As I’m sure is true for many of you out there, I have been a car nut my entire life.
Some of my earliest recollections, in fact, involve me playing with my burgeoning, toddler-era collection of Matchbox cars. Not long after, I was working my father over to procure me subscriptions to both Car and Driver and Road & Track magazines, which he lovingly did.
Sensing how deep my fascination for motor vehicles was becoming, my dad took me at age nine to my first Formula 1 car race, the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, New York. That weekend, spent entirely in torrential rain and mud, nonetheless blew my young mind, and accelerated my fixation on all things automotive.
As I grew older, my thirst for learning everything I could about cars, both contemporary and classic, became all-consuming. By the time I was a young adult, if you asked me a question regarding just about any muscle or performance car dating from the 1950s onward, I’d be able to at least tell you a little something about it, and in some cases, tell you a great deal.
Given my zeal, it amazes and enthuses me that today I can occasionally come across a car which, by virtue of its rarity, or perhaps its lack of impact on the automotive world, somehow managed to escape my knowledge base.
Owing to both its extreme scarcity and stillborn production life, the 1970 Ford Torino King Cobra is one such car, which is why it is a resoundingly perfect subject for this month’s edition of Rare Rides.
The 1970 Ford Torino King Cobra was a decidedly purpose-built vehicle, and that purpose was solely to beat the 426 Hemi-powered Dodge Charger Daytonas and Plymouth Superbirds that Mopar was threatening to dominate the NASCAR racing series with.
Capable of 200 mph by means of that legendary, race-prepped Elephant Motor under the hood, as well as radical front and rear end aerodynamic solutions, the Daytonas and Superbirds had ushered in a new era in America’s top oval racing series. To compete with them would involve a sizable investment in time and money, as well as fighting fire with fire in the design department.
If any company could accomplish this in short order, it was Ford, and as we shall see, it just nearly pulled it off.
The genesis of our story happens in 1967, when Ford redesigned its mid-sized Fairlane line for the 1968 model year and introduced a new sub-model of it called the Torino. Named after the Italian pronunciation of that country’s automotive capital, Turin, the Torino became the top, upscale model in the Fairlane lineup.
A unit-construction vehicle that was based on the prior Fairlane generation’s platform, the 1968 Torino was available in two-door notchback, four-door sedan, and station wagon configurations. The latter used a 113-inch wheelbase, while the hardtop and sedan models rode on an extended 116-inch one.
Ford also provided a performance-oriented option for potential Torino buyers in the form of the Torino GT, which was made in hardtop, convertible, and SportsRoof versions, the latter similar in spirit to the Mustang’s Fastback layout.
The GT was available with a host of drivetrains. The standard engine was supposed to be the 210 horsepower, 302 cubic-inch V8, however, due to a UAW (United Auto Workers) strike at the time, Ford had to use the 195 horsepower 289 cubic-inch V8 instead. Customers were still able to get the 302 as an option, however.
If buyers desired more grunt, two- and four-barrel 390 cubic-inch V8s were on the options sheet. Late in the model year, the 428 Cobra Jet was made available, which produced a factory underrated 335 ponies.
Backing these motors up were a variety of transmissions, including two different three-speed manuals, a pair of four-speed manuals, and no less than three Cruise-O-Matic slushboxes.
As for differentials, an 8-inch and exceptionally durable 9-inch unit were offered, both available with Traction-Lok limited-slip. A wide variety of gearsets could be chosen from, with a 4.30:1 ratio the top performance option.
The front suspension consisted of short/long control arms and heavy-duty coil springs and struts, while the rear suspension was composed of long semi-elliptical leaf springs on a solid axle. When the 428 Cobra Jet was selected, a Competition Suspension package was mandatory. It consisted of even stiffer springs and shocks, an 11/16ths-inch anti-roll bar, and meatier tires.
For stopping power, 10-inch front and rear drums were standard, with 11.25-inch front discs and power assist available. Surrounding them were 14 x 5.5-inch steel wheels with GT hubcaps and E70-14 tires Firestone Super Sport tires. F70-14s came with the Competition package.
There were a few exterior cues that differentiated a GT from a standard two-door Torino. They included a power bulge hood, special exterior trim, side stripes, and a black grille.
Inside, Torino GTs were plush but far from luxurious. Bucket seats were offered as standard in the literature but became another casualty of the UAW strike, and thus all ’68 GTs came standard with cloth or vinyl benches installed. The gauge cluster consisted of four tunneled pods with a decent complement of gauges for a sporty feel. Air conditioning, a 6,000 rpm tach, a floor console, power-controlled equipment, and radio choices were some of the comfort options.
The GT was a good performer, with contemporary reviews lauding both its power and handling. One magazine tested a 1968 Ford Torino GT equipped with the 428 Cobra Jet, C-6 Cruise-O-Matic, and 3.91:1 gears, and recorded a 14.2 second quarter at 98.9 mph.
Ford managed to move 172,083 Torinos in 1968, with 81,822 of them being GTs. A resounding success by any standard.
The GT returned in ’69 with only a few slight changes on the outside. The grille was bequeathed a center dividing bar and the GT badge was repositioned to the left side of the grille. All ’69 GTs were fitted with a non-functional hood scoop made of fiberglass.
Under the hood, however, there were more significant modifications. The 289 was dumped in favor of the 302 as the standard engine, and the 351 Windsor V8 in two-barrel and four-barrel configurations became available. The Cobra Jet engine could be had with or without a Ram Air Package, which, when selected, made the hood scoop functional and mandated a 3.50:1 diff.
