Eric English
January 1, 2005

When Tom Cantrell first encountered the '68 1/2 Cobra Jet Mustang sprawled across these pages, he knew there wasn't another like it on the planet. It wasn't just Marti Auto Works' revelation that only 221 of the unpretentious coupes were produced with the legendary long-stroke big-block. There's more to it than that. Take a look at the odometer and it all comes into focus. The 256 miles shown isn't smoke and mirrors or Photoshop tomfoolery-it's the real deal. Viewed another way, such scant mileage is barely more than a tank's worth of high-test if you consider usage at a 13-15 mpg rate. Out of this world? You'd better believe it.

Of course, once you learn of this Mustang's barely driven status, the logical questions are something along the lines of "how?" and "why?" The tale goes back to the days of early 1968, when Cobra Jet Mustang lore was in its infancy, and the factory Super Stockers were fresh off impressive victories at the '68 NHRA Winternationals. As service manager for the Ford dealer in O'Donnell, Texas, H.L. Lawhon had heard of the CJ's dragstrip prowess early on, and quickly ordered one to get in on the action. At the time, Lawhon's team was having modest success with an early K-code Mustang, and the new CJ seemed a logical step up the Ford performance ladder.

With only one thing in mind, this Candyapple Red gem, sparsely equipped and ready to rumble, was delivered to O'Donnell's Forbes Motor Company. Beyond the CJ-mandated items that included the GT package, front disc brakes, and F70x14 Goodyear Polyglas rubber, the only options consisted of a C6 automatic and a 4.30 Traction-Lok setup in the nodular-case 9-inch rearend. The N.O.S. wheel-lip moldings are owner added. The factory cosmetics yield a decked-out impression to be sure, yet this was about as stripped as it got in the first year of Cobra Jet Mustang production, with nary an AM radio to distract one's attention.

When it came time to hit the track, our story is as surprising as any 36-year-old Mustang with just 256 miles. While many teams quickly had their CJ Mustangs running at the front of the C/SA and SS/EA packs, Lawhon doesn't appear to have delved very deeply into the coupe's potential. In fact, when purchased in the late '80s by noted restorer Bob Perkins, all the factory underhood equipment was still intact, save for the smog equipment. Perkins believes the car was run in this configuration along with a set of slicks, and was told the team abandoned the effort after just a few weekends due to some now-forgotten teething issues. The team soon returned their efforts to the Hi-Po 289 car, while the CJ was relegated to the proverbial corner.

Twenty years flashed by with little action, that is until Perkins picked up the trail following a tip from a fellow enthusiast. Lest anyone wonder why some guys have all the luck, the tip did come at some financial cost: a complete smog system for a '70 CJ. Perkins figured the price of admission to be worth it, and soon found himself en route to West Texas to have that all-important look-see. What he found was pretty much as described: a bone-dry, rust-free, complete '6811/42 coupe with unbelievably low miles. A barrel full of 428 CJ take-off parts was included as well-the unwanted discards of several Cobra Jet cars that came through Forbes Motor Company in the early days.

Once the coupe arrived at Perkins' restoration shop, the first order of business was to get busy cleaning. Despite a life of indoor storage, a thick layer of Texas red dust had found its way into nearly every nook and cranny of this low-mile miracle, and the cleansing process required a combination of careful disassembly and meticulous detailing. The perfect standard interior is a time warp to simpler days past, reminding us that the right car just doesn't need the kinds of amenities we've grown accustomed to in new automobiles. Come to think of it, perhaps such modern touches of navigational systems, climate control, and DVD players are just a grand cover-up for cars lacking real soul. There's no doubt Cantrell's Cobra Jet has plenty of the latter, some of which was garnered during tows down the gravel road that accessed the local dragstrip. The resulting front-end rock chips have been carefully remedied, and the engine treated to an exacting detail job that included reinstallation of the smog system. Underneath, a date-matched N.O.S. exhaust system replaced the mildly deteriorated originals.

Cantrell first saw the coupe during a trip to Perkins' place to pick up some critical pieces for yet another restoration project. A self-described Cobra Jet nut who's owned a number of the rare machines through the years, Cantrell was immediately smitten, and no wonder. Besides the obvious low-mileage appeal, the svelte '68 body style, quintessential musclecar color, and original paperwork, other factors drew Cantrell in like a dog to a bone. This was not a car to miss out on, and with Perkins amiable to a deal, Cantrell soon found himself the lucky third owner. The '6811/42 joins a '69 SCJ Mach 1 in his stable, but possesses an altogether different identity. Whereas 428 Mach 1s exhibit a decidedly in-your-face musclecar attitude, first-year CJs are a unique blend of early Mustang persona and pinnacle performance; in short, you just don't expect this kind of wallop from such a pretty face.

We could've asked Cantrell which ride he finds more desirable, but why bother? Owning both sides of the Cobra Jet coin means you don't have to make such a subjective analysis; instead, simply flipping a silver piece on any given weekend will do. Whether heads or tails, there's no loser in this case-just two stellar styles of big-inch fun.

Final TallyWhen it comes to production numbers, few Mustangs have been the subject of as much rampant speculation as the 428 CJ cars. While Shelby and Boss Mustangs have long enjoyed some pretty concrete figures, Cobra Jet production has always been more of a mystery. Early buff books claimed the '6811/42 cars were built as fastbacks only, though we've known for a long time that's false.

Enter Kevin Marti, whose access to Ford's computer archives has provided the hobby with a wealth of definitive production data for '67 and newer vehicles, including an accurate count of 428 CJ-powered Ponies. Marti's books, Mustang by the Numbers and Cougar by the Numbers, include plenty of informative minutiae such as the number of cars built with a particular option, a given paint/interior color combination, or a specific powertrain. Even more detailed information can be obtained for a modest fee from Marti Auto Works (12007 W. Peoria Ave., El Mirage, AZ 85335; 623/935-2558; www.martiauto.com).

We've listed all three years of 428 CJ Mustang production data below, though it should be explained that the numbers in our table look different from those in Marti's book, which includes CJ-powered Shelbys. Marti was kind enough to run the numbers for us, excluding the Shelbys, leaving the following tally for standard production 428 CJ Mustangs. Mystery solved!