The Ford Mustang Cobra’s history is closely intertwined with that of the Shelby Mustangs. Whether you’re looking at a Shelby Mustang or a Cobra Mustang, it’s been established that they’ll 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 was tasked with creating the GT350, many of the parts had the Cobra logo on them, and since they were made in the same shop as the Cobras, many people used the words 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. Unfortunately, Ford really liked the Cobra name, and while they couldn’t make Shelbys without Shelby, they didn’t see why they couldn’t make Cobras. The resulting legal dispute is probably a large part of the reason why Shelby worked with Dodge during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Here’s a look at how the Cobra came to be from its roots in Shelby Mustangs, an end in the early 1980s to a rebirth in 1993 that last until 2004.
The Original Cobra Mustang
The Cobra name was first introduced in a Ford line back in 1962 with the Shelby Cobra models of fame and flair. These cars and the 1968 Mustang 428 Cobra Jet, a beast with 335 horsepower, helped establish the Cobra name as a powerhouse on the road.
The Cobra brand continued to show up in Ford cars through the 1970s, such as the 1973 Mustang Mach 1 that used a 428 cubic inch Cobra Jet V8 engine. One of the Mach 1s was used in the original Gone in 60 Seconds film in 1974.
However, it wasn’t until Ford’s 1974 redesign of the Mustang line, called the Mustang II generation that Ford officially developed the Mustang Cobra.
The first Mustang Cobra arrived in 1976 and was named the Cobra II. This name caused some confusion because there was no Cobra I.
From its inception, the Cobra was a racing line that featured 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 slightly improved the engine, along with other options. The ’78 model was the “King Cobra” which included a large Cobra decal on the hood with an optional V8. This helped the car boost Mustang’s popularity so that a new line could be introduced in ’79.
Third Generation Snakes
Nearly 18,000 Cobras were produced with the third-generation 1979 Mustang. They came with a completely redesigned interior to comfortably seat four, but also kept up engine options through a full Windsor V8. Improvements to the Cobra stayed fairly consistent with overall Mustang upgrades through 1981.
Cobras in the early 1980s were actually modeled after the Mustang’s 1979 pace car. They featured dual sport mirrors, bright tailpipe extensions, and a powerful engine. Cobra lettering was available on the body, as well as the rear quarter windows and it kept alive the tradition of a roughly $100 Cobra hood graphic upgrade. These models offered special racing packages that would also make it more aerodynamic.
In 1982, the Ford Mustang started its performance renaissance and dropped the Cobra line as it retooled for a stronger, more aggressive car. However, in Canada, Mustangs were still offered with “Cobra” packaging from 1984 through 1992. These were largely cosmetic upgrades and offered little to no engine or other performance improvements.
Special Vehicle Team's Cobras
In the 1990s, the Cobra came back with a vengeance.
Starting in 1993, Ford produced the Mustang SVT Cobra, a pony car built through Ford’s Special Vehicle Team division. This Cobra was designed to be a high-performance model in the range above the existing 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 Ford Mustangs, the SVT Cobras were powerful beasts that came at 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 in order to purchase the car.
The first SVT Cobra made its debut at the 1992 Chicago Auto Show and was used to highlight the abilities of the SVT. While the outside was similar to the existing 1993 Mustang GT, the Cobra’s fangs were nestled squarely beneath the hood. Initial Cobra Mustang specs included an impressive V8 that could produce 235 horsepower and go from zero to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. The suspension was upgraded and 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 17th, 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 Mustangs. This particular Cobra was in pristine condition and only had a bit more than 500 miles on it, so it may be some time before that record is broken.
The SVT Design Legacy
After the initial success of its 1993 Cobra, Ford re-introduced the line in the middle of 1994 with a slightly more powerful engine, a wider wheelbase, and a bumper upgrade with Cobra branding. The ’95 stood out with its special option of a removable hard top— a veritable convertible with an upgrade to hold the fiberglass top and reattach a dome light.
Both coupes and convertibles were available in ’94 and ’95, but the ’95 also had an R option with a 5.8 liter 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.
The ’96 represented a big increase in Mustang production when 10,003 were created. When interest peaked in 1997, 10,049 were produced, but then fell to 8,654 in 1998.
Cobras Stumble Into the New Millennium
At the end of the decade, Ford pushed its New Edge design for the Mustang line-up, including the SVT Cobra. Initially, this was mostly a body upgrade with little interior changes, though models through 2004 did feature a new suspension and fuel system.
The ’99 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 and led the SVT line to be halted until a 2001 return. While redesigning the ’99 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 model was largely a fixed version of the 1999 with a few changes in the engine block and a series of cosmetic differences, such as the rear bumper saying “Cobra” instead of “Mustang.” A nice addition to the Cobras in the new millennium was an improved intake manifold and exhaust that allowed it to meet emission standards that were starting to pop up in the U.S.
The Missing 2002?
The 2002 Cobra is often viewed as the as the SVT that didn’t exist. Only 100 of the 2002 SVT Cobras were made and all of them were shipped and sold in Australia; although it offered few changes compared to the 2001. Since it was an Australian model, the steering wheel was moved to the right side of the car and the grill had an extra set of lights.
Arnold, Meet the Terminator
The 2003 SVT Cobra was lovingly called “The Terminator” by the SVT team and the name stuck for the next series of models. Between the coupe and convertible, 13,476 models were made in 2003.
The ’03 came with an impressive 390 hp 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 ’04 special edition launched a series of unique colors and 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.
What About the Shelby?
Many of the great Shelby Mustangs, from the AC Cobra through the GT500 are grouped with Ford’s line of Cobras because they originated the Cobra badge later used in Mustang Cobras. However, the Mustang Cobra is considered a separate line that began with the Mustang II and had a very different design than 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.
Mustangs of Tomorrow
Though the Shelbys have returned to the Mustang world, it’s unlikely that we’ll see the return of the SVT Cobra again.
Though the Cobras were a great stand-in, returning to the tried and true GT350 and GT500 models has created performance-oriented Mustangs for enthusiasts and they have their roots more firmly in first-generation Mustangs. It’s possible that future generations of Mustang 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 of the car and the role nostalgia continues to play in marketing make a Cobra SVT a distinct possibility for the future of Mustang.