It was 7:10 in the morning and we were about a quarter of a mile ahead of Bobby Kimbrough on I-485, the highway that partially connects all of Charlotte's satellite suburbs like an unfinished charm bracelet. A traffic light had held Bobby back while we slipped down the on-ramp and got the camera car up to highway speed, but I knew he would catch up in no time flat.
Only a few other cars shared that new stretch of interstate with us because it was Saturday morning, so I had an unobstructed view through the back of the photo wagon as he approached. His Cobra's crazy paint scheme made it look like a meteor headed right for us, a firestorm on four wheels - something that might attack the X-Men in a movie battle. I could have sworn the licks of flame were alive, spreading toward the back of the car, getting sucked into the side scoops as he pulled up next to us.
Hoping to record this near-cosmic experience for Modified Mustangs readers, I rolled down the window and pointed my Canon EOS toward the black-and-orange Mustang. The 65 mph blast of 28-degree air caused my eyes to tear up and darn near froze off my ears, but I think the results were worth the pain.
What my camera's CompactFlash card captured that chilly morning - flames on the hood, fenders and doors of a car - is a visual effect as American in its spirit as nose art on a P-51 Mustang fighter. In fact, some sources claim the flame fad originated with fighter planes of the 1940s that bore the images of ferocious animals or beautiful women. In spite of the similarities, though, painted flames on cars predate fighter planes by a few decades.
Modified cars have sported flame paint jobs as far back as the early teens, but it wasn't until after World War II that such eye-catching treatments became a recognizable trend. No one can legitimately claim to be the originator of flame paint schemes because several people probably came up with the idea at the same time - they saw early high-performance racing engines, circa 1910, spitting fire from short, straight pipes that opened only a few inches away from the exhaust ports. As primitive as engine technology was at the time, it was not unusual for motors to catch fire while racing, so flames and speed go together in most people's minds.
Southern California, that part of the country credited with nearly all automotive fashion trends, seems to be the point of origin for flamed cars as there are numerous black-and-white photographs of modifieds with flamed hoods cruising the streets of Los Angeles and racing on the area's dry lake beds.
Cars were not produced in America from 1942 until the end of World War II in 1945. When the factory lines cranked up again, our love affair with the automobile was rekindled like gasoline on a grease fire with manufacturers promising new "jet age" models. As factories pumped out millions of similar new cars to a hungry public, there began a boom in customization because owners wanted to personalize their rides. Flaming became widespread among car customizers because manufacturing and production technology advances happened during the war that made multi-layered schemes more practical. Prior to the war, the difficulty of applying various layers of red, yellow, orange and whatever other tints kept all but the bravest customizers from attempting it.
As early as 1950, West Coast-based car magazines were featuring flamed customs on their covers, which gave the rest of the country exposure to the treatment. Soon, every town in America had at least one flamed '50 Mercury or '34 Ford cruising its streets. As new cars became squarer and more slab-sided during the early '60s, customizers moved on to other paint designs, realizing that flames work best on rounded surfaces.
The 2004 SVT Cobra you see on these pages certainly does not suffer from "barn door syndrome." Its sleek, rounded-off design was honed in the wind tunnel to be as aerodynamic and effective as Bruce Lee's punch, and Bobby Kimbrough thought it would be ideal for a flame treatment.
He took it to Richard Wright in Easley, SC, who treated the car to some House of Kolor tangerine orange fire with white outlines. There is no "bump" when you run your fingers across the transition from black to orange - a sure sign that the painter spent some seriously long nights planning and executing this job. The Mona Lisa should be so well-crafted.
"I'm a motorcycle guy," Bobby told us, "so when I picked out a black Cobra, I already had in mind some kind of orange paint scheme so it would have Harley's racing colors. I had no idea it was going to look this good!"
It takes more than a pretty paint job to get on the cover of Modified Mustangs, though, and Bobby's flamed snake does not disappoint in the hardware department.
Kelby Harris and Paul Conner of Harris Racing in Concord, NC were enlisted to create a high-horsepower street car that was reliable enough to be used as a daily driver if Bobby so chose. They began by experimenting with the centerpiece of the 2003-04 Cobra powerplant, the supercharger.
"We left the engine internals stock," Paul said, "but we played with the factory Eaton blower to find more horsepower.
"We tried different pulleys and different tuning - and we got more power out of the engine - but we were certain a 4.6-liter with dual overhead cams had more to give. Bobby gave us the go-ahead to look for that extra power."
The guys at Harris Racing swapped the Eaton for a Kenne Bell 2.2-liter model and got 580 horsepower at the rear wheels - a 200-horsepower improvement.
