Wayne Cook
June 1, 1998
Photos By: emap usa Archives

Step By Step

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'65-'66 "K" Fastback

This car was the original heavy hitter in the newborn Mustang class. With the solid-lifter 271hp 289 borrowed from the Fairlane parts bin, the new "K" Mustang ran like a chainsaw. At nearly one horsepower per cubic inch, the lightweight Mustang could leave the portly Fairlane in the weeds. The fastback body gave the car the aesthetics to compete on the world stage with the best stuff out there. The Mustang 2+2 could stand up to the finest automotive designs Europe had to offer. There wasn't a better-looking car anywhere.

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'65 Shelby GT350

Couldn't afford a Cobra? The Shelby Mustang was the next best thing. Although not as light as the AC Ace, the Mustang GT350 was light enough to trounce anything American-made out there. The GT350 was bad to the bone with the Shelby-warmed 289 Hi-Po mill under the hood. Ol' Shel' took the 271-horse version and worked a little magic to the tune of over 300 ponies. When the GT350s began racing, the proof was in the pudding as they won race after race. Over at GM, the Corvette people were confounded. The Sting Ray couldn't keep up with the lighter Mustang, Chevrolet had been so absorbed in its Corvette program that it had virtually ignored Carroll Shelby when he approached the company in the early '60s looking for an engine supplier to help him implement his "hair-brained" ideas. The ideas didn't look so hair-brained when the expensive Corvette Sting Ray program was embarrassed at the racetrack.

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'66 Mustang GT Convertible

You may be thinking, hey, these guys have everything but the kitchen sink in here. And you're right, because that's the whole point. Here is a car that's near the top of anyone's list.

First of all, who can resist a convertible? The A-code 289-4V is as powerful as we can go and still have air conditioning. It's a smooth-running package with four-barrel induction. The GT package gives us the trim goodies as well as disc brakes and special-handling suspension. The automatic makes for effortless boulevard cruising. Air conditioning in a convertible seems like the ultimate in extravagance, but it sounds nice to us. Hit the air when it's too hot to have the top down. Round all this out with the Interior Decor Group, and you have the best of all worlds in a classic Mustang.

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'71 429 CJ

The '71 429 Cobra Jet earns a place of honor on the list as the last big-block furnished in any Mustang. The Cobra Jet version of the 429 Wedge was similar to the Boss, featuring excellent heads, 11.3:1 compression, and an undersized 715-cfm Rochester carburetor.

Its 0-60 times were in the mid-6-second range, with the quarter-mile run in the mid 14s. In the face of a vehicle weight of more than 3,900 pounds, these are good numbers.

After a '71 production run of less than 1,300 cars, the big-block option was discontinued. The Cobra Jet name was transferred to the 351 Cleveland. An era of big-block power for the Mustang was over. It lasted but five years.

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'67 390 GT

The '67 GT/GTA Mustang is included here because during its time, nothing could touch it for grand touring comfort and luxury in a compact sporty car. We're talking loaded to the hilt with air conditioning, 390 Hi-Po engine, and the striking Interior Decor Group. This included a ceiling console of brushed aluminum that gave the interior a definite aeronautical flavor.

Although the 390 was mild, it had a lot of torque, it was very smooth, and it was whisper-quiet. All of the 390s came were equipped with factory dual exhaust. It was a great combination for touring over long distances.

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'68-1/2 428 Cobra Jet Mustang

Here's a ride everybody's heard of. The 428 Cobra Jet Mustang was the great redeemer for the Ford name in the factory horsepower wars. While Shelby had been on the right track with his GT500 Mustangs, it took a guy named Bob Tasca to come up with a real solution to Ford's woes at the dragstrip. Tasca was a Ford dealer with a history of winning ways at the digs. Tasca came up with the idea of bolting Low Riser cylinder heads from the free-breathing 427 race engine onto the 428. Ford execs got the picture, and the result was the history-making 428 Cobra Jet engine. The Cobra Jet package won the NHRA Super Stock class for Ford at the Winternationals in 1968.

