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Everybody Hertz: trying to beat a New York marathon time in a Ford Mustang Shelby GT500-H rental

Amazingly, a Shelby GT500-H can be rented from your regular Hertz hire office, but getting one round New York can be a bit of a marathon

Published: 11 Mar 2024

It occurs to me, as I sign a scrap of paper, swipe my credit card and hold out a palm in a slightly scabby rental booth on Staten Island, that this probably constitutes world record levels of irresponsibility. Short of free guns with every Happy Meal or spiking the punch at a school disco, this is the situation statistically most likely to end in disaster. For just a few hundred dollars, Hertz will hand over the keys to a Shelby tuned Mustang, with more power than a Ferrari 812 Superfast, to any old Billy that walks through the door. Today, that Billy is me. I grasp the keys and make a bolt for it before the lady behind the desk realises she’s made some horrible clerical error.

You know the old saying “don’t be gentle, it’s a rental?” Sound advice that... if you’re lumped with a knackered supermini in the hire car lottery, less so when you have hypercar levels of grunt at the rear wheels, and you’re too stingy to take out the premium insurance cover. Today shall be an exercise in restraint, but first, some history.

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The Mustang before us is the fourth installation in a partnership between Shelby and Hertz that stretches all the way back to 1966 and the original rent-a-racer – the GT350-H. A scheme cooked up by Carroll Shelby to promote his wares and provide potential customers with cheap, more meaningful test drives wherever they were in the country... and it worked. Hertz rekindled the relationship with bespoke mega-horsepower Shelby Stangs in 2006 and 2016, and now it’s gone all in with this widow-maker: a unique-to-Hertz, tuned version of the already bonkers, 750bhp Shelby GT500. Back in 1966 the GT350-H would cost you $17 a day plus 17 cents per mile... this one-of-25 GT500-H (rare as rocking horse poop compared with the 1,001 GT350-Hs they churned out in the Sixties) is still a snip at $399 a day (£317) plus tax and insurance, and 75 cents for every mile over 75 miles covered – a threshold we won’t be scaring today. More on that in a bit.

Photography: Rowan Horncastle and Dw Burnett

To Hertzify the GT500, Shelby adds the iconic Hertz Shadow Black with gold Le Mans stripes livery – in fact 19 of the 25 are black, the other six Oxford White. It then swaps out the 2.7-litre supercharger for a 3.8-litre Whipple ’charger along with upgraded cooling and fuelling to uncork 937bhp and 635lb ft of torque of torque from the 5.2-litre V8. There’s a strengthened Tremec seven-speed twin-clutch auto gearbox, a louder Borla exhaust and a new carbon-fibre bonnet. The result is... menacing – a muscle car ’roided up to Mr Universe levels of pump.

Getting the car? Not a problem, figuring out what to do with it... bit of a nightmare. All our instinctive ideas – mainly taking it to a track for some tyre abuse, or entering it into an all-American road race like the Silver State Classic – were chopped off at the knee by Hertz’s insistence anything involving a race circuit or competition was a no-no. Clearly, in order to pay homage to the original rent-a-racer, creativity was going to be required, so the challenge we cooked up was this: could a 937bhp Mustang complete all 26.2 miles of the New York marathon course quicker than the elite male course record of 2:04:58 set by Tamirat Tola in November 2023? Some quick Google Mappage, and taking into account New York’s legendary hostility towards getting anywhere fast in a motor vehicle, suggests it could be closer than we all think. This was 900+bhp versus one human power. This was war. This was almost certainly a terrible idea.

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The New York marathon is a gargantuan event. In 2019 there were more finishers (53,629) than in any other marathon. It requires 10,000 volunteers, 1,400 portable toilets and 20 therapy dogs on the start line to make sure runners feel warm and fuzzy, for the first few miles at least. The route takes in the five boroughs of New York City, starting on Staten Island before winding its way up through Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, then turning back down the length of Manhattan to the finish line in Central Park.

