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For Shelby, 50 years of blowing other cars' doors off

Its most famous car may be worth $25 million, and its cars can top 200 miles an hour. CNET Road Trip visits with the famous American muscle car maker.

A 2012 Shelby Cobra sits on the company's assembly floor. The muscle car maker celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

LAS VEGAS, Nev.--It may be the most valuable American car ever made. Sitting inside what looks from the outside mostly like a non-descript suburban warehouse, the vehicle fills a lot of people with lust.

Still a striking and shiny blue, the 1962 Shelby Cobra 427 is the very first of its kind. And it is such an important entry in the pantheon of American muscle cars that someone recently offered $25 million for it.

Welcome to Shelby American, a company whose rare cars are built to blow by just about any competition, yet are designed to be everyday drivable if that's what an owner wants.

As part of Road Trip 2012, I've stopped in on the company the late Carroll Shelby founded in 1962 -- making this the 50th anniversary of the Cobra and the manufacturer that bears his name.

These days, Shelby is probably best known for the high-end modifications is does to make Ford Mustangs be truly all they can be. For example, the Shelby 1000, which is made entirely by hand in very limited numbers, starts with a 2012 Shelby GT 500 Super Snake -- already a more powerful car than most -- and takes it over the top. The result costs a minimum of $150,000 (not including the base vehicle) and generates more than 1,000 horsepower and a top speed in excess of 200 miles an hour.

A Shelby GTS V8, which produces 624 horsepower, is being worked on at the company's assembly facility in Las Vegas, Nev. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Each year, Shelby turns out only a couple hundred cars and spends between 60 and 90 days working on each. And while the vehicles may be the secret desire of men everywhere, vice president of operations Gary Patterson told me that those men's wives also enjoy them since each model comes with many of the creature comforts common to high-end cars, such as cruise control, GPS navigation, MP3 support, and so on.

Daniel Terdiman

More from Road Trip 2012: Tech out West

Check out the latest from Daniel's tour of all things geeky in the Golden State, with jaunts into Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon, as well.

In other words, Patterson said, today's Shelbys take the muscle car concept and adapt it for a discerning audience. "In the '60s, American muscle cars...looked cool, but they were hard to live with," Patterson said. "Today's cars are much faster, more powerful, and they stop, turn, and perform at a much higher level...And they still look great."

I asked Patterson if it's hard to sell Shelbys to buyers who want true car power and who may well be used to what the cars from decades ago offered. He laughed at the notion. "Actually, it's easy," Patterson said. "A lot of our customers own an old Shelby. [But] they want something they can use every day...You can drive [a new Shelby] to a track and drive fast all weekend. Then drive it home with MP3s and power windows."

Patterson pointed out that while most cars depreciate the moment they're driven off the lot, many Shelbys immediately appreciate in value, making them a good investment for those that can afford them.

Mustang modification
For the most part, the bulk of Shelbys that leave the company's Las Vegas assembly plant have Ford Mustangs as their base. Buyers start by acquiring a Mustang, and then -- either immediately or at some point later -- get in touch with Shelby to begin the process. Once they deliver their car to the company, Shelby begins the modifications.

A Ford Mustang is worked on in Shelby American's 'Speed Shop,' where the company will modify just about any car. But Shelby, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is better known for its own line of muscle cars. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Of course, the company still produces Cobras, Shelby's original muscle car, and even makes them with the original specifications in order to appeal to true traditionalists. But those cars don't meet most states' emissions or crash standards, so the company sends the otherwise completed car along with its engine and transmission still in component form to a buyer's local dealer, who finishes the assembly. Alternatively, buyers can do that themselves.

Today, in addition to the Cobra, Shelby sells 2012 and 2013 GT350s, which cost as much as $34,000 on top of the base Mustang, and produce 525 horsepower; the 2011 to 2013 GTS, which comes with either a V6 or V8 and generates as much as 624 horsepower (at the flywheel); the GT 500 Super Snake, which runs $34,500 on top of the base vehicle, and which generates 750 horsepower with its supercharged engine; and the high-end Shelby 1000.

The company also has what Patterson called a "Speed Shop," where it will, for the right price, modify almost any car to meet Shelby standards. That could be a Mustang, a truck, a sandbuggy, or even a Corvette. The modifications are up to the owner, but could include anything from a minor suspension upgrade to a new exhaust, or even an entire rebuild.

Before I leave, Patterson takes me for a drive in a Super Snake. He's an accomplished test driver, so the ride is unlike any I've had before. We find a back road and quickly top 100 miles an hour. He also demonstrates the car's suspension by jerking the wheel back and forth as we drive -- I didn't notice the speed, but it wasn't slow -- and it didn't betray the least sign of instability. We don't go near the top speed, but Patterson grinned as he told me, "It'll make that 160 speedometer disappear just like that."

I started my time with him wondering if people interested in these cars are really wishing for the good old days of '60s muscle cars. Patterson said it's just the opposite: "The good days are today."