When Ford needed a new car aimed at the youth market in the sixties, they created the immensely popular Mustang. When they decided to turn the Mustang into a sports car they turned to Carroll Shelby. And when Shelby needed an engineer to develop what would become the Mustang GT350 he hired Chuck Cantwell. Working alongside Shelby and a dedicated team, Chuck succeeded in producing a car that was an immediate success on the racetrack and an iconic muscle car whose reputation remains unmatched after more than half a century.
Chuck was instrumental in bringing the Shelby Mustangs to life. As project engineer for the GT350 program, he was the driving force behind the design and production of the street and track-attacking R model. He was even a GT350R test driver for a while. He worked as a project engineer in Los Angeles during the Shelby marque’s golden years and was responsible for both street and race GT350s, among other things. Cantwell also oversaw performance and prototype testing for the Shelby Mustang—he worked directly with legendary Shelby drivers like Ken Miles, he did duty as a GT350R test driver, and he raced prototypes with the SCCA early in the car’s development.
The Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix is thrilled that he will join us for the entire 11 days of the event.
Chuck Cantwell – Grand Marshal 2019 PVGP
The most important Shelby Mustang personality you may have never heard of
By Greg Kolasa
Automobile enthusiasts with even a casual acquaintance of Carroll Shelby’s legendary Mustangs-the GT350s and Trans-Am notchbacks-could likely name the pertinent personalities thereto related: Jerry Titus, Peter Brock, Ken Miles, Bob Bondurant, Lew Spencer, maybe even Phil Remington. But many Mustang and Shelby aficionados may well overlook one man whose considerable abilities, no less than any of the afore-mentioned, contributed to the effort becoming the success that it was: Chuck Cantwell.
Charles Raymond “Chuck” Cantwell, Jr. grew up in Speedway, Indiana; his interest in all things automotive, his proximity to the greatest spectacle in racing, and his part-time vocation of bleacher seat cushion vendor allowed him to attend every Indianapolis 500 from 1947 thru 1960. Chuck enrolled in the General Motors Institute in 1951, earning a Mechanical Engineering degree. It was side excursions on his ski club’s trips, one to Wisconsin, where he diverted to watch a road race at Road America, and one to Germany, where he visited The Nurburgring and drove his rented Ford Taunus on The ‘Ring – four laps for a buck, that gave Chuck the idea that he could become a racer himself. He bought his first race car in 1959 – a used MG which he prepared himself for competition and by 1963, he was the SCCA Central Division champion; he repeated that in ’64 and finished fifth at the SCCA Nationals. He demonstrated a unique triumvirate of talent: he could understand race cars, he could prepare race cars and a victory in his first-ever speed event showed that he could also drive race cars.
Chuck’s graduation from the G.M. Institute gave him a full-time job at G.M.’s Allison Division and then later at the G.M. Styling Center. Thankfully for Ford and Carroll Shelby, although they didn’t know it at the time, some job dissatisfaction was beginning to set in and one day at dinner with a fellow racer, formerly with G.M. but who was now working at Ford as their liaison to Shelby American, Chuck was asked if he would be interested in interviewing for an engineering job with Shelby in California. Shelby had just been asked by his friend, Lee Iacocca, to turn a version of Ford’s new Mustang into a true sports car, and Shelby American was in search of engineering talent, it is not generally understood that what would become the Shelby GT350 was not Carroll’s idea, but rather, his feeling somewhat indebted to Iacocca, who had been instrumental in Shelby receiving Ford support for his Cobra sports car project. To create a Mustang sports car, a two-seat version would have to be developed for competition in one of SCCA’s Production racing classes; this would require engineering. And that would require a Project Engineer. A few weeks after his interview with Carroll Shelby where he met future coworkers Brock, Miles, Spencer and Remington. Chuck had a new title: Shelby Mustang GT350 Project Engineer. Figuratively the equivalent of an orchestra conductor, the Project Engineer directed engineering on a project under his purview but due to his strong racing background, Chuck would soon demonstrate that not only could he conduct the orchestra but that he was an accomplished soloist as well.
