On Feb. 15, 1965, at the Green Valley Raceway just outside Smithville, in Carroll Shelby’s home state of Texas, Ken Miles drove a GT350 Competition Model in the BP Division to the first of what would be a long line of racing victories for Shelby Mustangs. It was during this historic race that an image was captured with Miles at the wheel and all four wheels off the ground, forever tagging that car as the “Flying Mustang.”
One of the “kids” that worked on that winning car back at Shelby’s home port of Venice, Calif., was Jim Marietta, who had officially joined the original Shelby crew in early January 1965. Marietta came to Venice from North Royalton, Ohio, where he had become quite adept at turning a wrench, having been taught the basics by his father. Back home, Marietta had honed his skills on Dad’s Classic Auburn 854 supercharged convertible sedan, a Cord 812-SC Beverly sedan and even an original Reo Speedwagon. Marietta left high school to employ his natural skills as a mechanic, which provided him with a rather handsome income.
An avid reader of motor sports publications of the day, Marietta was intrigued with the racing victories of the little Shelby Cobra. Wanting to be a part of that excitement, Marietta started to follow the circuit, flying to the different tracks, buying a general admission ticket and then hopping the paddock fence and working his way to the Shelby team’s pit area. While there, he started to lend a hand where he could.
“I kept showing up at racing events where Shelby was competing and hanging around in the pits,” Marietta said, “After a few races, Al Dowd took notice of me and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. If I showed up at an event, I could become an official member of the Shelby Team and wouldn’t have to pay admission. I had to pay for my own transportation to and from the event and I wasn’t going to get paid for working, but they did offer to feed me and put me up with the rest of the team. How could I say no?”
At the end of that racing season, the 17-year-old kid from Ohio was offered a paying position if he wanted to relocate to California. Leaving home the day after Christmas 1964, Marietta arrived with tools in hand at 1042 Princeton Drive, the front door of Shelby American’s Venice headquarters. His assignment was the assembly of some of the first Mustang GT350 Competition Models. At the time, the “choice” jobs at the Venice shop were working on the Cobra roadsters, the fabulous Daytona coupes or the other racing vehicles, but those positions were filled by the more senior members of the crew. However, many days, after his regular shift ended, Marietta and several others stayed to volunteer help on those projects both for the ability to learn and for the excitement that was being generated in that red brick building. One of Marietta’s contributions to the GT350 Competition Models was figuring out how to hand-form the rear wheel flaring to accommodate the larger rear tires. Given only the tools of the day, he hammered and pulled and taught himself how to get the job done. As he says today of his flares, “They weren’t pretty, but they did the trick.”
While at Shelby during that historic era, Marietta learned more than any trade school could have taught him and he became an important part of the Shelby Team. He stayed with the crew through the move from the original Venice shop to the much larger hanger facility at Los Angeles International Airport. When work on the prototype Mustang GT350 with independent rear suspension ceased at the end of 1965, one of the Ford engineers that had been working with the Shelby Team encouraged Marietta to take a break from his mechanical career. He urged Marietta to go back to Ohio to get his high school diploma and then rethink his future. Heeding that advice, Marietta returned to school where he graduated, went to college and later to law school. Marietta then went into the field of forensic accounting where he would spend the bulk of his professional career.
Original Shelby crew members reunite
Marietta never lost his interest in motorsports or forgot his days at Shelby. In 2013, he began to think that it would be interesting to recreate just one more GT350 Competition Model in time for the 50th anniversary. Upon finding a solid but tired original K-code (271 hp V-8) 1965 Mustang 2+2 fastback just like the ones Shelby had used for his original cars, Marietta began to consult with other surviving members of that original crew. Master fabricator and, as Marietta refers to him, “indispensable” Ted Sutton was called on for his expertise. Peter Brock, who had developed many of the features for the GT350 Competition Models, was also contacted. (Brock is credited with the plain rear quarter window treatment, the unique rear back window with an opening under the roofline to provide ventilation and a wide-open front end design that to many looks unfinished — and, according to Brock, it was — plus the hood scoop and the previously mentioned rear wheel flares.)
