When it comes to high-performance engines, most enthusiasts would agree that Ford’s midyear introduction of the “Cobra Jet” V8 option back in 1968 is really what finally put Mustang on the muscle car map. It certainly is what turned Carroll Shelby’s headline-grabbing GT500 into the “King of the Road.” But going from the Mustang's big-block 390 in 1967 to offering the famed “Cobra Jet” version of Ford’s 428 just a year later wasn’t an easy road to follow. In fact, without the efforts of a large, vocal group of enthusiasts, some off-the-shelf Ford Racing high-performance parts and the influence of then-mega Ford dealer Bob Tasca, the Cobra Jet Mustang might never have been. Here’s why:
Tasca’s Ford store in Providence, Rhode Island – the second-largest in the world at the time – was known for doing a brisk business selling performance Fords and fielding a series of successfully tweaked big-block race cars. Naturally, Tasca’s exploits got extensive coverage in the motoring press – a place where he often spoke his mind about the factory’s performance shortcomings, even though the size of his dealership meant he had Henry Ford II’s ear anytime he cared to call. But when word from customers got back to Tasca and his performance manager, Dean Gregson, that their new-for-’67 390 big-block Mustangs were getting beat out on the street, they took action.
“We sold a lot of 390 Mustangs last fall and into the winter, but by March they dropped off to practically nothing,” Gregson explained to Hot Rod magazine’s Eric Dahlquist in a 1967 article. “We found the  so non-competitive, we began to feel we were cheating the customer. We had to do something.”
As it turns out, Tasca and his mechanics found the answer right on the Ford Racing parts shelf. They already did a good aftermarket business upgrading 390 Mustangs and Fairlanes with modified cylinder heads, hotter camshafts and higher-flow manifolds, fuel pumps and carbs, so they went to work on a new performance engine package that they called the KR-8 (for King of the Road in 1968).
“We did well from ’63 to ’65, when the car-buying market was a young one,” Tasca later explained to SuperStock magazine in 1968. [Then] the younger people [became] disenchanted with Ford’s performance on the street, and stopped buying.”
That’s when Tasca decided that if Ford wasn’t going to do anything about it, he would have his performance team come up with a cure. So, under the watchful eye of Gregson, Tasca’s staff started with the high-line Police Interceptor 428 block and quickly addressed the engine’s inherent “breathing” problems by bolting on a set of modified 427 Low Riser cylinder heads, which really perked up the power of the big FE-series motor. Topped by an aluminum intake and an upsized Holly four-barrel, the new engine was swapped into a gold '67 Mustang GT coupe that became the very first KR-8 – a real street screamer.
Tasca immediately gave the car to the press for “testing” to help spread the word that he would offer the KR-8 as a conversion package for his performance customers. He also showed the car to some Ford engineers, but they seemed unable to persuade any of their managers to give the engine package some production consideration.
“Do you know how many high-performance (defined as cars with at least 300 hp) vehicles were sold in this country in 1966?” Tasca had rhetorically asked Hot Rod’s Dahlquist in an article published in the November 1967 issue. “[Exactly] 634,434,” he answered. “[And] do you know how much Ford Motor Company had of this market? Seven-and-a-half percent. That’s shameful for a ‘Total Performance’ company.”
Actually, the shameful part was that despite Tasca showing Ford precisely how easy it was to grab a bigger share of the muscle car market, managers of the popular Mustang within Ford simply didn’t care to listen. So to help them understand just how important it was to have a competitive product in this high-profile arena, Dahlquist included a “ballot” of sorts in his Tasca KR-8 Mustang feature article that readers could tear out and send to Ford Motor Company to urge them get the engine into production. After a few thousand positive responses wound up on Henry II’s desk, word came that Ford would put together several Tasca 428-powered Mustang fastbacks for drag teams competing at the ’68 Winternationals as a prelude to later offering it for sale to the general public.
Of course it didn’t hurt that two of those new Mustangs had squared off in the drag-racing final, where Al Joniec beat Hubert Platt before going on to trounce Dave Wren’s Mopar for the Super Stock championship. On April 1, 1968, Ford officially announced it would be producing “two ’68½ high-performance engine packages” for the Mustang and Fairlane “with Ford’s recently-announced 428ci Cobra Jet engine.” As for why Ford replaced Tasca’s “KR-8” reference with the “Cobra Jet” name, Tasca himself later surmised that because Lee Iacocca had so much money invested in obtaining the rights to the Cobra name from Shelby, it was done to get top billing in any performance application; adding the “Jet” reference was likely just a shot at Chevrolet’s well-publicized “Turbo Jet” engine lineup. To Ford fans, it didn’t matter what Ford called it, because competitors just called it fast.
Later, Ford began bolstering the bottom-end of the CJ’s 428 block with an upgraded crankshaft, connecting rods and main bearing caps in making what was dubbed the Super Cobra Jet (or SCJ). To keep the insurance hawks at bay, horsepower numbers for the CJs were underrated at 335, but racers knew it was more like 400. Shelby was soon to replace the 428s in the GT500s with 428 Cobra Jet engines – identifying the CJ versions as GT500KRs, which some say was in deference to Tasca’s contribution.
The bottom line was, the 428 Cobra Jet engine finally turned the production Mustang into a true muscle car. And now, more than 40 years later, the Mustang Cobra Jet has made an amazing return to the marketplace – but unlike the CJs of ’68, this one’s built only for the dragstrip and not for the street.
The 2008 SEMA show in Las Vegas provided the stage for Ford Racing to “officially” announce it was building a new, full-boogie Mustang Cobra for the 2009 drag racing season – the Cobra Jet. While that official unveiling happened back in November, word of a new Cobra Jet program from Ford Racing had Mustang performance enthusiasts buzzing since last June, when Ford dealers were quietly sent a letter about the car from the manager of the Ford Performance Group, Jamie Allison.
In the letter, dealers were given intentionally limited details about the track-only car, ostensibly to “assess the product and its appeal” as a placeholder for a possible 50 units “under consideration” for production in 2008. But a more careful reading revealed that “priority will be given to multiple vehicle orders” and that dealers were encouraged to submit orders by the end of June.
The result? