Jim Smart
August 1, 2001
Photos By: Randy Lorentzen

When I heard Editor Ford's voice on the phone from 3,000 miles away in Central Florida, I knew I was in trouble. Call Jeff our own little devil's advocate: an idea guy who keeps us all on our toes. He asked me what I thought of a shootout between a classic Cobra Jet and a late-model SVT Cobra-a shootout between two entirely different badass Mustangs. One is a big-block Cobra Jet and the other is a low-displacement, 32-valve, overhead-cam, high-tech screamer: nose to nose, neck and neck on the dragstrip, road course, and public highway. Doesn't seem fair, does it?

In many respects, comparing Mustangs designed and assembled 30 years apart just isn't fair because they are so different. A vintage Cobra Jet is raw, crude muscle at its best from back in the day. It did its best work on the dragstrip and on the open highway. It laid down a ton of rubber and it got you there quickly. We're talking fast-quick, straight-line performance. Forget the canyon road or the auto-cross event. Ford's FE-series big-block 428ci Cobra Jet produces mind-bending torque, giving us brute acceleration when in proper tune with the right rear-end gearing. We desire these faithful steeds because they remind us of our youth some 30 years ago in the rearview mirror. With the pedal to the metal, they were darned fast for their time. And if you could afford one back then, they were an awesome ego trip.

The '99 Ford SVT Cobra was born in an entirely different performance era. It's a vastly different platform with huge four-wheel disc brakes, independent rear suspension, wide tires with a great contact patch with the pavement, dual overhead-cam technology with 32 valves and a 6,800-rpm redline, and masterful handling a classic Mustang will likely never equal.

So why a shootout bewtween these two Mustangs? Primarily to show you just how far the Mustang has come since its conception during the '60s and to show you what these generations have in common. The '6811/42 Shelby GT500KR is yesterday's ultimate Mustang fun car. Ford SVT's '99 Cobra is today's ultimate Mustang play toy. So how do these Mustangs stack up side by side?

The Participants
Meet Pat O'Neal and John Reitman. Pat is a computer programmer. John is an attorney who specializes in specific types of international governmental law. Pat drove his '99 Cobra up from Southern California's Inland Empire-some 70 miles east of Los Angeles. John trailered his '68 GT500KR fastback up from West Los Angeles. Why the trailer in an age when more and more of us are driving our Mustangs? It's called value and the risk of a breakdown that might leave the slippery fastback crippled alongside the freeway; no one with any sense does that in Los Angeles.

Both gentlemen were eager to participate in our comparo. We're not completely certain Pat and John were out to see who would come out on top as much they were to see how each vehicle would perform in its own right. Despite Pat's fondness for late-model, high-performance Mustangs, he was taken with the Shelby's slippery fastback styling and the great displacement Dearborn used to stuff under the bonnet. John, who road-races BMWs on the weekends, has a fine appreciation for the sophisticated nature of the Cobra. What we have here between these gentlemen is respect and appreciation for fine automobiles.

How Do They Compare?

  '6811/42 GT500KR '99 SVT Cobra
Numbers built: 933 fastbacks 4,040 coupes
Body style: two-door fastback two-door coupe
Weight: 3,200 lb 3,400 lb
Steering: Worm-and-sector Power rack-and-pinion
  Bendix power assist  
Suspension: Front-Coil over upper arm Front-McPherson strut
  Rear-Multileaf/live axle Rear-Independent four-link with coils
Brakes: Power front disc, rear drum Power four disc
Axle ratio: 3.50:1, 3.91:1, or 4.30:1 3.27:1 Traction-Lok
  (conventional, limited-slip,  
  or Traction-Lok)  
Transmission: Top Loader four-speed Tremec T45 five-speed
Engine: 428ci 4V FE-series OHV V-8 4.6L DOHC modular V-8
Horsepower: 335 hp at 5,200 rpm 320 hp at 6,000 rpm
Torque: 440 lb-ft at 3,400 rpm 315 lb-ft at 4,750 rpm
Compression: 10.6:1 9.85:1
Bore: 4.13 in 3.55 in
Stroke: 3.98 in 3.53 in
Valvetrain: Pushrod, hydraulic lifters Dual overhead-cam, hydraulic

  Car Life, 10/68 Motor Trend, 12/98
0-60 mph: 6.9 sec 5.4 sec
0-{{{100}}} mph: 14.6 sec 13.4 sec
11/44-mile: 14.{{{57}}} sec at 99.55 mph 13.9 sec at 102.4 mph
Axle ratio: 3.50:1 limited-slip 3.27:1 Traction-Lok

Ready To Rock
We have to tell you, we weren't sure what to expect at the Los Angeles County Raceway (LACR) near Palmdale, California. LACR sits on Southern California's high desert floor at approximately 2,800 feet above sea level. It's a harsh desert environment where snow falls during the winter and tumbleweeds blow during the summer. Test pilot General Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier here for the first time more than 50 years ago. The prototype space shuttle, Enterprise, made its maiden flight here 25 years ago. The Antelope Valley has always been about speed-unspeakable speed.

High westerly winds on the day of our shootout across the dusty, chewed-up north/south track made for good quarter-mile times and high-speed stability-challenging at best, even for the most seasoned drag racer.

Pat saddled up behind the wheel of his '99 Cobra, ready for action. Because he autocrosses his Cobra, Pat has a finite understanding of what to expect from his car. Each of his three quarter-mile passes was performed with the uncanny precision of a NASA space shuttle computer. He knew how to follow the timing tree with crisp reaction times, leaving the line with great predictability.

We're convinced John was playing it cautious with his numbers-matching GT500KR because his quarter-mile times weren't what we expected. And who can blame him? No one wants to throw away a cross-ventilated, numbers-matching Cobra Jet block because he overdid it. John took the conservative approach, which was disappointing for us but certainly understandable, considering what he could lose with a blown engine. We're also not completely convinced his engine was in an ideal state of tune for drag racing anyway. Here's what happened on the track.

Time Slips
  '68 GT500KR '99 SVT Cobra
Run No. 1: 15.610 at 92.14 mph 14.572 at 97.30 mph
Run No. 2: 15.536 at 91.33 mph 14.574 at 97.95 mph
Run No. 3: 15.451 at 91.36 mph 14.545 at 98.74 mph

'98 Cobra
We had an adrenaline rush when Pat rolled up in his '99 Cobra. It's a dazzling Red with charcoal leather inside. Only 733 others were built like it out of a total of 4,040 units. The throatiness of his revised SVT dual exhaust system yields the deep burble of a high-tech, dual overhead-cam V-8 we call the "Mod Motor." This 320hp engine has a 6,800-rpm redline and will rocket the body to 100 mph in just 13 seconds in proper tune.

Call the '99 SVT Cobra a battle wagon for just about any arena because it does nearly everything so well. For the daily commute, it's unbeatable because it offers you power, a fun-to-shift Tremec five-speed, solid handling and braking, air conditioning, Ford's Mach 460 sound system, rich leather appointments, and a host of other nice features. Although the Cobra really isn't designed to be a drag car, it will drag race with the best of 'em, turning in an easy 14-second quarter-mile e.t. On the road course, it will leave you behind, then come up behind you right away, even if you're driving as best you can.

Call the '99 Cobra one of the best factory-produced Mustangs ever. Why? Solid construction with exceptional road manners. At the wheel, you feel confident knowing the FOX-4 platform with fully independent suspension is the most forgiving Mustang ever. That "new edge" styling makes the soft, rounded '94-'98 Mustang concept just downright sexy. The breed became macho in 1999 when the SVT took that "new edge" look and gave it hair everywhere, including the underarms. The 4.6L DOHC modular V-8 is the most high-tech Mustang V-8 engine ever.

'68 Shelby GT500KR
The Acapulco Blue '68 Shelby GT500KR fastback is 1 of just 933 produced by Ford Motor Company's Metuchen, New Jersey, plant and the A.O. Smith Company in Ionia, Michigan. All '68 GT350, GT500, and GT500KR Shelby Mustangs were produced there, then shipped to dealers around the world.

When you study the '68 Shelby Mustang, it looks sexier than the '99 Mustang Cobra we were just talking about. In a crowd, the Shelby will turn heads and draw car buffs faster than the Cobra. Why? Because the Shelby enjoys that slippery, elongated look so popular in the '60s. The sculptured fiberglass fascia gently divides the air at speed. Air is then carried over the buttery fastback roofline to the rear deck spoiler that keeps a luscious fanny centered on the open road. Shelby's stylists understood what a success six taillamps and a sculptured tailpanel would be, and they have been proven winners for more than three decades.

Inside, Ford did a magnificent job with the Interior Decor Group for 1968: rich woodgrain, dual-pod instrumentation, Shelby-specific custom console with gauges, molded door panels with pull handles and courtesy lamps, a fold-down rear seat, groovy bucket seats, and more.

The KR does its talking underhood, though. In mid-1968, Ford spanked the competition with a surprise of its own: the Bob Tasca Ford-inspired 428 Cobra Jet FE-series big-block in the GT500. Period road tests prove the 428 Cobra Jet could rocket the Shelby Mustang through the quarter-mile in 14 seconds flat with 3.91:1 gears; with 3.50:1 cruising gears, 14.5 seconds. This makes the GT500KR a formidable competitor for the SVT Cobra. In perfect tune with a seasoned drag racer at the wheel, the KR will stay flush with the more high-tech Cobra.

The Driving Experience
Driving each of these cars isn't like driving the other. Behind the wheel of the '99 SVT Cobra, being confident is second nature. Taking corners with the Cobra is easy and the car is forgiving. You can't say that about the Cobra's competition, Chevrolet's Camaro SS. Get into trouble with the Camaro SS and you can have an accident if your driving skills aren't polished. The Cobra's handling dynamics are designed to be forgiving and get you back on the road safely. Under acceleration, the Cobra's cross-bolted, double overhead-cam, 32-valve, all-aluminum V-8 is a rush. High rpm shifts at 6,200 put goose bumps on your tooth enamel, yet it's so smooth at high revs, it's hard to believe it's an American V-8 engine.

The Tremec T45 five-speed provides a concrete feel, with short throws and tight channels. There is little concern for a missed shift because it's so precise. Out of the hole at wide-open throttle, there's some wheelhop, which we expect from the independent rear suspension (IRS); IRS isn't designed for drag racing, it's designed for road racing. And huge binders fore and aft cast little doubt on this philly's stopping ability.

When you get out on the open road, the SVT Cobra really shines because it feels like it will do every bit of the speedometer. Drop it down into Fourth gear and listen to the mod motor roar. Shift into Overdrive and take in the mellow roar of confident American V-8 power; it's a sweet ride by anyone's standards.

Taking the wheel of a vintage big-block Shelby feels decidedly different from the Cobra just mentioned. We wouldn't tackle a road course with this car as we would the '99 Cobra. Shelby's GT500KR isn't the surefooted stallion its grandson is. Despite the Bendix power steering's reputation for grief, it feels good in proper tune, making the Shelby pleasurable to drive. On the open road, the GT500KR is a true road car. It's a cruiser that likes the open highway. A twisty canyon road is not what this car was designed for. More than 700 pounds of FE-series big-block over the front wheels makes this a given. Shifting the Ford Top Loader four-speed and listening to the whine of an old cast-iron synchromesh crash box takes us way back. Nothing sounded sweeter than a Top Loader in high school.

For its day, the GT500KR had a luxurious interior with its rolled and tucked vinyl, buttons, hand holds, and rich woodgrain. We like that a lot in a second-generation Mustang. Admittedly, Ford fell short in terms of comfort. Those low-buck bucket seats still make your bottom sore. Oh, those memories of running down the interstate for hours on end with a sore behind, wishing like anything to reach your destination as quickly as possible. Bucket seats on '68 Mustangs were notorious for broken backs. Buddy, can you spare me a two-by-four to hold my seat back up?

Heading straight down the road, the GT500KR is a rewarding experience. Tempted though we are to downshift and mash the pedal, we find the KR needs the mystique that goes with wondering what it will do versus actually knowing and blowing the whole secret. Isn't that what it's all about? The mystique?

Thirty years of technological advancement give the '68 GT500KR an unfair disadvantage when pitted alongside the most high-tech Mustang ever made. The Cobra shines, thanks to its advanced engineering package, something Ford has been striving for in the Mustang since 1964. Shelby's greatest ride shines through sheer beauty and charisma, the things that make it a darling classic that will endure for generations to come. In the final analysis, these are Mustangs that almost anyone aspires to own.