am championships in specially prepared Mustangs that were quite different from the GT350 R.

A Special Touch

Shelby modifying included tinkering with the styling. The green color on the Hornet is striking, and this shape served as the inspiration for the Mustang GT/CS model that was sold at dealerships in California.

Carroll’s Midas touch also applied to his road going Mustangs. The GT350 quickly became the car to have, so in 1966 the company built a small run of convertibles, and also equipped a handful of GT350s with Paxton superchargers. For 1967 Shelby Mustangs got unique coachwork, and the GT350 gained a big block stablemate with the GT500. There were also a handful of one-offs like the 170+ mph GT500 Super Snake that was realistically the world’s

fastest road car in 1967.

In 1968, Shelby created the one-off you see here, the appropriately named Green Hornet. On initial glance it appears to use the same 428 (7-liter) Cobra Jet “recipe” as a GT500 KR. That mighty V8 transformed Ford’s performance reputation on the street, but when you look under the Green Hornet’s hood and start poking around, significant differences appear. The car’s CJ-X (“X” for experimental) V8 has a modified block that boosts capacity beyond 428 cubic inches, and sports a Conelec fuel injection unit in place of the Cobra Jet’s Holley carburetor.

Special Modifications

Because the CJ-X made more horsepower than the standard Ford C-6 automatic transmission could handle, Shelby’s chief engineer Fred Goodell used a torque converter from Ford’s luxury marque Lincoln, and had Bob Smith of Ford’s transmission department make a cast iron tailhousing.

Shelby’s experimentation is also under the hood. The 428 Cobra Jet block was modified to increase displacement, and a Conelec fuel injection unit took the place of the Holley four-barrel carburetor. Other mechanical goodies included a custom transmission, and a prototype independent rear suspension.

Another Green Hornet modification is something not found in Mustangs until recently: an independent rear suspension. The A-arms, shocks and coil springs are set in a cradle that fits into the pick up points for the production Mustang’s axle. According to the Green Hornet’s owner Craig Jackson, “This would have allowed the IRS to be put in place on the assembly line in Detroit, should it have gone into production.”

The four-place Green Hornet was a world-class performer when tested at Ford’s proving grounds in Michigan. With that unique automatic and 3.01 gears, it hit 60 in 5.7 seconds, 100 in 11.4, and averaged 157 mph over four laps. For comparison, a Vantage-spec Aston DB6, Ferrari 365 2+2, and Lamborghini 400 GT 2+2 needed 6.1, 7.8 and 7.0 seconds for 60; 15.0, 20.8, and 15.6 seconds to 100; and topped out at 148, 152 and 155 mph, respectively.

So what’s it like to drive?

Interior comfortable, visibility is excellent. Wood grain touches look appropriate in a high speed GT, the non three-spoke steering wheel less so.

Glad you asked, for the Green Hornet’s cabin is quite airy with excellent head and legroom. There’s great visibility in every direction, and the commanding view out over the hood is fabulous, the vents hinting at the serious power under your right foot. The driver’s seat is quite comfortable but lacks any side bolstering, and it’s too bad there isn’t a proper three-spoke steering wheel to suit its sporting nature.

There’s no starter motor drama as found in the Italians; turn the key and Shelby simply fires up. Despite prodigious horsepower and torque the Green Hornet is docile at low speeds, and the ride is firm but not jarring. The power steering is light and needs one hand (not one finger like a Cadillac) to turn, which masks the weight of the mighty mill up front.

That all-around visibility makes it easy to place on the road whether you are going fast or slow, though you will likely be doing more of the former than the latter. Mash the throttle and the Hornet catapults forward, bathing the cabin in the most delicious deep growl from the engine and exhaust, where they sing in perfect concert. It’s an intoxicating duet, seducing you, begging you to run it hard through the gears again and again. So I happily comply and slow down, pin the accelerator once more and notice how the transmission jerks on upshifts, giving a slight thonk when it slots into the next gear.

The Green Hornet is marvelous on the road, and easily (and happily) sprints to 100 mph and beyond. The engine is silky smooth, so much so that I accidentally left it in 2nd gear for a while and didn’t notice it! Performance was formidable for 1968: its 11.4-second sprint to 100 was more than four seconds quicker than Europe’s top 2+2 GTs.

Part of the Charm

That nudge in the back is part of the car’s charm, for you sense the experimentation going on, that feel of history as the development team searched for solutions. In fact, that momentary delay reminds me of the paddleshift tranny in the Ferrari FX built for the Brunei Royal family in the mid-1990s, a car we will cover in the near future. That too was an experimental unit, but unlike the Ferrari the Shelby delivers a nice tire chirp with each shift, adding to the boy racer appeal that was mesmerizing America’s youth (and adults) at the time.

The power brakes are quite grabby, with initial pedal travel being immediately followed by quick bite that is greater than you expect. At higher speeds the Shelby feels quite stable and, if it was running on a decent set of tires (these were flat spotted from age), there’s no question the Hornet would pin its 140 mph speedometer with ease.

Back to the Beginning

A Shelby GT500 KR from 1968 (top photo) was pretty much identical in appearance to 1967 and ‘68’s “standard” GT500. Needless to say, the Green Hornet’s design was distinctively different.

This brings us back to the beginning of this blog entry, and how countries have their star marques. The glue that holds these greats together is their innumerable racing triumphs on home turf and the international stage, culminating with Le Mans victories and/or world championship trophies. Plus many are well known for their custom coachwork and limited production models.

In America, the one marque that ticks all those boxes is Shelby, but this nameplate casts a wider net most. Years ago Carroll and I had an interesting conversation about if he only made the Cobras and race-winning GT40s, the Shelby name would have the same type of elite air of Ferrari, Aston, Porsche and more. He didn’t like such pretense as all, and the Shelby Mustangs make his legend very approachable, one that most everyone can relate to. And with a little digging, you learn there were trick one-offs like the Green Hornet that add that much more mystique to it all.


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