In a Horsepower Race, Cobra-Maker Shelby Offers Power Plus Fuel Economy

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 23, 2014

Despite the urgent need to improve American cars’ fuel economy, we’re in a horsepower race. The Dodge Challenger Hellcat offers 707 horsepower. The McLaren MP4-12C, with twin turbochargers, pushes out 616. The Corvette Z06 tops that with an awesome 650.

Shelby's Mustangs add a dollop of horsepower to cars that are already fast. (Shelby American photo)So where is Shelby American supposed to go, then? Remember, this is the company that made its name in the 1960s dropping Ford V-8s into tiny British AC and Sunbeam sports cars, then hot-rodding Mustangs. It’s still at it (and still adding testosterone to Fords) but now with some sense of social responsibility.

Shelby isn’t giving up on muscle—it entices with cars that offer 850 and even, based on the GT500, 1,100-rip-roaring horsepower (when 850 “just is not enough”). But some of ‘em actually get fairly good mileage, while doubling as grocery getters.

Shelby's GT Mustangs can top 1,000 horsepower. (Shelby American photo) According to Gary Patterson, vice president of strategic sales, the company’s 650-horsepower Supersnake will manage 25 mpg on the highway, and the 850-horsepower car does 20. “The 850 Supersnake can do 10-second quarter miles,” Patterson said. “But then you can change the tires and drive it home with clean emissions. You can also sit in traffic on the 405 [in LA], or take it to the supermarket. And it has all the creature comforts, all the good positive stuff without the negatives.”

Even the Ford Focus gets the Shelby treatment with 252 horsepower. (Shelby American photo)I asked Patterson if Shelby would ever work out his magic on an electric car, and he agreed it’s possible. “We wouldn’t rule it out,” he said. I interviewed the company’s founder—race driver, chicken farmer and good ‘ol Texas boy Carroll Shelby—in the latter years of his life (after his heart transplant) and found him surprisingly sanguine about hybrids and electric cars. He shared that sentiment with Reeves Callaway, another horsepower guy (known for his twin-turbo Corvettes).

The obvious car to turn into a hot rod is the Tesla Model S, but that’s already been claimed by yet another sports tuner, Steve Saleen. And Saleen will have his hands full, because Tesla itself just announced the P85D with 691-horsepower, 687-foot pounds of torque, all-wheel drive and zero to 60 in 3.2 seconds. Top that, Saleen!

This Shelby Raptor started life as a Ford F150 truck, America's most popular vehicle. (Shelby American photo)Patterson says Shelby has “a lot of very cool stuff coming.” Right now the company will sell you hopped-up Mustangs, modern interpretations of the 289 and 427 Cobras, a Ford Focus pocket rocket (252 horsepower with up to 32 mpg), and even a 575-horsepower Raptor truck. In good years they sell 300 to 400 cars.

It’s hard to argue that 1,000-horsepower cars are socially responsible, but at least if they’re going to make them they should have the best fuel economy and emissions available, and Shelby is good about that. I think ultimately firms like this will end up customizing electric cars, and since they’re zero emission the horsepower is arguably irrelevant to the planet (though they’d suck up a lot of electrons).

And speaking of that almost-700-horsepower Tesla, Mark Modica of the National Legal and Policy Center argues that such a rich man’s toy (it’s expected to cost $120,000 or more) shouldn’t receive the federal government’s $7,500 tax credit for electric cars.

“Tesla's recipe for success to date has been to make vehicles that can be afforded by only the wealthiest Americans while the rest of the population is expected to foot the bill for a portion of the cost in the form of tax credits.” That’s probably a good applause line for red-meat conservative audiences, and Modica does have a certain point, but think about it—who decides which cars get the tax credit and which don’t?
Inevitably, someone would have to decide that electric car A is an irresponsible rich man’s bauble, and electric car B is a good citizen. There’d have to be a cutoff somewhere, and it would end up looking like favoritism—one carmaker is in, the other out.
Modica refers to electric carmakers taking “billions of dollars of taxpayer money” but keep in mind that Tesla paid back the $451-million balance on its loan last year, and nine years early, too.

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