Every once in a while, the manufacturer of an enthusiast car will produce a more hardcore, track-focused variant that tosses comfort in the trash for better performance on the track. Ford isn’t afraid to do crazy performance cars, as we’ve most recently seen with the Mustang GTD. Intense Mustangs have been a bit of a tradition for Ford and if you’re looking for one of the hardest Fox bodies, look no further than the 1993 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra R, the swan song that tossed out every single comfort feature in the mission of speed. You couldn’t even buy it unless you were a racer.
Last time on Holy Grails, we took a look at another track special, the 1988 to 1992 Chevrolet Camaro 1LE. This pony car started off as an IROC-Z or a Z/28 at first, then GM layered on stiffer springs, thicker sway bars, big brakes, an aluminum drive shaft, a special fuel cell, an aluminum spare wheel, and more The 1LE was also a stripper model that didn’t have air-conditioning, T-tops, fog lights, or a soft suspension. Some of the 1,360 examples didn’t even come with a radio. GM meant these to be for racing only and thus locked the 1LE through a special ordering handshake that was never advertised.
Today, we take a look at an even rarer track special from Ford. This one was sold just for a single year and while it didn’t require some Konami Code to unlock, you had to be a racer in order to fork over your cash. Just 107 examples were ever sold and many never saw a track, instead ending up in collections just to be sold for piles of cash years later.
The Fox Body Was Almost A Different Kind Of Car
[Editor’s Note: It’s amazing how this early Mustang concept ended up becoming the Futura coupé. That novel greenhouse design made it to market almost intact! – JT]
In 1978, Ford released the first cars riding on its now-famous Fox platform. It was a radical departure from the Mustang II’s Pinto underpinnings and set the tone for the future. The car was also Ford changing the direction it set with the Mustang II. In a press release, Ford notes that while the Mustang II doubled what was declining Mustang sales, some enthusiasts didn’t respond well:
Forty years ago this fall, a completely redesigned second-generation Ford Mustang hit the road. Mustang II was a radical departure from the 1973 model it replaced – 19 inches shorter, 500 pounds lighter and, for the first time, not available with a V8 engine.
Despite being among the best-selling Mustangs of the past 49 years, Mustang II has been maligned by hardcore pony-car fans as the black sheep of the family almost since it went on sale. Looking back now, however, it’s clear that without the new direction forged by Mustang II, Ford almost certainly wouldn’t be celebrating 50 years of Mustang today.
As Hemmings writes, work on what would become the Fox platform began before the Mustang II even began sales for the 1974 model year. In 1972, Ford formed the Product Planning and Research division, which existed to help the automaker plan out its future. PPR concluded that Ford had just way too many models in its global portfolio. For decades, Ford subsidiaries in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, England, Germany, and beyond had the autonomy to create their own models.
At one point, this meant that Ford was making about 75 models globally, and some of them were overlapping each other. This was unsustainable and by 1973, Blue Oval began looking for a way to streamline production and thus, cut costs around the world. Ford wanted to achieve this future by creating a common platform that could be used to create everything from sports cars to four-door family cars. It was then that “Fox” was termed for this future development.
By the end of 1973, PPR outlined a one-size-fits-all platform riding on a 100- or 105-inch wheelbase. According to Hemmings, this new platform would streamline production so well that Ford could reduce its models sold in the United States from 64 to 42. Elsewhere, the new platform could have replaced a long list of cars including the Capri, the Corcel, the Cortina, the Granada, Argentina’s Falcon and Fairlane, Brazil’s Maverick, and more. Even Australia’s famed Falcon was allegedly going to be replaced.
The Third-Generation Mustang
While all of this was happening, Ford brass gave its designers arguably conflicting orders. They were to design a totally new Mustang, but also retain classic Mustang traits. I’ve written about the Fox body’s history before:
For the Mustang, Ford gave its designers a mission to give the new vehicle a vastly different design than the Mustang II. But at the same time, Henry Ford II wanted some design traits to carry over. There were a number of concept designs, but it was ultimately Jack Telnack who found a way to drive the design home. Telnack came over to America after being vice president of design at Ford of Europe. His design for the new Mustang took elements of previous concepts and combined them into something that looked to have a bit of Euro flair.
