Remembering the Mustang II King Cobra

By Brad Bowling

white T top mustang copy

The 1974-78 Mustang II series is arguably the most controversial generation in the Mustang’s 50-year history, but most enthusiasts are willing to concede a model or two with a spark of excitement.

In hindsight, the downsized II platform did one thing very well; it kept the Mustang name alive at a time when other bloated marques were dying off. Gorging itself on market success, Ford allowed the once-fit pony car to balloon in size and weight until by 1973 it was as heavy as some mid-size family sedans. With input from marketing clinics and thousands of vocal fans, Ford designed a smaller vehicle with styling cues from the original and a somewhat modern four-cylinder engine for better economy. Many factors were taken into account during the creation process — government-imposed emissions restrictions, rising insurance premiums for performance cars, and a market that suddenly seemed smitten by small, sporty cars from Japan and Germany were three of the most dominant.

Gone forever were big-block V-8 engines from the Mustang’s option list; in fact, there were no V-8s offered in the 1974 model year. Only two powerplants were available for ’74 — the base 2.3-liter “Lima” four-cylinder with a single overhead camshaft and an optional 2.8-liter V-6 from Ford of Germany’s Mercury Capri. The two body styles — a two-door coupe and three-door hatchback — each measured 11.8 inches less than the ’73 they replaced.

Although it has often been derisively called the “Pinto Mustang,” the ’74 shared fewer parts with its cheaper Ford cousin than people realize. Ford wanted a big-car luxury ride in its small package, so interior noise was greatly reduced by melting rubber sheets into the floorpan during assembly. Powertrain noises were addressed by the use of a larger-diameter driveshaft. A U-shaped, isolated subframe (known to Ford engineers as the “toilet seat”) killed much road noise before it could get to the passenger compartment. The new suspension was independent in the front and a Hotchkiss-type in the rear.

The look of the Mustang II would remain, for better or worse, unchanged throughout its five-year run. Body design details included separate FORD block letters above the grille, facing upward; single round headlamps recessed into squarish housings; a front bumper that protruded forward in the center, matching the width of the grille; rub strips wrapped only slightly onto the bumper sides; door sheetmetal with a sculptured, depressed area that began near the back and extended for a short distance on the quarter panel, following the contour of the wheel opening; a curvaceous bodyside crease that ran below the door handle; B-pillars and conventional quarter windows on notchbacks; sharply tapered quarter windows that came to a point at the rear on hatchbacks; European-style tail lamps consisting of three side-by-side sections with a small backup lens at the bottom of each center section and larger amber turn signal lenses; large FORD block letters on the panel between the tail lamps above the license plate housing; one-piece fiberglass-reinforced front ends and color-keyed urethane-coated bumpers; wheel lip moldings; side marker lights with die-cast bezels; recessed door handles; and slim high-luster exterior trim moldings.

Bridging the gap between old and new were some features considered essential to the Mustang package, such as a floor-mounted shifter, low-back bucket seats, vinyl upholstery, and full carpeting. Separating the first-generation from the II were such standard niceties as solid-state ignition, front disc brakes, a tachometer, steel-belted whitewalls and — in the 2+2 hatchback models — a folding rear seat.

“Hot” Mustang II models included the Rallye and Mach 1, both of which were equipped with the 2.8-liter V‑6 engine. The Rallye came with a limited-slip differential; raised white-letter steel-belted tires; an extra-cooling package; a competition suspension; dual color-keyed; remote-control door mirrors; styled steel wheels; a Sport exhaust system; a digital clock; and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Base prices that first year ran from $3,081 to $3,621 for the Mach 1 package, but showroom stickers initially crossed the $4,500 mark because of long options lists. With some adjustments by the factory, prices quickly lowered and the new Mustang experienced the line’s highest sales records in nearly a decade—385,993 cars (or 4.75 percent of the industry’s total output) compared to the 134,817 Ford sold of the ’73 model. Although promoted as a sporty or luxury vehicle, the Mustang II’s real audience was looking for a low base price and economy of operation, which explains why 252,470 of the first-year sales were for the base hardtop and 2+2.

Giving in to market pressure, Ford made some structural modifications to the Mustang II for 1975 to make way for a 5.0-liter V-8 engine. Wearing primitive smog controls and struggling with unleaded gasoline, the ’75 Mustang II’s 302-cid powerplant was a distant cousin to the Boss engine of the same size. Output ranged from 122 to 139 hp during its four years in the II series, but the V-8 could be had in coupe or hatchback models at a time when most car companies were phasing out anything larger than a V-6.

