Brad Bowling
July 1, 2007
Contributers: Brad Bowling

In 1993, Ford celebrated the final year of the Mustang's aged Fox platform by having its Special Vehicle Team (SVT) release 4,993 tuned-and-tweaked hatchbacks wearing the legendary Cobra badge.

Reviving the coiled-snake emblem raised many eyebrows in the enthu-siast community, where memories of Carroll Shelby's '62-'67 roadsters were still considered sacred. Sure, Ford's own marketing department diluted the viper's venom, first by adding the Cobra name to '68-'70 Shelby Mustangs and various top-performing V-8s. The fangs were entirely pulled in the '70s with the garish and slow Mustang II-based Cobra II and King Cobra. Ford tried one more time to recall the excitement of Shelby's Ferrari-beating roadsters when the redesigned '79 Mustang line offered a turbocharged four-cylinder or V-8 with Cobra-specific cosmetics, wheels, and suspension. When the GT returned for '82, the snake slithered under a rock for a long nap-except in Canada. To retain legal ownership of the name and image, Ford sold Cobras and Mustangs there from '94-'92.

SVT realized its hopped-up version of the final-year Fox would become the laughing stock of the automotive community if its performance didn't live up to the famous name. Using a variety of hot-rod techniques and go-fast parts already being sold through its dealer network, SVT turned the GT's 205hp 5.0L into a 235hp V-8 with a 6,000-rpm redline. Completing the new Cobra formula included a stronger Borg-Warner T-5 five-speed, subtle body mods, four-wheel disc brakes, lower and softer springs, and 17-inch unidirectional Goodyear Eagles. The '93 Cobra was available only as an $18,505 hatchback in Performance Red, Teal, or Black. SVT produced an additional 107 Vibrant Red cars as racetrack-ready R-models for $25,692 each.

A succession of faster Cobras followed. The '94-'95 models had a 240hp version of the 5.0L. An upgrade to the dual overhead camshaft (DOHC) 4.6L modular engine brought 305 horses to the '96-'98 Cobra. After production-line glitches initially forced a recall, the '99 and '01 Cobras-there were no '00 or '02 models-produced 320 hp and became the first Mustangs to carry an independent rear suspension (IRS).

A decade after introducing the first of its new Cobras, Ford's commitment to high performance led the company to develop the most powerful production Pony in history. The '03 Cobra was a throwback to the musclecars of the '60s. In head-to-head contests on the strip, it showed no respect for its Boss and Super Cobra Jet elders.

With a supercharged 4.6L DOHC engine, the '03 SVT Cobra was in a category all its own, with output rated at 390 hp at 6,000 rpm and 390 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm. The blower was an Eaton Roots-style unit tuned to produce 8 pounds of boost, with a water-to-air intercooler that reduced the temperature of the charge for maximum volatility in the combustion chamber.

To keep such violent explosions in check, the handbuilt Cobra engines received cast-iron blocks, which was a departure from the aluminum blocks the '96-'01 cars received. The '99-'01 forged-steel crankshaft was retained, mandating additional machining to the iron block's interior-side bulkhead to make room for Cobra-unique counterweights. SVT engineers attached forged Manley H-beam connecting rods to the low-compression (8.5:1), dish-top pistons.

New aluminum heads housing a 37mm intake and 30mm exhaust valves saved weight over the front wheels and dissipated engine heat. The quartet of camshafts received new profiles over the previous year's specs. Twin 57mm bores of the throttle body were fed by a 90mm mass airflow sensor.

The new Cobra's aluminum flywheel was similar to the one found in the '00 R-model, and it worked in synch with an 11-inch single-plate clutch. The only transmission available was a six-speed Tremec T-56 manual hooked to an aluminum driveshaft and 3.55:1 differential gears. Higher-capacity universal joints and half-shafts were chosen to handle the torque increase.

SVT beefed up the Cobra's suspension for the '03, including revised bushings, mounts, and spring rates. The IRS received a new tubular cross-brace, which was designed to stabilize the differential assembly under hard acceleration (drag-racing Cobra owners ran up rear-differential warranty bills). Roll steer was reduced with revised rear-suspension geometry. Coupes and convertibles had different suspension tuning-a first for the Cobra-with hardtop spring rates measuring 600 lb/in front and rear and droptops wearing 500-pounders in front and 470s in the rear. Gas-charged, monotube Bilstein shocks were specified for all four corners; tubular antiroll bars measured 26mm in front and 29mm in back.