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'66 Hertz Shelby GT350 H

The '66 Hertz Shelby GT350H was specially prepared for Hertz Rent-A-Car as a publicity move for the benefit of Hertz, Shelby American, and Ford. The cars made for Hertz were equipped with automatic transmissions and special black-and-gold paint jobs. Only 1,001 copies were produced. It's hard to imagine walking into a Hertz agency and renting a GT350 right off the lot, but it was reality in 1966.

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'70 Mach 1 351C

The Mach 1 was a very popular Mustang. It replaced the Mustang GT as the top seller, and it was available with a wide variety of engines. The 351W got its additional displacement by raising the deck height on the 302 block. All this was fine and dandy, and the 351 Windsor is a great engine. But we're not talking Windsor here.

Although displacement is the same, the new 351 was a different beast entirely. The name is derived from its plant of origin in Cleveland. Similar cylinder heads were used on the Boss 302. In fact, the whole 351C engine had been developed by 1969 and was scheduled for introduction in the '70 model year. Unlike the '69 351W or the Boss 302 block, the 351 Cleveland block had no small-block heritage. For the 1970-1974 period, it stands alone in Ford history. There is little doubt, however, that the advanced-design heads worked their magic for the 351 just as they had done for the 302.

In our memories, it seems that the 351C and the Mach 1 belong together. Although the Mach 1 was available with a wide selection of engines, it's the 351 Cleveland Mach 1 that seems immortal.

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'71 Boss 351

Any of us who are old enough to remember know that in the second half of 1971, performance took a serious hit. Performance cars featuring 10.25:1 compression ratios in 1970 were headed to the showroom floor with 8.5:1 squeeze. The writing was on the wall.

In the first half of the year, the new longer, lower, and wider '71 Mustang was introduced. The new Mustang was a good-looking car, but it was also heavier, weighing in at more than 3,800 pounds.

The first Boss 351 still had an 11.0:1 compression ratio and ran fairly hard with solid lifters, but 1971 was still the swan-song year for high-compression engines and the Boss series of Mustangs. This car represents one of the last Mustangs from the Total Performance era and so deserves a spot on our 25 Hottest Mustangs list. It was at this point that many of us lamented the high-performance car as lost forever.

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'94 5.0 Cobra Indy Pace Car

The big news for 1994 was the complete redesign of the Mustang. This was a new car on the outside, but it had some things in common with its earlier brethren. It was built on an improved Fox-4 platform.

The new car was available in a coupe or convertible with V-6 or V-8 power. All V-8 cars were automatically GTs. The new Mustang GT was rated at 215 hp. The special Cobra edition of the Mustang had basically the same engine as the '93 Cobra. This included GT-40 cylinder heads, a special intake manifold, and other goodies to boost power to 240 ponies.

As is often the case when a new car or new version of a popular performance car is introduced, it is selected for pace-car duties at the Indianapolis 500. The '94 Mustang Cobra was no exception. This is an honor for a car's nameplate and its manufacturer. We have seen this in the past. The Mustang was the official pace car at Indy in 1964 and again in 1979.

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'93 Cobra/Cobra R

The '93 Mustang is significant in its own right as the last of the legendary 5.0L Fox Mustangs. In this incarnation, the Mustang came out on top in the neverending Camaro-Mustang wars. The 5.0L Mustang became famous for being the best-performing four-seat American ponycar. With the introduction of the '93 Camaro, GM was back in the running for best-performing four-seater. At the top of the '79-'93 5.0 ladder was the '93 SVT Cobra. It came factory-equipped with GT-40 heads, a special Cobra intake, a 65mm throttle body, and 24 lb/hr fuel injectors and was rated at 235 hp. A number of suspension upgrades was also part of the Cobra, as were 17-inch wheels and four-wheel disc brakes. A racing version of the Cobra deleted A/C, the radio, and a back seat. Only 107 '93 Mustang Cobra R models were made.

