Bair Customs


The first thing you need to know is that this gorgeous 1968 Shelby GT500E convertible is the real deal. It’s got a Shelby serial number, it’s in the Shelby SAUR Registry, and it has the full approval of Carroll Shelby himself. It’s one of only two GT500E convertibles built by Unique Performance, with the other being a shop demonstrator vehicle that was lost in the chaos following Unique’s collapse. We’ll get to that story in a moment, but the important thing here is this particular GT500E convertible, which is simply spectacular in every way and shows just 684 miles since it was built, is one of only two ever built by Unique Performance.

The story has to go all the way back to 1995 when Disney somehow acquired the rights to the “Gone in 60 Seconds” story originally filmed in the early 1970s. Essentially, it’s a 2-hour car chase with a featured 1971 Mustang named Eleanor doing some pretty impressive stuff. But 25 years later, maybe it was time for a reboot, so they gave it a giant budget, plenty of star power (Nicholas Cage and Angelina Jolie, among other notables), and had Jerry Bruckheimer blow it up, er, direct it. The new film had a lot more drama built in, a more cohesive story (such as it was), but one thing was the same: a Mustang named Eleanor figured very prominently in the action. Noted designer Steve Stanford was tapped to design the new “hero” car, and the result is arguably the most recognizable Mustang ever built. The movie cars had input from Chip Foose and were built by Cinema Vehicle Services and were never really intended for public consumption, although one or two were built for promotional purposes and of the eleven or twelve—nobody’s sure—three have come to auction in recent years with one trading hands for more than $1,000,000. That’s a pretty big number for a Mustang of any kind and shows you just how much star power that movie really carried. Even 15 years later, these cars are icons.

Anyway, Eleanor Fever reached its heights in the years following the premiere of the latest “Gone in 60 Seconds” film. Inevitably and as expected, Carroll Shelby got involved and tribute cars started showing up at shows around the country. Arguably the finest Eleanor Mustangs were coming out of a little shop in Farmer’s Branch, Texas called Unique Performance, and they quickly struck a deal with both Carroll Shelby and Chip Foose to become, essentially, the modern-day equivalent of Shelby-American circa 1967. The Eleanor Mustangs, including the Super Snakes, were special because they had a pedigree, something that none of the other Eleanor clones could offer. Like the Cobras being built at Shelby’s Las Vegas facility, they were “continuation” cars, not replicas, and as such were afforded special privileges in the Shelby community, not the least of which was inclusion in the SAAC roster, an honor granted only to genuine Shelby automobiles. This is kind of a big deal.

Now the rest of the story is perhaps even more dramatic than the movie itself, and it’s also what makes the Unique Performance Eleanor Mustangs so highly sought today, because a great backstory always adds value. For reasons that aren’t altogether clear, Unique was collecting deposits like mad on the Eleanor Mustangs and seemingly couldn’t build them fast enough. Some folks seem to believe there was a Ponzi scheme going on where new deposits were used to finish old builds and eventually the whole thing just couldn’t support itself. Whether it was intentional or not is impossible to say, because the guys who did it aren’t talking. Were they victims of their own success who just couldn’t keep up with demand, or were they really out to steal from rich guys who wanted a slice of movie magic in their garages? At this point, it’s impossible to say, but the safe bet is that the truth is somewhere in between.

Eventually, some irate buyers who had placed rather substantial deposits to get their place in line at Unique Performance called in the authorities. After a lot of finger-pointing, some issues involving reproduction bodies and authentic VINs, and a whole host of other sordid accounting problems, Unique Performance was forced out of business forever, ending their relationship with Shelby, who, having been blamed for many of the problems, was none too pleased with the situation himself. It’s a classic story of good intentions being spoiled by money, fame, and success. Carroll Shelby, who was named in several lawsuits by angry customers has apparently tapped two other shops to complete those cars for clients. Nevertheless, the cars built by Unique Performance are held in higher regard than any of the other “clones” and subsequent “approved” builds, but whether that’s because of or despite their story remains open to debate. In the Shelby world, there’s definitely a pecking order, and the cars built by Unique Performance remain special to this day.