The design team managed some notable feats with the third-generation Mustang. At 179.1 inches long, it managed to be four inches longer than the Mustang II, and it offered 20 percent more interior space to boot. Yet, the Fox body still shaved off about 200 pounds from the Mustang II.
Ultimately, the Fox platform did not become a sort of “One Ford” platform. Ford eventually concluded that the plan for a singular platform was impractical and making this singular platform work with government regulations all over the world added layers of complexity. So, the Fox body didn’t become the one platform to rule them all but did underpin a number of cars. The first Fox platform cars were the 1978 Ford Fairmont and the Mercury Zephyr.
For the Mustang, the third-generation pony car brought back the GT, added turbocharged four-cylinder engines, and introduced the first SVT Cobra. Today, Fox bodies are popular platforms for all sorts of custom builds. There were a lot of factory variants of the Mustang as well, including the fabled LX. Sold from 1987 to 1993, you got the 4.9-liter “5.0” High Output V8. This was the same engine as the Mustang GT, however, the LX did away with the GT’s equipment, making it cheaper, simpler, and lighter than the GT. The LX was very nearly as fast as a Cobra while also being the only way you could get a 5.0 Mustang as a notchback back then.
There are a lot of rare Fox body ‘Stangs out there from the weird 1990 Mustang Convertible 7-Up Edition (above) to the oddball 1984 Mustang GT350. Of course, there’s even an Indianapolis 500 Pace Car edition as well.
In 1991, the Shelby American Automobile Club formed the SAAC Car Company and in 1992, it released the SAAC Mk I. Now, to be clear, SAAC was at the time the only authorized and licensed club to carry the Shelby name. The MK 1 wasn’t a Carroll Shelby effort, but the brainchild of Ken Eber and Rick Kopec, who ran SAAC. With help from SAAC member and Ford Power Products Operation Group manager David Wagner, SAAC compiled pieces from the aftermarket and Ford’s Motorsport parts catalog to create a performance special. Shelby was allegedly okay with this, but his contracts with Chrysler meant the car was badged as a SAAC.
Anyway, the SAAC MK 1 had an upper-and-lower aluminum GT-40 intake from Ford, a 65mm throttle body, and GT-40 cast-iron cylinder heads. Other parts came in the form of underdrive pulleys for the crankshaft, water pump, and alternator to reduce revs by 14 percent, a high-flow EGR spacer, new headers, a new exhaust, and a Centerforce Dual-Friction clutch and pressure plate so the only transmission choice, a manual, could handle more power.
The cars also came with mild visual enhancements, Eibach variable-rate lowering springs, adjustable Koni gas shocks, strut tower bracing, all disc brakes, and a four-point roll bar. SAAC even gave the cars the optional performance-axle ratio meant for automatic cars but with a manual transmission.
The SAAC MK 1 made 295 HP, 70 better than a stock 5.0 Mustang of the day. Unfortunately, at $40,000 ($88,928 today), they were more expensive than a more powerful Chevy Corvette and more than two times as expensive as a stock $17,645 ($38,085 today) Mustang GT. The one pictured above sold for $134,750 this year. It’s no surprise SAAC sold just 62 of them, far short of its 250-unit expectation. There was also the SAAC MK II, which was largely the MK I but with different colors. Today, many say the SAAC MK I was the inspiration for today’s grail.
1993 marked the last year for the third-generation Mustang, and Ford decided to send it out with a special edition.
According to a 1993 issue of Mustang Monthly magazine, plans to make a competition Cobra began in late 1992. Ford Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) wanted a car that would bring Ford closer to grassroots racing. Specifically, the team wanted to build a car to stomp the competition in IMSA’s Firestone Firehawk series and SCCA’s World Challenge A and B competition. As Mustang Monthly magazine writes, the engineers also just wanted their “R” Competition Package Mustang Cobra to one day be seen as a significant piece of history among Ford fans.
