5.0 Mustang & Super Fords
Race Testing the '95 Cobra R
Now This Is A Cobra!
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Back in the heydays of the Ponycar era, Ford made a small quantity of racing versions of its Mustang to compete in various forms of automotive competition. These racing versions, called "R" model Mustangs, were something special. They offered upgraded handling, braking and, of course, engine power. Today, those Mustang R models are highly sought after collector cars. They are examples of the Mustang taken to its extremes, and as such, they command a high dollar in the collector car market. Thus it was with great enthusiasm that Ford’s Special Vehicle Team (SVT) revealed it would once again offer a new limited-run 1995 Cobra R. In addition to all the special racing upgrades the car would receive, the biggest news was the engine. For the first time in two decades, the Mustang would see a 351ci motor beating under its hood. A fully EPA-certified electronically fuel-injected Windsor was to be the motivation, and power levels were said to exceed 300 hp. We couldn’t wait. Well, the wait is over. We have driven the new Cobra R on the track and it is one sweet pony, worthy of its heritage and all the excitement generated by its return.
There is more to the story of the 1995 Cobra R than simply its performance on the track. The whole saga of its design and construction are interesting by themselves, and we will give a summary later. However, the burning question most Mustang enthusiasts ask is, "What is it like to drive the Cobra R?" The answer in two short words is, "A Blast!"
We had the chance to put the Cobra R through its paces one gray and rainy day in late March at the 1.1-mile road course housed at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. Ford SVT had lined up three sparkling white R competition models and a few standard SVT Cobras for our use--and use them we did!
Before pushing the R to its limits at the track, we caravanned on the back country roads of the greater Charlotte area over a 50-mile course that eventually led to the racetrack. The purpose of this jaunt was to familiarize us with the car before pushing it to its limits, and to prove that the Cobra R is a real, streetable car that is also one heck of a real race car.
The first impressions of the Cobra R when you get in and fire up the motor are two-fold. It is at once both comfortable and familiar, yet also different and new. The controls, seats and view out the windshield are the familiar part, as is the quick and immediate start-up of the electronically-controlled motor. However, the sound you get is unfamiliar. The tone isn't loud, but it is different.
Pulling out of the parking lot onto the public roads, the R exhibits great docility and driveability. It is as smooth and roadworthy as any production car, without any rough edges or untoward responses to your input. However, once the traffic ahead opens up and the empty road beckons, the Cobra R is all too willing to show its stuff--and stuff this car has in ample supply. Now you are into uncharted territory, a place that is new and exciting.
Pushing the accelerator deeply toward the floor brings forth a response that has been long missing from Mustangs. The stock 240-horse street Cobra is great, but the throaty and low-down power of the R's 351W produces a rate of immediate and unrelenting acceleration that is to performance enthusiasts what a fix must be to junkies. It feeds your need and then some. As we felt the power come on and were vigorously squished into the cloth-covered driver seat, it was impossible not to let out an audible exclamation. "All right!," we heard ourselves unconsciously blurt out, to the amusement of SVT engineer Scott Tate in the passenger seat next to us.
Our road trip to the track was purposely charted over the twisty two-lanes of the back country, and it was the perfect chance to test the car under a variety of real-world conditions. We caught ourselves running at speeds that were, shall we say, far more robust than most locals would have felt comfortable with. Yet comfortable was the feeling we had. It seems that the R model is too willing to do anything you ask of it, and you must catch by checking the speedo frequently.
One particular incident in our back-woods foray said it all. We unexpectedly came upon a hairpin turn in the two-lane country road while stretching the R's very long legs. In the midst of the pouring rain, our immediate instincts were to lay off the brakes, lest we induce a skid. Instead, we rolled off the gas and cranked the steering wheel to the right, staying in our own lane to avoid any oncoming traffic as we and the car were thrown to the left. We held on and hoped for the best. The R never whimpered, not even hinting at losing traction as we took the turn at almost insane speeds. We ran through the hairpin like a roller coaster on rails. Who should be our companion on this leg of the trip, but none other than John Coletti, chief of SVT Engineering and head designer of the whole Cobra R program. As we both let out our breath, we looked at each other. The Cobra had stuck like glue and made an instant believer out of us.
