Tuesday, February 9, 2021

[GT350] Helping a friend drive his new car home from Texas

Over the holidays, a friend decided that he needed some flat plane crank in his life and started looking for a GT350. He'd set out initially looking for a slice of V8 muscle car, trying out a standard-trim Mustang GT, but found that it wasn't as buttoned-down as he liked. A test drive of a GT350 won his heart, and after a deal on a used example fell through he looked at what might be available new. With the GT350 going out of production in its current guise (the GT500 is left to carry the torch), a sense of urgency set in and he narrowed his search down to the Heritage Edition. It's a cosmetic package but a good one in my opinion, with the car painted in classic Wimbledon White with Guardsman Blue stripes. 

He wanted a Heritage Edition with Recaro seats (many seem to get optioned with the less-cool leather seats for some reason), and with the usual California dealership mark-up game that meant he had to go all the way to Katy, Texas to snag one at MSRP. With only a few vacation days available, and more interested in an epic road trip than paying $2k for shipping, he asked me to fly out to Texas with him and copilot the car back to San Francisco. Here's my report on the trip, which we completed just last weekend - I hope you enjoy it.


The first order of business was to plan, map, and plot the route. Due to the vacation day constraint, we knew we had to keep it tight: a 2-week road trip exploring the southwest would be amazing, but we had essentially two days off to work with, plus the weekend. Further constraining our route was the season: it's winter and the car is on Cup2 tires. We knew that I-10 would have to be the backbone of our trip, but went out of our way (literally) to make sure that we could break the car in properly and see some unique pockets of West Texas. 

The GT350 doesn't have a spare, and with our route taking us through some remote stretches we didn't want to get stuck on the side of the road without cell service. We had a 100-mile tow service AAA membership between us, but that's no good if you can't call them. We ordered ahead a scissor jack, tire plug kit, and minimum wrench supplies to get a wheel off for a roadside plug if needed. We also ordered some GT350 oil, not knowing if it would be readily available at auto parts stores. 

Another important consideration for the route: we picked up the car with 9 miles on the clock, and it needed to be broken in. The factory manual doesn't have much to say on the manner - nothing compared to the forum experts - calling for "100 miles before performing extended wide-open throttle maneuvers and 1000 miles before performance or competition conditions." More important for us is the next bit: "Note: Vary your speed frequently in order to give the moving parts a chance to break in." I trust the manufacturer in these matters, so instead of jumping straight on the freeway, we plotted the first 100 miles through farm-to-market roads to keep the RPMs moving around. 

Final consideration: the GT350 has a 16-gallon fuel tank and is rated at 16mpg mixed-use. That's a pretty short ~250 mile cruising range, so I looked ahead and made sure that we had Shell/Chevron stops bridging us all the way home. It was a lot of upfront planning, but like I said, we were on a schedule - things had to go smoothly and I wanted to get ahead of anything I could as a good copilot. I did stop short of mapping out every Ford dealer on the route, at least.


Our journey began on Thursday morning, flying out of an empty SFO towards Houston. Looking out the window and watching the country roll by, I was reminded of the time I ran the Boston marathon in college. I lived near the finish line, and had to get a friend to drive me out to the start 26 miles away. That drive seemed to go on forever, and it really hit me that I was going to be getting home the long way. This flight gave me a similar sensation.

We hit IAH soon enough, landing at about 4pm and catching a ride to the dealership in Katy, on the west side of Houston. We felt a bit silly rolling in with our bags, but the paperwork had all been completed digitally and all that was left to do was enjoy the moment.

First glimpse...

Not only was this a Recaro car, but it also had the Track Pack (adjustable front strut mounts and an additional gurney flap on the back wing) and the carbon fiber dash trim. 

We looked over the car to make sure everything was good, loaded up the trunk, and then took on the important task of smothering the front of the car in painters tape. Here we met Alistair, who works at the dealer and drives a badass orange GT350 of his own. He helped us tape the car and bestowed upon us much GT350 wisdom, tips, and even gave us some (more) spare oil in case ours hadn't made it to the hotel. 

They let us peel off all the screen protectors, tags, and films. They hadn't even drilled the rear plate mounting points! I did the first one to break the ice/plastic and then the proud new owner finished it off.

