Words by Ya'acov Zalel
Jason Engel and his Classic Recreations workshop have become specialists in rebuilding and restoring 1960s Shelby Mustangs into 21st century classics.
CarBuzz talks to Jason Engel, the owner and founder of Classic Recreations.
From the moment the wraps came off the Ford Mustang on April 17, 1964, it was engulfed by baby boomer hysteria. Its unexpected success forced Ford executives to reshape their production plans. Instead of the expected 100,000 units, Ford sold more than three times that amount in the car's first 12 months and some 1.5 million Mustangs were produced in the first 18 months of production. Literally overnight, the Mustang became a classic and has remained so ever since, at least for a large group of people who believe in it.
Jason Engel, 37, owner and founder of Classic Recreations, is one of those people. The Mustang specialist workshop, based in Yukon, Oklahoma, has just 13 employees and Mr. Engel concentrates his efforts on building his version of the Shelby GT 500CR (for Classic Recreations). That suffix makes the difference.
«You get cool vintage with modern driving experience»
Basically what Mr. Engel has to offer is either a '66, '67 or '68 Shelby GT500 in one of three versions: GT500CR with 525hp, starting at $119,000; a 545hp engine begins at $149,000; and the GT500CR-900S, also known as the 'Venom', starts at $199,000. The engine in the latter is the 427 C I crate engine enhanced by a supercharger and is capable of 790hp coupled with a manual transmission, sending all of that power to the rear wheels. A racing suspension, enlarged disc brakes in all corners, and a modern steering system are also useful driving aides. High performance tires mounted on big rims helps the car stick to the asphalt. Unlike in those older Fords, buyers can now choose any color they wish, even if it's not black, and any pattern they'd like, though the iconic Shelby longitudinal stripe along the hood center and over the air intake remains part of the driver's landscape. Under the grille lies a huge silver radiator and the rounded headlamps betray the old school design on which the original is based. This car can be used, says Mr. Engel, for daily driving as well as autocross competitions and any other sort of track day event. In each of Mr. Engel's work of automotive art lies a modern day '67 'Stang.
The Love for the Muscle Car
The first time we tried to interview Mr. Engel, he was too busy to answer questions. He was trying to conclude a deal a few thousand miles from his headset with a customer from one of the Persian Gulf states (there are Classic Recreation agents in Dubai and Germany). "Dubai is a lovely place," he says. "I considered moving over there and I still might do that when I am retired." However, retirement isn't expected for a couple more decades.
Mr. Engel's interest in the motoring world can be traced back to his childhood. From the age of seven, he tinkered with cars and when he was 12 his father, who was in the car business, bought him a 1978 Camaro. Mr. Engel then sanded it down, painted on stripes, and took his father's old car stereo system and installed it in his 'new' Camaro. He then drove it at 70 mph across the family's 10 acre property. "I learned a lot about cars," Mr. Engel sums up his first automotive experiences.
Since then, Mr. Engel has gone through various experiences. "I was 17 years old in a Mustang GT and received 13 tickets in one night," he recalls of his teenage years. "The police were all over me and that car was hell on wheels. I lost my license for 60 days because of that night, but it was well worth it."
His first shop was in the family barn and his second rebuild was a Chevy Tahoe he fully customized by lowering it, adding custom-made wheels, and even fabricating a forward tilt hood. After winning first place in several car shows, he sold it for $119,000, making a nice profit. The most meaningful change in his career, the conversion to Mustangs, was still in the offing.
In his father's car lot, where he began his career as muscle car builder, were dozens of Mustangs. "I did Saleen ’Stangs because I loved them. And soon I was hooked," Mr. Engel remembers. "In 2001 I took a chance and built an Eleanor car." He invested $70,000 into the project. "I painted that car in the barn, with no paint booth and rubbed it out. I rubbed and blocked that car for a week." It was later sold for $141,000. Once again Mr. Engel proved himself not only as car restorer but also as a businessman.
A Car for Mr. Shelby
Carol Shelby, the legendary American racing driver, is also famous for his business acumen. His organization builds cars and licenses others to build their own Shelby Mustangs. Shelby's involvement with Ford and their Mustang has been taking place for almost five decades. Two years ago, Classic Recreations became a Shelby licensed workshop, which allowed them to rebuild and recreate 1960s era GT500 Shelby's. That was a turning point in Mr. Engel's career. "The Shelby connection is very important. I consider it my prized possession," he says, "I couldn't ask for a better partner. Period."