 

We commence our feat of frankly heroic endurance at 9am, exactly the same time of day the elite male runners would be setting off – a crucial detail as I’m keen to create as level a playing field as possible. Apart from, y’know, racing against imaginary athletes in a ludicrously powerful car. Still, the trip is zeroed and confidence is high as I rumble across the Verrazzano-Narrows bridge on the lower tier, thus missing out completely the spectacular views the runners would be enjoying up top, but enjoying excellent sound reverb from the exhaust as the adrenalin gets the better of me. I cover the first mile in about a minute. I then calculate that assuming no obstacles or speed limits, at the GT500’s 180mph vmax I could complete this thing in eight and a half minutes. All of which means I’m going to have to spectacularly mess it up not to come away with a gold medal.

Early impressions, this probably isn’t the perfect tool for driving in NY, even considering that driving in NY full stop isn’t advisable. It feels XXL wide and despite the MagneRide suspension in its softest setting (and exhaust set to max volume to announce our arrival, and departure, at every set of traffic lights) we’re still clattering over the manhole covers and road surfaces scarred by a thousand surgeries. The gearbox too has some thunk and jerkiness to it at low speeds, so you’re constantly reminded that it’s a car designed to run fast and free. Not much chance of that round here as we hit yet another traffic jam, watch our early lead disintegrate into an ever growing deficit, and the banality of driving any car, even one as extrovert as this, in heavy traffic sets in. Bringing only energy gels to snack on was a bad choice.

But there is entertainment, not just the colourful and creative language I hurl at the satnav as it takes us two miles down the freeway in the wrong direction, but brief gaps in the gridlock and opportunities for this engine to fill its lungs and spit pure anger at the rear axle. Does it feel 200bhp healthier than a GT500? Does it hell, but for drama even at NY speeds, it’s the star of the car, and everything within a mile of it: a hungry, huffing, brooding V8 that speaks to America’s love of excess and more horsepower wherever possible. To demonstrate this, my foot slips (several times) onto the throttle leaving clouds of smoke and mostly adoring crowds in our wake.

30 minutes 48 seconds

Stories around the old GT350-H, or more specifically what renters did with them, have become garnished and retold so often over the past 60 years they now exist in a hinterland between fact and fiction. Glorious tales of punters taping over the ‘H’ on the decals so as not to arouse race organisers’ suspicions, welding in roll cages to meet race regs, swapping out carburettors or even the entire engine for a lower spec V8 and hoping Hertz wouldn’t notice. Just. So. Brazen. If I had a 4cyl Ford EcoBoost lump to hand, a switcheroo would be tempting.

This is getting ridiculous, we’re well over halfway around and the gap between ours and Tola’s pace has become a chasm. Plan B: if we can’t beat Tola’s time, then the female elite time stands at 2:22:31, set in 2003 by Margaret Okayo. Nope, nowhere near that either. Aha, in 2022 actor Ashton Kutcher ran the NY marathon in a time of 3:54:01. New target acquired.

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This probably isn't the perfect tool for driving in New York

Time to deploy my game face because we’ve just rounded the corner and crossed the Madison Avenue bridge into Manhattan, meaning a straight shot south on Fifth Avenue to the finish line at the bottom end of Central Park... and straight into the mother of all snarl ups, which we later discover is Donald Trump leaving Trump Tower for a court hearing. The media circus surrounding him has brought central Manhattan to a standstill. Great. Plenty of time then to reflect on our utter failure to achieve our goal, the total impracticality and stupidity of driving a car this potent in a place this congested, and to find Ashton Kutcher on social media and blow digital raspberries in his general direction. We cross the line in three hours and five minutes.

But we did go racing in the modern, even madder rent-a-racer. Not the kind of racing you’d ever want to watch on telly or participate in admittedly, but a scratch has been itched and revealed that for a few hundred bucks you can experience more power than any road car could rightfully use. Shelby – you are certified lunatics, New York – your five boroughs are beautiful, Hertz – keep doing what you’re doing, but under no circumstances look too closely under the bonnet of that car I just returned. Anyone seen those therapy dogs?

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