At the track, the Cobra R begged to be driven. With the rain stopped but the track still wet, we pushed the R harder and harder each lap, waiting to discover its limits of power and adhesion. The truth is, we never found them. Each time we drove harder and braked later, we expected the squeal of tires or the impending loss of control to telegraph the edges of the R's performance envelope. Each time we were surprised to find that the R still had more to give.
Lap after lap, we pushed the R further and further. Get on the gas earlier coming out of the turn. Accelerate harder. Add five more mph to the top speed on the back straight. Brake later than the last lap. Brake harder. Downshift, roll off the clutch, press the gas and accelerate once again. While we found the G-forces had us tensing our own muscles unconsciously (wish we had a real five-point harness system), the R's muscles never seemed tense. To put it plainly, we never found the limits of the Cobra R. We know they are out there, but it will take a Dorsey Schroeder or a Tom Gloy to find them. This was exactly the answer we were looking for.
Only 250 Mustang Cobra R Competition Models (that's the official name) were built and production has completely ended. The construction of these cars is a story itself, because rather than being handcrafted at a specialty shop like Roush or some other company, they were built on the regular Mustang assembly line at the Dearborn Assembly Plant (DAP) right along with normal production models! This is quite significant for two reasons.
First, it is an engineering feat to have pulled this off. You may not realize it, but every aspect of automobile assembly is engineered down to the smallest detail, the last move of the workers and the parts. It is like a ballet or a dance act in a Broadway musical. Every component, every fastener, every piece is engineered to fit the machinery and the assembly sequence. Every move of the assembly workers is choreographed for the least effort and minimum wasted motion. To upset the 50-car-per-hour routine assembly process with an occasional specialized Mustang Cobra R, with all its own unique parts coming down the assembly line, could have caused glitches that shut down the whole factory. Instead, it was pulled off like clockwork. This is a tribute to the engineers who planned the assembly process and the assembly line workers who got behind the project and supported it. Hats off to the DAP team!
The other reason this is quite significant is because of what it portends for the future. It has always been said that a mass manufacturer of automobiles cannot cater to small, specialty niche markets. That means us, folks, and we have been treated like bastard step-children by the Big Three over the years because the high-up muckety mucks have believed it costs too much to change the production process just for a small run of cars. The production of the SVT Cobra R on the regular DAP assembly line in quantities as small as 250 units proves this old way of thinking is wrong and outdated. The consequence is that there may be a far greater likelihood that Ford will be more willing to produce higher-performance versions of the Mustang in smaller quantities to satisfy very small market niches, like those who read 5.0 Mustang magazine. This is good news indeed.
In the end, we did not want to leave Charlotte and the Mustang Cobra Rs behind. With the exhaust uncorked, the engine balanced and blueprinted and some intelligent tuning done to the engine controls, 375 hp should be a realistic number for a track-prepared Mustang R. That is a lot of power and makes the Mustang fully capable of taking on the 350ci Camaros and Firebirds and beating them at their own game. While there really hasn't been much in the way of racing yet this year at the time this is being written (early April), we can say that at the Nelson Ledges 24-hour endurance race held earlier this year, the R was leading everything but the Consulier mid-engined exotic car (hear that, you Camaro weenies?) until it was gathered up in a wreck that started in front of it.
Our feelings are that the Cobra R is too good to be true. Its 351 engine is so streetable and driveable it makes you cry that none have ever been available in late-model Mustangs. What a car the Mustang could have always been! On the other hand, the 300 hp of the R puts it right where the 1996 four-cam Cobra will be, and the introduction of this seminal Mustang will be just a few months away as you read this. Both the two-cam and the four-cam 1996 Mustangs will mark a turning point in automotive performance, and driving the Cobra R gave us a good taste of things to come. We cant wait!