Urban legend has it that in the early 1960s, a still-in-progress I-4 stood as an open strip where Buz Watkins and other car enthusiasts gathered to drag race Mustangs, Corvettes, and other four-wheeled beasts. Buz was also the owner of a 1969 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, now owned by his son, Chip. Here, Chip gives us a rare look at this collection, including that Ford Shelby Mustang GT500, still in mint condition.
Photography by Philip Pietri
It is one of the most iconic muscle cars in automotive history and, for car buffs and movie boosters at least, creates an awe-inspiring presence. Did Buz Watkins, of Lakeland’s erstwhile Watkins Motor Lines, know that he was purchasing a legend when he was on Lakeland Ford’s lot in the late 1960s? One can only imagine, but one thing’s certain: the 1969 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 with the huge 428 Cobra Jet engine was King of the Road. [Editor’s Note: The 428 engine came to be known as the Shelby GT500KR, or King of the Road.]
But it wasn’t Mr. Watkins’ first Mustang. In fact, on Thursday nights in the early 1960s, before the section of I-4 running through Lakeland was completed, Watkins and his kindred car enthusiasts in town would access the interstate from a ramp driving their Mustangs, Corvettes, and other four-wheeled beasts and put pedals to metal. It was an open dragstrip, an internal-combustion adrenaline highway, and it’s now part of our city’s lore.
That Buz Watkins’ Shelby GT500 still exists in pristine condition — with just a revolution or two over 35,000 miles — in the town in which he bought it is a perfect epilogue to the story. His son, Chip, now cares for and occasionally drives the urban legend his dad purchased when Chip was just eight years old.
“I’ve always been into cars and mechanical things, most likely from working in our tractor shop at Watkins Motor Lines when I was young,” says Chip.
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First owning several cars around 1996, Chip further expanded his collection in 2004. A car collection of this caliber certainly strides past a mere hobby. Chip gladly admits if there’s anything he likes to own in multiples, it’s antique and rare collectable vehicles. “It’s what I’ve always been interested in owning.”
With a father who liked cars, boats, military vehicles, and airplanes, Chip has long appreciated the history of cars and how their invention has affected where we are today. “I like the designs of cars and how styling and technology reflect the time period the U.S. and Europe were going through at the same time,” he says. “They are a reflection of history … of people’s personalities.”
The oldest car in Chip’s collection is a 1958 Corvette and the newest a 2017 Corvette. But, when it boils down to it, the owner does have his favorites. “There are two cars and one model of car that mean the most to me personally. The 1969 Shelby Mustang (featured) was my father’s car. It was purchased right here in Florida in 1969 and still looks the way it did when it was new.”
But for the road, Chips favorite remains the 1966 Shelby AC Cobra. “The car was so over-built, fast, and nothing could touch it for that time period. A lot of engineering from the mid-to-late ’60s was ahead of its time. It’s still considered a fast car by today’s standards.”
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Still, Chip holds his highest regard for the Corvette, in production since it was first introduced in the ’50s. “The Corvette has pushed performance over many decades,” he says.
Since the Watkins first owned the 1969 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 it’s had a paint job and couple components rebuilt, but by-and-large it’s the same car Buz drove home almost 50 years ago. Its three-speed automatic transmission and air conditioning were unusual for muscle cars — or any cars — of the day. In fact, the Marti Report, a meticulously detailed description of a car’s manufacturing date and optioning decoded by VIN, shows that only six cars were made with the exact permutations as the Watkins’ Shelby.
All hail the King of the Road.