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Top 10 SVT Cobras
We celebrate Ford SVT’s 20th anniversary by choosing the 10 best Cobras
If you think you've been hearing about the 20th Anniversary of Ford's Special Vehicle Team for a few years now, well, you're right. Much like the question of when Ford should celebrate anniversary years of the Mustang (yes, it was introduced in 1964 but the first model year was 1965), SVT's anniversary depends on what you think should be considered a "birth date."
Historians will tell you that Ford created SVT in late 1991. That's when Robert L. Rewey, then-Ford's group vice president of marketing and sales, and Neil Ressler, then-Ford's chief technical officer, began putting together an expert enthusiast group to specialize in designing, developing, and marketing niche Ford performance vehicles with the "lessons learned" from Ford's former SVO program. And that is indeed true.
But Ford folks say that SVT's official birth date came with the announcement of the SVT program to the media on February 6, 1992, at the Chicago Auto Show. After all, that's when Ford formally introduced SVT and showed off a couple of new products that would establish them as the new performance entity within the company. And that's 100 percent correct. In fact, that's why Ford officially celebrated the 20th Anniversary of SVT on February 8, 2012, at the same Chicago Auto Show.
For enthusiasts, however, SVT's 20th anniversary comes two decades after its first vehicles became available. The first SVT models were the '93 SVT Mustang Cobra and SVT F-150 Lightning, both released for sale in the first quarter of 1993, so that makes 1993 the true birth year for SVT in the eyes of the buying public.
Insiders might tell you that SVT can trace its roots back to 13 years prior with the creation of Ford's Special Vehicle Operations. SVO's job was to integrate Ford's new racing initiatives into the company's marketing and sales operations, thereby making the high-image performance business less of a sacrificial lamb when corporate bean counters went looking for budget cuts. The first task was returning Ford Racing to success in motorsports venues around the world. To that end, the group wanted to develop a series of limited-production performance cars promoted primarily through motorsports. Indeed, the European-inspired SVO Mustang set the enthusiast world on its ear in 1984. Powered by a fuel-injected and intercooled four-cylinder turbo, the SVO's 2.3-liter mill spun out 175hp and an impressive 210 foot-pounds of torque.
Despite the ability to outgun a BMW 3-Series, the '84-'86 SVO Mustangs were a hard sell. A lack of marketing support at the dealer level resulted in sales people ill-equipped to promote the car's performance capabilities. And it didn't help that parked next to the SVO in showrooms was a much less expensive—and faster—V8-powered Mustang GT. Consequently, the SVO Mustang missed its sales targets, so Ford pulled the plug, relegating the SVO team back to the performance parts business.
Ford management was forced to rethink its strategy for producing factory niche-market Mustangs, but fortunately, the SVO lesson was well-learned. Ford would later re-enter the performance Mustang fray with a plan to profitably bring small volumes of high-performance vehicles to market. The concept was so successful that it was later used as a model for the rest of the industry (can you say SRT?).
Thankfully, Ford execs Ressler and Rewey understood that niche performance vehicle development and marketing needed to exist outside Ford mainstream to be viable and formed the Ford Special Vehicle Team in 1991. By 1993, the SVT Cobra and Lightning pickup were in showrooms, and the best-selling, longest-running, most successful performance niche program at a domestic auto manufacturer was born.
The limited-production SVT Cobra in 1993 gave Ford a new flagship performance Mustang over the GT, only this time using subtle but distinctive styling upgrades instead of decals and backed up by a unique powertrain and suspension. SVT borrowed a page from Shelby's playbook for its 235hp 5.0-liter, initially lifting its performance hardware off the shelves of the Ford Racing parts bin. Later in the year, a 107-unit run of race-prepped SVT Cobra Rs sold out before the build had even begun. Even though production was limited to less than 5,000 cars, the '93 SVT Cobra and Cobra R proved to be a worthy farewell for the Fox-body Mustang.
SVT didn't miss a beat when the completely revamped SN-95 Mustang came out in 1994. A convertible version of the '94 Cobra paced the Indy 500 race, and the following year the exit of Ford's small-block Windsor V-8 from the Mustang lineup was well-celebrated with another race-prepped Cobra R model, except this time SVT swapped out the 302-cubic-inch V-8 for a one-off 351 race engine good for 300 horses.
One notable milestone that occurred during the SN-95 era was a production Mustang that finally topped the 300hp mark thanks to SVT. Team Mustang took the engineering lead for the '96 SVT Cobra to fit it with an all-new, handbuilt, 32-valve 4.6-liter modular engine with 305hp. The high-revving V-8 was the most powerful Mustang engine since the last of the big-blocks in 1971.
