Mike O’brien’s 1996 Mustang Cobra
We've run a number of stories before that start out with how the current Mustang owner was influenced by another family member owning a Mustang before and that is also true about Mike O'Brien. What is a little different this time is the fact that Mike's first Mustang was an AMF pedal car that his grandfather bought from a Ford dealership. That purchase followed shortly after the grandfather having taken delivery of a 1964-1/2 Mustang. Both of Granddad's purchases would be classics today.
Along the way, Mike was also exposed to the wondrous experiences from his aunt having a 1966 fastback and then his father jumping in with a 1967 convertible. How could Mike not end up in the middle of his own Mustang affair? "I've always loved Mustangs since then," the 40-something webmaster and marketing driver for Brooks Performance told us. It is only fitting that Mike ended up with a modern classic Mustang of his own. The 1996 Mystic Cobra you see on these pages reflects his conviction that "the Cobra was the ultimate Mustang model."
Indeed Mike, and the Mystic Cobras are probably the ultimate examples within the SVT stable. For those of you new to the term, Mystic refers to the color-shifting paint that was a ground-breaking innovation when this snake was first hatched. Depending on the light, this paint may appear to be purple, brown, teal or burgundy. As you walk around the car, or as the light changes with the sun, the colors shift from one hue to another. In 1996, SVT led the industry by making the special paint available as an $815 option. It was available only for that model year, which also debuted the 4.6-liter modular motor in the Mustang product. Only 2,000 1996 Cobras were finished with this option. In 2004, SVT brought back the concept with a limited-edition (1,010 units) Mystichrome Appearance Package. Mystichrome Cobras featured the color-shifting paint along with the industry's first application of color-changing leather seat inserts.
How It Works
Ford sourced the original Mystic paint from BASF, who first made reference to the concept in 2001, in their annual forecast of upcoming color trends. "Color at the Speed of Light refers to the use of all means in the physics of light to generate new color effects for automotive coatings," said Jon Hall, Manager of Color Development for BASF's Automotive OEM Coatings business group, at the time. The phenomenon responsible for this paint's color shifting effect was only one of a number that would be exploited by the company, however, it remains the most well known. At the time, BASF also introduced 'Constellation Color', which made the paint's color visible at night, but found limited response within the automotive community.
The pigment for the Mystic paint actually isn't a pigment at all. It is very small flakes (around 20 microns diameter - about the size of two red blood cells) of a crystalline material that reflects light. The material is produced by JDS Uniphase under the trade name, ChromaFlair. Based on ultra-precise methods, otherwise used for building fiber optic devices, the company creates alternating layers of three different materials. The three layers, interestingly, have no color themselves. One is clear, one is semi-transparent and the third is fully reflective, like a mirror. Precisely controlling the thickness of the layers, results in the color shifting effect from the flakes.
BASF no longer makes the Mystic paint, but SVT took extensive steps to ensure that repair material would be available for a long time to come. Nobody can obtain replacement paint without providing a valid Mystic Cobra serial number. The 2004 Mystichrome paint came from Dupont and is freely available to anyone, without restriction. As well, there are a number of similar paints available that enthusiasts can use, including BASF's Extreme Color paints, Dupont's ChromaLusion products, KameleonKolors by House of Kolor, PPG's Harlequin and Dupli-Color's Mirage material.
When Mike first got the Cobra, he knew that it was special and meant to keep it that way. Then, he got invited to an open lapping event. "I didn't originally intend to open-track a rare 1996 Mystic Cobra, but one time on track [at] Summit Point's main circuit and I was hooked." In March of 2004, Mike first ran into Brooks Performance of Chambersburg, PA. He liked their idea that they could enhance the handling, performance and safety of the car without cracking open the engine. With the installation of a Stage II suspension, Mark said, "The car's handling was vastly improved without any sacrifice in street performance. I could feel the difference in power recovered by stiffening the chassis. Handling in the turns was balanced and predictable."
Full length subframe connectors from Kenny Brown, along with his G-load brace helped reduce the Cobra's unit body meanderings and let the suspension pickup points stay closer to where they should be. Bilstein struts and shock absorbers, coupled with Eibach springs manage the bumps wherever they may be found, whether at speed or not. Brembo 13-inch front brake rotors and upgraded PBR calipers take on most of the stopping duties, while PBR calipers do their thing on stock rotors out back. As Mike's track experience grew, so did both his driving skills and ambitions. Keeping with the theme of maintaining an unmolested engine, he later had Brooks install a 4.10 ratio rear axle cog and a Pro 5.0 shifter.
Aside from his enjoyment in throwing the Cobra around road tracks, Mike also takes it out to shows from time to time. Often, he comes home with some hardware to occupy the mantel piece. In the summer of 2003, a trip to the All Ford Nationals in Carlisle, PA, netted him a first place award. A return to Carlisle two years later showed that the competition had definitely improved, but not enough to bump him off the podium. As a result, he returned with the third place recognition. The unique SVT Mustang is also a pretty consistent winner when it comes to the local enthusiast club shows.
Last year was a very good one for the Mystical reptile. The upgrade menu included replacement Maximum Motorsports' upper and adjustable lower rear control arms that would go a long way to keeping the rear axle planted when turning on the power. Kenny Brown's operations were again called, this time to supply a set of caster/camber plates so that better track handling could be dialled in. Driveline upgrades were also implemented. A call to D&D Motorsports brought a 6-speed, T-56 manual transmission to the front door. The closer spacing of the gears would allow Mike to stay in the power band of the engine longer while flailing around a road course. At the same time, a Steeda Tri-Ax shifter and Dynatek driveshaft were added. An upgraded, 11-inch clutch package, as used on the '03-04 Cobras, was also strapped on. Incremental power improvements were also obtained by replacing the factory exhaust system with Magnaflow products.
For street use, the Mystic Cobra also enjoys some other 'Terminator' parts, namely the5-spoke design, 17 x 9-inch wheels and 275/40-17 Goodyear F1 Eagle tires that were factory standard on the 2003 snake. Once at the track, though, the Goodyear tires are replaced with Yokohama R-compound gumballs. Building the car's capability up in stages has allowed Mike to grow with it, without getting frustrated or spending hard earned dollars before they were needed.
What he has learned along the way is sound advice for other owners who entertain theidea of similar track exposure. "Most people think about increasing horsepower and never give a thought to improving the handling. This is a huge mistake in my opinion. No novice driver can take one of these cars on an open track and drive the car to its full potential instock trim," Mike mentioned. His plans for this year include adding a panhard rod, in addition to an Autopower roll bar and a set of racing seats. He's still not thinking about openingup the engine.
"Address the suspension, handling and braking first, then go after more power if and when you can drive the car close to its limits,"he concludes. Certainly, given the capability that Mike started with and the additions that he's made over the years, those limits arestill 'out there.'
Mike O'Brien's 1996 Mustang Cobra
Ford DOHC 4.6-liter engine
Ford Racing King Cobra clutch
Tremec T-56 6-speed manual transmission; Steeda Tri-Ax shifter; Dynatek driveshaft; Ford Racing 4.10 rear axle gears
305 HP @ 5800 rpm (crank)
300 TQ @ 4800 rpm (crank)
Kenny Brown G-Load brace, full length subframe connectors
Original Ford 'Mystic' color-shifting paint
Kenny Brown caster/camber plates; Maximum Motorsports fixed upper and adjustable rear lower control arms
Wheels And Tires
2003 SVT Cobra 17 x 9" wheels with Goodyear Eagle F1 tires, 275/40-17, all around