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Car of the Week: 1969 Shelby GT500 Updated

Out of "Respec" is a 1969 Shelby GT500 restoration with a modern twist.
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Car of the Week 2020
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I’ve known George Huisman for 20-plus years. In fact, I recall sitting in his office back in early 2007 when he announced startup plans for his latest Mustang project. George’s company, Classic Design Concepts (“CDC,” as it’s referred to within the automotive industry, classicdesignconcepts.com), was in the initial pre-production startup phase to produce a limited number of 1967 Mustang GTs using the new Dynacorn Mustang bodies as a platform. He and CDC Marketing Director Marnie Kramer discussed the upcoming SEMA Show where they’d display a special trio of cars to introduce their new CDC Mustang product line. After hearing the news, I asked George if he’d be interested in having a photo-feature written about the CDC ’67 Mustang project. His response? “Sure, why not?”

The S197 (fifth-generation) Mustang convertible roll bar — or “light bar,” as it became known due to its built-in third brake light — put George’s Michigan-based company on the Mustang map. Over the years, CDC has developed a variety of restyling products for late-model Mustangs, but behind the scenes, they were also involved in supplying components for post-production Mustangs, such as models from Shelby, Saleen, Foose and others. Following CDC’s introduction of a 1969 and ’70-style Shaker hood scoop for SN-95 (fourth-generation) Mustangs, Ford invited George to participate in the development of the 2003 Mach 1, a special-edition Mustang that included a functional Shaker hood.

The wheels look like the factory 15-inch five spokes that came on 1969 Shelbys, but these are one-of-a-kind 17-inch billet LW69s from Legendary Wheels.

The wheels look like the factory 15-inch five spokes that came on 1969 Shelbys, but these are one-of-a-kind 17-inch billet LW69s from Legendary Wheels.

Mustang business leads to a Shelby

Since the early ’90s, CDC’s primary focus has been on new Mustangs, including its latest Outlaw package for S550 (sixth-generation) Mustangs, but at heart, George is a vintage muscle car guy. Thanks to contacts developed over the years, George has owned many factory Ford performance cars, from GT-E Cougars to the one-off 1969 Boss 302 that was originally shipped to Shelby American as a prototype for a Boss-powered GT350. Back in 2018, one of George’s contacts gave him a lead about a 1969 Shelby GT500 survivor that had spent its entire life in the dry Colorado climate.

“He’s primarily a Pontiac Trans-Am guy,” George explains, “but he always lets me know if he comes across an interesting Ford muscle car. He described the Shelby, and I bought it sight unseen.”

Huisman describes the Gulfstream Aqua, white-interior Shelby survivor as the typical “I’m going to restore it one day” car. A two-owner car with 54,000 miles and minor rust, but in good overall shape, the GT500 (VIN 9F02R481951) was structurally sound. The exterior looked worse than it really was, as a previous owner had started working on the body. The passenger side fiberglass fender most obviously showed signs of the beginning of the restoration that hit a dead end.

For Huisman, the Shelby was the perfect starting point for a restoration. Never one to follow the norms and always an out-of-the-box thinker, George aimed for a concours-type restoration, but with a few reversible modern updates to enhance reliability, performance, drivability and safety.

A Shelby with a twist

“We built it with the plan to tastefully ‘re-spec’ the Shelby GT500 with modern components to make it more enjoyable to drive,” says George’s son, Travis, in a company blog. “In our opinion, too many of these cars get restored only to get trailered or towed to car shows. We wanted to build a Shelby that’s enjoyable to drive without losing its original charm. This car is a driver, not a pro-touring track weapon or a restomod trying to be a late-model car with too many modern technology distractions.”

The overall project started at the CDC facility in Milford, Mich., where the GT500 was disassembled in preparation for body work and the paint application by Hunter Brown at Brown’s Auto Body Services (www.brownsautobodyservices.com). This shop in rural Louisiana, Mo., is well-known within the Mustang/Shelby community for its world-class concours restorations. Chris Brown and his team repaired the fiberglass, replaced some sheet metal (primarily the lower rear quarter panel area), then mocked up the entire body with each panel in place to assure perfect body panel alignment and gaps before the application of the Gulfstream Aqua paint. At the same time back in Milford, Huisman and the CDC team cleaned and detailed the engine, suspension and other components in preparation for reassembly to concours specifications, with a few notable exceptions.

Updating a classic

For starters, the factory 428 Cobra Jet was cleaned and detailed per original. However, Holley Terminator Stealth electronic fuel injection replaced the factory Holley four-barrel.

You wouldn't know it at first glance, but this 428 Cobra Jet lights the fire via EFI.

You wouldn't know it at first glance, but this 428 Cobra Jet lights the fire via EFI.