The Mustang marched into its 35th anniversary year with freshened sheetmetal, major powertrain improvements, and more refined handling. The original SN-95 bodystyle lasted five years, giving way to the "New Edge" Mustang in '99. SVT's Cobra also gained an improved horsepower rating for its DOHC 4.6-liter V-8—now at 320 hp. But the biggest news was the independent rear suspension, making the '99 SVT Cobra the first-ever production Mustang with IRS.
But owners soon discovered an issue with the Cobra's power output and took to Internet chat rooms to find that others had also discovered engines that were not making advertised numbers. With talk of class-action lawsuits, Ford wisely issued a recall of '99 Cobras to replace intake and exhaust components that were not up to specifications. In the wake of the '99 Cobra recall, SVT was allowed to regain control of its own engineering from the mainstream powertrain group, cancelling plans to produce a 2000 Cobra while it came up with a permanent fix.
With the regular-production Cobra being re-engineered for the '01 model, SVT decided to produce its third and final Cobra R in 2000—this one wilder and more powerful than before. Stuffed with a naturally-aspirated DOHC 5.4-liter V-8, the '00 Cobra R delivered 385 hp through the first six-speed manual transmission ever offered in a Mustang. Only 300 of the street-legal racing models, all painted red, came out of the Dearborn Assembly Plant, each instantly recognizable with a unique domed hood, rear deck wing, and front splitter. The '00 R was immediately crowned the fastest factory-built Mustang in history. With a price tag of $55,845, it was also the most expensive.
Determined to leave the SVT Cobra's old horsepower issues in the dust, SVT chief engineer John Coletti decided to put the '02 Cobra program on ice in order to buy enough time to give the '03 SVT Cobra a quantum leap in performance. Sure enough, Coletti's '03 SVT Cobra rocked the enthusiast world with the performance of its Eaton-supercharged DOHC 4.6-liter "Terminator" V-8. Making 390 horsepower and 390 foot-pounds of torque, the '03 Cobra instantly became the most powerful production Mustang in history.
There are few folks left at Ford today who can give you a non-political explanation why the SVT operation was mainstreamed after the '04 model year. The SVT business model—run outside mainstream Ford with separate engineering, marketing, sales, and PR operations, plus a certified dealer distribution network—was revamped to run hand-in-hand with mainstream product development. Its engineering operation, however, remains a separate entity in today's SVT.
For '05, the Mustang was about to enter one of its most important transformations ever, one that returned the iconic ponycar to its design roots. An all new car—codenamed S197—successfully tied the Mustang's classic design cues with modern Ford engineering.
But with the regular-production Mustang GT now making 300hp, Ford found there were fewer people waiting for a high-performance model. Still, that wasn't a concern for the go-fast folks at SVT as they had already been working on an all-new '06 SVT Cobra powered by a supercharged 5.4-liter. Only this time, the politics of corporate reorganization meant that the car would be returned to mainstream management, where SVT's S197-based Cobra soon became the '07-'09 Shelby GT 500 with 500 horsepower.
With help from Shelby Automobiles and Ford Racing Performance Parts, the '08-'09 years saw the addition of the GT 500 "King of the Road," or "KR," good for immeasurable collectability and 540 hp.
Nearly 23,000 GT 500s were built between '07 and '09 as Mustang headed for a restyling in '10. The entire Mustang line received a redesigned body and interior, and the GT 500 got a special version of its own that concentrated on the hood, nose, and grille. Better news was that the KR's 540 horses had found their way under the hood of the regular production '10 GT 500.
Just one model year after getting a new bodystyle, SVT's GT 500 returned to the marketplace for '11 with a new powertrain. Gone was the supercharged cast-iron V-8 and in its place was an all-new, aluminum-block 5.4-liter that pushed output to 550 supercharged horsepower, 10 more than the previous year. Also new for '11 was the SVT Performance Package, which provided stiffer springs and damper, a 3.73:1 rear axle, and larger-diameter front and rear stabilizer bars. SVT followed that up in '12 with a new electronically selectable steering system and a host of interior upgrades, including available Recaro seats.
Despite the constant upgrades, SVT wasn't done upping the ante on its S197 Cobra. They "dropped the bomb" for the '13 GT 500 in the face of Chevy's 580hp Camaro ZL1. A move to an all-new aluminum 5.8L V-8 and an Eaton 2.3-liter Roots-type supercharger gave the '13 GT500 a whopping 662 horsepower and 631 foot-pounds of torque, making it the most powerful production car made in America. The good news here is that the beat goes on for at least one more year as the venomous 662-horse GT 500 is back for the '14.
