Once upon a time, I was a test driver working for Roush. I’d show up to a Ford building in Allen Park, Mich., at 6 a.m. five days a week, be given a set of keys, a drive route, a massive stack of paper and then be sent on my merry way for about seven hours. Every car I drove was a Ford or Lincoln in one of the various stages of pre-production builds. Nineteen-year-old me was in love with the gig. And c’mon, what teenage car nut wouldn’t love being paid to drive a brand-new car around?
But not all brand-new cars are created equal. Every brutally early morning, I’d stand in line, waiting. Eventually, names were called and the keys start flowing. “No cobra snake on that one, or those three. There’s still hope,” I thought to myself. Finally, my name was called, and sitting on the table in front of me was exactly what I’d been wanting for the past couple of weeks: the key fob to a Ford Mustang Shelby GT350. I tried my best to not look too excited, but inside, I was positively giddy. The car gods graced me that fine, summer day, and somehow, I came away with an even higher opinion of the car than I had already built it up to be.
Fast forward five years, two months, a college education and countless cars later, and I’m back in the driver’s seat of the last new GT350 I’ll ever drive. Ford just finished telling me that neither the GT350 or GT350R would be around for the 2021 model year. No surprise there. After all, releasing a Heritage Edition for any model is a decent indicator that it’s not long for this world. Still, it’s hard not to be sad that a car that meant so much to me half a decade ago is going away. It’s like losing an old friend, but at least I will get the lucky draw again, this time for Autoblog’s final drive of the GT350. I have one more chance to hear that soon-to-be-classic 5.2-liter flat-plane-crank V8 scream its way to 8,250 rpm.
Ford didn’t change the standard GT350 for 2020, but noticeable improvements were made for 2019 — you can check out the details in our First Drive here. In short, though, the changes contributed to better handling while retaining the same lovely powertrain. Ford didn’t fix what wasn’t broken, and the car remained 100% true to what it was to begin with.
Our 2020 Heritage Edition tester adds special paint, stickers and badges, but nothing else. Ford used Ken Miles’ 1965 Mustang GT350 fastback racer as inspiration for the Wimbledon White and Guardsman Blue color scheme.
“To be able to duplicate with Wimbledon White and specifically the Guardsman Blue. To be able to tie it with a bow back to how it started was pretty cool,” said Jim Owens, Ford Mustang and Shelby marketing manager. “And from a marketing perspective and from somebody who knew Carroll and knew how happy he’d be with this car, it was cool to do.”
Fun fact: Ford still had Guardsman Blue paint from the 1960s in cold storage, and it used this paint to get a perfect color match for the stripes and Shelby badges on the new GT350. Both the stripes and side decals are stickers, not painted, but they appear just as they would have over 50 years ago.
I think the appearance package is a nostalgic success, and buyers seem to agree. Ford says the Heritage Edition is the most popular color scheme of 2020. The $1,965 package isn’t an egregious premium to pay over the $61,535 base car, and despite it clearly being popular (Ford isn’t limiting production numbers), it’ll still be rare enough considering it’s a single model year option.
Ford wouldn’t tell us much more about the timing of this model’s disappearance beyond referencing the natural order of Mustang variants coming in and out of the lineup. Now that the GT500 has stepped in as King Mustang, there’s inherently less space for the GT350 and GT350R. If you don’t want to spend GT500 money, Ford is at least offering up the Mach 1 as a replacement for 2021, but that’s more of a mash-up of the also-discontinued Bullitt and GT350. And that mash-up does not include the flat-plane-crank “Voodoo” 5.2-liter. It’ll have the Bullitt’s “Coyote” 5.0.
So, this isn’t just a goodbye to a car, it’s a goodbye to an engine that was already on its way to legend status five years ago as the only engine this side of Maranello with a flat-plane crank. It’s what gives the GT350 its unmistakable high-pitched, burbling chatter. Five years on, the thrill of wringing it out hasn’t subsided, yet it’s not the only thing that makes this Shelby so special.
When I describe driving the GT350 to folks, I typically say it does not drive like a Mustang. It doesn’t go, steer or brake like other Mustangs. Every one of those elements are heightened to a proper sports car level, making it a car that can legitimately appeal to those who never would’ve considered a Mustang. It’s good enough to run toe-to-toe with any sports car under $100,000, and can put up a hell of a fight with even more expensive cars.
One trip under a bridge at full chat, and I’m immediately fawning over that exotic and muscular soundtrack that grabbed me so powerfully in the beginning. Nothing else on sale today sounds similar, and there isn’t another car for its price that sounds better.
The 0-60 mph time of around 4.0 seconds doesn’t even begin to tell the acceleration story. Versus a Camaro SS or Hemi-equipped Dodge, it’s a little slow out of the gate. Ford didn’t gear the GT350 for splashy 0-60 times on magazine covers. You’re forced to shift into second right as the speedo crests 50 mph and is heading for 60, wasting precious tenths of a second. I’d argue, what does it matter if it does 0-60 mph in 4.1 seconds versus 3.7?
What is important, is that second and third gear are utterly perfect to play around with on a fast, twisty road. I find myself swapping between the two shorter gears all the time, yanking the lever from third back into second, blipping the throttle and making the climb past 8,000 rpm time and time again as the road straightens out. Its 526 horsepower and 429 pound-feet of torque is addicting and perfectly usable on the road. I’ve driven an awful lot of cars since first experiencing this engine and gearbox five years ago, but I’m just as enamored. Besides its unique engine, the GT350 is also the only Mustang to get the Tremac TR-3160 six-speed transmission. Its gates are far more precise in feeling than the regular GT’s Getrag gearbox, and while the clutch is on the lighter side for this much power, it’s a good fit for the engine’s quick-revving and playful attitude.
The brakes are downright heavenly. Ford has given the GT350 brake feel and pedal travel fit for a supercar. It’s firm from the very first centimeter you press down, scrubbing speed with little effort in an instant. Very few sports cars have brakes that feel this good. It adds an extra layer of confidence and security when you’re pounding around back roads and the racetrack alike.
But unfortunately, the GT350’s biggest vice is the same one it’s had from the start. Where the road goes, so goes this Mustang. I was warned about its propensity to follow the contours of the road from fellow co-workers who had already driven the GT350 back when I was working as a test driver. Even today, the sticky Michelins combined with the no-compromise, track-intended suspension design are heavily influenced by poorly maintained roads. Keeping it away from the road’s shoulder can be a fight at times. It’s called tramlining, and it can be scary at first. You can tame it if you keep a strong hand on the wheel and pay extra close attention to where the car is on the road, but it’s a mental load you don’t have to deal with in many other sports cars.
Smooth roads and the racetrack are where this Mustang truly comes into its own. The steering is better than it was in the beginning — more feel, improved weighting — and the MagneRide suspension strikes a lovely balance between performance and comfort. This car is completely livable on the highway, as any Mustang should be.
The first and last point concerning any drive in a GT350 should always be the noise it makes. Inside and outside the car, it’s a uniquely perfect combination of Italian supercar scream and American muscle car snarl. It’s the element that will be mentioned first when this car is recalled five, 10, 25 years from now. From the first prototype in 2015 to the final production version in 2020, it’s been an absolute smile machine. Even on its way out, Owens tells us that Ford considers the GT350 to be “a clear demonstration of the engineering prowess of the men and women of Ford Performance.” The GT500 might be the ultimate Mustang halo for 2020, but in death, the GT350 still looms as a giant in the Ford Performance halls.
My last gasp of driving one only reinforces its status as a high-water mark for the Mustang. So long, GT350. Your roaring and yowling will be missed.