Road Test by Proxy: Riding Shotgun on Ortega Highway in the Shelby GT-H

Article and Photographs by Kasey Kagawa

Unless your name is commonly found on a nationally-distributed brand of toilet paper or you just finished conning your venture capital partners with your latest video game startup, the only opportunity you would have to drive a car with three-digit production numbers would be if you were to hold a Ferrari dealer at gunpoint. Not only that, but you will most certainly kill yourself in your attempts to evade the police, as the multitude of Enzo crashes as of late have proven. Fortunately, in 2006, Hertz, Ford, and Shelby American came together to produce a limited-production car that’s available to everyone.

It’s called the Shelby GT-H, and it’s essentially a Ford Mustang GT with an off-the-shelf Ford Racing cold-air intake, suspension kit, rear axel, and exhaust kit, and whole host of visual modifications, such as custom wheels, a custom body kit, and a unique black paint job with gold stripes. These additions give it an extra 25 horsepower, moving the mark up to 325 HP and 330 ft-lbs. of torque, as well as lowering the ride height by about 1.5”. On their road test of a set of privately rented cars, Car & Driver clocked a 0-60 time of 5.3 seconds and a ¼ mile trap time of 13.9 seconds at 103 MPH. Most importantly, though, the new body kit beefs up the stance of the already muscular Mustang to give it an even more threatening profile. Combine that with the already head-turning black/gold paint scheme and a huge dose of that classic “barely restrained rage” muscle car exhaust note and you get a car that will definitely get you noticed when you’re going down Main Street. Production is limited to 500 units, making it more exclusive than the Porsche Carrera GT and the Ford GT, and in the rarefied air of the Ferrari F40, F50, and Enzo. Of course, it’s still a Mustang, but before we get to specifics, a funny thing happened on the way to the pick-up.

Normally, the day where you get a chance to drive a limited edition Mustang would be a good day, something to look back on months or years down the line and fondly remember. We had a beautiful plan involving driving the Mustang across Long Beach, around the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and up and down the canyons of Malibu, with my sister and my mother cruising on up to Malibu, and my father and I bombing around the canyons and then dropping it off after we’d thoroughly cooked the brakes on the winding roads of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Alas, I apparently worked a day shift in the showers at Auschwitz in a past life, as I have done nothing in this current life of good behavior and fastidious adherence to traffic laws to deserve what happened that day. The troubles started before we even left the house, with my sister called from Long Beach to say that the 1969 Camaro she drives when she’s home from college had blown a hose, and they had to nurse it back home. Then, once we arrived at John Wayne Airport to pick it up, I was told that even though I’m of the legally mature age of 21, you have to be at least 25 years old to drive the car. The punctuation mark on the bad events of the day was that on the way out of the garage, I distinctly heard a crash behind me, which I immediately assumed was the very expensive performance car that we were renting. Pulling over to get out my cell phone to call and see if we are now on the hook for what is surely a large fortune in repairs, I missed a three-inch curb and blew out both passenger-side tires on my father’s Audi TT at 2 MPH. So after all this trauma occurred, we finally got down to the business of actually driving the car.

The Hertz office at SNA puts a 100 mile limit on the car, with $0.29 per mile over that limit, so our 200 mile or so journey around Malibu was pretty much out of the question. Instead, we opted for a much closer, but no less exciting drive: up and over the Santa Ana Mountains on State Route 74, on a section known as the Ortega Highway. The road winds from the mission in San Juan Capistrano to Lake Elsinore through some of the most amazing vistas in southern California. The road follows a route that’s challenging without seeming like it’s going to throw you off a cliff at any given moment, allowing even those of us who aren’t exactly Oliver Beretta to have fun. This is a road of two halves; one green and lush, full of sweepers and 60 MPH constant radius turns, and the other a rapid ascent up a canyon and down a mountainside into the high deserts of Riverside County surrounded by scrub brush and tight blind corners. A few small towns populate the route, and The Lookout Roadhouse, a famous biker meeting spot and bar, sits on the precipice of the steep grade down to Lake Elsinore. Best of all, this bit of driving paradise is about an hour from Los Angeles County, and aside from weekday rush hour and the swarms of sport bike riders that go up and over the mountain range every weekend, traffic is pretty light.

Of course, you still have to get there, which means spending time on the I-5 freeway, which means you have nothing to do except fiddle with the interior, and this is something of a mixed bag. On the good side, the dash is a brilliant bit of nostalgia, the color-change tach lights are a fun thing to play with when it starts to get dark, you get Sirius satellite radio when you rent it so you can attempt to hear Howard Stern over the bellow coming out of the high-flow exhaust system, and the seats are amazingly comfortable and quite supportive, which is something that comes in handy when you’ve got the hammer down on a twisting road. The car definitely leaves a stoplight like it has an extra fifty horsepower under the hood, thanks largely to the tweaked ring and pinion gear ratio in the rear differential. Also, even with that booming exhaust note, it still settles down and becomes a very quiet car when you just want to move down the highway. However, being a Mustang, it has one of the cheapest interiors I’ve ever been in, which would be excusable in a Chrysler Sebring rental car, but in what’s supposed to be an exciting and expensive performance car, it’s unacceptable. I couldn’t help but laugh when I noticed that the dash bent inwards when I pushed on it and that the vast expanse of silver plastic that looked like it was spray painted that color. The ride is completely unacceptable, jiggling and bouncing over every single crack and bump in the road, a common Mustang trait that’s only enhanced by the lowered and stiffened rear suspension. I know that it’s possible to build a rigid and responsive suspension that doesn’t ride like a school bus, but Ford seemingly can’t figure it out on the Mustang.

