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Power Players

Paul Dean & Gregory Anderson

Three-quarters of a century after Ford installed a V-8 engine in its 1932 Roadster, a car that the So-Cal Speed Shop has re-created, the quest to coax higher performance out of mass-produced vehicles continues.

However, instead of allowing tuner shops to do all of the tinkering, carmakers now woo enthusiasts with special-edition, high-horsepower upgrades of otherwise mainstream cars.

For its latest Mustang coupe, Ford rekindled its relationship with legendary performance guru Carroll Shelby, dubbing the fruit of their union the Shelby GT500. On the other side of Motown, Cadillac has added the XLR-V hard-top convertible to its V-Series performance vehicles. These two contemporary cars and the Roadster re-creation provide proof that American automakers, whether in Detroit or Southern California, still can flex their muscles.

Cadillac XLR-V
A mouthful of initials and a fistful of firsts.

it is the quickest cadillac ever: From rest to 60 mph takes 4.6 seconds, a few tenths behind the Corvette Z06, with which it shares an engine, and on par with the overtly feral Ford Shelby GT500.

It is the most expensive Cadillac ever: The price is $100,000 before any options are added.

It also is the best-handling, most agile, least floppy, most tightly suspended, surest-steering, most minimally cushioned, greatest-sounding, and quickest-cornering Cadillac ever. Cadillac finally has built a car for motoring enthusiasts who know what they are doing and appreciate how satisfying a fine-driving machine can be. Far from incidentally, the XLR-V is almost certain to return prestige to Cadillac, making the car’s purchase more a matter of pride than patriotism.

From its mesh grille to its flat, blunt rear end, which appears to have been separated at birth from the current Corvette, the XLR-V is brutally beautiful. It extends the distinctive styling and instant identification associated with Cadillacs (let us except and try to forget the Catera and the Cimarron) since the 1950s, when the cars displayed fins, mammary bumpers, and behemoth behinds.

The XLR-V also follows through on the promise of the Evoq concept car of the 1999 show circuit, which pledged to assist Cadillac’s rejuvenation with a big and purposeful roadster equipped with a retractable hard top. (When referring to that rejuvenation, company communicators prefer to employ the more euphemistic term “renaissance,” as in revival, while jaded observers use “recovery,” as in rehabilitation.) The Evoq also implied contemporary, serious, secure performance and handling to match a supercharged Northstar engine. It develops 443 hp and 414 ft lbs of torque that kicks in shortly after idle. The engine might be Cadillac’s greatest contribution to American motoring since its gangster cars and V-16s of the 1930s.

Beaucoup torque and raw power, however, never have been in short supply among American automobiles. But rare have been the engineering skills to harness all that muscle and make turning and cornering a smooth pleasure rather than a calculated risk.

The transmission is 6-speed, automatic or sequential, and intuitive: You nudge it forward for upshifts and back for downshifts. To the design of the standard XLR, Cadillac has added a heftier front sway bar and a rear stabilizer bar and larger brakes and wheels. The chassis is lightweight, but it is made from stamped steel, nuts, and bolts instead of extruded aluminum, welds, and bonds. The XLR-V also has a double-wishbone, cast-aluminum suspension, and Magnetic Ride Control, which is Detroitspeak for an adaptive suspension system that keeps everything flat and adhesive during spirited maneuvering.

For the XLR-V’s introduction to the media, Cadillac selected Southern California’s coastal roads, mountain two-laners east of San Diego, and a flat, high-speed run across the Anza-Borrego Desert. The car tackled each territory with aplomb and balance and an amazing display of pace and precision: no tires, no waddling, no squatting and rolling, and absolutely no reminders of the Seville, DeVille Fleetwood, or Eldorado.

The XLR-V may well become a breakout car for Cadillac, and it might even help General Motors break even.
—Paul Dean

Cadillac, cadillac.com


Ford Shelby GT500
Carroll Shelby stamps his name on the most powerful production Mustang ever.

“The car is perfect,” Carroll Shelby says of the GT500, providing the automotive equivalent of a papal blessing. “I wouldn’t change a thing.” As his sentiment toward the car indicates, the marriage between Shelby and Ford is back on after nearly 40 years of trial separation—just in time for Shelby and the carmaker’s Special Vehicle Team (SVT) to introduce the latest member of the Mustang brood.
 
The Ford Shelby GT500 is something old and something new, something borrowed and something blown. It may not lend itself to verse, but the car does combine neoclassic design with a name that is music to performance-tuned ears. Then, taking a page from the Ford GT supercar, it adds a supercharger.

The supercharged 5.4-liter V-8 transfers 500 hp and 480 ft lbs of torque to the rear tires through a 6-speed manual transmission; Ford will not offer an automatic version. Sprints to 60 mph require no more than 4.5 seconds, and quarter-mile runs take about 12.5 seconds, which is comparable to a Corvette’s capabilities.