"That kept Bobby happy for awhile," Paul told us, "but he wanted to see just how much power could be created without modifying the engine itself. We installed a ProCharger F-1A kit, which, so far, has made him really happy."
Happiness did not come without some custom tuning and parts development, however. Belts were slipping at medium to high revs until Kelby and Paul devised an eight-rib 3.4-inch pulley setup and upgraded the blower to the F-1C heads unit. As it drove when we photographed it, Bobby's car also benefited from a K&N air filter, Accufab 120mm, single-blade throttle body and elbow, ProCharger intake manifold, Siemens DEKA 60-psi fuel injectors and twin SVT Focus fuel pumps.
Exhaust was improved by Hooker longtube headers and X-pipe, MAC mufflers and three-inch tubes. A ProCharger external race wastegate and bypass blow-off valve finish the circuit. Harris retained the stock Ford intercooler, but improved things with ProCharger tubing. The flamed Cobra runs on 110-octane fuel and flows through Mallory filters and Royal Purple synthetic 5W20 oil courses through its veins. Combustion chamber fire was maximized with NGK sparkplugs.
Tim Matherly (yes, the NMRA Real Street guy), from MV Performance in Statham, GA tuned the factory PCM with a Diablosport chip. The result - more than 700 horsepower!
Bobby feels confident the stock Cobra Tremec T-56 six-speed manual transmission can handle all that torque, but he did install a Steeda Tri-Ax shifter for shorter throws between gears. Like a lot of 1999-2004 Cobra owners, he felt the stock independent rear suspension was not up to the task of laying down 700 ponies, so he swapped an 8.8-inch live axle with Eaton differential and Moser axles with 3.73:1 gears. (We covered his IRS-to-straight axle transplant in the May '06 issue of Modified Mustangs.)
While he was losing the IRS, Bobby gained some Metco Motorsports aluminum rear suspension bars, Metco's double adjustable upper and solid lower aluminum control arms, Bilstein shocks and Eibach Sportline springs. The swap mandated Harris install a traditional set of "over-the-axle" exhaust pipes. Last time we looked, he was still riding on the stock Cobra disc brakes and 17 x 9-inch chromed Cobra wheels with 275/40R17 Mickey Thompson drag radials in the rear and Goodyear 275/45R17 in the front.
The interior of this insanely powerful Mustang with the "look at me" paint is surprisingly close to stock. Changes include a couple of Auto Meter Lunar gauges for monitoring boost and fuel pressure, plus a UPR chrome interior trim package and a Reichard Racing pistol-grip shift handle.
"Someday I might want to add some racing seats and harnesses," Bobby told us, "but for now the interior suits me fine."
If only he could be so content with the engine mods. Last we heard, Bobby was talking with Harris Racing about plans to upgrade the 4.6-liter's internals, add nitrous, go with different camshaft profiles and perform some head work. The next time we get passed on I-485 by this flamed Cobra, we expect it will be putting out close to 900 horsepower!
Interior / Exterior
Bobby Kimbrough's 2004 SVT Cobra
House of Kolor tangerine orange flames
AutoMeter Lunar gauges for monitoring boost and fuel pressure; UPR chrome interior trim package; Reichard Racing pistol-grip shift handle
Metco Motorsports aluminum rear suspension bars, double adjustable upper and solid lower aluminum control arms; Bilstein shocks and Eibach Sportline springs
Wheels And Tires
Stock Cobra 17 x 9" chrome wheels; 275/45R17 Goodyears (front) and 275/40-17 Mickey Thompson drag radials (rear)
Bobby Kimbrough's 2004 SVT Cobra
Ford 281-cid DOHC V-8
ProCharger F-1A kit; 8-rib, 3.4" pulley; F-1C head unit; K&N air filter; Accufab 120mm, single-blade throttle body and elbow; ProCharger intake manifold; Siemens DEKA 60-psi fuel injectors; twin SVT Focus fuel pumps; Hooker longtube headers and X-pipe; MAC mufflers and 3" tubes; ProCharger external race wastegate and bypass blow-off valve; stock Ford intercooler with ProCharger tubing; Mallory fuel filters; Royal Purple synthetic 5W20; NGK sparkplugs
Factory PCM with a Diablosport chip
Short-throw Steeda Tri-Ax shifter; 8.8-inch live axle with Eaton differential; Moser axles; 3.73:1 gears
Special thanks to Kelby Harris and Paul Conner at Harris Racing, Tim Matherly at MV Performance and Richard Wright