The 2013 Shelby GT500 arrives in the Rhine Valley on a mission to master the autobahn.
By Jeff Wise
Photography by Daniel Byrne
Before I accepted the mission, they swore me to secrecy. “You’ll leave for Germany in two days,” they said. “Are you in?”
Here was the deal: Somehow, somebody had gotten their hands on a brand-new Shelby GT500—the scorching 650-hp, 200-mph number produced in collaboration with Carroll Shelby—and shipped it to Germany. The plan was to quietly unleash this prodigy of American automotive engineering into the German industrial heartland, to go head to head with the world’s most fanatically performance-conscious drivers on the legendary no-speed-limit autobahn. Then I’d head off to the country’s endless skein of narrow, serpentine country roads. My pilgrimage would ultimately take me to the storied Nürburgring Nordschleife racetrack, there to answer the ultimate questions: How would the Shelby GT500 perform on the track that a world champion racer once labeled “The Green Hell”? And more to the point, would the passionate driving fanatics who gather there throw bouquets or brickbats?
I was in.
This was a mission, not a meander. I had just two days to put the Shelby through its paces. After a red-eye from New York to Frankfurt, I showed up at Ford’s sprawling plant alongside the Rhine River in Cologne, where I was ushered into a hangar-like maintenance facility, given some papers to sign, and told to wait. After a moment, I heard an animal-like growl from beyond a set of exterior doors, a low menacing rumble, like a caged lion who’d spotted a hunk of meat. The door slid open, and there it was: deep impact blue, vivid white racing stripes running up the hood and over the roof, a venomous jaw-like grill, and a hood that bulged like an action hero’s chest just before his shirt rips off.
I’d written about the autobahn before, and spent enough time talking to German drivers to have my doubts about how the Shelby GT500 would go over. Don’t get me wrong, Germans love powerful cars. But they view performance cars the way classical musicians look at violins; they prize precision and efficiency above all else. The Shelby tramples over such delicacy. It’s got swagger, and it’s unabashedly loud. As I headed out for my first run on the autobahn, I felt like a man showing up at his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary with a Parisian runway model.
Did I attract some sidelong glances? Sure, I guess I did. But the really remarkable thing about driving the GT500 in Germany is the magnetic force field it seems to exert. Every time I stopped for gas or a bite to eat, I’d inevitably come back to find at least one German man kneeling to examine the grille or peering through a side window. There’s simply nothing like it on the German road. I asked one admirer why he liked the Shelby so much. “German cars, they are so soft, so round,” he said. “This is a muscle car. It looks strong and powerful. And the sound, it’s incredible.” He looked again at the exhaust, as though his eyes could not accept what his mind already knew. “This one has four pipes!”
In truth, it’s not even one sound, but a whole vocabulary of noises: the beastlike roaring and popping as you start it up, then the impatient grumble of first gear, the excited thrum of second, and all the way up to the unexpectedly deep, exuberant growl of sixth gear, which kicks in just as you’re about to do that Millennium-Falcon-goes-warp-speed thing and the speedometer knifes up into triple digits, trailing a wake of acoustic chaos across the tidy countryside.
Nobody, I think, was really surprised that the Shelby could go fast. If anything, the stereotype of American automotive engineering in Germany is that we can build cars that go fast in a straight line. So the real test was to get off the autobahn and switch gears for the other side of German driving, the country roads.
This is not a car, I found, that suffers fools gladly. Like a half-tame stallion, it will throw you if you don’t show enough respect. Punch the gas, and that impatient rear end will push you around and fishtail in a heartbeat. Get sloppy with the clutch in first gear, and it will stall before you can blink.
It demands a lot from the driver but pays it back in dividends. Slaloming up steep switchbacks through forests garlanded in autumn gold, zooming over hilltops past fields of sheep and cattle, I felt as though I had achieved some seamless fusion of technology and nature. I stopped for the night in the historic little village of Altenahr, whose half-timbered buildings and narrow, winding streets sheltered in a dramatic, steep valley. After a good night’s sleep, I got up early to hike up to the thousand-year-old ruins of a castle that enjoyed a bird’s-eye view over the village and the winding, swiftly flowing Ahr River. Then I hurried back down to strap myself back into the driver’s seat.
It was just a half hour to the Nürburgring, the only world-class track that regularly allows ordinary drivers to use it with no prior arrangement. When it’s not closed to the public for racing or industry testing, all you have to do is show up, buy a plastic card (€26, about $33), drive to the entrance gate and hold the card to the magnetic reader. Hey presto: The gate arm goes up, and you’ve got 20.8 km (roughly 12.9 miles) of hairpin turns, S curves and straightaways at your disposal. This is truly performance driving for the masses, yet I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Italian count in a supercar.
As I rolled onto the track I found it wet and quite slippery from a recent rain. My heart was in my throat as I worked the steering wheel, the gas pedal and the clutch, vividly focused as I tore through the famous sections of the legendary track: the tight 270 of the Caracciola Karussell, the steep rise and sharp plunge of the Flugplatz. Ahead of me, a German sports car lost control and screeched to the left, then to the right, before managing to regain control. When I pulled off the track at the end of a long, fast straightaway, I knew I hadn’t maxed out the car, but I don’t think that I’d ever felt more alive.
I was burning daylight, and there was one last thing I wanted to do before I had to turn in the keys. Heading east, winding through farmland and forest, I got to the Rhine just as the sun was sinking over the ridgeline to the west, painting the autumn-tinged forest on the far side of the river a deeper shade of gold. A ferry drifted out into swift current, working at an angle to the flow. Just downstream rose the iconic Lorelei, the most famous rock formation in Germany.
I got out and had just started to take pictures when three nine-year-old boys on bikes appeared. They crowded around the front of the car, mouths open, eyes wide, and started taking photos and movies with their phones. “Musta! Ford Musta!” they shouted to their friends, until a small crowd had gathered, milling like gulls around a fishing boat.
They spoke even less English than I speak German, but I answered their barrage of questions as best I could. I started the engine and they oohed and aahed at the colored lights that line the dials and cup holder, and broke into enormous grins when I gunned the 5.8-liter V-8 and unleashed its throaty roar. “Nochmal! Nochmal!” one shouted, staring wide-eyed at the screen of his smartphone: “Again! Again!” They made me write the address of the My Ford website on pieces of paper—one for each of them—then one asked me to sign my autograph as well. It’s that kind of car.
A church bell clanged. It was getting late, and the boys had to be home for dinner. “We’ve never had a car like that in this town before,” said one as he shook my hand.
It was dark. At last I was alone. I had a long way to go, to get the Shelby back to the Ford folks by midnight. There were miles of country road ahead, and miles and miles more of autobahn. I climbed in, gunned the engine, and smiled.
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