Jim Smart
October 6, 2014

America's original pony car was in deep trouble in the late '80s. Product planners and bean counters planned on making Mustang a Mazda-based front-wheel-drive, known inside Ford as the ST-16, to help spur sales and keep the name alive. GM had similar plans for Camaro and Firebird—front drive with a strong message of fuel economy and sportiness. When word hit the streets Ford was seriously considering a front-drive Mazda Mustang, trains came off the tracks everywhere with a flood of public outcry. Mustang Monthly's editor at the time, Donald Farr, wrote a spirited "no Mazda Mustang!" editorial that moved the masses to action. Thousands of letters poured into Ford's mail room from Mustang enthusiasts insisting Ford rethink the Mustang's direction.

Ford Motor Company's planners and money people viewed Mustang as a cold business decision despite what enthusiasts wanted. If it didn't sell, Ford would either have to change it to make it a seller or let it die. There was also the issue of Mustang's manufacturing birthplace since 1964, the Dearborn assembly plant, which had been in operation since 1918. Ford Chairman Red Poling saw the Dearborn plant as outdated and ready for the wrecking ball. It didn't fit Poling's vision of a world-class manufacturing operation. There would also be the sticky scenario of Dearborn plant union negotiations for jobs at the plant beyond 1990. Attempts to update the Mustang in terms of styling and safety didn't work well with the existing Fox platform, which had been in production for more than a decade. It was time for a fresh strategy.

Alex Trotman, Ford chairman in the '90s, looked at how to both save the Dearborn assembly plant and the Mustang in the summer of 1989. For Trotman, it was personal—he loved the Mustang. He assembled a special team of business, design, and manufacturing people who eventually became known as the "Skunkworks." One of these people was Ken Dabrowski, then Director of Small Car Programs at Ford. Dabrowski knew enough to seek out people who were passionate about automobiles, the Mustang, and the Dearborn assembly plant.

Dabrowski knew of a deeply passionate Ford executive, engineer, and Mustang enthusiast—John Coletti, Engineering Design Manager for Small Cars. Debrowski went to Coletti and proposed a plan to save the Mustang. Coletti saw what was happening to the Mustang's direction and decided to put his career and professional reputation on the line. He accepted Debrowski's offer and Team Mustang (SN-95) was born.

Here’s the ’94 SVT Cobra press kit with the Cobra in Rio Red with Saddle appointments.
Fria’s collection also includes a die-cast SVT Cobra convertible and Monogram model kit, still unassembled.
This is a nice piece of memorabilia from the 78th Running of the Indianapolis 500.

The Mustang wasn't selling because it had become long in the tooth void of sheetmetal changes since 1979. It didn't sell because it had become stale. Coletti took his bold East Detroit demeanor, puffed up his chest, and went before Ford management with a plan to save Mustang and make it a hot commodity again. SN-95—the '94 Mustang—was born. Coletti took a shoestring budget and amassed a team of very dedicated people at an abandoned Montgomery Ward automotive service center in Allen Park just south of Dearborn to create an all-new Mustang. The car couldn't be created during normal business hours, but instead after hours as a side project, yet very significant to the Mustang's future. Those who got on board did so because they loved the project.

Coletti's Team Mustang was very much like Lee Iacocca's Fairlane Group (the original Team Mustang) in the early '60s—a passionate group of people who were supercharged and ready to create something exciting that would capture the imagination and support of senior Ford management. Team Mustang looked at what it liked about the Mustang and what it didn't like. It conceived a redesigned Fox platform known as Fox-4—a more solid foundation to give the Mustang a confident feel. Gone was the Mustang's traditional cowl shake and flex thanks to this stiffer platform.

The styling team also concluded it was time to return the Mustang to its roots with nuances that made it clearly a Mustang with the Ferrari mouth grille, pony/corral motif, triple element taillights, simulated side scoops, and that familiar short deck/long nose theme. Inside, the Mustang would get a twin-pod wraparound theme, more legroom, and a greater degree of noise and vibration isolation. Team Mustang went through dozens of different SN-95 concepts before narrowing it down to three proposals—the Bruce Jenner, the Rambo, and the Arnold Schwarzenegger. The broad-shouldered Arnold Schwarzenegger won out and so it went.

This leads us to Mustang historian Bob Fria, a retired airline captain who authored the excellent history book Mustang Genesis. When the Mustang's 30th anniversary arrived in the fall of 1993, Bob liked what he saw in the redesigned SN-95 and decided he just had to have one. Specifically, his goal was a '94 SVT Cobra Indy pace car Mustang convertible. Wanting one of the 1,000 limited production Cobra convertibles and actually getting one would prove challenging for Bob. He visited Galpin Ford in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. Harrah's Auto Museum in Reno, Nevada, had a $20,000 deposit on one of two Cobra droptops scheduled for delivery to Galpin. Galpin wasn't even certain they'd get the second one.

Because Bob has raw tenacity unlike anyone we have ever met, he wasn't going to settle for a "maybe" from anyone and went to work finding his SVT Cobra convertible. He went to Sunrise Ford in Tujunga, California, close to where he lived to discuss a purchase. They would not be getting one. Their parent dealership, Metro Ford in North Hollywood, would be getting at least one. Bob contacted Ford SVT's marketing department in Dearborn, which told him 1,000 convertibles would be built followed by 5,000 coupes—all in Rio Red with Saddle Tan interiors and trim.

Owner’s manual, audio system kit, keys, and keyless entry.
This is what Ford put in the trunk and sent overnight to SVT dealers — Indy 500 decklid badge (left) and the Indy 500 graphics kit (right).
Bob Fria has managed to collect all kinds of 1994 Indianapolis 500 memorabilia, including decklid badges in their original Ford packaging.

After extensive homework and negotiations with a number of Ford dealers, Bob left a $500 deposit at Metro Ford for his SVT Cobra convertible. On Monday, March 7, 1994, the Dearborn assembly plant bucked and built the first production '94 SVT Cobra convertible—No. 144055. Bob's convertible, No. 158375, plaque No. 330, began assembly on March 23, 1994 and was completed by the end of that day. Bob's convertible was not released for shipment due to a quality assurance audit. It was placed on a rail car late in April and shipped to the rail head in Santa Ana, California. Bob received a call from Metro Ford on April 28, 1994 indicating the car had arrived.

Bob specified no dealer prep. He took delivery right off the truck from the Santa Ana rail head and hauled the car home from Metro Ford. Especially ironic was how this car nearly didn't get delivered to Bob. It was sold in a lease agreement by an overzealous sales person to a buyer right off the truck, then, the order was quickly cancelled when it was learned the car was spoken for.

Although Bob wanted his Cobra equipped differently than the rest, Lee Maas, Training and Dealer Affairs Manager at SVT Operations told Bob all 1,000 units would be produced exactly the same way—no exceptions. Bob wanted an automatic transmission. He would get the five-speed. Only the five original SVT Cobra pace cars produced for the 1994 Indy 500 would be different than the rest. The first three actual pace cars weren't SVT Cobras at all, but instead Mustang GT convertibles with automatic transmissions specially modified by Jack Roush to pace the race. All three got rollbars, strobe lights, 15-gallon fuel tanks, Halon fire suppression systems, beefed up suspension systems, and throaty exhaust systems. At the end of the race, one went to the Indy 500 Museum, one to The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, and another to the winner.

The two five-speed SVT Cobra prototypes were scheduled to be destroyed, but were retained by Ford's Special Vehicle Operations for internal use. The reason they could not be sold was their pre-production unit status and the absence of government certification. It is unknown if these prototypes survive today.

After Bob took delivery of his pace car, Lee Maas of SVT told him the first two prototypes bucked and built in December 1993 would be plaque numbers 1 and 2, which meant the first mass production units built in March were plaque numbers 3, 4, and so on. The first mass production unit (No. 144055) was delivered to a Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ford SVT dealer. It was sold to pro golfer Jay Haas hundreds of miles away in South Carolina. The last SVT Cobra convertible, No. 161941, was assembled on April 22 and shipped to an SVT dealer in Neenah, Wisconsin.


'94 Mustang SVT Cobra Pace Car Facts

• 1,000 Indy 500 convertibles
• 5,000 Indy 500 coupes
• Five promotional pace cars. Two prototypes. Three Mustang GT convertibles badged as SVT Cobras with Indy 500 graphics.
• First Production Unit on March 7, 1994
• Ford Chairman Alex Trotman bought a ‘94 SVT Cobra Indy pace car convertible (wanted plaque No. 1, got plaque No. 111 based on computer numbering system).
• SVT dealers were not permitted to order these cars. They were automatically sent one unit per dealer. None were dealer order or special order.
• Ford had to go from putting Indy Speedway badges, decal kits, and hubcaps in trunks to sending them UPS overnight to the dealers beginning March 18, 1994 due to employee theft at the Dearborn assembly plant.
• SVT Cobra Indy pace cars were produced at a rate of three units an hour.
• No brochures were produced for the '94 Indy 500 pace car convertible because all were pre-sold. Brochures were produced for the coupes.