In 1976 Ford gave the Mustang an appearance package to match the performance potential of the 5.0-liter: the Cobra II package —

a hatchback-only option with the “show,” but not the “go,” of a Shelby Mustang. “Cobra strikes again,” said the Free Wheelin’ catalog, a youth-oriented, 24‑page color booklet produced by Ford. “New Cobra II. Ford’s Mustang II wrapped in an appearance package that does justice to the Cobra name. So striking, it’s already a sales success.” It was hard to believe from a piece of literature printed in October 1975, that the exciting‑looking Cobra option was “already a sales success;” however, the Cobra II was on its way to reaching an approving audience, since the package was available on all 2+2s with any engine.

For $325, a Mustang II buyer could order a hatchback with any of the three powerplants and have it decked out with bold racing stripes; a blacked‑out grille; racing mirrors; rear quarter window louvers; a front air dam; a non‑functional hood scoop; a rear deck lid spoiler; a brushed aluminum instrument panel and door panel appliques; Cobra insignias on the front fenders; styled steel wheels and BR70 steel‑belted tires with raised white letters. The 1976 Cobra II came in white with blue stripes, blue with white stripes, or black with gold stripes

The Cobra II marked the first time since the Boss 429 and Shelbys that Ford shipped a Mustang away for final assembly. Jim Wangers, who is often credited with the success of Pontiac’s original GTO, designed and installed the ’76 Cobra II graphics and aerodynamic pieces at his small Motortown plant near Ford’s Dearborn factory. As a nod to Mustang history, Carroll Shelby even appeared in the sales catalog to promote the
Cobra II.

So popular was the Cobra II package that Ford moved its production in-house at the start of the 1977 model year, but otherwise left it unchanged.

The Mustang II entered its final model year in October of 1977 as supreme ruler of the crowded domestic sporty subcompact class, even though there were very few improvements or changes to the basic product. New graphics for the Cobra II would have been the extent of Mustang II news had it not been for the release of a truly over-the-top limited edition performance package — the King Cobra.

1978-Ford-Mustang-II-10-1024x837

Advertised as the “Boss of the Mustang stable,” the King Cobra (or “KC”) was built around a 2+2 body with 5.0-liter engine, standard four-speed manual transmission, power brakes and power steering. The $1,253 KC treatment did without the customary bodyside striping of the Cobra II/GT-350, but sported a unique tape layout including a giant snake decal on the hood and pinstriping on the greenhouse, decklid, wheel lips, rocker panels, belt, over‑the‑roof area, and around the side windows. Up front was a tough‑looking airdam. A “King Cobra” nameplate went on each door and the back spoiler and a “5.0L” badge appeared on the rear-facing hood scoop. The King Cobra also had rear quarter flares, a black grille and moldings, and color‑keyed dual sport mirrors. Raised‑white‑letter tires rode lacy‑spoke aluminum wheels with twin rings and a Cobra symbol on the hubs.

To make the KC a complete “look at me” special, many buyers paid the extra $587 for the T-top option, bringing the sticker price to $5,638 before any other accessories were ordered. Simply adding the $225 automatic transmission put the KC at the $6K mark with tag, taxes and title figured in. Despite its high purchase price, enthusiasts recognized the KC as one of the only Mustang IIs with collector potential and snapped up 4,318 of them.

{This story was exerpted from the book “Mustang Special Editions” by Brad Bowling and Jerry Heasley. It is available through www.Amazon.com and other online retailers.}

2 thoughts on “Remembering the Mustang II King Cobra

  1. American Thunder

    I always get amused at people’s dislike of the Mustang II. I guess the fact that I’m a car restorer/builder/modifier/etc gives me a different perspective than the typical car enthusiast. The Mustang II I’ve owned since 1989, I built from the ground up, modified stuff, made stuff better and fast, etc etc. Currently, it’s built to road race and for street use, and it does it well. With a 530hp stroker small block that revs to 8800 rpm and 3.10 gears in a 9″ rear in a car that weighs 2450 pounds on my truck scale, it’s very fun to take out for a ride. There is no downside to a built Mustang II, other than passenger leg room in the back seat. It’s light, powerful, stops and handles very well(the aftermarket support for Mustang II front end parts is nearly limitless). It just amazes me that Ford offered the LIGHTEST car possible with a V8 engine other than an AC Cobra, and people hated it. And why did they hate it? Because the stock 302 engine was weak? Who cares?? Any decent mechanic can pull a Mustang II into his shop, bolt on aftermarket aluminum heads, aluminum intake, 4 bbl carburetor, MSD ignition, performance cam, and headers, and have a 400+ hp very lightweight monster, literally in one afternoon.
    But here we see the real issue… There aren’t many people who are mechanics, so of course they can’t do this stuff, but that isn’t the fault of the car, it’s the fault of our society. In the 50s, lots of guys were hanging out at shops and working on cars, but after the 60s, that no longer is the case. So in our more modern times, people need to buy performance because they can’t build it themselves? lol Cute. But let’s blame the Mustang II instead.
    In my eyes, the Mustang II has more potential than any other Mustang of previous years.

COMMENT