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No-Frills Muscle Cobra

No-Frills Muscle Cobra

Text and images by Jerry Heasley

One of the more perplexing muscle cars of the sizzling Sixties was the 1969 Cobra. Or was that the Fairlane Cobra? Or, more to the point, was this mid-sized Ford a Fairlane 500 Cobra? Some people mistakenly apply the term Torino Cobra.

The original Cobra was Carroll Shelby's two-seat, aluminum-bodied roadster, first with a small block V-8 (260 and a 289), followed by perhaps the most awesome muscle car of all time, the infamous 427 Cobra. The small block Cobra decimated the 1969 Chevrolet Corvette in domestic road racing and beat Ferrari internationally to win the world championship of makes for GT cars. The big block could go from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds and proved invincible in its SCCA road racing class.

At the end of the 1967 model year, when Carroll's company, Shelby-American, quit making their 2200-pound sports car, Ford attached the nameplate to the 1968 Shelby Mustang. The new GT350s and GT500s were the new Cobras. There was no profit to letting such a storied nameplate go to waste. No other badge had quite so much charisma in the United States as the Cobra.

Where else could Ford make use of the Cobra badge? They had no two-seater sports car. In 1969, the Shelby Mustang became the GT series. Ford attached the Cobra name to a hot version of the Fairlane, powered by the 428 Cobra Jet big-block. In seven model years, the Cobra had moved from a tiny roadster that was mostly a racecar, to a pony car, and finally to a mid-sized Ford muscle car.

The downside was the tremendous legacy that fell upon a no-frills, mid-sized Ford with the gas-sipping heritage of the Fairlane. In this role, Ford Division built the Cobra to take on the no-frills muscle cars springing up in Detroit. The original "econo-muscle car," as the magazines dubbed this new breed, was Plymouth's 1968 Road Runner, based off the Belvedere/Satellite. Dodge's version was the Super Bee, based off the mid-sized Coronet.

Mother Mopar caught the rest of Detroit off-guard in 1968. The Big Three made money by selling options, which could quickly run the price of a muscle car over and above the budget of the young buyers. Dodge and Plymouth got wise. They built the Road Runner and Super Bee into an inexpensive mid-sized coupe or sedan. Mopar's target was a mid-14-second quarter-mile mauler for less than $3,000. Cost-adding options, such as the 440 Six Pack or the dual quad Hemi, were mainly performance, or just what the American youth wanted.

For the Cobra, Ford Division started with the Ford Fairlane 500. There was an upscale Torino and Torino GT in the same mid-sized body style. The Fairlane 500 started with a lower base price and fit the formula of an economy muscle car. They replaced Fairlane badges with Cobra. From there, Ford went for the jugular by making the 428 Cobra Jet big block the standard engine, besting the base 383 in the Road Runner and Super Bee by 45 cubic inches. The horsepower figures for the 383 and the 428 CJ were the same, at 335. However, the 428 CJ pulled more like 400 horsepower. Ford slid the horsepower numbers down to give their 428 CJ an edge in the Super Stock drag racing classes.

Why the Cobra did not sell well is anybody's guess. My guess is the Road Runner was new and cheap and really caught on. Cobra came a year later to the party. The Cobra badge was a little confusing on a mid-sized mauler. The Cobra, in my opinion, fit a much sportier model. The Cobra heritage was a flashy two-seat roadster. (One can only imagine the confusion if Chevrolet ended Corvette production and attached the badge to a low-end Chevelle with a big engine.)

First year Road Runner sales shot through the proverbial roof. Product planners guessed a run of 2,000, but 1968 model year production topped an incredible 45,000 units. The Fairlane Cobra could not muster a third of this total in its first model year, 1969.

Still, the Ford's new Cobra was a formidable car. Despite the Fairlane heritage of economy, the 1969 Sportsroof, was pure performance, starting with a "Sportsroof" body style with a radical rear roofline. The mid-sized Fairlane was Ford's NASCAR entry, and designers took into account aerodynamics. Blacking out the trim and inserting Cobra badges on the Sportsroof created a great looking muscle car fitted with the right pieces for the muscle car wars.

The 4-speed was standard, as was a stout nine-inch rear end. The Drag Pack added an external oil cooler, 3.91:1 or 4.30:1 gears in a Traction-Lok differential, plus stouter engine internals, including Le Mans connecting rods for durability on the drag strip.

The Cobra was the muscle machine Ford needed to compete with the Chevelle SS 396, Road Runner, Super Bee, 4-4-2, GTO, and Buick Grand Sport. With the Cobra, buyers received a muscle car turnkey-ready to take on any other mid-sized muscle car out of Detroit.

One of those buyers was a man with the last name of Hatfield from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He titled this Candyapple Red "Sportsroof" on May 1st of 1969. Although we don't know the deal he made, the sticker price was $4,077, delivered to Doenges Brothers Ford, Fifth Ave. at Detr., Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Ten options and accessories pushed the price well above the level of an economy muscle car. Seven of those 10 extras were unnecessary for performance

Published Sep 27th, 2017

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