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'86 SVO 2.3L Turbo

The '86 SVO Mustang is a very interesting car and represents Ford's best efforts to stay at the cutting edge of technology. Here was a car that combined a turbocharged 2.3L four-cylinder engine with electronic fuel injection to create a lightweight package capable of big performance numbers. On top of all this were terrific fuel economy and luxurious appointments. The car was available with air conditioning, power windows, and leather interior. It was a well-rounded package.

Under the hood, the modest 2.3L mill cranked out 175 ponies, and the turbo was capable of adding up to 14 psi of boost. The small engine gave the car excellent balance, which was capitalized on by Ford SVO (Special Vehicle Operations). The car had four-wheel disc brakes, Koni shocks, a Quadra-Shock rear suspension borrowed from the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, and 16-inch aluminum wheels shod with 50-series Goodyear tires.

The SVO Mustang was a car that used finesse instead of brute force to accomplish its high-performance goals.

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'69-'70 Boss 429

The Boss 429 Mustang can certainly be considered king of the Mustang hill. It has the largest displacement of any Mustang ever built, and it also has a very large place in Mustang history.

Like some other great performance engines, the story for the Boss 429 began at the '64 Daytona 500. Ford was spanked so badly that year, the brass got more than a little upset. They got off their collective posteriors and decided to do something. What eventually resulted was a whole new big-block engine designated the 385 series. This was no ordinary mill. Way ahead of the old FE series in technology, the new engine first saw service in FoMoCo big cars like the T-bird and Lincoln.

The most important new feature of the new 429 was the cylinder-head design. In Boss configuration, the heads featured both hemispherical combustion chambers and a twisted or canted valve design. All of this resulted in dimensionally huge cylinder heads and an equally large engine. The Boss Nine mill filled the Mustang engine bay completely. Although the engine had been developed for racing, it was necessary for Ford to build at least 500 copies for sale to the public in order to get the mill approved for NASCAR racing homologation. Thus, the Boss 429 Mustang was born.

Boss 429 cars sold for street use were severely detuned versions that ran the quarter in the low-14-second range, with 0-60 times around 7 flat. With production figures so low and displacement so high, it's no wonder the Boss 429 is perhaps the most sought after collectible Mustang of all.

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'95 Cobra R 351

The '95 Mustang was identical to the '94 and was another huge sales success. It was the last Mustang to be equipped with the venerable 5.0L V-8. All V-8 Mustangs henceforth would come with the 4.6L Modular SOHC and DOHC V-8s. The Cobra R model came equipped with a 351W V-8, the first factory-installed 351 in a Mustang since 1973.

Rated at 280 hp, the mill was 65 horses stronger than the standard GT engine.

A production run of only 250 cars makes them rare ponies, and in order to buy one, a special license issued by the SCCA, ISMA, or NHRA was needed. Ford didn't want these cars ending up as high school graduation presents. It's no wonder, as the car was capable of impressive performance figures. A Car Craft road test from the May '95 issue shows 0-60 times of just 5.2 seconds, with the quarter-mile coming at 13.8 at 102 mph. Wow!

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'64-1/2 V-8 Mustang Convertible.

Ford stepped up to bat with the '64-1/2 Mustang convertible with the 260- or 289-cubic-inch V-8. This car started all the fuss, and it's easy to see why. Not only was this a new car, it created a whole new class heretofore unheard of--the ponycar class.

The ponycar class name was derived from the Mustang itself, and it also implied what the new class was all about. Like a cutting pony from the cowboy days, here was a mount compact and nimble. The cattle pony could turn on a dime and give you change to boot. So could the new compact and sporty Mustang. The convertible top was terrific fun, perfect for that trip to the beach. Having the V-8 for power in combination with the convertible top was an unbeatable combination that never existed before.

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'75-'78 Mustang II V-8

When the Arab oil embargo hit in 1973, Detroit was caught off guard, along with everyone else. Suddenly, the need to build downsized automobiles was paramount. Fuel economy was the new Holy Grail in the automobile business; American car manufacturers rushed smaller cars into production. The Ford Pinto and the Chevy Vega are two examples we remember.

