Cobra Mustang History

Cobra Mustang History

Last Updated June 13, 2023 | Meghan Drummond

The Ford Mustang Cobra’s history is closely intertwined with that of the Shelby Mustangs. Both the Shelby and Cobra represent the pinnacle of Mustang performance.

It was Carroll Shelby, not Ford Motor Company, who first used the name Cobra on a car. Shelby American’s AC Cobras were the perfect mix of a lightweight European sports car and American V8 power. They could blaze around corners, offering tight handling at incredible speeds.

When Shelby began creating the GT350, many of the parts had the Cobra logo on them. Since they were made in the same shop as the Cobras, many people started using the terms Shelby and Cobra interchangeably.

Unfortunately, that’s where some of the confusion occurred.

When Shelby briefly left the world of fast cars, he assumed there would be no more Shelbys or Cobras. But Ford really liked the Cobra name. While they couldn’t make Shelbys without Carroll Shelby, they didn’t see why they couldn’t make Cobras. The resulting legal dispute is most likely why Shelby worked with Dodge during the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Here’s a look at the history of the Cobra, from its early Shelby roots to the rebirth in 1993 that lasted until 2004.

The First Mustang Cobra

The Cobra name was first introduced in a Ford line back in 1962 with the Shelby Cobra models of fame and flair. These cars, along with the 335-hp 1968 Cobra Jet, helped establish the Cobra name as a powerhouse on the road.

The Cobra brand continued to show up in Ford cars through the 1970s. Take the 1970 Mustang Mach 1, for example, that used a 428 cubic inch Cobra Jet V8 engine. One of the Mach 1s was in the original 1974 Gone in 60 Seconds film.

However, Ford didn’t officially develop the Mustang Cobra until after the 1974 redesign of the Mustang line, known as the Mustang II generation.

The first Mustang Cobra arrived in 1976 and was named the Cobra II. This name caused some confusion because there was no Cobra I.

Black and yellow 1976 Cobra II Mustang against a black background with '1976 Cobra II' text overlay

From the start, the Cobra was a racing line. It had a hood scoop for dramatic effect and racing stripes, plus functional rear spoilers. The original Cobra was a homage to the classic Shelby Mustangs. To help build the brand, the ‘76 included a Cobra emblem on its front fenders.

The ‘77 and ‘78 Cobras offered small style changes and a slightly improved engine, along with other options. The 1978 model was the “King Cobra”, which included a large Cobra hood decal and an optional V8. These cars helped boost the Mustang’s popularity so that a new line could be introduced in 1979.

Fox Body Mustang Cobras

Almost 18,000 Cobras were produced with the third-generation 1979 Mustang. They came with a redesigned interior to comfortably seat four. But they also kept up engine options through a full Windsor V8. Improvements to the Cobra stayed consistent with overall Mustang upgrades through 1981.

Yellow Fox Body third-generation Mustang Cobra with 'Third Generation Snakes' written overtop image

Cobras in the early 1980s were actually modeled after the 1979 Mustang Pace Car. They featured dual sport mirrors, bright tailpipe extensions, and a powerful engine. Cobra lettering was available on the body and rear quarter windows. Ford kept alive the tradition of offering a roughly $100 Cobra hood graphic upgrade. These models offered special racing packages that would also make it more aerodynamic.

In 1982, the Mustang started its performance renaissance and dropped the Cobra line as it retooled for a stronger, more aggressive car. However, Mustangs were still offered with “Cobra” packaging from 1984 to 1992 in Canada. These mainly had cosmetic upgrades, offering little to no engine or performance improvements.

In the 1990s, the Cobra came back with a vengeance.

The Mustang SVT Cobra

Ford began producing the Mustang SVT Cobra in 1993. Built by Ford’s Special Vehicle Team, the Cobra was designed to outperform the Mustang GT. The SVT Cobra stepped on the gas three times during its lifecycle with Cobra R variants. The SVT Cobras were crafted from 1993 to 2004.

Compared to other Mustangs, the SVT Cobras were powerful beasts that came in a relatively limited quantity. They were produced for collectors as much as for racers. Some “R” models even required the owner to have a racing license to buy the car.

The first SVT Cobra made its debut at the 1992 Chicago Auto Show, highlighting the abilities of the SVT. While the exterior was like the 1993 Mustang GT, the Cobra’s fangs were nestled squarely beneath the hood.

Initial Cobra Mustang specs included an impressive V8 that could put out 235 hp and go from zero to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. An upgraded suspension gave the 5,100 SVT Cobras a gentle ride even at high speeds.

To kick off its first year of a new Cobra, Ford also created an R model of the 1993 SVT Cobra. This racing variant only came in Vibrant Red and focused on speed and power with improved brakes. It also featured a cooler for the engine, power steering, and improved wheels.

Comfort wasn’t a factor as the car offered no air conditioning and no stereo. Plus, the $26,692 ride came without a warranty. Only 107 Cobra R’s (1993) were made.

