When the new Fox platform 1979 Mustang was first released, Ford had no idea that it would eventually become one of the most revered American muscle cars of the 1980s. After the performance lows of the Ford Mustang II from 1974 to 1978, the new 1979 Mustang offered new European flair but unfortunately carried on the lackluster performance of its immediate predecessor. The Mustang’s hottest motor for 1979 was the 140 horsepower 2-bbl carburetor equipped 5.0 liter (302 CID) V8. Even considering that V8 horsepower output for most cars was way down by 1979 compared to previous years, the Mustang was still outgunned by its main competitors the 1979 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 which had an optional 5.7 liter (350 CID) V8 that produced 175 horsepower and the 1979 Pontiac Trans Am which had an optional 6.6 liter (400 CID) V8 that produced 220 horsepower (that NHRA rated in stock form at 260 horsepower). So it’s not hard comprehending that the 1979 Mustang didn’t win over the hearts of muscle car fans back in 1979.
This was not to say that the Mustang was not a big sales success, it most certainly was with 369,936 units sold for the 1979 model year. In comparison 211,454 1979 Pontiac Firebirds (including total Trans Am production) and 282,571 1979 Chevrolet Camaros were produced. This proved the new Mustang styling was popular and had plenty of fans. A few years later with the release of the 1982 Mustang GT, Ford finally got serious again about offering a true performance Mustang and the muscle car war was hot again. After this, the Fox body Mustang GT and LX when equipped with Ford’s 5.0 liter (302 CID) H.O. V8 would give the Camaro Z28/Iroc-Z and Pontiac Trans Am some heavy competition – beating them hands down during some of the model years in the 1980s. The Fox body Mustang had attractive styling along with being reliable, easy to modify, and offered more performance for the dollar than the Camaro and Firebird.
Ford made the mistake of resting on its laurels with the Mustang, its performance model the Mustang GT was left to languish after the 1987 model year. Horsepower which had reached the pinnacle of figure of 225 for 1987 where it would remain at that level until 1993 when it dropped by 20 horsepower to 205. The Fox body Mustang had seen 15 full model years of production which was much more time than Ford had originally intended. So you can very well imagine that the 1993 Mustang GT which was rated at 205 horsepower and with a general body and platform design that had been around since 1979 was in performance circles at the time, the equivalent of a 50 year old man competing at the Olympics.
Part of the problem was Ford had delayed the development of a successor because it at first couldn’t decide on whether to keep the Mustang rear-wheel drive or move it to front-wheel drive. After much agonizing, Ford finally made its decision to replace the Mustang with a lighter sporty front-wheel drive car that would carry on the "Mustang" name well into the 1990s. As development progressed of this front-wheel drive Mustang, word leaked out to Mustang fans who went into an uproar. Not so nice letters were sent and phone calls were made to Dearborn. With the roar of the masses making their disgust heard loud and clear concerning a future front-wheel drive Mustang (which according to most Mustang fans was considered nothing short of blasphemy). Ford executives wisely got the picture real quick and announced the Mustang would remain a rear-wheel drive car for its next generation. Due to the front-wheel drive Mustang already being far in its engineering stage, Ford executives decided to release this sporty front-wheel drive car as the Ford Probe for the 1989 model year. The Probe never really made a big splash with buyers and after nine model years was cancelled and would never return. However the front-wheel drive Mustang debacle put Ford way behind the 8-ball in developing a rear-wheel drive Fox body Mustang replacement. Fortunately for Ford, GM with its 1982-1992 (Camaro/Firebird) F-body platform had delayed development of a replacement until 1993. However with the all-new Mustang not ready until 1994, Ford had one year to do battle with an all new 1993 Camaro Z28 and 1993 Pontiac Trans Am (both of which produced 275 horsepower) with the ancient Fox body Mustang GT rated at 205 horsepower.
However this type of adversity sometimes leads to some desperate measures that have positive outcomes. In this case that’s exactly what happened. Ford had assembled a special team called the Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) to develop a high-output performance turbo 4-cylinder Mustang which was the 1984-1986 Mustang SVO. The SVO team developed a high-revving great handling Fox body Mustang. It even had 4-wheel disc brakes and 5-lug wheels something the Fox body Mustang GT which had 4-lug wheels and rear drum brakes never received. With the massive drop of gasoline prices in 1985 and the growing popularity of Ford’s 5.0 liter H.O. V8, the pricey Mustang SVO never really was a sales success. Fast forward to early 1990s, Ford realized that a back to the drawing board approach was needed to carry Mustang performance through the Fox body Mustang’s last model year. This is where a rehash of the SVO team idea was born again – this time being the team being called the Special Vehicle Team (SVT). Currently SVT is alive and well at Ford and is responsible for the new 662 horsepower 2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 which happens to be the first Mustang to exceed 200 mph.