The Mustang name had always been successful for Ford. Although the Mustang was a performance-oriented car, Ford didn't eliminate it from its product lineup. The solution was a totally redesigned car that emphasized "right-sizing" and good fuel economy. The solution was the '74 Mustang ll.

The Mustang ll was a nice-looking car that coined some styling cues from the earlier Mustang such as a long hood, a short deck, and side-scoop sculpture similar to the first-generation cars. It was available with four- and six-cylinder engines only in 1974. In 1975, the 302 V-8 became available, rated at a "whopping" 140 hp (SAE net). In any case, the 302 engine was a significant improvement over the 2.8L V-6. When the V-8 was ordered, an automatic transmission was mandatory, as were power brakes and steering.

Although not remembered for extraordinary performance, the Mustang II carried the Ford banner through the dark years of automotive performance in the mid to late '70s.

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'67 Shelby GT500

Dearborn was in a tizzy over what to do about the 396SS Camaro. This new invader into the ponycar class, when equipped with the big-block engine, was cleaning Mustang clocks all over town. It's hard to believe the 390 offered in the Mustang was thought to be enough to counter the 396.

Carroll Shelby wanted to create a big-block version of the GT350 Mustang he called the GT500. Shelby borrowed the 428ci FE-series engine to install in his version of the Mustang. The 428 was a good mill installed in fullsize Fords. A special version had been created for use in police cars labeled the Police Interceptor. Shelby gave the 428 police engines dual quads and a special air cleaner and stuffed them into the '67 Mustang.

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'68-1/2 Shelby GT500 KR

Carroll Shelby didn't waste any time latching on to the Cobra Jet engine package for the '68 GT500. Here was the solution to the embarrassment inflicted on the '67 GT500 by Corvettes and Camaros. Just as with the Mustang, the Cobra Jet package was the cure Shelby was after.

The GT500's reputation hadn't been helped any by those cars equipped with the 390, so Shelby had some catching up to do. He got hold of the new 428CJ engine package and stuffed it into what was essentially a '68-1/2 GT500. To differentiate these improved 428 cars, Shelby called them GT500KRs. KR stood for "King of the Road," which was a popular song at that time. The laughing stopped when the new KRs clicked off 14.01-second times at 102.7 mph in the quarter-mile.

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'69 428 Super Cobra Jet

The Mustang had been dramatically restyled for 1969 with striking results. It was still available in three body styles: coupe, convertible, and the new SportsRoof, which replaced the fastback.

In 1968, the Cobra Jet package proved so popular that it was carried over to the restyled Mustang unchanged. Order the CJ, and you still got the honkin' 428 that guaranteed satisfaction at the green light. There were 10 engine options that year along with a host of other choices that allowed the customer to tailor-make a 'Stang to suit just his or her needs.

One little option available at a cost of $6.53 was the optional rear-axle ratio called Drag-Pack. Select this option, and there was a choice of 3.91:1 or 4.30:1 ratios. Good deal for six bucks and change, right? You bet!

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'69 GT Mustang Convertible

The '69 Mustang was very popular. More than 299,000 were produced that year. As mentioned above, there were 10 engines offered along with a whole list of trim and option packages. Even these production figures seem small compared to earlier years such as 1965, for example, during which more than 600,000 units were produced. In light of this information, sometimes it seems a little strange to talk about a rare Mustang. However, there are rare Mustangs out there, and we have already looked at some of them. The '69 Mustang GT fits the bill. How, you might ask, is the GT considered rare when the GT option was so popular in years past? The GT package is certainly one of our favorites, and no less so for 1969. Only 5,396 Mustang GTs sold in that year, and only a small fraction of those were convertibles. The reason for the slow GT sales was another package offered by Ford for the first time in 1969--the Mach 1.

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'71-'72 351C Cobra Jet

The 351C Cobra Jet Mustang was the last in a series of ponies called Cobra Jet, and it lasted three years, through 1973.

These snappy small-block 'Stangs merit mention in our list. Early in 1971, the 351C Cobra Jet was offered in a 285-horse version. By May of that year, compression was down, and so was power. This throaty performer gave the Mustang continuing respect in an era when respect for performance was in decline.