Fortunately, once you leave the beaten and rutted interstate and get onto the smooth pavement of Ortega Highway, the bouncy castle handling doesn’t matter as much as sheer grip, and that race-tuned suspension has plenty of it. Past the outskirts of San Juan Capistrano, the road turns into a series of straight-aways linked with high-speed wide, sweeping corners that really let you stretch the legs of the Shelby GT-H. Well, it would if you’re not stuck behind slow moving traffic, say, flatbed construction trucks hauling what appeared to be a large tank that pass five or six turnouts without pulling over. Even if you are stuck at 35 MPH, the green rolling hills that surround you are more than beautiful enough to occupy your time until you hit the next stage.

The first sign that you’re about to start the climb up the mountains is a small concrete bridge. After you cross that bridge, the highway switches personalities and turns into a massive chain of blind curves that are carved right into the side of the canyon as you climb up the mountain. These corners are an excellent showcase for the amazing amount of grip the car has. One of my ground rules for a good sports car is that it needs to be able to take a corner with a recommended speed of 30 MPH at 60, which the Shelby certainly can. If the traction control button wasn’t disabled and glued in place, I’m sure you could set up some wonderful powerslides with the extra torque and changed rear diff, not that you’d want to on such a steep and precarious climb.

After 20 miles of ascending the Santa Ana Mountains, you round yet another blind corner and are suddenly confronted with a steep drop-off leading down to Lake Elsinore, a sprawling desert community on the eastern edge of the vast Mojave Desert. You can keep on going, but I’d recommend stopping at The Lookout for a soda and a snack before continuing. The Lookout completes the final requirement for a great southern California driving road: a biker bar that dates back to the glory days of motorcycles and biker gangs in the late 1960’s, and has the atmosphere to match. While you’re standing around admiring the breathtaking scenery and enjoying a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage, try to find the road snaking down the mountain in front of you. The fact that you can see the entire descent from where you are down to the bottom of the mountain should clue you in to what’s coming next.

The descent down the Elsinore grade is much like the road up, only steeper and more compressed. The naked cliff on one side of the road adds a bit more caution to your driving, something that doesn’t stop some of the more inexperienced sport bike riders who fly off of the road every other weekend or so. Even more dangerous than the cliffs are the large semi-trucks climbing up and over Ortega Highway. At least once during your drive, you will come around a corner at high speed, only to be staring a truck cab in the face, and many drivers and riders with more bravery than brains have crossed into the opposing lane and were flattened by a logging truck. Once you arrive at the bottom of the grade, you have a few options. To the north, I-15 leads back to eastern Los Angeles County, and the prime desert driving grounds of Riverside and San Diego counties lie to the south and the east. Or you can do what we did, which was turn around and plunge right in back the way you came.

Rental cars, by and large, are things that you get when you fly into Seattle for the day on business. They’re almost all dreadful things with names like “Hyundai Accent” and “Chevrolet Malibu.” This one is different, though. It may have that 99¢ Store interior and “Magic Fingers” ride quality, but it’s still very comfortable, very fast, and it looks like nothing else on the road. It’s certainly one of the best cars I’ve ever rode shotgun in, and I’m still upset that Hertz was too paranoid to allow me to drive one. Unfortunately for me and everyone else, they won’t be around forever. The manager that did the inspection when we got the car from the rental office was surprised that they still had them, and I’m fairly certain that they will be phasing them out by the end of summer at the very latest, and probably far sooner than that. Most of them will be auctioned off, but a few of them will be squirreled away at deserving Ford dealerships. If you don’t want to bother to find one and pay the massive premium these cars will certainly demand, Shelby American will be making a sister version, the Shelby GT, that has the same modifications, an almost identical body kit (the hood will be different), and color choices of black or white, both with silver stripes, and was recently approved for SCCA Touring Car racing in the T2 class. The Hertz version is better looking, though, and far more exclusive. So if you want to get behind the wheel of one, I’d hurry and make your reservations at your local Hertz office now.

Ortega Highway, on the other hand, is flawless. I’m a southern California boy, and every time I venture out of the cities and into the countryside, I’m amazed by what I find out there. The varied terrain of California makes for some of the best driving roads in the world, and I think that it’s a tremendous shame that many people think that southern California consists entirely of one strip of suburban wasteland from Los Angeles to the Mexican border, and positively inexcusable that the people who live here don’t get off the interstates more often and sample the beauty in their own backyards, whether it be the Ortega Highway over the Santa Ana Mountains, the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu, the Angeles Mountains north of LA, or the Mojave Desert in the eastern half of southern California. The Shelby GT-H may be available for a limited time only, but Ortega Highway, and the rest of the wonderful roads in our amazing state, aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

Dubspeed Driven Photo Gallery – Ortega Highway [Dubspeed Driven]

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Kasey Kagawa

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