And that brings us full circle back to this stunning GT500E convertible. In the film, Eleanor was a Shelby GT500 fastback and that’s what Unique Performance was building. Most were Pewter with black stripes, just like in the film, and as a custom build, you could pretty much tailor it to your exact specifications. The options list was extensive and I’m pretty sure that if you could imagine it, the guys at Unique Performance would build it for you. Somewhere along the line, someone at Unique decided to build an Eleanor convertible, which they did, painting it white with blue stripes and giving it every trick they could throw at it. That car became a demonstrator and a part of Unique’s showroom display and a show vehicle at events like the SEMA show in Las Vegas. And until this car was built, that demonstrator was the only convertible ever built.

This convertible Eleanor is the second of two built by Unique Performance, and the only one built for a private customer. It varies from the demonstrator car only in that it has black stripes instead of blue, but otherwise packs just about every upgrade they could throw at an Eleanor Mustang. Original sticker price? Almost $190,000, a substantial figure for any vintage Mustang, Shelby or not. It was built near the end of Unique’s run so there are no others coming from that particular shop (there’s another shop currently building such cars, staffed largely by the truly talented guys who got left out in the cold when Unique Performance folded), so it’s definitely one of only two in existence. The other remains in a private collection, having changed hands at auction a few years ago.

So if you want a documented, Shelby-approved, Unique Performance Eleanor GT500E convertible, well, this is the only one currently available.

Looking at this car, it’s obvious that whatever management’s problems were, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the guys who actually built the cars. This car’s build quality easily exceeds the very best of what Shelby and Ford were doing in the 1960s and is representative of what a quarter-million dollars would buy in a high-end custom shop in the mid-2000s. It’s simply jaw-dropping in every way possible. There’s original Mustang sheetmetal skillfully blended with the Eleanor components that make these cars so special, and the transition from fastback to convertible was skillfully done so this car looks every bit as nasty as the cars in the film.

Build quality, as I said, is pretty darned impressive. Unlike the original Shelbys, whose fiberglass pieces would fit better or worse depending on the temperature and humidity on the day it was assembled, this car has tight gaps, exacting panel alignment, and the modern composite pieces like the distinctive Unique Performance domed hood and Shelby-style deck lid are immune to those particular foibles. The nose cone carries an array of lights, all of which are fully functional, and it, too, fits flush with the surrounding bodywork, something that even Ford could never quite master. The side pipes are cleverly concealed inside flush-fitting side skirts and the rear fascia offers sequential Thunderbird-style taillights, although these appear to be modern components, not junkyard cast-offs. The paint, which is a pure, brilliant white rather than Ford’s softer Wimbledon White, is accentuated with black stripes, which, with the black interior, is a more consistent look than the blue stripes might have been, and it does carry the requisite “GT500E” insignia on the rockers. If you want a car that generates attention, I’ll admit that nothing I’ve ever driven does it better than this car. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, stops to watch this Mustang go by.

Inside, it’s pure Mustang with a few modern upgrades to make it a no-compromises Mustang. The most noticeable change are those form-fitting Scat ProCar bucket seats, which you’ll probably need given the grip that the suspension generates. I can only imagine trying to drive this car with the slippery and flat original chairs—no thanks! Obviously everything inside is new, including the carpets, door panels, dash pad, and other Mustang components, and with so few miles, it’s all in as-new condition. The original dashboard and instrument panel remain intact, but the gauges are modern dials with Carroll Shelby’s signature on their faces, as well as a Cobra logo. And speaking of Ol’ Shel’s signature, it appears inside this car at least six times, and throughout the car perhaps 11 or 12 times, just in case you didn’t know what it was. In true Shelby style, there is no center console, but the shifter for the Tremec 5-speed manual gearbox is a trick billet aluminum piece that is as quick and precise as a toggle switch, but needs a firm hand to manage it. This is not a car you simply drive, you need to master it and with 450 horsepower on tap, you’d better be at the top of your game.

