Car Show Classic: 1978 Mustang II King Cobra – The First 5.0 And A Screaming Cobra


(first posted 8/25/2014)    Where does one even begin when describing the top of the line, final Mustang II?  The car is already somewhat polarizing, and then one must deal with the Trans-Am knock-off “Screaming Cobra.”  It looks fast but really isn’t, although it introduced a famous badge that still carries weight today.  It is a pristine example of a car that few people restore.  Many enigmas surround this ’78 King Cobra, but could it be the most appropriate sendoff for this flawed yet timely iteration of what is perhaps Ford’s most storied vehicle?

1974 Ford Mustang II-02-03

Certainly, there have been many discussions on CC about the relative merits and demerits of the Mustang II.  Like the brochure said, it was probably “the right car at the right time,” but largely because of an well-timed (for Ford) oil crisis.  On the other hand, the current Mustang’s sales have not approached Mustang II levels in years, so maybe Ford had the right idea regardless of the political climate.  In some manner, however, Ford realized that one of the remaining “traditional” ponycars, the Trans-Am, was also a better idea, so they decided to emulate it, with mixed results.

1978 Ford Mustang II-10

Thus, we have the King Cobra.  In many ways, the Mustang II was ill-equipped to be a Trans-Am copy.  Its 302 was somewhat underwhelming compared to the Trans Am’s available Pontiac 400, and the Mustang II just didn’t have the beefy stance of the larger Trans-Am.  The King Cobra looked almost clownish, hulking over a smallish set of 13-inch tires, which were rubber bands compared to the generous rubber on the Trans-Am.

1978 Pontiac-05

The difference in visual effect is striking, but the above two photos also highlight how badly Ford was attempting to emulate the wildly successful Trans Am.  Both vehicles have available T-Tops, garish hood decals, wild colors, and prominent front air dam/rear spoiler combinations.  Ford even attempted a hood scoop that was a weak copy of the Trans-Am’s shaker (which was, to be fair, a copy of the ’69 Mach 1’s shaker).  Wait a minute…where are the fender scoops on the Mustang?  Tsk, tsk Ford.

1978 Ford Mustang II-11

Ford also sold its version of the Firebird Formula, the Cobra II.  Unlike the King Cobra and its standard 5.0, the Cobra II carried a standard 2.3 four-cylinder, which hardly warrants the driving gloves that the above-pictured gentleman is donning.  The Cobra II may or may not have been more tasteful in ’78, as it wore one-year-only billboard graphics on the side that diverged from the Shelby-like rocker stripes of earlier Cobra IIs.


My intent, however, is not to create a Mustang II bashing session.  Dave Skinner’s ’74 Mach 1 is an attractive, tasteful version of this somewhat maligned ponycar.  And as gaudy as the King Cobra is to modern sensibilities, the version above is in immaculate condition, quite possibly the finest King Cobra in the world.

Dave Skinner’s 1974 Mustang II Mach 1

The bare bones of the Mustang II hatchback are, to me, not unattractive at all, and some of the add-ons work.  The two tailpipes, as fake as the are, create a bit of a sporting image, as does the rear spoiler and quarter window slats.  The wheelwell flares, however, demand a tire size that Ford just did not offer on the Mustang II.


The interior, of course, is ’70s wild, and I love it.  The orange seats and stripes harmonize well with the Cobra’s white paint, and the seat pattern might be tacky in every way imaginable, but it’s perfect for this car.  The laminated Mustang II brochure is a nice touch, and reminds me how well-done Ford brochures of this time period were.  In many ways, the brochures’ dusky settings and cool light were far more exciting than the cars they portrayed. Maybe not in this case.


No complaints about the dashboard.  It has a combination of gauges and warning lights, and the aluminum applique suits this car much better than some sort of fake woodgrain.  This example has an automatic rather than the standard four-speed, which may be my only real knock against this particular example.  The three-spoke steering wheel is just right, and evokes images of the original Mustang’s wheel (which had fake spoke holes compared to the real ones on this ’78).


Appropriately, and barely visible in this photograph, this King Cobra was parked next to a ’78 Trans Am.  The hood cobra is an obvious homage to the Trans-Am’s screaming chicken, but what is more interesting is the “5.0” nomenclature on the hood scoop.  As far as I know, this is the first use of the 5.0 moniker, one that still adorns the fenders of new Mustang GTs, and created a sterling reputation on the streets of America in the 1980s.

While the Mustang II King Cobra might have been a miss as far as creating a Trans-Am competitor was concerned, Ford would take a few solid steps toward getting in the game with the ’79 Mustang, which was a totally different concept with totally different execution.  The King Cobra, however, was a wild goodbye for a car that doesn’t get much respect today, but sold well for Ford through much of the 1970s.

Related reading (if you dare): CC 1976 Mustang II Cobra II – Ford’s Deadly Sin II   (by PN)