Hit the gas, and the GT500’s rear tires will scrabble for traction as an electronic launch control system provides maximum acceleration off the line. Simply rev the tachometer to 3,000 rpm and then point and shoot. The heavy front engine and lightly loaded hindquarters—in concert with rear-wheel drive—contribute to a smoky burnout tour de force.

The GT500 is indeed heavy. Its inanimate curb weight is 3,896 pounds, and car plus driver tip the scales at more than 2 tons. Despite the massive front end, however, the rigid suspension allows the GT500 to drift easily through corners, and a set of four-piston Brembo brakes corrals momentum. Muscle cars are designed for straight-line acceleration first and foremost, but side bolsters for the front seats will keep passengers snug when the road bends.

The Shelby GT500 will not be mistaken for any other Mustang, thanks to its distinctive Le Mans stripes (absent on the convertible version), side stripes with “GT500” stenciling (which also can be deleted), heat extractors on the hood, a rakish rear spoiler, and a few fanged reptiles that decorate the grille and fenders. There is even a snake on the steering wheel. In the instrument cluster, the positions of the speedometer and the tachometer are reversed compared to those on other Mustangs, and the SVT initials glow when the engine approaches its 6,000 rpm limit.

The SVT name actually appears on the car more frequently than does Shelby’s. All four wheels, both doorsills, the tachometer, and the engine’s finned camshaft covers all proudly claim to be “powered by SVT.”

This year, Ford plans to affix red-eyed Cobra decals to an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Mustang grilles in lieu of the suddenly generic galloping horse. The first year’s production already has been sold, so latecomers should expect to pay much more than the $41,000 base price to acquire a 2007 model-year car. In fact, at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., earlier this year, the right to purchase the first new Shelby GT500 went for $648,000. Evidently the buyer agrees with Shelby that this car is perfect. 
—Gregory Anderson

Ford SVT, www.svt.ford.com


So-Cal Speed Shop 1932 Ford Hi-Boy Roadster
The archetypal hot rod rides again.

Ford’s 1932 v-8 roadster was an ideal canvas for someone who liked to tinker, says Pete Chapouris, the owner and president of the So-Cal Speed Shop, a carmaker and restorer in Pomona, Calif., that builds and sells re-creations of that car. “You could pull the fenders off and lighten it up and make it faster than anything else out of the box,” says Chapouris, an acclaimed auto restorer who worked on the 1948 Doane Spencer roadster that won the inaugural hot rod class at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 1997. That same year, Chapouris partnered with Alex Xydias, who founded the So-Cal Speed Shop 60 years ago, and resurrected the brand.
 
“Southern California is where it all started,” says Xydias. He is referring to hot-rodding, the practice of fashioning high-performance machines out of everything from commuter cars to discarded airplane fuel tanks, or belly tanks. Xydias transformed one such fuel tank into a record-setting racecar (198.88 mph at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in 1952) by adding four wheels and an engine. Today, the So-Cal Speed Shop is hammering, sanding, tuning, and painting as many as a dozen projects at any given time. The company recently added its ninth franchise dealership, but it still builds every vehicle at its Pomona headquarters. To become a franchise, every dealership is required to purchase a So-Cal Hi-Boy Roadster.

The Roadster comes with no air bags, no electronic traction control, not even a three-point seat belt. It is also absent any fenders and a roof, and at $150,000, it costs more than the Cadillac XLR-V and the Ford Shelby GT500 combined.
 
As an homage to the belly tank cars that brought So-Cal its initial fame, the Roadster’s classic Ford body features a red-and-white paint job patterned after those early dry-lake racers. Its louvered hood drapes over a 383 cu in Chevrolet small-block engine that develops 425 hp and enough torque to paint two black stripes on the pavement anytime you want. Polished stainless steel shock and headlight mounts, gleaming aluminum brakes, and chrome-plated rods, shock absorbers, and I-beam axle reflect light in a shining metallic medley.

“It’s like a four-wheeled motorcycle,” Chapouris says. “And the wind just whips you around—from 50 to 200 mph, it’s the same ambience.

“A lot of guys have bought into the Roadster for that reason,” he continues. “Most of our clients are 45 years plus, and they’ve got kids and businesses; they just don’t feel comfortable riding bikes anymore.”

However, comfortable is not the first description that comes to mind when driving the Roadster. As the car’s speed increases, you feel as though you are piloting an ultralight aircraft as it reaches takeoff velocity. The suspension hurtles over road surfaces, and the car’s occupants, on the bench seat, are restrained only by lap belts and a sense of invincibility. Carnival rides are not this entertaining.

The four-spoke steering wheel sets the general course for the four tall and skinny tires to follow, like a captain’s wheel to a rudder. There is no consistent on-center spot, and at highway speeds, the driver constantly is juggling from port to starboard and back to keep tabs on the road. But at 80 mph, the tachometer lopes along at only 2,000 rpm, a conservation of energy that averages 20 mpg, which gives the car a range of nearly 250 miles.

“Hot-rodding never went away,” Chapouris says. “It just evolved.”
—Gregory Anderson 

So-Cal Speed Shop, so-calspeedshop.com

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