Curbside Classic: 1978 Mustang Cobra II — The Winter of My Discontent


(first posted 3/9/2013)    The Wikipedia synopsis of John Steinbeck’s final novel, The Winter of My Discontent, reads: “Feeling the pressure from his family and acquaintances to achieve more than his current station, Ethan considers letting his normally high standards of conduct take a brief respite in order to attain a better social and economic position.”

What better description could there be for the Ford Mustang II Cobra II?

Paul has already recognized Henry Ford II’s (well, he was CEO at that time) Mustang II Cobra II as a “Deadliest Sin II,” which will save me at least an hour’s worth of writing. You can go read it now—I’ll wait until you’re back, but don’t take too long—the tin worm has already set in pretty firmly on this car, and it won’t last forever.

Okay then, you’re back! The Mustang II was introduced in 1974, as Ford’s response to two (II) stimuli: First, the first-generation Mustang had grown to such ponderous proportions during its first decade that customers were beginning to choke on balk at the size. Second, the oil embargo and general economy had had dire effects on the domestic car market, and the Big Three were now competing in earnest with solid import entries like the Toyota Celica, Datsun 240Z and even Ford’s own European-sourced Capri.

The Cobra II was introduced in 1976, its name, of course, lifted from the Shelby Cobra (my, how the mighty have fallen). Ford owned the Cobra name, and although Shelby’s name appears nowhere on the car, his likeness was used in advertising. One source I referenced indicated that Shelby was paid $5.00 for each car sold, possibly to alleviate any potential issues regarding use of the Cobra name. Interestingly, 1976 and early 1977 Cobra IIs were converted off-site, at Jim Wanger’s Motortown, which also did the Pontiac 455 Super Duty Trans Am and Lil’ Wide Track Astre conversions among others. Ford moved conversions in-house for the latter part of the production run—only minor differences exist between cars done at Motortown vs. ex-factory.

Despite popular (mis)conception, the Mustang II shared only about 10% of its parts content with the Ford Pinto. Sadly, that included the venerable 2.3-liter engine with its 88 “ridden hard and put up wet” ponies. Due to the lack of a V8 option, 1974 boasts the lowest Mustang top horsepower of any model year to date. A 302 cu in. (5.0-liter) V8 was available as of the 1975 model year, but even it made only 140 hp and, as Paul pointed out, was not much of a match for its contemporaries in the ‘pony express’ department. Our subject car might or might not have the 5.0 lurking under the hood; Ford (ex-factory) did not apply a V8 badge to the front fender on 1978 Cobra IIs, although dealers may have added them to some cars in order to help their sales.

It is not uncommon to run across Mustang IIs that have been converted to Cobra II or King Cobra cars. Our subject, however, sports the right patina on the exterior graphics, as well as the correct-for-1978 red interior with brushed- aluminum dash insert and “pony” badges on the interior door panels, so it’s almost certainly the real deal.

By the late mid-1970s, the oil crisis was a faded memory, and despite the “cheapening of the brand” that occurred with both the Mustang and Cobra names, Ford arguably had a hit on their hands. Sales of all Mustang II models had dropped from a first-year high of 296,041 in 1974, to 179,039 by 1978—which was still nothing to sneeze at. Out of that 1978 total (the final year for the Mustang II), only 8,009 Cobra IIs were sold, which makes this a fairly rare car.

Ford, like Steinbeck’s protagonist, then finally came to its senses, and set out to redeem itself with the introduction of the “Fox” platform Mustangs.