After a month of learning the ins and outs of Ford’s new pony car in Dearborn-figuring out what each component did and how they could be replaced with ones to make the car faster…and a sports car contender-Chuck moved to California and was integral in the evaluations of the street and competition versions of the first Shelby GT350s constructed; he was at the first test sessions at Riverside and Willow Springs where Shelby’s drivers, Ken Miles and Bob Bondurant evaluated the car on the track. When Shelby Mustang production began, he visited Ford’s San Jose Assembly Plant where the Mustangs that Shelby American would turn into GT350s were built and suggested ways that Shelby could improve their Mustang-to-GT350 conversion efficiency by having Ford tailor-build the Shelby-bound Mustangs. And he prepared documentation, tongue-twistingly known as “homologation papers”, that would enable the GT350 to legally compete in sports car racing.
There were two aspects to the Mustang GT350 in competition: one would involve a Shelby American race team, and the other, making turnkey GT350 race cars available for competition by independent racers; Chuck was involved in both. As engineer on the Shelby American race team, he attended the races so he could see-and understand-first hand, how the cars were performing. He sorted out issues that developed with the cars, interfaced between Shelby and Ford and multiple subcontractors to rectify those issues and, on occasion, he drove… and won: stepping into the backup GT350 initially to fill out the starting field, Chuck found himself in victory lane when primary Shelby American driver Jerry Titus went out with tire trouble.
Chuck personally track tested each and every 1965 GT350 “R-Model” and later, every ’66 and ’67 notchback Mustang competition car, before they were delivered to the customer and in the end, his talent, engineering as well as automotive, was no small contributor to the Shelby American Mustang GT350 being crowned SCCA’s B-Production champion of 1965, 1966 and 1967. In 1966, Chuck was given a small budget to develop a notchback Mustang for participation in SCCA’s new Trans-Am race series. Like the ’65 R-Models, these cars would be offered for sale to private racers wishing to compete but unlike in ’65, there would be no Shelby American factory Trans-Am team. Or so was the original plan: at the last race of the ’66 Trans-Am season, Ford teetered on the brink of defeat to Chrysler so Shelby American grabbed one of their still-unsold customer notchbacks and turned it into their Trans-Am team car, campaigning it for Ford. Winning the last race of the season and garnering the ’66 Trans-Am Championship for Ford ensured Shelby American’s team participation in the 1967 Trans-Am series where the famous “gawd awful yellow” Terlingua Racing Team Mustangs again garnered the Trans-Am title for Ford.
Chuck’s engineering wasn’t only put to use on Shelby’s race cars; he was a key player in the development of Shelby Mustangs for the street. In 1966, Shelby’s street Mustang was poised to quintuple their ’65 output and Chuck’s creative thinking-ordering additional ’65 Mustangs to be used to start ’66 production-produced a viable workaround to Ford’s assembly plant model year changeover shutdown that would have kneecapped Shelby’s production startup. His proposed ideas for simplified tachometer mountings and the replacement of time-consuming stripe painting with adhesive tape stripes resulted in significant cost reductions over the previous year’s GT350s. And Chuck developed a working application to the iconic upper roof scoops on the ’67 Shelby (they actually functioned to pull-via a venturi effect-air from the cockpit). But despite a rare combination of engineering, race car preparation and driving talent, it is his humility, almost to a fault, and the steadfast refusal to allow even his solo achievements to be viewed as anything other than a true team accomplishment that all conspire to make Chuck Cantwell very likely the most important Shelby Mustang personality you never heard of.
SHELBY MUSTANG GT350 BOOK
For more fascinating stories of Chuck’s career with Shelby American, check out “Shelby Mustang GT350: My Years Designing, Testing and Racing Carroll’s Legendary Mustangs”, co-written by Chuck and noted Shelby American historian Greg Kolasa. It is a firsthand look at Chuck’s time with the legendary Carroll Shelby and is loaded with photographs taken by him and his Shelby coworkers-many in color and almost all never before published. At more than 250 pages, the hardcover book is published by David Bull Publishing. Buy it now