7 hours of taping later (not quite) and we were ready to get going... to the hotel around the corner. But not before we had a crack at some Tex-Mex. Alistair's last piece of advice proved to be the tastiest, and we enjoyed an awesome meal at Lupe Tortilla. 


Texas is a big place. In a three-day drive across the US from Atlanta to LA, the entire middle day is just crossing Texas. For this route we focused on break-in and getting familiar with the car; driving FM337; and staying off of I-10 to float further south.

We started the journey with a clean, gassed GT350. And a lot of photos. I love this color scheme, and the gloss back accents (mirrors, wheels, spoiler) really bring it all together in my eyes.

We set out from Katy in the early morning, using farm roads adjacent to I-10 to break the car in. At the 100-mile mark we dropped in to La Grange for the very first fuel stop.

This isn't a car for the bashful, and the combination of loud exhaust, painters tape, and California mask-usage attracted eyes almost everywhere we stopped on the trip.

I took a moment to appreciate the scale of the car at this point. The front tires are 295s, the rears 305. The front brake discs are 15.5", the rears are 15". My M3 came from the factory on 15" wheels.

We skipped around San Antonio, taking the 1604 loop road up and around the city center. Here we stopped for lunch. When in Rome...

We ventured north and west of San Antonio toward the roads known as the Twisted Sisters in the Texas hill country. We didn't get to do the whole loop, but we ran 337 from Vanderpool to Leakey and got our first taste of the GT350's performance.

Didn't come away with any great photos from this stretch of road... too busy holding on. At this stage we were still in the low hundreds of miles and building our way up on the tachometer, but it didn't matter. This car demonstrated huge power, grip, and braking capability all wrapped up in an incredible exhaust note. They can sell it this loud? Wow.

We followed 83 south to Uvalde, where we caught 90 westbound. Our next stop was in Del Rio, a border town right next to Laughlin Air Force base. I used the late afternoon light for some photos and we tended to the blue tape that hadn't been up to freeway speeds.

I thought that the Recaros would be hell on a trip of this length, with no lumbar support and aggressive bolstering, but I was thoroughly surprised to find them completely comfortable even on 12+ hour days. I was thankful for the GT350's small tank size though - it meant we would stop every 3 hours or so, which is a nice cadence for a long haul in a car like this.

Leaving Del Rio, we got a few more great dusk photos in Comstock before starting the most nerve-wracking leg of our whole drive.

West of Comstock is... well... nothing. No lights - no towns - no gas stops - no cell service. Nothing but straight roads, rolling arid countryside, and darkness. For a while we passed trucks, but somewhere around maybe Sanderson we no longer saw traffic in either direction. We covered this stretch in darkness, and as two hours passed our idle chatter died down and we grew anxious to make it through to our destination, Alpine. This is the scenario I was thinking of when expecting a worst-case tire failure.

Thankfully we can add another "nothing" to that stretch of road: nothing happened. We made it through to Alpine safely - my fuel calculations were correct, we found the hotel, and we were able to grab a nice bite of pizza at a local joint (Guzzi Up) before closing. An unexpected rain shower passed through and dampened the blue tape, and we fueled up before passing out for the night.

Day miles: 604
Day driving time: 10h24


We woke up bright and early again on Saturday, excited for what we expected to be our best stretch of driving on the trip.

We hit an obstacle almost immediately when a long freight train parked in the middle of Alpine, blocking all of the crossings. After a short wait we detoured to the bridge at the far side of town (only a mile or two) and went around it. We were heading south on 118, bound for Terlingua. 

118 was empty on this Saturday morning and with huge visibility, we had no problem stretching the Mustang's legs. We really put the blue tape to the test.

Terlingua is near (in?) Big Bend National Park, nestled right up along the border with Mexico. The entire town, and the 200,000 acres around it, were owned in the early 60s by none other than the man himself, Carroll Shelby. Shelby used it as a getaway for himself and friends, and with a population of only 7 people he had free reign to give the Terlingua City Council its own coat of arms. Amused by his creation, he applied the graphic to Ken Miles's GT350R at Green Valley Raceway on Valentine's Day of 1965. The car won the race and the rest is history... the Terlingua Racing Team logo was applied to other cars first as a prank, before finding its way to Jerry Titus's Trans-Am winning yellow and black Mustang in 1967. You can read all about it and see some great period photos on the TRT official website.

I'd love to tell you that we knew all this, and that's why we made a point of detouring so aggressively to Terlingua. But to be honest... I had absolutely no clue of this story until I stumbled across this auction on BringATrailer this week and recognized the name of the town. So we accidentally took a Ken Miles-commemorating Shelby GT350 right through Carroll's backyard from his heyday. Call it serendipity I guess. 

However we got there, this portion of the trip delivered in a huge way. FM170 is an incredible roller coaster of a road, cutting through the amazing scenery delivering that perfect combination of spectacle and excellent driving. The icing on the cake was the way that the road hugs the Rio Grande - the other side of the river is Mexico. No wall, no fence, no border guards. In the picture above, the other side of that narrow shallow waterway is Mexico! 

We kept having to pull over because the scenery kept getting better. 

Again, the other side of the Rio Grande there is Mexico!

Happy new owner

FM170 is an awesome drive and worth the detour if you find yourself in the neighborhood. In our case, we both agreed (while planning) that we'd probably never have another occasion to come this way, and added it to the route. It's 30 minutes direct from Alpine to Marfa, our way added nearly 4 hours but I'd do it again no question.

We blew back into Marfa to top off the tank and grab a bite of lunch. This spot was good, but 100% tourists. Excellent fried chicken sandwich.
We left Marfa taking 90 west, with one more stop of interest before hitting I-10 and following that all the way to Los Angeles.

Prada Marfa is an art installation, put up in 2005; it doesn't function as an actual Prada store, though there is merchandise inside. I think it's a comment on consumerism and luxury goods set against a backdrop of basically nothing; the town of Valentine is nearby, but to be frank it's extremely bleak. Prada hates the store and the locals might as well, it's been vandalized numerous times. I was amazed that we had the place to ourselves for a few minutes on that Saturday after lunch... awesome photo op.

Unfortunately once we rejoined I-10 the interesting scenery dissipated. About 15 minutes outside of El Paso the GT350 crossed the 1000-mile mark. We made another gas stop and kept rolling into New Mexico.

Things were getting dark by the time we hit Arizona, bound for Phoenix to try to make the Sunday traversal of California as short as possible.

Our final fuel stop of the day was at this charming Chevron in Bowie, Arizona.

I'm not sure if this photo does it justice, but we had this awesome multi-color sunset behind the mountains as we kept running west. We rolled into Phoenix well after dark.

Day miles: 828
Day driving time: 12h48
Total miles: 1432
Total driving time: 23h12


Sunday was less about the scenery and more about getting home. The only variable in our route was the Grapevine on I-5 north out of LA. Just a few days before there had been enough snow to completely close the pass, but temperatures were in the mid-50s and the road was clear. Well, of snow. Covered in cars as usual.

Watering hole outside the hotel.

Where the $*(& is my package?

We passed this truck twice on Saturday, and again on Sunday morning. I can't believe that Mini costs $45k and comes with an automatic only. Talk about missing the point.

We hit the Golden State mid-morning. We had good drivers through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona - excellent left-lane discipline, low traffic, aware drivers. I was dismayed but not surprised to see that come to an end almost as soon as we crossed into California. I don't know what it is about the drivers here, but every trip becomes a slog. We were run off the road on I-5 near the Grapevine (traffic is always bad here, people seem to lose the ability to maintain/regulate speed when climbing or descending hills), I was driving at that point. A Camry with a back window full of balloons decided she was coming into our lane, and to her credit (?) she stuck with it even when she saw the lane was occupied, continuing to come over. I used all the shoulder available and laid into the throttle to get away, barely clearing her before coming back into the lane to dodge the huge tire tread on the shoulder. Neat.

We stopped for lunch and gas again near Joshua Tree. When we had a blue tape emergency we pulled off at the southern entrance of Joshua Tree National park and I got a couple nice photos.

I find I-5 to be soul-destroying, as I've mentioned in my write-up of our Joshua Tree trip at Thanksgiving, so we broke off west on 46 to take the 101 north instead. We hit our final gas stop in Salinas, just an hour from home. I'm not sure if I miscalculated, or if we had a heavy right foot - probably both - but we shaved a huge amount of time off our estimate. The GT350 crossed the 2000-mile mark outside of Paso Robles, while my companion snoozed and I listened to the Lord of the Rings on tape.