Sutton was no easy sell for signing up on this project, but Marietta had a great product and was quite the salesman. In the end, not only did Ted Sutton and Peter Brock sign on board, Brock offered his shop as the place to build this special car. As an additional contribution, one feature Ford Advanced Vehicles had developed, but didn’t make it into production, was an excellent independent rear suspension setup that had been tested, but was deemed cost-prohibitive as a production feature. On the advice of Brock, this, too, became part of Marietta’s new continuation GT350 anniversary special. Under the hood, a Shelby-built 289-cid V-8 was installed along with several other touches such as a hand-made replica of the original intake plenum produced by another talented soul, Jere Kirkpatrick.
On Feb. 15, 2015, the reborn GT350 Competition Model was transported to the Willow Springs Raceway near Lancaster, Calif., one of the tracks where the original cars had been tested. With skilled test drivers behind the wheel, this sleek Mustang was put through its paces. After the run, Sutton realized that this accomplishment had been conducted 50 years to the day from when Ken Miles scored the first victory for the GT350 with the “Flying Mustang” at Green Valley Raceway.
Over the next few months, the car was shown at several major events, demonstrated by a select group of skilled drivers. These included John Morton who, along with Ken Miles and Skip Scott, had won the GT Class at Road America in 1964 with Team Cobra; Vince LaViolette, current vice-president of Shelby American and its lead test driver, who probably has more seat-time in those special Mustangs that anyone else; plus Rick Titus, whose father, Jerry, had been a part of the Shelby 1964 SCCA Championship team and who, as a young man, had been able to experience GT350s when they were new.
To say that this new GT350 was well-received would be an understatement as requests came in for more Mustangs to be built by these men to the original specs. It led Marietta to formally create Original Venice Crew (OVC) with Marietta serving as the CEO (though he bills himself as “Mechanic & Fabricator”). Colleagues Sutton and Brock also work in official capacities. OVC sought out official licenses from both Shelby American and Ford Motor Co., and it was agreed that no more than 36 of the Continuation Shelby GT350 Competition Models would be produced. Shelby International in Gardena, Calif., even offered one of Shelby’s former engine building facilities for the project headquarters. With that deal completed, OVC was in business.
“We chose the number 36 as that was how many of the original Competition or GT350 models were produced,” Marietta said. “To date we have under construction and delivered 10 of the 36 and another 12 or so have been ordered.”
Several subtle changes or “corrections” have been undertaken on these continuation models. In some cases, these had been ideas that were in progress on Brock’s drawing board back in 1965. At one point, Brock was called away to another project in Europe before these plans could be completed. By the time he returned to the shops, his partial plans had been put into production.
For the continuation models, Brock’s original final design has been incorporated. One of these designs is for the special rear window, which allows for better ventilation and a weight savings over the factory glass backlight. The new GT350 C/M provides for better vision and even better aerodynamics, which combined with Ford’s Advance Vehicles independent rear suspension, makes this an excellent handling vehicle. One item that remained unchanged, however, are the hand-formed rear wheel flares.
“Look at them and you will see they are not perfect,” Marietta pointed out to us, “but they were far from perfect on the originals, so that is one feature we have replicated to perfection.”
Sutton best wrapped up the goal of the OVC’s GT350 C/M by saying, “This car is being put together the way it should have been, but for time and budget considerations.”
An old thrill again
At the point in our visit where we were taken to the garage to photograph the prototype GT350 C/M, we were offered a most special opportunity.
“Climb in, buckle up,” Marietta offered, “let’s go for a ride.”
With a turn of the key, the small-block V-8 roared to life. This car, like the originals, was not built for comfort or luxury cruising. It was bare-bones performer, a thrill we had not experienced since a ride we had with Carroll Shelby back in the 1990s. After a little bit of warming up, we drove the GT350 C/M onto a lightly traveled street near OVC’s headquarters. For the next 25 minutes, we repeatedly watched the speedometer needle shoot from zero to past the century mark in a matter of seconds. Not only does this car move like greased lightning, it seemed like it was glued to the road. And Marietta seems right at home behind the wheel.
“We have driven this car all over, took it to Las Vegas a while back,” Marietta said, “and it performed perfectly without any issues or concerns.” And yes, it is street legal, too!
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