The SVT group for 1993 took what was a essentially Mustang GT and gave it big shot of steroids – the result was the 1993 Mustang Cobra. The strategy worked since the 1993 Mustang Cobra was by far the fastest and best handling Fox body Mustang ever produced. The Mustang Cobra may have only had an advertised 5.0 liters of displacement but it battled well against the more powerful 5.7 liter (350 CID) V8 found in its arch rival the 1993 Chevrolet Camaro Z28. The Cobra’s horsepower was bumped up from 205 (of the 5.0 liter H.O. in the GT) to an advertised 235 horsepower which happened to be the highest horsepower rating of any factory Fox body Mustang. However that wasn’t the whole story, in reality the Mustang Cobra felt a good deal faster than the 225 horsepower 5.0 liter Fox body Mustang GTs of the late-1980s which were some of the hottest performance cars available in America at that time. No sir, the 10 horsepower difference to anyone who had driven both cars was nothing short of a joke. In reality the Cobra’s horsepower rating was somewhere as high as the 250 to 255 range. Ford had reworked the multipoint fuel injected 5.0 liter H.O. by adding new free-flow cylinder heads with larger valves and heavy duty rocker arms, a new free-flow intake manifold, and a performance oriented throttle body. And to give these performance parts the ultimate effect, Ford also threw a re-calibrated computer into the package. The end result was a much faster car than the Mustang GT, however the retuning came at a heavy price to low-end grunt. The reworked 5.0 really came to life once it passed 2,500 rpm and it didn’t reach its peak torque of 285 lb-ft until a very high 4,000 rpm – as a comparison the 1993 Camaro Z28 hit its 325 lb-ft of torque at a much lower 2,400 rpm. Motor Trend (February 1993) when testing the Cobra found it to be so lopsided towards the higher rpms that low-end grunt in the form of torque was almost non-existent. Ford had decided with the Cobra’s 5.0 V8 to go the same route it did in 1969-1970 with the high-revving Boss 302 (5.0 liter) V8 which was closer to a racing motor than the average production muscle car motor. Same was true with the Cobra’s 5.0, it was a blast to drive on the oval race track but driving around town it didn’t have the low-end kick-you-in-the-pants type feeling of the 1993 Camaro Z28 or even the lower powered 1993 Mustang GT (which had a very formidable low-end torque curve). Also the Cobra’s standard 3.08 rear axle ratio didn’t help this off the starting line punch – the Z28 as a comparison had a more performance oriented 3.23 ratio. The plus side was even with all the reworking, the Cobra’s 5.0 liter had a 9.0:1 compression ratio which could reach peak performance with 91 octane fuel as opposed to the 93 octane that the 1993 Camaro Z28 was required to use. And Ford made mandatory with the Cobra a 5-speed manual transmission so there was no fear of an automatic transmission shifting too early in the rpm range and robbing power from the motor.
Even with the lack of initial low-end grunt, the Mustang Cobra perfected the 1/4 mile sprint to a very quick 14.4 seconds at 97.4 mph (as tested by Motor Trend) and manged a 0-60 mph time of just 6.2 seconds. With performance times like this there was no denying the Mustang Cobra was the fastest factory Fox body Mustang produced. And even with all the hoopla concerning the powerful 1993 Camaro Z28 – the Z28 was only 0.4 seconds faster in the 1/4 mile with a time of 14.0 seconds at 98.8 mph. However the Cobra’s lack of low-end torque did show with a larger 0.6 second gap from 0-60 mph – which the Camaro hit in a awe inspiring (at the time) 5.6 seconds. When it came to top speed, the Z28 was the easy victor with a top speed of 154 mph versus the Cobra’s 141 mph as tested by Motor Trend. The Cobra’s gearing and boxy shape with the aerodynamics of an ice cream truck were to blame for not reaching above 141 mph. The positive side was the extra power of the Cobra’s 5.0 liter V8 did make it about 5-6 mph faster than the fastest Fox bodied 5.0 liter Mustang GTs and LXs.
