The Terminator CobraLast Updated June 13, 2023 | Meghan Drummond
In 2003, Ford’s Special Vehicles Team (SVT) came up with a brilliant idea: What if we put a supercharger in a Cobra?
The result was the “Terminator,” a nickname used by SVT during development that was so apt that the general public picked up on it as well. The Terminator Cobra was a return to focusing on performance, and the SVT team went for broke when they designed the individual components. It's a Mustang so special that we’re still talking about it fifteen years later.
Destined to be a legend, the Terminator Cobra was also offered in 2004 with a unique one-year-only color: Mystichrome, one of our favorite Mustang colors of all time.
The mystery of what was driving the SVT team to go all in for the 2003/2004 Cobra lies in the catastrophic Cobra years that occurred between 1999 and 2001.
In 1999, Ford was forced to recall all 5,300 Cobras due to a 50 horsepower shortfall that appeared to be related to a faulty muffler and intake manifold. It was the right maneuver because it showed people that Ford was willing to stand behind their Cobras, but it was also an incredibly costly one and one that made many people unhappy.
In the end, Ford managed to make things right for the purchasers of the 1999 Cobra, but it required replacing the faulty parts and making more than a few apologies. The resulting delays made Ford cancel the 2000 Mustang Cobra, though they continued with plans to make 300 Cobra Rs.
The 2001 Cobra was essentially the 1999 Cobra, only with the promised horsepower from the start. There were just a few problems. By sacrificing the cast iron engine for an aluminum one, SVT cut weight and improved horsepower but at a terrible cost. Many Cobras had to have their engine block replaced with the previous iron one. It was less than a total win, which was uncomfortable given the issues with the 1999 Cobra and the missing 2000 year. Many people were hoping that 2002 would be different. And it was, just not in the way many were hoping.
There were advertisements and promotions for 2002 Cobras. There are even as many as a hundred 2002 Cobras that managed to make it out into the world before SVT pulled the plug. In 2000, John Coletti, an engineer and head of the SVT team, was tasked with observing a desert run of prototypes for the 2002 Cobra. Coletti joked with his team that he needed to pick up a six-pack of Alpo for it because it drove like a dog, not a pony. When the team returned, Coletti relayed to the Ford higher-ups that he found the car to be an embarrassment and that it absolutely could not be allowed to exist.
The 2002 Mustang Cobra was canceled.
John Coletti: The Man Who Saved the Mustang
John Coletti is famously dubbed “the man who saved the Mustang.” A longtime admirer of the first generation Mustang and a wrencher both by nature and by education, Coletti put himself through college working construction jobs and fixing the engines of his friends’ cars. All of which landed him in Dearborn just in time to prevent a disaster.
In 1988, Coletti had worked his way to the position of design manager for the Mustang. While that sounds like a big deal now, at the time, Ford considered it a dead end since they planned to ax the Mustang after 1993.
Coletti’s team came up with the SN95 Mustang, a success that saved the Mustang from the chopping block and took Coletti from “doomed project specialist” to head of the Special Vehicles Team. Coletti focused his efforts at SVT on courting enthusiasts and forging relationships with people who didn’t want performance vehicles as much as they needed them.
Coletti aimed to make sure that every SVT vehicle made under his watch lived up to the expectations of the enthusiast rather than those of the average driver.
A team player, Coletti asked his team what they wanted to do with the next Cobra, and when they all agreed that they wanted it to be something spectacular, they canceled the 2002 and spent the additional time working on the 2003-2004 Cobra.
