With the Malaise Era quickly fading into the rear-view mirror by the early 1990s, the pony-car wars were starting to heat up again in earnest. Throughout the mid-’70s and early ’80s, automakers had struggled to find ways to balance the performance that enthusiasts wanted with fuel economy considerations and the regulations mandated by the federal government.
While the third-generation Mustang debuted an all-new platform that was a welcome departure from the Pinto-based Mustang II, there was some initial teething to be done as Ford and the auto industry as whole dug their way out of the constraints of increasing government regulation, as well as climbing fuel prices that hampered performance developments throughout the ’70s and ’80s. (Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company)
Ford needed a potent model to keep the 13-year-old Fox fresh, while development of the fourth-generation SN-95 continued.
Debuting in 1979, the third-generation Fox Mustang was a welcome alternative to the Pinto-based Mustang II that had preceded it; but its capability was still a far cry from the ground-pounding models of the late ’60s, as the top-spec, 302-cube V8 only offered 140 horsepower.
But both the Fox and its 5.0-liter V8 would mature over time. By 1992, with cross-town rival Chevrolet poised to debut the fourth generation Camaro and its Z28 performance variant, Ford needed a potent model to keep the 13-year-old Fox fresh, while development of the fourth-generation SN-95 continued.
As the auto industry began to figure out how to build efficient, cost-effective performance cars, the decades-old battle for pony car supremacy between the Mustang and Camaro began to heat up in turn. With Chevy readying the fourth-generation Camaro for production, Ford sought a way to keep the aging Fox platform on par, and the SVT Mustang Cobra was just the ticket. (Photo Credit: Bring A Trailer)
The answer came in the form of the Special Vehicle Team’s Mustang Cobra. Debuting at the 1992 Chicago Auto Show, it was a Mustang with performance tuning that came from a newly formed skunkworks team within Ford with the express purpose of creating the most capable production Fox Mustang ever.
Special Vehicle Team
Formally launched in 1993 with the specific goals to create “Performance, Substance, Exclusivity and Value,” SVT supplanted the Special Vehicle Operations group within Ford that would oversee performance-focused developments within the company.
Their first project to make its way into production would be the 1993 SVT Mustang Cobra. Rather than a radical reinvention of the Mustang GT, the Cobra instead saw the team make numerous subtle tweaks throughout the car in order to yield a significantly more capable machine.
While the Cobra wasn’t a complete rethink of Mustang performance, it featured a number of tweaks throughout that resulted in a substantially improved performance car from nearly every measurable aspect.
Under the hood, a 5.0-liter V8 that shared the same block, crank, rods and pistons as the standard GT engine. The rest of the engine was a different story, however, as the Cobra received high-flow GT-40 iron cylinder heads; a high-flow Cobra intake manifold; a unique, hydraulic-roller camshaft, underdrive pulleys; and a low-restriction exhaust. In all, the Cobra’s 302 made 235 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, which was enough to propel the 3,250-pound coupe to 60 mph from rest in just 5.9 seconds.
While the bottom end of the Cobra’s V8 was identical to the GT’s powerplant aside from the camshaft, the top end saw significant changes that bumped overall output up by 30 horsepower and 5 pound-feet of torque versus the standard 5.0. (Photo Credit: Bring A Trailer)
1993 Cobra Specs
Engine Type: 90-degree, OHV Windsor V-8 Displacement: 5.0-liter/302 ci Horsepower: 235 horsepower at 4,600 rpm Torque: 280 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm Bore x Stroke: 4.0×3.0-inch Compression: 9.0:1 Suspension Front: Modified MacPherson strut type, coil springs, anti-roll bar Rear: Rigid axle located by four trailing links, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Behind the improved engine, SVT installed a strengthened Borg Warner T-5 five-speed manual transmission featuring custom ratios in First through Third gears. A clutch beefed up in comparison to the unit used in the standard Mustang GT meshed the new T-5 with the 5.0-liter.
On the handling front, SVT turned to the suspension experts at Tokico to provide uniquely-tuned springs, dampers and sway bars for the Cobra. For stopping power, the Cobra featured dual-piston calipers up front that clamped down on 10.84-inch vented discs – while the rear utilized single-piston calipers and 10.07-inch vented discs. Outfitted with Cobra-specific 17 x 7.5-inch cast aluminum wheels wrapped in Goodyear Gatorback rubber, the SVT snake could dispatch the quarter mile in 14.5 seconds and stop from 60 mph in 140 feet – more than respectable numbers for the era.
Interestingly, while the SVT Mustang Cobra was undoubtedly a more performance-focused model than the standard Mustang GT, its suspension tuning was actually more compliant. In fact, both the rear springs and front anti-sway bar are tuned softer than the GT’s suspension package from that year. Ford explained that the car was tuned specifically for on-road driving comfort rather than skidpad numbers — and perhaps to aid weight transfer to the rear wheels for quicker launches, and thus, shorter 0-60 and quarter-mile times. However, the wider wheels and tires fitted to the Cobra still offered more overall grip than the standard GT, making it a faster car both in the turns and in a straight line.
Visually, the SVT Mustang Cobra didn’t stray too far from the Mustang GT, but subtle aesthetic tweaks can be found from stem to stern. Along with Cobra-specific wheels, it also featured a unique lower valance up front that allowed more air into the engine bay, while out back a unique spoiler and rear taillights helped distinguish the Cobra from the Mustang GT from any angle.
Available only as a manual-equipped coupe, 4,993 examples of the SVT Mustang Cobra would be built in its sole year as a Fox, with 1,854 car painted black, another 1,784 in Vibrant Red (1,775 of those buyers would opt for the optional clearcoat application), and the remaining 1,355 Cobras dressed in Teal.
R Is For Race
Debuting alongside the SVT Mustang Cobra was the far more exclusive and track-focused Cobra R. Designed as a homologation car to provide Ford racers with a competitive platform for the IMSA Firestone Firehawk Grand Sport and SCCA World Challenge racing series, the Cobra R featured a number of changes versus the standard Cobra.
Since the car was being homologated for road racing, many of those changes focused on handling prowess. To that end, overall weight was reduced by removing the fog lights (which allowed racers to add additional air ducting to cool the brakes), along with the rear seat, air conditioning, radio, and power accessories.
The standard Cobra might have been tuned for on-road compliance, however the Cobra R was singularly focused with road course handling capability. While the powertrain was essentially identical to the standard Cobra, its handling package, featuring stiffer Eibach springs, adjustable Koni dampers, was not. The R also featured bigger brake discs to go along with the weight reduction efforts, additional structural bracing, and cooling improvements. (Photo Credit: Mecum)
Additional bracing from the Mustang GT convertible enhanced the car’s rigidity, while the Cobra R’s track-tuned suspension package included Eibach springs and adjustable Koni shocks and struts. Braking was also enhanced by the inclusion of big 13-inch rotors up front, while cooling capability was improved with a larger radiator and an external oil cooler.
Just 107 Cobra R models were built in total — all of which were Vibrant Red with Opal Grey interiors, and featured the upcoming wheel design from the 1994 Mustang GT with a unique paint application. Although Ford’s desire was to see these cars head out to the race tracks of America to mix it up in wheel to wheel competition, it’s estimated that nearly two-thirds of them ended up in collectors’ garages instead.
In order to run the Cobra in the IMSA and SCCA racing series that Ford wanted to compete in, they needed to homolgate the car by offering a certain number of road-going models for sale to the general public. With a price tag almost 50 percent higher than the standard Cobra and lacking any and all creature comforts (as well as a back seat) in the name of road-course prowess, the Cobra R appealed to a much narrower subset of enthusiasts than the standard Cobra. (Photo Credit: Mecum, 1993Cobra.com)
Today, the SVT Mustang Cobra and Cobra R serve as the production high-water mark of Fox Mustang performance.
Though Mustang performance would improve over the subsequent years, a trend which continues to this day, the Cobra’s notable place as the first in a series of models produced by the SVT team would cement its desirability among Mustang fans. Well cared for examples can go for more than twice their original MSRP of $18,505.
With performance on the upswing by 1993, the rivalry between the Mustang and the Camaro began to look a lot like it did in the late ’60s, a battle that continues to this day between these models.
While a handful of Cobra R models made their way into IMSA and SCCA competition, a number of examples were tucked away almost immediately after delivery. Today, these cars command over three times their 1993 purchase of $25,692 – on the rare occasions they are up for sale, of course.