Auction shines spotlight on rare 1969 Shelby Mustang in Centre Hall

The steering wheel of the car, which has only 8,500 miles on it, has few signs of wear.
The steering wheel of the car, which has only 8,500 miles on it, has few signs of wear. CDT photo

Larry Brown couldn’t take his 1969 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 428 Cobra Jet with him.

But when the Centre Hall resident died last fall, he took his reason for tacking just 8,500 miles on the ultra-rare muscle car after buying it new from a Centre County dealership.

For 40 years, Brown inexplicably squirreled away the sleek Shelby and its massive engine mated to a four-speed transmission. Before stashing the GT500 in his garage, he drove it sparingly, never letting any water — rain or washing — touch its Jade Black exterior.

Brown died Sept. 17, 2013, on his birthday without a wife, children or other immediate heirs, survived by four sisters far away.

Now, the GT500 is part of his estate — and a sensation among car collectors looking forward to its April 25 sale at a local auction.

“We’re selling it as found,” said State College-based auctioneer Ron Gilligan. “All we did was knock off the dust.”

One of only 1,534 made, the unearthed GT500 may be the lowest-mileage survivor of its kind in existence. Except for a handful of minor changes, repairs and paint touch-ups done early on, the car differs little from when it rolled off Miller-McVeigh Ford’s lot.

Brown’s Shelby still has its factory-installed belts, hoses, steering wheel cover, spark plugs and plug wires. So pristine is the car, inside and out, that wax crayon marks made by factory assembly line inspectors remain under the hood.

Like the rest of the shiny interior, the steering wheel cover appears unblemished, embossed with “GT500” at the bottom.

“There’s no wear on that steering wheel,” said Dane Hooper, a local car collector who’s helping manage the estate. “That was one of the authenticators of the low miles.”

Hooper said the car’s interior has not been vacuumed or otherwise cleaned for the auction.

In addition to its first license plate, LB772, the GT500 bears a 1972 state inspection sticker, the last stuck on its windshield. Poking out of the eight-track player is a Tom Jones cassette unmoved since the day Brown chose it.

“This car basically is a very original, unmodified car,” Hooper said. “It’s a time capsule.”

Add the mystique of Shelby models — brawny, high-performance Mustangs first designed by legendary race car driver and designer Carroll Shelby — and the prospect of a clean, one-owner, garage-find classic going to the highest bidder has sparked intense national interest.

Gilligan said that as surprising as it was to discover the Shelby, the response to it has been even more so.

“It’s gotten to be a circus,” he said.

Normally, Ron Gilligan Auctioneering’s website might receive 2,000 page views in two weeks for a good local auction, Gilligan said.

This time around, the site has generated 75,000 page views since he listed the Shelby early this month. Hooper, who belongs to the Shelby American Auto Club, helped start the buzz by posting a description of the car on a Shelby online forum.

This week, the heavy traffic overwhelmed the site, crashing it and leaving it down as of Friday.

“It just got to the point where it couldn’t take it,” Gilligan said.

While not as swamped, his phone has been ringing constantly. National media have called. Serious collectors from across the country have contacted him about flying in for the auction at 107 W. Ridge St., Brown’s former address.

Gilligan plans to sell the Shelby the old-fashioned way: no online or absentee bidding.

“Whoever wants to buy the car has to be there,” he said.

Based on the frenzy and the inquiries so far, Hooper expects the final bid to be six figures, possibly as high as $200,000.

That’s a far cry from the $5,245 that Brown, who worked in construction, originally paid on May 5, 1969, though it was big money for the time.

Soon after, according to friends, Brown removed the emission control system — included in the auction — and installed a Hurst shifter knob. Also in 1969, he brought the GT500 back to the dealer three times for service under his warranty: a wheel lug recall at 1,050 miles, an oil gauge sender at 1,527 miles and adjustments to the driver’s side door glass at 1,665 miles.

The next year, Brown replaced the Goodyear factory tires, which kept going out of round, with a 1970-issued set still on the Shelby. He also placed a screen behind the front grille to protect the radiator from road debris.

For unknown reasons, he had a few spots on the body expertly repainted. Hooper said the paint job is about 75 percent original.

As for why Brown stopped driving his Shelby, Hooper can only guess.

“We’re all trying to figure that out,” he said. “That’s what’s so peculiar about the whole thing.”

Perhaps the 1973 oil crisis increased gas prices too much. Maybe Brown just lost interest as he grew older and moved on to something else. He owned other vehicles — a 1971 Ford Ranchero GT, a 1974 Ford Econoline Custom 100 van, various pickup trucks.

The van, a true ’70s special sporting shag carpet inside, has only 554 miles on it.

“It’s brand-new,” Hooper said.

Throughout his life, Brown seemed to follow an odd pattern of buying pricey toys and then largely ignoring them. Hooper said the auction includes three tractors with five hours of use combined, and a 2003 Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle with exactly seven miles.

“He was one of those of guys who kept everything,” Hooper said.

That included the Shelby’s bill of sale and owner’s manual, Brown’s original loan papers and registration, and other documentation that add to the car’s value.

For all the fuss about the Shelby, ironically, the low-mileage Ranchero might be rarer in its own right, Hooper said. Brown chose an unusual and desirable options combo: black on black, shaker hood, bucket seats, four-speed transmission.

Several Ford enthusiasts have called just about the Ranchero, Hooper said.

But, of course, the real star is a Shelby finally seeing the light of day after decades beneath dust. Anticipating a large crowd for the 12:30 p.m. auction, Gilligan has arranged for parking at the nearby Grange Fairgrounds.

Hooper isn’t planning to bid, but like many, he’s curious what a unique survivor will fetch.

“It’s going to be exciting,” he said.