The 2004 Terminator Cobra Compared to the 2004 Mustang GT
|Specification||2004 Mustang GT||2004 Terminator Cobra|
|Horsepower||305 hp @ 5,800 RPM||390 hp @ 6,000 RPM|
|Torque||320 lb-ft @ 4,200 RPM||390 lb-ft @ 3,500 RPM|
|Bore x Stroke||90.2mm x 90mm||90.2mm x 90 mm|
|Transmission||TR-3650 Five-Speed||T-56 Six-Speed|
|Gear Ratios||First: 3.38
|Exhaust||Stainless steel dual exhaust system with bright polished tips||Stainless steel dual exhaust system with polished tips|
The first piece of added equipment that gave the Cobra a little extra shine was the supercharger. SVT had decided to pursue supercharging once they felt they’d reached the limits of what was possible with a naturally aspirated engine. They elected to try a roots supercharger that was manufactured by Eaton. The supercharger was an exciting piece of equipment for many reasons.
Though the Supercharger only created 8 psi, adding that one feature necessitated a host of other changes that all contributed to the Terminator Cobra becoming the beast we know today. Superchargers are powered through the movement of the crankshaft, a form of forced induction that has little trouble making it through emissions standards (unlike turbos which function off of exhaust), but also a form that puts additional stress on the engine. There are several other significant differences between turbochargers and superchargers as well.
The failings of the 2001 Cobra and the added supercharger made the SVT team change the Cobra from an aluminum block back to a cast-iron one, a move that was necessary for the power output, but which changed the weight distribution of the vehicle. In addition to making the actual block stronger, SVT also had to make the individual components of the engine stronger. Part of that was to handle the power output, but team members have said that they also knew that people would want to modify and work on this car, and they wanted to make sure they were using pieces that were worth upgrading.
Because the supercharger attaches to the crankshaft, SVT elected to add a more resilient type of crank than they’d used in the past. Made out of forged steel and fully counterweighted, it’s a pretty great crankshaft if you’re into crankshafts, and most of the people interested in an SVT Cobra are.
Coletti decided that the I-beam rods needed to be replaced with Manley connecting rods. While the production rods used in the standard Mustangs at the time cost $1.60, the Manley rods were a whopping $55 each. The accountants at Ford weren’t happy. To them, the rods felt and looked the same. When they asked Coletti if he was sure he couldn’t use the I-beams he responded: “Well, if you want the engine to stay together, no.”
Later he added, “Everybody knew I was crazy, so usually they let me do what I wanted to do.”
Though all of these parts added weight, the SVT team also tried to cut weight where they could. For example, they used an aluminum flywheel for the transmission. The T-56 transmission, despite its incredible resiliency and strength, is a relatively lightweight transmission.
The rest of the SVT team was as dedicated and crazy as Coletti was, and they worked hard at making sure that the Terminator had the best of everything, making crucial improvements and justifying the expense as they went.
This was going to be the last SVT Cobra, the last New Edge, the last of the Fox/SN95 platform. It needed to leave a lasting impression. The result was an improved connecting rod here, a lighter flywheel there, a beefier clutch, and of course, an independent rear suspension.
Though IRS is standard on modern Mustangs, at the time it had never been used on a Mustang before. It made the Cobra even more unique and gave it an incredible handling advantage. Thanks to the supercharger, the Mustang had an even lower RPM to reach in order to achieve peak torque.
The Terminator Cobra was significantly more mechanically equipped than the 2004 Mustang GT and was even significantly improved over the Mach 1 that was also available that year. From the transmission and engine to the suspension, SVT didn’t leave a corner of the Mustang untouched.
Of course, whenever you mention the difference in horsepower between the Terminator and the GT, everyone starts talking about the supercharger. It’s worth looking at the full list of mechanical enhancements.
Mechanical Differences Between the 2003-2004 Terminator Cobra and GTs
- Fully Counterweighted Forged Steel Crankshaft
- Manley Connecting Rods
- Roots Style Supercharger
- Aluminum Flywheel
- Tremec T-56 Six-Speed Transmission
- Independent Rear Suspension
- Improved Clutch
- Aluminum Driveshaft
- Strengthened U-Joints and Half-Shafts
- Thicker Anti-Roll Bar
- Stiffer Springs
- Improved Brace
- Bilstein Dampers
- Goodyear Eagle F1 Tires
- Leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift knob
- Reshaped Lower Front Bumper, Rocker Panels, and Rear Spoiler
- Composite Hood with Clearance for Supercharger
- Reverse Scoops for Improved Heat Dispersion
Those who have performed dynos on their Terminator Cobras report back that the horsepower is dramatically underreported (likely a response to the ’99 fiasco) and the actual horsepower number is closer to 420. Given all of the mechanical differences, it’s no wonder that the Terminator Cobra was head and shoulders above its competition at the time.
10th Anniversary Edition
In 2003, a tenth-anniversary edition of the Cobra was released. For the lucky people who obtained one of the 2,003 that were produced, there were improved aesthetic features in addition to the already stellar mechanical performance of the Cobra. These improvements included red leather inserts, red brake calipers, and carbon-fiber patterned leather around the shifter.
This was actually the first Cobra with a steering wheel that had grips at the ten and two o clock positions, and they were once again made with the same carbon-fiber patterned leather. The 2,003 production number was designed to line up with the year they were produced, 2003, and were divided almost evenly between coupes and convertibles, with one thousand of the convertible and one thousand and three of the coupe being produced.
There were only three colors it was available in: Black, Torch Red, and Silver Metallic.
The Mystichrome appearance package was one of the most desirable for the Terminator Cobra, but only a thousand were made. These Mustangs were painted with a special pant: Mystichrome. Similar to the Mystic paint that had been available in 1996, the 2004 version was vastly improved and gave even more depth to the color. Depending on the light, the Mystichrome Cobras change from green to blue to purple to black. The secret to the Cobra’s color-changing effect is a chroma flair pigment that contains microscopic aluminum particles that catch and reflect the light uniquely.
Adding to the legend of the Mystichrome paint is how dedicated Ford has been to preserving the secret. If a Mystichrome vehicle needed body work done, a Ford representative would fly down and ensure that every step of the process was done according to Ford’s specifications. Not only was the paint incredibly expensive, but you weren’t even buying the paint, just the use of it. Any unused paint was dutifully flown back to Ford’s headquarters where it was presumably kept under lock and key. There are counterfeiters out there who use the same technology used to replicate one hundred dollar bills to fabricate the even more valuable paint.
As another way of one-upping the Mystic Cobra predecessor, the Mystichrome Cobra also featured an interior where the leather tanning company had used the same Chroma flair pigmentation. This was a new experiment, and everyone was enthused with how it turned out. Though some have figured out how to artificially replicate the paint, the leather is still very unique. Mystichrome Cobras also came with chrome wheels to further differentiate the package.
Though the Mystichrome Cobra is highly valued, it’s actually one of the most common colors for 2004 Cobras.
|Color Name||Coupe Units Produced||Convertible Units Produced|
The 2003 Cobra was the best selling SVT vehicle, and more than 13,000 were sold in 2003 alone. It was an incredible success and is still highly prized today.
The Terminator Cobra was the last Mustang that Ford SVT worked on, and they went out with a bang. The Cobra is still a frequent sight at car shows and races and is still a frequent winner at the track. Even though Ford put a governor on the engine that is supposed to limit the Cobra’s speed to around 155 mph, enthusiasts figured out how to get around that pretty quickly. Cobras are now finishing quarter-miles in a little over six seconds and reaching speeds of 205 mph with just a few modifications.
The Terminator was the perfect finale to a generation of Mustang.
Sources: This 2003-2004 SVT Cobra Terminator Is the Car You Probably Forgot About, TopSpeed | Ford's Mustang Cobras Will Get Horsepower Fix, Automotive News | Facts and Trivia, Mystichrome | Iron Fist, Lead Food, John Coletti and Ford's Terminator, Frank Moriarty | Tested: 2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra, Car and Driver
Image Credits: Ford | Mystichrome | Ford Muscle | Mustangs and Fords