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'79 5.0 Indy Pace Car

By 1979, the Mustang was 15 years old, and it was a fixture on the American scene on the order of baseball. It had become an icon and was completely in place as a piece of Americana. The beloved car had seen many changes and weathered many storms. It had also seen many styling incarnations and was restyled yet again.

The dramatic restyling in 1979 saw the introduction of the "Fox-chassis" Mustangs. The Mustang shared the Fox platform with the Fairmont, Zephyr, and Capri models. The new Mustang looked nothing like the older generation, either. In fact, it was dramatically different from any previous Mustang.

The '79 Mustang Indy Pace Car had distinguishing features that set it apart from other '79s. All came with either a 302 V-8 or a turbocharged 2.3L four-cylinder engine. The pace cars were all pewter and black with orange and red accent stripes. Also included were a front and rear spoiler, a rear-facing nonfunctional hoodscoop, and a pop-up sunroof. Total production of the '79 Indy Pace Car replica came to 11,000.

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'69-'70 Boss 302

Certainly one of the more desirable Mustang incarnations was the Boss 302. Introduced in April 1969, the Boss 302 was to a large extent the brainchild of the late Larry Shinoda, a former GM designer who had defected to the Ford camp. Among his many accomplishments, Shinoda is remembered as the designer of the original Corvette Sting Ray, one of the world's most beautiful and innovative cars.

When Shinoda arrived at Ford, he didn't waste much time making his mark on the Mustang. The Boss name was his, and many of the styling features incorporated in the Boss Mustangs were also his. The famous Boss 302 engine was derived from the notorious 302ci Tunnel Port engines of 1968. These engines had a checkered past during the '68 Trans-Am season. The Boss 302 engine retained the Tunnel Port four-bolt block but was equipped with the new Cleveland cylinder heads.

Other features found on the Boss 302 engine were a forged steel crank and con rods, a solid-lifter camshaft, an aluminum intake manifold, and a 780-cfm Holley carb. A dual-point distributor came on every car. This is the genesis of the Boss 302. The car is remembered for its outstanding performance and balance. The great looks and performance of the car, combined with its fascinating history, make it a favorite among Mustang enthusiasts.

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'67 K-Code

The importance of this car is twofold. In one aspect, it's the beginning of an era, and in another, it's the end. The '67 "K" Mustang is truly a rare and interesting steed. In 1967, the Mustang was upsized to accommodate the larger big-block 390 Hi-Po engine. The result was a beautiful, yet heavier car. The larger car became necessary in part because of the introduction of the new Camaro from Chevrolet, which offered a big-block engine as well.

The K-code '67 Mustang was equipped with the last of the solid-lifter 289 High Performance engines. This car was a great combination of a new design with the last K small-block. This was a blessed combination, because it gave the new Mustang the great balance that came with the small engine combined with the high-horsepower performance of the K option. Only 472 were made.

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'96 Mustang Cobra 32-Valve

The '96 Mustang features the 4.6L Modular V-8 engine, which incorporates the latest in engine technology including a long-skirted block with cross-bolted mains, aluminium cylinder heads, and overhead cams.

The modular V-8 came in two versions for the Mustang beginning in 1996. A two-valve-per-cylinder model came in the Mustang GT, while a four-valve-per-cylinder version with dual-overhead cams came in the Cobras. This car is the final choice in our survey of 25 great Mustangs. Here again was a well-balanced car that had it all. The V-8, optional convertible top, and alluring good looks remind us of the '64-1/2 convertible we met in the very beginning.

To some, this would seem like an impossible task: to pick the 25 hottest Mustangs of all time. Surely it was a difficult task for us at Mustang & Fords, because we love them all. Every incarnation of the car seems worthy of recognition, because we know each one is perfect for some enthusiast.

We know there are at least 25 extra-special Mustang varieties out there, so the hard part will be which ones to leave out. We hope your favorite hasn't been left out, but if it is, it's not because we don't love it as much as you do. Without further delay, here are our choices for 25 of the greatest.