The SVT engineers also did a wonderful job of tuning the Mustang’s aging suspension. The Cobra was the first Fox body Mustang to get 17 inch wheels (17 x 7.5 inches to be exact), and wide high speed performance tires – P245-45ZR17 Goodyear Eagle tires. The Cobra may not have been able to reach 150 mph, but the Cobra’s ZR rated tires were rated for 150 mph. The 1993 Z28 may have had a more modern suspension with optional 245-50ZR16 Goodyear Eagle GS-C tires which were a more expensive tires than the Cobra’s Eagles however the Cobra still stuck to the Z28 like glue when it came to handling. Motor Trend achieved a .86 on the skidpad test with the Cobra only .01 less than the Z28’s .87 figure. And here’s were it got interesting, Motor Trend also ran both cars through a 600-ft slalom and the Cobra’s mph through this slalom was nearly identical at 64.8 mph to the Z28’s 65 mph.
The Cobra was the first Mustang since the 1984-1986 Mustang SVO to have 4-wheel disc brakes and 5 lug wheels (all other Fox body Mustangs had economy car style 4 lug wheels). Motor Trend when testing the Cobra obtained a 60-0 mph stop in 144 feet – which was adequate for a performance car at the time but looked rather pathetic compared to the 112 feet the Z28 took for the same maneuver.
The 1993 Cobra as previously mentioned had a body design that had been around since 1979 which was almost three times longer than the average person kept a car at the time – interesting enough the shape of the external sheet metal didn’t look as dated as it could have. Ford had managed through periodic updates to keep the Fox body Mustang looking modern enough to still be attractive to buyers. The Cobra externally was for all intents and purposes a 1993 Mustang GT with the following items added: Cobra snake badges, 17 inch wheels, revised front grille with a retro prancing horse badge, unique rear spoiler, and retro rear taillights that were last seen on the 1986 model year Mustangs. Back in 1993, the Mustang Cobra was’t cheap – at a base price of $19,550 (over $2K more than the base price of the 1993 Z28). This was especially disconcerting when a few years beforehand any budget changed gearhead could buy a new 225 horsepower 5.0 liter H.O. Mustang LX with few options for a mere $10,000 and have the fastest Mustang off the Ford dealership lot (the 5.0 liter equipped LX was lighter than the Mustang GT which gave it a slight performance advantage). The no-frills 5.0 liter Mustang LX was still available for 1993 however at 205 horsepower and a higher price than a few years beforehand it had lost some of its bang for the buck appeal. For a Mustang performance fan wanting the fastest the 1993 model year had to offer, it was going to cost close to $20K. Even though the buzz was already circulating that an all-new Mustang was due to hit the streets for 1994, the 1993 Cobra’s limited production numbers (4993 Cobras were produced for 1993) almost guaranteed prices would remain at window sticker price levels. The positive was that the Cobra came very well equipped for its base price. Only five main options were available – leather seats, power driver’s side front seat, upgraded audio system with CD player, rear window defroster, and sunroof. Unfortunately a tilt steering wheel option was not available with the Cobra. There were only three exterior colors available with the Cobra – teal, red, and black.
By 1993 the Cobra’s interior was familiar to Mustang buyers, it had been around since the 1987 model year. Even though by 1993 it was sorely in need of an update, it still was appealing in its shear simplicity. The gauges were all easy to read and understand. The manual shifter was well placed. And the seating position was much higher than the much lower position of the Z28 which offered much better road visibility than the Z28. The Cobra’s standard cloth seats were plucked right out of the Mustang GT, and were available in either black or grey cloth. The optional leather seats were also borrowed from the Mustang GT but could only be had in grey.
Also worth noting is that Ford did take the Cobra one step further and offered a Cobra "R" version (the R denoted racing). It was essentially a stripped down Cobra that was produced for the professional racer – with items like the radio, the back seat, power options, interior insulation, etc. removed in order to reduce weight. With the R, Ford managed to shed close to 200 lbs off the Cobra dropping the weight to a mere 3,089 lbs. The suspension and the brakes were also beefed up for track use. Only 107 Cobra Rs were produced for 1993.
There’s no denying the the 1993 Mustang Cobra was a valiant effort by Ford’s SVT. However upon close inspection it was the start of something really good. SVT may have been a little wet behind the ears back in 1993 but the final product was solid. And for the last twenty years the crew at SVT has consistently continued to up the performance ante improving engine performance, handling, and braking on every successive SVT Mustang model. The 200 mph SVT engineered 2013 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 is proof at how much better SVT has gotten at the high performance car game – the 2013 Shelby GT500 has now surpassed the best Camaro, Chevrolet has to offer, and it now competes directly with the meanest new Chevrolet Corvette available – the ZR1. The introduction of the first SVT Mustang for 1993 also happened to be the perfect sendoff for the Fox bodied Mustang which may have emerged from lowly beginnings but sprouted to be one of the best and favorite performance cars of the 1980s. The 1993 Cobra Mustang was a great end to a very long run.
Written contents in this article – © 2012 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved