Shades of beige blur by as a red rocketship blasts through the Arizona desert. Banging through six gears the 5.4-liter engine soars toward 7,000 rpm, the 2000 Cobra R proved that its 170-plus-mph top speed rating might have been an understatement. It felt stable as the red speedometer needle climbed toward the last number on the 180 mph dial.
This was one of your scribe’s fondest automotive memories as I rode in and drove the Special Vehicle Team’s latest R-model across the desert and around the track at the Bondurant Racing School. Tautly sprung and stripped bare of any sound deadener—the raucous, raw R-model. The memory of driving this car place it among a rare pantheon of favorites in a long line of Mustang driving conquests. It enthusiastically embodied the core SVT values of performance, substance, exclusivity, but it might have pushed the value proposition with a $54,995 sticker price.
One of our all-time favorite Mustangs is the 2000 Cobra R. These cars are extremely rare—with only 300 sold—so the last time we drove one was at the media drive over 16 years ago. Thankfully our old friend Paul Svinicki of Paul’s High Performance offered to let us drive his mildly modded version.
Keys To The King
It still brings a smile to my face every time I lay into it and hit 7,000 rpm. – Paul Svinicki
Imagine our surprise and delight as we arrived at Paul’s High Performance in Jackson, Michigan, and main man Paul Svinicki tossed us the keys to his newly revitalized Cobra R–a machine that preserves the R-model theme, but extends its performance with a series of strategic upgrades taken from an elite group of prototype gear from the now-defunct Special Vehicle Team’s own prototype bins.
“The car was brought to me with a wrong, blown-up engine in 2002 from another shop. The customer ended up in a life-threatening situation and I acquired the car from him,” Paul Svinicki explained.
These days, the likes of the Coyote 5.0 and its many performance iterations make high-revving performance (that still delivers down low) is the norm. However, in the dark ages of the early modular engines, the average Mustang—not including the Cobras—was anemic down low and shunted at the top of the tach. The Cobra R was a revelation.
Featuring a 5.4-liter engine, fortified in true hot rodding style with forged internals, and topped off with a pair of free-flowing cylinder heads and a high-flowing intake manifold constructed just for this car. This top-end was developed in concert with Ford’s Rough Riders off-road truck program, where current Ford Performance Chief Engineer Jamal Hameedi cut his teeth and eventually brought a variation of those heads to vehicles like the Ford GT and Shelby GT500.
Paul upgraded his rare R-model with a nice selection of prototype Ford parts and a few choice aftermarket pieces. As you can see here, it features a prototype intake with a larger plenum and freer flowing inlet fed by a larger 90mm mass air sensor in front of the factory 80mm oval throttle body. This R-model came to Paul with a blown engine, so it took him a while to assemble the new combination that he wanted to put it back on the road. The centerpiece was a fresh 5.4-liter engine that is actually a Cobra R prototype engine built at Ford’s Engine Manufacturing Development Operations facility.
Several Notches Above
“Everything we’ve done on this car is a notch or several notches above anything we’ve done before,” legendary former Special Vehicle Engineering manager John Coletti told Motor Trend at the time of the car’s launch. “This 2000 Cobra R pushes the performance envelope far beyond the capabilities of any previous Mustang.”
Not only was the high-winding 5.4-liter engine built for speed, it was placed in a fortified chassis and backed by a unique drivetrain consisting of a Tremec six-speed manual transmission and an independent rear suspension (sound familiar?). It had big Brembo brakes, a side-exit exhaust that fused Bassani and Borla construction, a track-ready Fuel Safe fuel cell and more.
Inside, the R lacked a pair of rear seats and sound deadening, and driver and passenger were held in place as the car’s 1g cornering capabilities were put to good use. In all, it truly felt like a race car right down to its lack of a radio.
Blasting down the road or through the corners in one of the four prototypes back in early 2000 really boiled down the driving experience to it purest form–and comparing it with the 1995 Cobra R and its industrial 351W showed that the pushrod powered, stick-axled machines were instantly less relevant.
Inside Paul’s R-model looks just like it did when it rolled off the production line. The only real change is a Kirban shifter on the Tremec T-56 six-speed under the factory shift boot. As much as Ford SVT worked at reducing weight by removing sound deadener and the back seat, the car still had a spare tire unlike many of today’s cars. When he drives the car for extended periods on the street, Paul actually throws a heavy shop blanket in the trunk to dampen some of those open-cabin sounds.
Behind The Wheel Again
Slithering into the cloth Recaros, the memories come rushing back. A turn of the key and those raw tactile sensations blast us back to the year 2000. As we pull away from the PHP shop, the car doesn’t come off as robust as it did back in the day, in spite of this. However, as we find an open stretch of road, the loud pedal meets the floor and at 4,000 rpm the 5.4-liter snarls to life that familiar blur returns, though this time it, was Michigan foliage.
What makes Paul’s 2000 Cobra R even cooler than a bone-stocker with low mileage is the lineage of its modifications. Over the years working with the development of the car, Paul was able to gain access to some pretty special parts. The others he picked up on the open market (you never know what might pop up for sale) and all came from Ford SVT’s prototype bins. They were considered for some level of production, but didn’t quite make the cut.
• AJE road race K-member w/ upper and lower A-arms
• Kirban shifter
• Koni struts
• Eibach 750 in-lb front springs
• Bilstein shocks
• Energy Suspension IRS bushings w/ PHP anti-hop brace
“It just sat waiting for me to acquire all the right parts, which I’ve done over the years,” Paul said. “So this year it was high time I put it back together and have some fun with it.”
The right parts include a prototype engine built by Ford’s Engine Manufacturing Development Operations skunkworks. To that rare centerpiece, Paul added a set of prototype cams delivering 13.32 mm of intake lift and 12 mm of exhaust lift at 280 degrees of duration. Atop the heads is an experimental intake manifold, which features a larger plenum behind the stock 80mm oval throttle body. On other end he bolted a set of SVT prototype mid-length headers to the exhaust ports.
While some purists may scoff at the idea of modding one of only 300 Cobra Rs built in the 2000 model year, you have to remember that these cars were built with racers in mind. As we know, racers are included to make a few modifications in the name of higher performance. In Paul’s case, most of his modifications are factory parts—but not production parts—and results certainly speak for themselves.
During the development phase of the 2000 R-model, Paul worked closely with the SVT engineering team. He performed hundreds of dyno tests on various iterations of the car up until it was ready for final sign-off. After sifting through the pulls, we found a run that was representative of the rear-wheel output of a stock Cobra R, which clocked in at just over 329 horsepower at the rear feet. With the upgraded induction, exhaust and 60 lb/hr injectors the prototype 5.4 belts out over 431 horsepower.
In other words, it may just be the 2000 Cobra R that Mr. Coletti had in mind, but couldn’t bring through the production process. For us, it made looking back at the last Cobra through Coyote-tinted glasses a much more realistic experience. Just as the modular superseded the pushrod engine, the latest 5.0 and 5.2 engines have made the 4.6 and 5.4 modulars seem pretty tame. This lightweight, revved-up R-model can definitely hold its own with the modern performers, while delivering that completely connected driving experience that is so isolated in today’s ultra-refined Mustangs.
How might a generous selection of Ford prototype parts topped off by Paul Svinicki’s tuning push the Cobra R envelope? Well, the new combo was good for three-digit horsepower gains at the rear wheels. Paul’s R-model betters a stocker by 101.9 horsepower and 76.72 lb-ft of torque.
“The car is as amazing as it was back in the 1999-2000 timeframe when I was able to be in and around these cars with the SVT crew,” Paul, who was involved in the chassis dyno testing and development of the car with SVT engineers, said. “We had a good time, and it still brings a smile to my face every time I lay into it and hit 7,000 rpm. I will be taking the car to a few top-speed events just for fun to see what she will do.”
We have to concur that these cars were amazing in their day, and it’s great to see that Paul brought this wounded R-model back to life in such grand style. There were a few 7,000-rpm smiles during our brief drive, and we wish him many more of these as he drives this car the way SVT engineers intended.