“Please hold,” the woman with the handheld Hertz computer said, as if she and I were on opposite sides of a WATS call instead of standing twenty-four inches apart, “for a manager.” I didn’t have to hold long. The manager was a short Hispanic man with an all-business disposition.
“You have fun?” he inquired, kneeling to pay close attention to one of the odd little carbon-fiber winglets between the rear wheelwell and the doors. His tone implied that I could be in trouble for having fun, but also, perhaps, that I would have been equally remiss in not having fun. After all, this was a rental car that cost a staggering $343 per diem. In a country where the SNAP program provides a struggling family just $14/day for meals, what kind of bloodless, Zuckerberg-esque Asperger’s alien from the posthuman investor class would spend that kind of money to not enjoy this sullen-faced snorting Mustang?
“I had … ” and here I did some rough privilege calculus of the sort familiar to all college-educated German-Americans in the year 2016, balancing my Chester Barrie sport coat and the dull glitter of my platinum AMEX against my coarse features, Allman Brothers haircut, and visibly crippled left leg, just trying to figure out what I was allowed to say without committing a microaggression.
“… a bit of fun, yeah. But really, I drove it to the hotel and back. Mostly.”
“Is that so,” he said, like a pint-sized Torquemada, and with a quick, knowledgeable motion he swiped his finger across the gap between two spokes of the left front wheel. “Is that so.”
It took Hertz 40 years to commission a second and third run of the fabled Shelby GT350-H, the race-car-for-rent that spawned innumerable tales of derring-do and surreptitiously installed rollcages, but just 10 years to take another shot at the idea.
As with the 2006 Shelby GT-H and 2007 Shelby GT-H convertible, this 2016 coupe is an “authentic” Shelby, eligible for entry in the various clubs and registries devoted to Ol’ Shel and his eponymous automobiles once it leaves Hertz ownership and finds its way to a private owner. It is not a variant of the superbly desirable and competent Shelby GT350. Rather, the GT-H is simply a fully loaded 2016 Mustang GT treated to a brief tour of the Shelby aftermarket catalog. With the exception of a cat-back exhaust, a Ford Racing suspension kit, and a staggered set of Michelin-Pilot-shod 19-inch wheels, all the changes are cosmetic.
This is not to say that they are not hugely effective. Few among us wished for any more power from the current Mustang 5.0 liter anyway. I guarantee my Millennial readers that your yet-to-be-born children will one day aggressively question you about why you did not own a Coyote-powered Mustang in $THE_CURRENT_YEAR, the same way my 10-year-old self couldn’t understand why my father bought a Camaro RS 307 in 1968 and not a COPO, Yenko, or slick-shod Z/28.
The 2016 Mustang truly is one of the all-time great American cars, and if anything it’s a bit understated-looking in factory trim. The multiple Shelby changes — starting with the outrageous fiberglass hood that continually wobbles when the vehicle is in operation and many badges, spoiler, splitters, and whatnot — communicate the essential nature of this overpowered pony car very effectively.
If the formula of FRPP suspension, exterior aero, and black paint with Hertz stripes sounds even more familiar than earlier Shelby Mustangs would suggest, that’s because Ford did a “Hertz Penske GT” a few years ago. I misused one by running it around MSR Houston and found it a supremely satisfying muscle car for the racetrack. I had similar plans for this Hertz GT-H, which I picked up from the San Jose airport last Friday. You see, Mrs. Baruth was attending a Skip Barber school at Laguna Seca, and I thought I might be able to cajole my way onto the track for a few hot laps.
The problems started when I picked up the car. It had just 37 miles on the odometer. The young lady at the exit gate told me that I was the first GT-H renter they’d ever had. This made me profoundly nervous about holding it at redline for half an hour immediately afterwards. Don’t get me wrong — I understand that modern engines come off the line ready for anything, and I have a low opinion of people who think you need to meticulously break-in a car. With that said, no factory is perfect and if this Shelby decided to put a window in its block from full-throttle usage I wanted that to happen on US-101, not the Rahal Straight.
Not that I got much of a chance to let the Mustang run free on 101. A series of accidents and general Cali-traffic drama made my 70-minute trip to Laguna Seca a three-hour ordeal. By the time I got into the paddock, the track was booked for the remaining three hours of the day. Plus I needed to take some photos of Danger Girl in the Corkscrew, which effectively postponed any potential hooliganism to the evening.
