Mustang MonthlyFeatured Vehicles
1978 Ford Mustang King Cobra - The Placeholder
This all-original ’78 King Cobra has only had two owners
The early ’70s were the beginning of a very dark time in the automotive world. Emissions were suddenly more of a hot topic, choking performance out of engines across the board. The nightmare of the relationship with the Middle East and the resulting OPEC oil embargo drove gas prices through the roof, and that led to a mass exodus away from performance cars in favor of small, inexpensive, fuel-efficient cars like the crap cans coming off the boats from Japan.
New car buyers back then really wanted those flimsy Toyotas, Hondas, and Datsuns, and traded in their fast, but fuel-hungry, muscle cars for them. At the same time the market turned to small cars the Mustang got big and heavy with the debut of the ’71 models—exactly the opposite direction the market was going. What had gained popularity as a ponycar suddenly became an intermediate sedan, alienating many new car buyers. When the inventories of unsold new cars, including Mustangs, began to skyrocket and all signs pointed to the need for smaller cars in the showrooms, it marked the end of the original muscle car era. Chrysler killed the Barracuda and Challenger, GM very nearly ended Camaro and Firebird production while cranking out Vegas and Monzas, and Ford was focused on the Pinto and Maverick.
Lee Iacocca, ever the brilliant exec he was, saw the writing on the wall early (prior to 1970) and had ordered that the Mustang be downsized starting with the ’74 model year to compete not with the Camaro/Firebird but rather GM’s Skyhawk/Starfire/Monza. It also stood a better chance of competing against the popular Datsun 240Z and Toyota Celica. Had the Mustang continued to be a big car, even on the scale of the ’69-’70 models, there’s a damn good chance that it would have been discontinued altogether. Everyone who looks down on the Mustang II as “not a real Mustang” should understand that had it not existed, there might not be the 50 years of production that we’re celebrating now. And for that reason, the ’74-’78 cars are very significant members of the Mustang family and should be celebrated.
Iacocca’s market vision was dead-on; sales of the ’74 Mustang nearly matched the original car’s incredible 12-month production record, and over the generation’s lifespan it recorded four of the top 10 model year Mustang sales—it probably didn’t hurt that Farrah Fawcett drove a ’76 Cobra II on Charlie’s Angels. As has been reported many times, it was the right car for the right time, even winning Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award in 1974. Unfortunately, the ’74 Mustang was not available with a V-8, the only year that was the case, but that changed in 1975 when the world returned to a more familiar place and you could once again buy a 302-powered Mustang.
Arguably the most desirable of all ’74-’78 Mustangs was the ’78 King Cobra, the raciest looking of the generation. Capitalizing on the ridiculous success of the Pontiac Trans Am from Smokey & The Bandit in 1977, the King Cobra got its own version of the TA’s “Screaming Chicken” in the form of a Cobra snake decal dominating the hood. The car also had a front air dam, stripes, and different mesh wheels. Production was limited to only 4,313 units, so it’s not easy to find a good one these days. The engine was a 302 that made 139 hp and pushed the car to a low-9-second 0-to-60 run and mid- to low-17s in the quarter-mile (with the four-speed; automatic versions were a few ticks slower). That’s pretty pathetic by today’s standards, but you have to put it in the context of the time—everything was pitifully slow back then, even Chevy’s vaunted Corvette.
The lack of all-out performance didn’t matter to those who fell in love with the cars, and Linda Ruberg was one of those smitten with the King Cobra. She bought a brand-new, red ’78 King Cobra in Denver and it was promptly stolen three months later and never recovered. Apparently, the Mustang II was popular with thieves too! Instead of taking the payoff amount from the insurance company, she made them buy her a new one and ended up with the yellow car you see here. She drove it daily and did routine maintenance, but never modified the car in any way. She did have to replace the exhaust system and an underhood fire not long after she bought it mandated a new Cobra decal for the hood, but other than that the car is 100 percent as it left the showroom floor. It even still has the original grease plugs, which most people replaced with zerk fittings.
After 34 years of ownership, the King Cobra was no longer used as a daily driver. It sat in the garage most of the time collecting dust, and since Linda now lived in deer country she wouldn’t drive it at night and risk the enormous damage from hitting a deer. She decided, “It needed to be out where someone could give it some TLC and enjoy it,” so she took the car to a local classic car auction where Bill Mann saw it and fell in love. After looking the car over and talking to Linda, Bill decided he wanted it and won the auction the next day, after getting into a bidding war with an online bidder.
Bill told us, “It’s probably the most original King Cobra out there—she only changed the clutch and tires, and put new Freon in the air conditioner.” It’s not Bill’s first Mustang II; he had a ’78 T-top car that he sold to go hunting for a King Cobra, and now that he’s bagged his prized snake, he takes it out every now and then to “keep it limbered up” and also to local car shows, saying, “It gets trophies at every show I take it to.” He’s had to put a new power steering pump and hose on the car, but other than that it’s in the same original condition as when he bought it from Linda, with only 97,000 miles on it to date.