Brakes were Brembo 13-inch rotors with PBR dual-piston calipers in front, and 11.65-inch rears with single-piston calipers. The largest tires ever fitted to a factory Mustang-275/40ZR-17 Goodyear Eagle F1s-wrapped around 17x9-inch five-spokes.

The Cobra body wasn't substantially different from the Mustang GT, but SVT made just enough cosmetic changes to give the snake its own identity. Upgrades to the front included round foglamps, an aggressive front fascia with increased airflow to the engine, a lightweight composite hood with functioning cooling scoops, and model-specific windshield wipers with built-in aerodynamic aids for high-speed work. Rocker panels were reshaped with clean vertical surfaces, color-keyed mirrors were specific to the Cobra, sidescoops received horizontal fins that matched the hood treatment, and the composite decklid featured an integrated spoiler with an LED high-mounted stoplight.

The interior gained new bucket seats with Nudo leather trim and Preferred suede inserts. Drivers received six-way power controls, including switches for thigh, lumbar, and side bolsters. A titanium-color gauge face, illuminated by electro-luminescent lighting, included a boost gauge. The shifter knob was wrapped in leather with a brushed-aluminum insert on top, marked with the six-speed shift pattern. The pedals were trimmed in metal.

Despite the record-setting power output and long list of standard creature comforts, such as power windows, air conditioning, a Mach 460 stereo with six-disc CD changer, ABS, tilt steering, and cruise control, the fastest-ever Cobra coupe retailed for a reasonable $34,065. The convertible was a bargain at $38,405.

John Coletti, chief engineer for SVT, referred to the '03 as "a Cobra R with all the comforts and amenities included."

He wasn't kidding. In no time, reports circulated on the Internet of stock Cobras registering at least 400 rwhp on dynamometers all throughout the country. Using a parasitic drag factor of 15 percent, this meant the blown 4.6L was really putting out 460 hp at the crankshaft-70 more than advertised. To put this into perspective, the '03 Cobra was producing nearly twice the output of the '93.

Just when Mustang performance fans thought it couldn't get any better, SVT debuted a 10th Anniversary Edition Cobra in the summer of 2003. Available in either coupe or convertible, the package (375A) cost $1,495 and added special 17x9-inch argent wheels, red-leather seating surfaces, carbon-fiber-look interior trim, and unique anniversary badging on the floor mats and decklid. Only 2,003-get it? 2003!-Cobras were built with the package in three distinct colors. SVT produced 257 coupes and 394 convertibles in Black, 365 coupes and 369 convertibles in Torch Red, and 381 coupes and 237 convertibles in Silver Metallic.

Morrison Collection
Jimmy Morrison and his sons have a collection of high-performance Mustangs in their Morrison Motor Company car dealership in Concord, North Carolina. Michael, in particular, has a strong interest in SVT Cobras and has become the go-to guy for all three generations of R-models. Our '03 10th Anniversary Edition Cobra photo car was borrowed from the Morrison collection.

Quick Look
Model: '03 10th Anniversary Edition SVT Cobra
Price: $39,{{{900}}}
Engine: 390hp, 4.6L, DOHC V-8
Production: 2,003

Cobra IRS
Ford produced several IRS-equipped Mustang prototypes for evaluation during the mid '90s, but those cars were usually crushed or turned into experimental racers. In 1996, SVT's John Coletti collaborated with Steve Saleen on an IRS system for the Saleen/Allen Speedlab SCCA racer, giving a boost to the notion that street Mustangs should lose their straight axles.

After much research and development on the track, SVT brought the '99 Cobra to showrooms with the first fully independent rear suspension fitted to a production Mustang. The system used short and long arms mounted on a tubular subframe and an aluminum differential housing. It was designed to mount to the same four points as Ford's solid axle and suspension, which SVT felt would inspire upgrades among owners of GTs. The Cobra system had two additional bolt holes and weld nuts where the Mustang's quad-shock system would've been, but it was an easy swap.

The IRS weighed 80 pounds more than the GT's straight axle, but the all-important unsprung weight dropped by 125 pounds. This arrangement allowed SVT to install much stiffer springs and increase the rear track by 1.2 inches. The ABS sensors moved inboard on the Cobra half-shafts, and the Cobra's twin exhaust pipes ran straight below the IRS cage.

Adding to a car's overall weight is a no-no in today's automotive climate, so SVT put its '99 Cobra on a low-fat diet. The result was a 30-pound loss over the front tires and another 20-pound reduction in the midsection, an effort that produced a weight distribution of 55 percent (front) and 45 percent (rear).