But if you do decide to just go cruising, the GT500E will happily oblige with potent and functional A/C, a great-sounding Sony XPlod AM/FM/CD/MP3/iPod stereo system, and a leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel. 5-point safety harnesses are a great feature in a car with this much potential and are properly installed with heavy-duty anchor plates in the floor. Back seat access is still quite good and you’ll note that the bench seat has been upholstered to match the modern buckets up front. Overhead there’s a beautifully fitted black canvas power convertible top with a stock-style folding glass rear window and it stows under a matching black boot that fits quite well, even with the custom 4-point roll bar in place. The only notable defect on the entire car is a blemish on the leading edge of the top, noticeable up close but not a big deal, especially since the top will likely stay out of sight for a majority of its life. It also offers a full-scale trunk with a neatly installed fuel cell in the floor and a very trick filler neck that attaches to the quarter panel’s billet flip-up style cap. As I said, the attention to detail on this car is very impressive.

Horsepower is not an issue thanks to a 351 Windsor V8 punched out to 408 cubic inches. It’s a neat fit in the Mustang’s engine bay, and while the original GT500s were big block cars, this one makes big block power without the big block weight. As a result, it’s a nimble handler without sacrificing that big hit of torque that you get when you crack the throttle. That throttle is attached to a Hilborn-style fuel injection system with eight individual velocity stacks, which makes for a very impressive appearance when you open the hood. It also works like it should, because this car starts easily and idles perfectly, even when it’s cold, and the torque curve is more of a straight line with seemingly endless reserves at any speed. Everything under the hood is detailed for show, with polished aluminum, chrome, and anodized components throughout, including a trick billet serpentine accessory system that keeps everything humming along. Inner fenders are a textured material that’s probably indestructible and provides a nice background for the shiny hardware. There’s a giant aluminum radiator up front, again with Carroll Shelby’s signature on it and the car’s serial number, and even on warm days idling in traffic with the A/C on, it never threatens to overheat. Perhaps most importantly to collectors, the original Shelby VIN tag is still on the inner fender, proving that this car is, indeed, a certified genuine Shelby, with the “C” on the tail end denoting “convertible.”

The chassis was heavily reinforced to make the GT500E a handler as well as a straight-line threat, a well-rounded performance car for the 21st century. The front suspension is familiar with A-arms and coil-over shocks, as well as a modern rack-and-pinion steering system for laser-sharp precision. The rear suspension is incredibly trick, and please take a good look at the photos because this is some truly spectacular engineering. It’s a familiar 9-inch, albeit with a nodular center section and 3.73 gears inside, but the inboard coil-over shocks on bell cranks provide improved axle control without the unsprung weight, so it rides and handles like a much younger car. There’s also a torque arm and a modified Watt’s linkage for lateral location, all hanging on a special tubular subframe to keep it locked down. The side pipes are fed by a custom-built exhaust system with special mufflers built especially for these cars and the soundtrack is simply spectacular. You’ll also notice subframe connectors to reinforce the drop-top’s tub, heavy-duty torque boxes, and giant vented and cross-drilled disc brakes at all four corners. Trick 17-inch Halibrand style wheels with knock-offs give it an authentic ‘60s Shelby look but allow the use of modern 245/40/17 front and 275/40/17 rear BFGoodrich G-Force radials that’ll bounce your eyeballs off the inside of your skull.

How does it drive? Superbly. Turn the key and it starts instantly and idles perfectly right from the get-go. Power delivery is smooth and linear, the ride is supple but capable, and while it still feels like a vintage Mustang, no car built 45 years ago had this kind of performance. It’ll spin the tires in third gear if you get on it too hard, but the brakes are there to bail you out if you get in over your head. Nevertheless, this is not a car for amateurs or rookies, so be warned that they didn’t tame the animal, they merely put a suit on it and took it out on the town.

With just under 700 miles on the build, it is still virtually new in every possible way. The paint is unmarked, the interior shows no signs of use, and everything works like it should. It’s still a vintage Mustang, but having enjoyed thousands of hours of attention, it’s something more today. Documented with original paperwork, including a written warranty and final delivery checklist, this is a highly pedigreed Shelby GT500E that stops everyone in their tracks when they first see it. It’s a one-owner car, too, so there’s an unbroken chain of ownership back to day one.

There are plenty of Eleanor clones out there, and you can buy a lesser car for less money. But they’re all expensive and if you want a documented, one-of-two convertible from the guys that started it all, this is it. Protect your investment with a pedigree, and as a bonus, you also get one of the most beautifully finished and capable Mustangs we’ve ever seen. Extraordinary.

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