With Mustang's sixth generation now on the horizon, where Ford's niche market initiatives will take it next is anybody's guess. Certainly, Ford now has bigger concerns amid the EPA's latest fuel-economy mandate, but as long as Ford remains in business, one thing is for sure: There WILL be another factory-built performance niche Mustang. You can bet on it!
#10 '96 SVT Cobra
The switch from the venerable 5.0L to a hand-assembled, all-aluminum DOHC 4.6-liter V-8 rated at 305 hp ushered the SVT Cobra into a new era of modern performance. With a 65hp increase over the previous year, it could run 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds and the quarter in 13.9. For added exclusivity, opt for one of just 2,000 Cobra coupes offered with Mystic color-shifting paint.
#9 '93 SVT Cobra R
Any SVT Cobra R is highly collectable, but much can be said for owning the first of a series. Ford put an exclamation point on its run of Fox-body Mustangs with this '93 SVT Cobra R (for "racing"). Purpose-built for serious racers and available only in red, this first SVT Cobra R had a low production run of just 107 vehicles.
#8 '95 SVT Cobra
As the last of the 5.0-liter Cobras and the first to wear SVT exterior badging, the '95 has a special place in the hearts of fans. And as the one and only year of the convertible hardtop experiment, find one of the 499 Cobra ragtops (available only in black) with the removable hardtop option from the 1,003 drop-tops produced and you'll have one of the rarest SVT Cobras ever made.
#7 '95 SVT Cobra R
The R-model competition package based on the SN-95-derived SVT Cobra swapped out SVT's 5.0-liter for Ford's 351 Windsor, re-engineered to produce 300 hp. Race-ready with a 20-gallon fuel cell, only 250 '95 Rs were built, all in white and each with distinctive fiberglass hood and five-spoke alloys that became one of the most popular aftermarket parts in Mustang history.
#6 '94 SVT Cobra
With the debut of a redesigned Mustang for '94, SVT's new SN-95-based 5.0 Cobra made 25 more horses than the Mustang GT and stopped better with new 13-inch front disc brakes. Later in the year, the first SVT Cobra convertible was offered. Available only in red, it was selected as the Pace Car for the 1994 Indianapolis 500.
#5 '00 SVT Cobra R
Debuting as the fastest factory Mustang ever produced, the R was the only SVT Cobra available in 2000. Its SVT-developed, naturally-aspirated 5.4-liter packed 385 hp and had a 170-mph top speed. With side-exit dual exhaust, front air splitter, and high-mount rear wing hinting at the superb handling, just 300 units were made in Performance Red.
#4 '07 SVT Shelby GT500
After Ford mainstreamed SVT and entered into a new business relationship with Shelby, the car that SVT had engineered to be the '06 SVT Cobra came to market as the '07 Shelby GT 500. Based on the all-new S197 Mustang and equipped with a 500-horse supercharged 5.4-liter, this first modern-day Shelby GT 500 was an instant collector car.
#3 '93 SVT Cobra
The inaugural year for the SVT Mustang Cobra, '93 was both the first year for the SVT ownership experience and the last for the Fox-body Mustang. As such, '93 is the only year that Fox-body Cobras were produced and consequently hold special value for collectors. That and the fact that less than 5,000 were built (4,993 to be exact), all of them coupes.
#2 '13 SVT Shelby GT 500
Let's face it, you simply can't overlook an eye-popping 662 horsepower and 631 foot-pounds of torque from a high-tech, all-aluminum 5.8-liter V-8 and Eaton 2.3-liter Roots-type supercharger. Same goes for being the most powerful production car made in America. Given ever-increasing EPA mandates, there may never be a replacement for this Cobra's displacement.
#1 '03 SVT Cobra
Introduced during 2002 as a '03 model, the "Terminator" Cobra will go down in history as SVT's benchmark performance Mustang. Thanks to its Eaton supercharged DOHC 4.6-liter with forged internals, its 390hp rating has often been doubled by racers. Opt for one of just 2,003 SVT 10th Anniversary Special Editions built.
Editor's Note: Veteran journalist John Clor has owned, raced, worked on, and written about Fords and Mustangs for nearly 30 years. Clor joined the Special Vehicle Team in 1995 and spent the better part of the next decade working on SVT communications, PR, and marketing. Since 2006 he's managed Ford Racing's club outreach program and the "Enthusiasts" section of FordRacing.com. Clor is the author of the sold-out hardcover book, Mustang Dynasty, editor of SVT Enthusiast magazine, and hosts his own local cable-access TV show, Cars In Context. The views he expresses here are his own.