For ’69, though, the 428 Cobra Jet was no longer the top engine offering. The 428-4V Super Cobra Jet became the new performance motor. Offered with or without the Ram-Air Package, the Super Cobra Jet came with cast pistons, a new, cast crankshaft, heavy-duty connecting rods, an oil cooler, and your choice of a 3.91:1 rear with Traction-Lok LSD, or 4.30:1 gears with a Detroit Locker.
Most pertinent to our discussion though, is that 1969 brought with it a new muscle car Torino GT variant. Known simply as the Ford Cobra, the car was Ford’s attempt to mirror Mother Mopar’s successful formula of taking a Plymouth GTX and stripping out all the comfort and luxury items to form the basis of the low-cost, high-smiles Road Runner.
Ford’s take was to equip a Ford Torino GT (in SportsRoof or hardtop configurations only) with a 428 Cobra Jet or 428 Super Cobra Jet motor and give buyers the option to add the Ram Air Package.
Transmitting power to the rear was either a four-speed Toploader manual or a C6 SelectShift Cruise-O-Matic auto. A 9-inch diff with 3.25:1 or 3.50:1 gears for Cobra Jet engines and 3.91:1 or 4.30:1 cogs for Super Cobra Jet models put the power to the rear wheels. Traction-Lok and Detroit Lockers were available according to engine type.
The Competition Suspension package was made standard, and though drum brakes were still the basic format, power-assisted front discs were optional. The GT’s 14 x 6-inch steelies with F70-14 bias-plys made the marriage between car and road.
Outside, the Cobra had a blacked-out grille, Cobra emblems behind the front wheel arches, and a hood pin kit.
To slash the vehicle’s cost à la the Road Runner, Ford gave the Cobra the Fairlane 500’s interior trim in lieu of the plusher Torino bits. This stark treatment included vinyl/cloth or all-vinyl bench seats, minimalist door panels, and a very basic dash.
The Cobra resonated with the public, although at a much-reduced level of fanfare than the Road Runner received. 14,000 Cobras would nonetheless leave the factory in 1969 and find new homes.
While the road-going Ford Cobra was being unleashed on the public, a revolution was happening in the NASCAR racing series.
Ford had handily won the 1968 title with a Torino in the hands of star driver David Pearson and was looking good to repeat in ’69 based on the first ten races of the season, of which Pearson won three.
Chrysler, frustrated with seeing their Dodge Charger 500s and Road Runners lose to the FoMoCo vehicles, had embarked on a radical development program of their cars that focused on aerodynamics as a way to augment the already monstrous output of their 426 race Hemis.
Halfway through the ’69 NASCAR season, they unleashed their new juggernaut, the Dodge Charger Daytona. With its conical snout, elongated hood, and outrageous rear airfoil, the Daytona proved itself straight out of the gate, breaking the 200 mph barrier and winning in its first race.
Aerodynamics was the new key to winning at the high-speed ovals of America.
Ford’s brass saw the writing on the wall and was not about to let the Daytona and the forthcoming Plymouth version, the Superbird, dominate the 1970 and ’71 series unchallenged. Ford president Bunkie Knudsen handed down a brief to legendary designer, Larry Shinoda, who had recently penned the Boss 302 Mustang, in which the objectives were simple: break 200 mph; beat Mopar.
Shinoda set to work, enlisting the services of 1968-’70 Dodge Charger sheet metal designer, Harvey Winn, and designers Jacques Passino, Bill Shannon, Dick Petit, and Kar Kraft’s Ed Hall. Together, they took a Cobra and began the process of converting it into a NASCAR aero beast.
They opted to use the new sheet metal of the not-yet-released 1970 model, as it offered aerodynamic advantages, and spent three months honing and modifying it to work at triple-digit speeds.
A wild-looking shark nose was affixed to the car, which, combined with a radically-sloped hood, cheated the wind to create front-end downforce. For maximum engine cooling without disturbing the airflow, the grille opening was placed low, beneath a boomerang-like front bumper. Likewise, the headlights were set back into scoop-shaped tunnels topped with covers for maximum aero efficiency. They kept the rear SportsRoof sheet metal basically stock, and unlike the racing gang at Mopar, decided not to fit a rear airfoil.
Three prototypes were constructed, and a different big block was dumped into each – a Boss 429, a 429 Cobra Jet, and a 429 Super Cobra Jet.
Track testing of the newly-christened Ford King Cobras at Daytona was initially promising as all three cars easily slipped past the 200 mph barrier, but further testing revealed problems.
For starters, the front end of the car actually produced too much downforce, and the lack of a rear wing created rear-end instability in high-speed banked turns. What’s more, all that work to the placement of the grille proved fruitless, as the big blocks under the hood were overheating. Further work would clearly need to be done to the King Cobra.
Before more development could be done and the cars homologated in streetcar form (which was a NASCAR rule for all entrants), several events would occur that would send the Ford King Cobra the way of the Dodo.
NASCAR founder and president, Bill France, had been at the Daytona test and was nonplussed by the speeds he had witnessed. Fearing that the aerodynamic war between Ford and Chrysler would lead to carnage, he instituted an engine handicap to slow the aero cars down and increased the homologation requirements from 500 to 3,000 streetcars. This essentially negated the aero cars’ performance advantage and production viability.
Also, Bunkie Knudsen was replaced by the new Ford president, Lee Iacocca, who wasn’t as avid a racing fan as his predecessor. He ended Ford’s factory racing efforts, and thus all 1970 Ford racing programs would be run by private teams.
The King Cobra was stillborn.
The three prototypes produced were initially stored at the Ford factory in Dearborn, until NASCAR team owner, Bud Moore, purchased two of them for $1200 in 1971. The third car was sold off to a private collector.
Today, all three cars are accounted for and fully restored, with one having been sold at auction for the princely sum of $525,000.
An understandable price for one of Ford’s rarest rides…