«I am a diehard fan of Shelby's»
In his private garage Mr. Engel keeps an all-original unrestored 1967 GT500. "I am a diehard fan [of Shelby's]," says Mr. Engel. "I met Mr. Shelby when he complimented me on a few cars I'd done. I told him that I'd love to design my own car for him and amazingly he said, 'Let’s do this.' We drew up a deal within a week."
Restoration, Recreation or a Rebuild?
In the case of Classic Recreations, the term is perfectly suitable. The work being done on the cars carry no trace of restoration, but rather recreating them into modern day 1960-something Shelby Mustang GT500’s and adding the CR suffix. Although the chassis and the body work are of the '60s vintage, many other components, such as engines, gearboxes, body panels, tires, suspension, and other digital gizmos, are absolutely modern and new.
Originality, a sought-after characteristic with classic car aficionados, is not at the top of Mr. Engel’s priorities. "[I do it in a] stealth way," Mr. Engel declares. Under the hood and beneath the tin sheets are systems like fuel injection, wishbone-style suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, air conditioning, as well as flip-out TVs and iPod interfaces, giving the customer the feel of a modern car. "It’s still a '60s muscle car, but one that is far more reliable," says Mr. Engel. There are also a lot of Shelby items such as gauges, pedals, gear knobs, steering wheels, rims and other components.
When a new project starts at CR, a '67 Mustang fastback for example, they begin by stripping it to the bare bones and then completely fabricating and rebuilding it from scratch. "Through the years I've become known as the guy to do metal work and fabricate chassis and suspensions, and that’s because my fabrication team is great—they're artists. No one's really doing custom fabrication at this level on muscle cars," claims Mr. Engel proudly. Although those are only the underpinnings of the car to come in the rebuild process, Mr. Engel makes every effort to stay true to the Shelby organization’s philosophy. The modernization process is simply Mr. Engel’s spin on the original.
"Most people don't realize that original 1960s muscle cars aren't much fun to drive. An all original '67 GT500 is a beautiful car, but the steering, suspension, skinny tires, heavy motor and dated cooling system mean... [it’s] not much fun to drive on a regular basis. By keeping the vintage look and feel but updating it [the systems and components]... we are able to make it as fast, fun and reliable as a new car. You get the best of both worlds - the cool vintage look with the modern driving experience."
Be Patient - it’s a 12 Month-Long Process
Rebuilding and modernizing a car takes 12 months, so customers’ patience is tested and expected. "There is not one client I have who has patience," remarks Mr. Engel. The restoration is performed in a four building compound with separate facilities just outside Oklahoma City: a metal fabrication room, a body shop, a paint shop and an assembly shop. It takes 3,000 man hours to rebuild a car, as every piece is dismantled and tested and "every tiny bolt is replaced with a new one. It’s more akin to a race car fabrication house than a new car production line," explains Mr. Engel, who builds between 25 to 36 cars annually. "It improves build quality significantly. The welder isn't doing metalwork a few feet from the painter who needs a perfectly clean work environment."
Although the Mustang was Ford’s gesture to the then new generation of car buyers, the baby boomers have for a long time now driven other types of cars. "Clients buying these vehicles in this price range, from about $120,000 to $200,000, are 35- to 40-year-old men who are successful," says Mr. Engel.
Among them are athletes, foreign ambassadors, Arab princes, and rich businessmen who can afford the steep price tag. "American muscle cars are very popular as a status symbol in the Middle East, particularly in Dubai," explains Mr. Engel. "The customers there want cars that look and sound like vintage muscle but drive like modern supercars. They want the very best and they're willing to pay for the best. One of my favorite clients, I can’t say his name, is a sheik in Dubai. He was really involved; he took part in the build. He was here on my property and he physically worked on the car with me. It was so awesome."
Back to the Camaro; into the Future
Mr. Engel's future plans include rebuilding a Chevrolet Camaro, preferably under the Yenko brand name. "That's a fantastic, legendary brand name and would be the perfect stable mate to the Shelby," enthused Mr. Engel. Throughout the years Classic Recreations has deviated from its main Mustang theme and built one-off cars such as a supercar version of a Mustang and a pretty wild '32 Wood Wagon street rod. And while Mr. Engel will keep on improving his Shelby Mustang CR product lineup, he will certainly be happy to do some different stuff, at least for diversity’s sake.