The EFI module is hidden in the cowl.

The EFI module is hidden in the cowl.

The GT500’s original Toploader four-speed manual transmission was swapped out for a modern Tremec TKO five-speed that adapts to the 428 CJ with a Modern Driveline Components conversion system. The smoother shifts and welcomed overdrive greatly improve the Shelby’s road manners.

The Tremec TKO five-speed

The Tremec TKO five-speed

Wilwood four-wheel disc brakes enhance the Shelby’s stopping capability compared to the old-school, factory-style front disc and rear drum brakes.

Externally, the Shelby’s lowered stance and larger wheels are the only indication that something is different about this otherwise concours-appearing 1969 GT500 SportsRoof. The Ride Tech Coil Over System not only improves handling to make the car more enjoyable to drive, but it also offers adjustable ride height and gives the Shelby an aggressive stance. Rack-and-pinion from Gate Way Performance Suspension tightens up the slack in the steering wheel.

The lowered stance is courtesy of the Ridetech suspension components.

The lowered stance is courtesy of the Ridetech suspension components.

The wheels look like the factory 15-inch five spokes that came on 1969 Shelbys, but these are one-of-a-kind 17-inch billet LW69s from Legendary Wheels. Custom machining created the factory appearance, with the rear wheels having been widened to 9.5 inches. Tires are modern high-performance radials with shaved sidewalls that have been re-lettered in a nod to the white-letter Goodyears that were original on 1969 Shelbys.

Back to body work

Once the body was painted, wet sanded and polished, George spent two weeks with the team at Brown’s Auto Body reassembling the car, then returned it to CDC for final detailing. The end result is a 1969 Shelby GT500 that looks original, but sports a wicked lowered stance with bigger wheels and a bit more muscle car attitude. CDC named the project “Re-Spec Your Elders,” a play on words for both “re-specification” and “respect” for older muscle cars, including the 1969 Shelby upon which his car is built upon.

While CDC’s bread and butter remains vintage-cue styling for new Mustangs, the 1969 Shelby GT500 shows that George Huisman and company can apply “reverse vintage” engineering to old Mustang muscle cars by adding a modern twist.

The lowered stance looks great on the 1969 Mustang's styling.

The lowered stance looks great on the 1969 Mustang's styling.

One Shelby’s gravitational pull

I recently had the opportunity to ride shotgun in the 1969 Shelby GT500 “RESPEC” from the CDC facility in Milford to Ford World Headquarters (WHQ) in Dearborn, then to Hart Plaza in Detroit for the global debut of the 2024 Ford Mustang. George and I were fortunate to be part of the Mustang Stampede and were positioned 10th during the drive from WHQ to the Detroit venue. The ride was exceptional; George put the Shelby through the paces and as he went through the gears, the engine really came to life. The Holley EFI was very responsive and retained the factory 428 CJ engine sound. Truly music to the ears.

About an hour was spent at Ford WHQ for the cruise-in, and the “RESPEC” Shelby GT500 had enthusiasts taking it in the entire time. The same was true when we parked it with the other Mustangs from our Stampede grouping on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit. In observing spectators take in the Shelby, it’s common to see them catch sight of it from afar, then gravitate to it for a closer look. Once they take it all in, they are full of questions. Most people think it’s stock except for the wheels and tires. During the entire day and stops along the way, it was clear that people flat-out like it, myself included.

George Huisman has the utmost respect for Carroll Shelby and the automobiles and products bearing his name. At the onset, George made it his personal goal to build the ’69 GT500 he named “RESPEC” the way Carroll Shelby would have done it with the technology and resources available today.

“The name ‘RESPEC’ was given to the car, in part, with the intent to acknowledge and pay respect to one of the greatest automobile legends of our lifetime,” George said.

We think Shelby would agree with the finished product — an eye-catching 1969 Shelby transformed into an improved road warrior using modern performance enhancements for additional enjoyment on the open road. After all, that’s exactly what Shelby did with the tools available to him back in 1969.

Epilogue

On June 27, 2021, Chris Brown, owner of Brown’s Auto Body Services, unexpectedly passed away. He had a major role in the 1969 Shelby GT500 “RESPEC” project. Chris and his son, Hunter, and their team went beyond the norm to make the project a huge success. Chris also encouraged everyone involved in the project to “have fun,” no matter what the obstacles. Roadblocks were met with enthusiasm and laughter in the Chris Brown way. He’s sorely missed by the CDC team and everyone who knew him, especially his wife, Lisa, Hunter and the rest of the Brown family.

Hunter Brown has taken over ownership of Brown’s Auto Body Services. The hobby is supporting Hunter as he starts this new chapter in his life and continues the legacy of his father.

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