Car of the Week: 1978 Ford Mustang Cobra II

Story by Brian Earnest

Ford’s strategy for its not-so-swift Mustang II of the late 1970s was pretty clear: If we can’t make it go fast, let’s at least make it look cool.

In many minds, the glory days of the Mustang ended in 1974, when the model was relaunched with a smaller, tamer design and a new name: The Mustang II. New vehicle emissions standards, soaring insurance premiums and inflated gas prices forced FoMoCo to put its bloated Mustang of the early 1970s on a diet and squeeze it down to a size that fit the times.

But factory execs didn’t completely give up on the idea of offering a car that was fun to own and be seen in. That was clear in 1976 when the Mustang II got a jazzed-up option packaged called the Cobra II. The Cobra moniker, of course, had been made famous on the lethal Shelby roadsters of the 1960s, and again on the Shelby Mustangs from 1968-’70 and the Cobra-Jet Fairlanes and Torinos that followed.

The Cobra II of the late 1970s was clearly a take-off on the famed GT-350 from a decade earlier, complete with bold racing stripes; a blacked‑out grille; racing mirrors; rear quarter window louvers; a front air dam; a non‑functional hood scoop; and a rear deck lid spoiler. At the time, the Mustang II could be ordered with an inline four-cylinder, V-6 or 302-cid (5.0-liter) V-8, and the Cobra II was available with any of the three engines. None of the engines made the Cobra II fast — the 5.0-liter topped the list at a paltry 139 hp and topped out somewhere around 100 mph — but all of them looked rowdy and fast in their Cobra II zoot suits. In hindsight, it seems a little strange the Cobra II treatment was only available on the hatchbacks. If you wanted a coupe or Ghia, you were out of luck.

Don Stevens, of Springfield, Mass., wasn’t really a fan of any of the Mustangs of the era, but somehow he wound up with one. Stevens was more of a classic muscle car lover who looked down his nose at the toothless wannabes of the late 1970s. He rolled his eyes at first when a car buddy called him one day and pitched him the idea of buying a flashy, black-and-orange, mint-condition ’78 Cobra II.

The car had been meticulously cared for, had zero rust issues of any kind, and Stevens figured he could unload it if he didn’t like it. But like that kid in your school growing up that you couldn’t stand at first, but who later wound up being one of your best buddies, Stevens eventually warmed up to his Mustang and its colorful personality. Now, he’s a huge fan.

“Most of the other cars I have are cars that are more ‘common,’ I guess you’d say,” Stevens says. “I have a ’66 Chevelle SS, a ’79 Z28, ’66 Mustang, ’68 Camaro … all are fairly common cars, or cars that people see pretty often…The Mustang II, especially the Cobra II version, you don’t see that around at all. It’s fun having a car that you just don’t see.”

His ’66 Chevelle SS actually led to Stevens finding the Mustang Cobra II, in a roundabout way. He bought his Chevelle SS years ago from Chris Sigler in Ohio. The pair eventually became friends and Sigler has since found other cars for Stevens. In 2015, he called Stevens out of the blue to talk to him about the Mustang. “It was kind of on a whim, sort of … I was on vacation in New Hampshire and he sent me a text message and told me he thought it was something I might like. He didn’t really talk me into it. He’s just one of those guys that’s very honest and very straightforward. He thought it was a really good deal on the car for its year and the miles on it. I just wasn’t sure I liked it! But I got it and ever since then I’ve really liked it! You don’t see them anywhere, and it’s a petty cool car. I like them a lot more [now than] when these things came out. I had a Dodge Charger back then. I used to think those were a lot more cool than the Mustangs.”

 

A GTO Connection?

In a bit of an unlikely twist, the 1970s Cobra II, one of the poster children for the muscle-less muscle car era, was covered with the fingerprints of the man generally credited for hatching the first true muscle car, Jim Wangers. Wangers was the Pontiac mover and shaker who managed to convince GM to stuff a big-block V-8 into its smallish Tempest in 1964. The move thrilled car buyers who liked to bend speed limits and touched off a full-blown horsepower war that raged into the early 1970s.

Wangers was later tasked by Ford with coming up with the right look for the Cobra II, and he helped design the graphics and body parts that gave the car its racy looks. Wangers’ Motortown company applied all those touches for 1976 before Ford took the job in-house for 1977 and ’78. In addition to the paint and bodywork, the package Wangers came up with included a brushed aluminum instrument panel and door panels; Cobra insignias on the front fenders, including V8 badges on so-equipped models; and raised-white-letter BR70 steel-belted radials.

For 1977, the price of the Cobra II packaged jumped to $535, then was bumped up again to $677 for the 1978 models, which were the last of the third-gen Mustangs before the Fox body design arrived  for 1979. The Cobra II models had large “Cobra” lettering on the center body stripe tape and decklid spoiler, a snake emblem on the grille and a Cobra decal on the rear spoiler. 1978 was also the year of the “King Cobra”, which was an even flashier version of the Mustang II. Sporting a base price of $5,638, it had all kinds of spoilers, add-ons, decals and “ground effects” pieces, and also had the 5.0-liter V-8 standard.

The base price of a V-8 Mustang II hatchback was just a bit over $4,000. The Cobra II package brought you up a stone’s throw from $5,000. A total of 192,410 Mustang II’s were built for the 1978 model year; 68,408 were hatchbacks, and 4,049 were given the Cobra II treatment, making them slightly scarcer today than the King Cobra versions, which had 4,960 assemblies.

 

A mystery history

Somehow, Stevens’ car only traveled 33,000 miles before he picked it up in Ohio in 2015. At some point, one of the previous owners pulled the original engine — Stevens believes it was the V-6 — and swapped in a period-correct 5.0-liter V-8. The intake, air cleaner and Flowmaster exhaust are clearly not original equipment, but rest of the car is immaculate and original. “I don’t know if something happened to [the engine], or what, of if they just wanted a bigger engine. I don’t think it came from somebody blowing the motor, but I really don’t’ know. I doesn’t look like anybody has ever beat on it at all. It’s got low miles on it, so it probably just sat in a garage somewhere. There is no rust or anything on it. I haven’t done anything to it other than wash it. I haven’t had to do a thing to it.

“I drive it from time to time. My daughter is getting her license and she wants to drive it to school. I don’t know about that, but it’s fun to drive and it’s got a nice sound to it with the [Flowmaster] exhaust. It’s got plenty of pickup with that V-8. It’s got a Holly 650 or 700 — something like that. The carburetor looks as big as the engine… The car looks good, handles good, rides nice. You’re kind of sitting down in it a little. The hood is kind of up and out front of you.”

It didn’t take long for Stevens to agree that the Mustang Cobra II fit its mission perfectly as a practical, easy-driving car with sassy looks that never lacks for attention.

“I drive to car shows, and it’s kind of strange, but when I go down the road, young kids — 7, 8, 9, 10 years old — they stop what they are doing and pay attention to this car,” he says. “I have a ’66 Chevelle and that gets a lot of attention, but this Mustang really gets attention. It’s probably partially because you just don’t see them around, and partially because of the big stripe on it and the decals … And it sounds good, too!

 

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