On January 17, 2019, a 1993 Cobra R sold for a $132,000 out-the-door price at the Barrett-Jackson auction, setting a record price for Fox Body Cobra Mustangs. This particular Cobra was pristine with just over 500 miles, so it may be some time before that record is broken.

Red Fox Body SVT Cobra Mustang with 'SVT Cobra' text overlay

SN95 Mustang Cobras

After the initial success of its 1993 Cobra, Ford reintroduced the line in the middle of 1994. It had a more powerful engine, a wider wheelbase, and an upgraded bumper with Cobra branding. The ‘95 stood out with its special option of a removable hardtop: a convertible with an upgrade to hold the fiberglass top and reattach a dome light.

Both coupes and convertibles were available in 1994 and 1995. But the 1995 Cobra also had an R option with a 5.8L V8 and 300 horsepower. Again, the R option nixed fancy things like air conditioning, power windows, and fog lights. Only 250 of these R models were made. Ford made 6,009 Cobra Mustangs in 1994 and dropped production to just 5,258 in 1995.

Design was a major feature for upgrades through the rest of the ‘90s. Ford dropped down to a smaller engine and added the now-classic air inlets on the hood. They also diversified paint colors. The 1996 Mystic Cobra used a paint that appeared to change color when viewed from different angles, ranging from greens and purples to a light gold. The proprietary paint requires several levels of verification before an owner can get it replaced or repainted.

A big increase in production took place in 1996, with 10,003 Mustangs created. When interest peaked in 1997, production jumped up to 10,049 before falling down to 8,654 in 1998.

Red 1996 Mustang Cobra in CJ Pony Parts' production studio

New Edge Mustang Cobras

At the end of the decade, Ford pushed its New Edge design for the Mustang lineup, including the SVT Cobra. In addition to new style, the 1999 Cobra also made history as the first time the Mustang used IRS instead of a solid rear axle. Models through 2004 also featured a new fuel system.

The 1999 Cobra Mustang was actually only sold until August 6, 1999, when Ford recalled all 8,095 units sold. The Cobra wasn’t reaching the horsepower promised, so the production of the SVT halted until 2001. While redesigning the 1999 SVT, Ford pushed ahead with its 2000 R model and created 300 cars with a 385 hp V8. 2001 returned with 7,251 cars.

The 2001 SVT Cobra was largely a fixed version of the 1999 model. There were a few changes in the engine block and a series of cosmetic differences. The rear bumper now featured “Cobra” lettering instead of “Mustang.”

A nice addition to the Cobras in the new millennium was an improved intake manifold and exhaust. These upgrades allowed it to meet emission standards that were starting to pop up in the U.S.

The Missing 2002 Cobra?

The 2002 Cobra is often viewed as the SVT that didn’t exist. Only a hundred of the 2002 SVT Cobra models were made, all shipped and sold in Australia. There were no major changes from the previous year. Since it was an Australian model, the steering wheel was on the right side and the grille had an extra set of lights.

The Terminator Cobra

The 2003 SVT Cobra was lovingly called “The Terminator” by the SVT team. The name stuck for the next series of models. Between the coupe and convertible, 13,476 models were made in 2003.

Black 2003 SVT Cobra Mustang with '2003 SVT Cobra The Terminator' text overlay

The 2003 model came with an impressive 390-horsepower engine. Later, testing actually found that the engine was putting out roughly 425 hp. Thankfully, the cast-iron engine block and reinforced frame could handle the beast. The engines in the Terminator line were some of the most powerful engines Ford ever put in a car. They’re still some of the toughest engines made for a mainline automobile.

For the 10th anniversary of the SVT Cobra, Ford created a red-themed vehicle with a bold interior, leather inserts, and a unique blend of black, silver metallic, and Torch Red models.

Not to be outdone, the 2004 special edition launched a series of unique colors. Ford brought back the shiny, shape-shifting color of the 1996 Mystic Cobra. The 2004 was the last Cobra Mustang model as the SVT shifted to a new line of cars under the GT moniker. Ford ended its Mustang Cobra line with 5,664 cars in the 2004 production.

Mustang Cobras vs Shelbys

Many of the great Shelby Mustangs, from the AC Cobra through the GT500, are mistakenly grouped with Ford’s line of Cobras. This is because they originated the Cobra badge later used in Mustang Cobras. But the Mustang Cobra is considered a separate line that began with the Mustang II. They had a very different design compared to the Shelby models.

While the Shelby GT500 was designed in conjunction with the SVT, licensing remained separate. So the two cars still battle it out on the roads for who is the king of the snakes.

The SVT Cobra Legacy

Though the Shelbys have returned to the Mustang world, it’s unlikely that we’ll see the return of the SVT Cobra again.

The Cobras were a great stand-in to the Shelby Mustang. However, the GT350 and GT500 high-performance models based on the first-gen Mustang are popular with enthusiasts. It’s possible that future Mustang generations may see a resurgence in Cobra-based editions. But with Super Snakes slithering around, there hasn’t been as much demand.

While the rebirth of the Cobra may be wishful thinking, the popularity and nostalgia make the Cobra SVT a possibility for the future.

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This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.