A little over a year before that article was published, Rod Mansfield came over from Ford of Europe to run Ford’s Special Vehicle Engineering (SVE). If all of these teams are confusing you, I’ll explain. SVO was essentially Ford’s performance parts program that supported racing teams while SVE handled the engineering. At first, the Special Vehicle Team (SVT) used resources within and outside of Ford to create special edition vehicles. So, all of the acronyms are more or less related to one another.
One of the first projects to come under SVE while Mansfield was running the show was the Cobra R. At first, the SVO and SVE teams didn’t know if a limited-run car could be economically manufactured and they wondered if Ford would even make any money selling these at SVT-affiliated dealerships. Still, the SVO and SVE teams got to work, testing fabricated and off-the-shelf components on the Mustang. As work progressed, the teams got the green light to put their dreams into reality. The result is a car ExAutoJourno calls a holy grail:
I’d throw the Mustang Cobra R (1993) into the Grail Mix. No a/c, no rear seat, no sound deadening…in short, a lot of stuff left out, and a semi-secret tweak here and there. Lots and lots of fun.
IIRC, you had to have your SCCA license to buy one, but there were ways around that. There are ways around everything. Except low production numbers.
According to Mustang Monthly magazine, the 1993 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra R was a hodgepodge of different parts. According to an SVO engineer the magazine interviewed in 1993, the Cobra R blended third-generation Mustang parts with parts from the then-new SN-95 and parts made exclusively for the competition vehicle.
Starting with the engine, power comes from a 302 cubic inch V8, but it pumps out more horses thanks to GT-40 cylinder heads, enlarged intake runners, a big-bore throttle body, aluminum rocker arms, electronic fuel injection with larger injectors, valvetrain changes, and a bespoke camshaft from Crane. Officially, all of this was good for a 30 HP bump from stock to 235 HP and 280 lb-ft torque. However, dyno tests suggest Ford underrated these cars. Late Model Restoration put a stock 1993 Cobra on a dyno in 2020 and that car produced 222 HP and about 281 lb-ft of torque at the wheels.
Keep in mind that Ford’s ratings are supposedly at the flywheel, so at the wheels, a stock Cobra makes more torque than the official rating and is only a little shy of the horsepower rating.
Backing up the Cobra R’s engine was a manual transmission boasting an upgraded clutch assembly, phosphate-coated close-ratio gears, and a beefed-up driveshaft yoke. The platform was improved with chassis stiffening, Koni adjustable shocks and struts, and a front strut tower brace. Since this is a car built for competition, the engineering teams also added a larger aluminum radiator, an oil cooler, and a power steering cooler. As for wheels, the Cobra R borrowed a set from the then-new SN-95 Mustang.
The all-wheel disc brakes were a big deal as well. Late Model Restoration quotes Executive Director of Vehicle Engineering for Ford Motor Company, Neil W. Ressler, as saying the brakes “were the most expensive brakes ever fitted to a [production] Mustang. I bought the brakes for the R model out of my engineering budget. I wanted big brakes, and we didn’t have them. The program couldn’t afford it. Unbeknownst to the higher-ups at Ford, I spent like $2,100 per car to buy those big brakes. But the last thing I wanted was a fast car that didn’t stop. We ended up putting good brakes on all those [Cobra R] vehicles.”
Everything Must Go
Ford didn’t stop with just powering up and tightening down the Cobra R. While the Cobra R was a street-legal vehicle, it was still aimed at competition use. Thus, anything that didn’t make you faster on a track was tossed in the trash bin. The Mustang lost its back seat, air-conditioning, stereo, fog lights, and power options for the windows and doors. Ford got even more aggressive from there, tearing out the vehicle’s sound deadening, wiring for the deleted power options, seatbelts for the deleted rear seat, the cargo cover for the hatch, the speakers for the missing radio, and even the antenna. If it couldn’t be used to make you go faster, it took a long walk off a short pier.