The road trip gods had one more gift in store for us - incredible red skies as we went by Gilroy and into San Jose. Phone camera doesn't do it justice, but it tried.

We rolled into my driveway and the trip, at least for me, was over. Only when the car was off did I dare say it: we had done the trip essentially perfectly according to plan. We had perfect weather, no traffic in the places where it mattered, it all went off without a hitch. No flats, no issues whatsoever with the car! That stuff is like an umbrella, you know... leave home without one and it will rain, bring it with you and it'll stay dry. Buy a bunch of flat tire countermeasures, you won't have any issues.

My RS watched while we peeled away all the tape. There were a couple of nicks - you can't stop them all - but I was impressed by how well the tape held up and it surely saved a few dozen chips that would have resulted otherwise.

And with that, I stumbled inside and the incredible journey was over. The car drove on a little further to its new garage.

Day miles: 740
Day driving time: 11h14
Total miles: 2172
Total driving time: 34h26

Closing thoughts

I realize now that I didn't say much at all about the car or what it's like to drive. I'm not a particularly sophisticated driver so I won't wax poetic. This car is exactly what it should be - big, loud, brash, full of character. It's like they made the styling loud, so then they made the exhaust loud to match, and then made the stereo loud to drown out the exhaust and the tires. This color scheme is a complete winner in my book, and if I bought a GT350 it would have to be either this scheme (white/blue stripes) or the inverse (blue/white stripes). As I said earlier, the black accents add visual interest. The car has huge presence and gets a reaction out of people when you park it.

I'm jealous of the exhaust - the RS has a valved system, but it's not like this. The valve doesn't just make the note go from loud to louder, it actually changes the sound. It's loud in both modes but a little more restrained in 'quiet' - opened up, it is LOUD and has that "hollow" ring that modern Mustangs have. It grumbles on over-run and all I wanted to do was run it up and down the range. There is so much excitement when you accelerate that you find yourself reaching for the shifter at 5k RPM, forgetting that you have a long way to go to redline.

The shift is short, heavy, precise. Wouldn't change a thing. The clutch has an interesting action but at the same time there's no learning curve and you can be smooth immediately. The most interesting part of the driving experience was the steering - heavy and extremely sensitive. The car tram-lines aggressively, and on the first part of Friday's drive we were floating across the lanes every time we looked down to adjust the radio or a break in the pavement ran off to one side. It's a two-hands-on-the-wheel experience which made for a lively 2000+ miles. The tires are enormous and they're Cup2s - for my "safe aggressive fun" road driving I'd never trouble them. Grip isn't an issue on the road.

I expected a harsh road trip experience - I packed earplugs - but I have to say, Ford judged this car perfectly. The track-capable performance is there, but it's juuuuust on the right side of being usable on the street. The suspension is firm but body control is excellent and I could live with it on a daily basis, but I am also used to sports cars (see my sig). Sixth gear is extremely overdrive, surprisingly so. There is a considerable RPM drop from 5 to 6, which I'm sure goes a long way toward the 20mpg highway rating and really did make the engine quiet at highway speeds. The downside is that this 500-horsepower motor needs to be downshifted if you're attempting a brisk pass at highway speeds. The Cup2s howl on bad pavement but are very quiet on good pavement. The stereo was nice and loud, but I'm not an audiophile and I was mainly trying to see what Frodo was getting up to.

This car feels like a celebration of what modern cars can be, and what they can do. It almost feels "wrong" that Ford builds a car like this straight from the factory, something so extreme (and you have the 350R and 500 beyond this!!) but legal, warrantied, completely usable. In the $65-70k price point it's just such a compelling value. What does that get you at the Porsche dealer, a base Cayman? Not even? (not ripping on Porsches, I'm sure they're lovely, but when you talk about value for dollar it's undeniable) The C8 and maybe the M2 are the only other cars in the neighborhood that might be able to deliver something like this experience, but I've not driven a C8 and have only a small amount of seat time in an M2 competition.

If you've read this far, thanks for following along and I hope you enjoyed the trip!

TLDR: amazing car amazing trip