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TEAM IACOCCA/SHELBY : The High-Performance Masters Have Abandoned the V-8. Now They're Turning Dodges Into Hot, Limited-Edition Cars.

August 02, 1987|DAVID BARRY | David Barry is a Los Angeles writer.

But there is no aura of speed or glamour in Shelby's first product for Dodge, the limited-production, $11,719 Omni GLH-S (for "Goes Like Hell--Shelby"). It's small and ordinary at first glance, except for the tachometer, the night-fighter-black paint and the husky sound that the engine makes as Shelby revs one up for a demonstration at the Dodge Shelby Performance Center a few weeks after the dealers' convention in Las Vegas.

Shelby attacks the test track, hurtling through slalom gates, making lightning transitions from acceleration to deceleration, right turns to left. The car claws and smokes around the pylons at race-track velocity. His passenger is pinned to his seat back, and, when Shelby brakes, the passenger is jammed against the shoulder belts. The car goes faster through turns--without spinning or sliding--than would seem possible.

"That's my idea of a fun performance car," Shelby says after the demonstration.

But it is, after all, a Dodge Omni. Why build performance into a small-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-door compact sedan with the sex appeal of a cargo container?

"I wanted to take the plug-ugliest little box Chrysler made," Shelby says with his usual indifference to the possible corporate consequences of his words, "and turn it into something that could whip a Ferrari or a Porsche, at a price the average guy can afford--the guy making $20,000 or $25,000, with a wife and couple of kids."

In 1986, the only year his GLH-S was sold, he boasted in AutoWeek magazine that "the Omni GLH-S has the acceleration, handling and top speed to outrun a Porsche 944 . . . and I guarantee it'll whip a Ferrari 308GTB on a race track." His remarks drew outraged protests from Ferrari lovers, but no one has responded yet to his challenge for a race between the Ferrari and a GLH-S at Willow Springs Raceway, on the edge of the Mojave Desert.

"The Ferrari lovers did a lot of whining," Shelby says with a chuckle, "but no takers. I'm still waiting."

HOW DID CHRYSLER AND Shelby turn out an econobox capable of beating a Ferrari or a Porsche? The race-winning Cobras and Mustang V-8s in the '60s were made into hod rods with screwdrivers and wrenches, sweat and elbow grease. All of that has given way to computer-controlled ignition and fuel-management systems. What Shelby has done is update '60s-style American hot-rodding for the '80s. The seemingly contradictory goals of improved power output and increased fuel economy have led to performance improvements undreamed of two decades ago.

The acceleration and performance figures recorded for the Omni GLH-S by auto-enthusiast magazines put it handily ahead of the $25,000 Porsche 944 and the $55,000 Ferrari 308GTB. Despite its boxiness, the GLH-S can accelerate from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in 6.7 seconds and can cover a quarter-mile from a standing start in a blistering 14.9 seconds, contrasted with 8.3 seconds and 16 seconds for the Porsche. Similarly, the GLH-S outdid the Ferrari in all but top speed. The GLH-S clocks in at 135 m.p.h. But the Ferrari's 15- or 20-m.p.h. edge would not be a factor on any California race track because there isn't a track in the state that has enough straightaway for a Ferrari to hit 150 m.p.h.

"I'm not saying I built a better car than either of those two," Shelby says. "But it's a hell of a lot more bang for the buck. And that's what I like making."

Shelby doesn't need to say that making the Omni faster does not make it better than a Porsche or a Ferrari; no one would take him seriously if he did. There's a big difference between faster and better . But Shelby's claims for the GLH-S garnered one of the things Iacocca wanted out of Shelby: attention from the press.

"We were making cars and selling them, but nobody was writing about them," Iacocca had said earlier. "To get ink, we turned to the man the auto writers always enjoy writing about: Carroll Shelby."

Shelby's boast of the GLH-S as a European GT car beater can be matched by other American car makers. Ford's $13,000 V-8 Mustang 5.0 GT and Chevrolet's $16,000 V-8 Camaro IROC Z28 have both turned in faster times than the Porsche or Ferrari. But it isn't American muscle-car speed--equal to or greater than that of European GT cars, which cost two to three times as much--that's new. What is new is that the GLH-S packs American V-8 muscle-car performance into a four-cylinder economy car.

Shelby didn't jump at Iacocca's first invitation to join Chrysler in the early '80s. During Detroit's roller-coaster economic ride of the 1970s, Shelby was building other businesses--a chili-mix and a car-wheel-manufacturing companies--into corporations that were grossing $40 million a year each by 1986. When Iacocca called, Shelby waited to make sure that Chrysler was on solid footing.

And then he opted for a four-cylinder performance-car engine, rather than the V-8 power he was known for.

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