SVT even snatched out the original rear carpet, leaving you with a thin piece of carpet that only roughly covered the area:
What was left was a pair of cloth seats from the Mustang LX. Oh yeah, you didn’t even get the seats from the normal Cobra because those were too heavy. The strict diet resulted in a weight loss of 140 pounds over a standard Cobra. A Cobra R weighed in at 3,255 pounds. Official numbers for performance were a 60 mph run in 5.7 seconds with a top speed of 140 mph. If you cared about fuel economy, the Cobra R scored up to 24 mpg on the highway.
Sold Only To Racers, Sort Of
One part of this story that took some extra research was the assertion that the 1993 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra R required a racing license to purchase. Many sources telling modern retrospectives state this. However, I noticed SlashGear used “it’s been said” in its reporting, which turned gears in my head. A Wikipedia entry also suggests, without citation, that Ford required racing licenses starting with the 1995 Mustang Cobra R.
A good number of the ’93 cars ended up in collectors’ hands and never saw track duty. For the ’95 SVT Cobra R, Ford would require buyers to either own a race team or have a racing license and show plans to compete in IMSA, SCCA, NHRA, or IHRA competition. Production was limited to 250 cars, but, despite Ford’s screening efforts, some ended up in collectors’ hands from the start.
So, who is correct? Were you required to obtain a license from a sanctioning body or not?
The answer comes from that 1993 issue of Mustang Monthly magazine. The magazine explains that on April 7, 1993, Ford Division SVT Certified Dealers received a teleprinter message from Ford General Marketing Manager Keith C. Magee announcing the Cobra R, explaining what it was, and how to sell it. The message told dealers that just 100 units would be made. As for who could buy them, this is what the message said:
Because the “R” Competition Package is intended to provide Ford with a viable product for representation in sanctioned competition, the following ordering conditions apply:
Customers must be pre-qualified by their signature acknowledgement of:— Their intent to use the vehicle in sanctioned competition, and their acceptance of the absence of any Ford Motor Company product warranties except for emissions-related equipment.
The message then instructs the dealership to have the buyer sign a form full of acknowledgments, most of them stating that the vehicle will not come with a warranty, except for federal and California emissions warranties. More acknowledgments point out that even though the vehicle is street-legal, it is still for competition use and that modifications may make the vehicle unsafe. One of those acknowledgments again has the buyer telling the dealer and Ford that the vehicle will be used in competition:
2. Consistent with the vehicle’s design, I represent that the 1993 Mustang Cobra equipped with the “R” Competition Package, which I am purchasing, will be used in competition in events conducted by recognized sanctioning bodies.
The message does not instruct the selling dealership to have the buyer prove that they are a licensed racer. It is technically correct that you needed to be a licensed racer to buy the 1993 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra R. However, it would appear that the dealership could just take your word for it and sell you a Cobra R. Of course, you could have also been an SCCA member and just bought it for a collection, anyway.
It’s unclear how many of these actually went racing, but I can tell you that these cars sometimes show up for sale with barely any miles on them, suggesting that a lot of the 107 built went into collections rather than onto the track.
The one archived review I found came from Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords in September 2000, where the magazine held a shootout between three generations of Cobra R. Click here to read the clippings, but the magazine said the 1993 Cobra R felt lighter and stiffer than its successors, and still fast. Road & Track reviewed one in a period issue, but I have not found a copy online. For one that’s close enough, enjoy MotorWeek‘s review of that year’s slightly milder Cobra, without the “R” Competition Package:
As I said before, there are just 107 of these out there. When new, they sold for $25,692 ($55,316 today). That’s a lot more expensive than a $17,645 ($38,085 today) Mustang GT, but a lot more affordable than the SAAC MK 1 was.
Amazingly, I did find one of these Cobra Rs for sale at a dealership in Concord, North Carolina. I hope you’re sitting down because the price is a shocking $199,900. Sadly, almost every good condition 1993 Cobra R that sold in recent years went for well over $100,000, so this isn’t like a cute Mercury Tracer LTS, but something that requires some big cash.
Did you own one of these? If so, was it the grassroots winner Ford said it would be?
Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at email@example.com or drop it down in the comments!
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