As soon as the class was complete and the diplomas were handed out, I set out to drive some of the coastal roads around Monterey — and the faster, the better. I’d have to say that I’m in favor of all the changes made by Shelby to the GT-H. The suspension goes a long way to cut the body float that comes as standard equipment in plain-Jane GTs. The exhaust sounds absolutely blood-curdling when the shifter is moved from “D” to “S”. Everywhere you go, people are going to be looking for you before they can look at you, because the GT-H can be as noisy as a Ferrari 488 when all the buttons and switches are deployed correctly ,and it will herald your impending presence like a 32-valve version of John the Baptist.
This is a very large, very rapid vehicle, and it has nontrivial inertia. In real-world terms, it’s on performance par with the 2007 Shelby GT500, not that far behind the current C7 Corvette, and of course it will absolutely eviscerate any original Shelby Mustang you come across — big block or small. I can see why Hertz is nervous about letting people rent them. It’s not the fastest car that you can get from them — I think the “Dream Cars” arm of the company will put you behind the wheel of a Mercedes-AMG C63 or a 911 Carrera — but it’s probably unequaled at its ability to get people in trouble.
I suspect that this review will have two sorts of serious readers. The first sort will be considering the rental of a GT-H. To them, I say: go for it. It’s not really faster than the regular 5.0 that you can also rent from Hertz, but it’s really cool, it sounds really frightening, and — when you sign that rental contract — you’ll have a neat story to tell your grandchildren.
The second sort of reader will find this on Google two or three years from now when they are considering the purchase of a GT-H either directly from Hertz or in the secondary market. For them, I’ll have to curb my enthusiasm a bit. The premium demanded for the Shelby stuff isn’t reflected in the car’s outright performance. Nor are the 2006 cars exactly setting the resale world on fire 10 years later. From what I can tell, a 2006 GT-H is worth five or ten grand more than a regular GT, max. Cars with high mileage don’t even hold that much premium. The same is true, incidentally, of the “Shelby GT” that followed the GT-H at dealerships. When it comes to recent-production Mustangs, the Shelby name doesn’t carry a lot of weight. Aluminum-block GT500s are worth real money, but so are ’04 Terminator SVTs, and for the same reason: they’re intercontinental ballistic missiles without much of a guidance system.
We could close here, but there’s something that bothers me about the GT-H and I want to get it off my chest. I think it’s highly disingenuous of Hertz to simultaneously cash in on the legend of the original rent-a-racer and take significant steps to ensure that nobody does the same thing with the new car. The GT-H shouldn’t be an automatic-transmission car. It shouldn’t be white-gloved before and after each rental. It shouldn’t have extra language in the contract (or maybe that language is always there, and I just don’t notice it) warning of dire penalties for abuse. This should be a gift to the racers of the world, not an appearance package wrapped in a healthy dose of institutional paranoia.
Too much of that kind of world is with us, late and soon. Formula One doesn’t let its drivers wear watches, so Lewis Hamilton has a picture of a watch on his glove. We are constantly bombarded with marketing featuring the daring, the uncaring, the bold, and the beautiful — but if you decide to lift the wheel of your ZX-10R down a Florida freeway you’ll be slapped with a felony charge. We purchase products that are lovingly veneered with the promise of adventure and sex and gorgeous women — but if you have a threesome in your hotel room and sneak into the closed hotel pool after one in the morning so you can all jump in together then Toyota will never invite you to another press event as long as you live. That’s just a random example I made up.
Ninety-five percent of modern life is spent trying to make the purchase of a product stand in for an actual experience. Everything we do has to be curated, curtailed, measured, reduced in fat, gluten-free. Therefore, the more I think about it … the hell with the Shelby GT-H. It’s fake. It has the name of a dead man who was last relevant to the racing world 40 years ago plastered all over it like a discount-store talisman. It’s a meaningless recapitulation of a long-gone era. I recommend that instead of renting the GT-H, you rent a regular Mustang GT. Then track the shit out of it. Roll-race it after midnight. Enter it in a local autocross and mow down a line of cones with its precious fascia. Go have a story of your own, instead of paying three hundred-plus bucks to tamely re-enact something that happened before you were born.
So there were really only two important moments in my rental of the GT-H. The first one happened when Danger Girl and I sat in it on Scenic Drive in Carmel. I told her how proud I was of her for her pace in the Skippy open-wheeler. She told me how close it felt to flying a plane. We rolled down the windows, let the Mustang mumble beneath us, and watched the sun set.
The second moment was when that Hertz manager wiped his finger across the wheel and it came up clean. No brake dust. Was that because I’d taken perfect care of the car, or was it because I’d borrowed Skip Barber’s wheel cleaner after 10 laps of Laguna Seca before carefully driving the GT-H in clockwise and counter-clockwise circles to scrub the blue tread off the tires?
All I can say is this: that’s my story, and it’s not for Hertz to rent, lease, or sell.
The story continues on The Truth About Cars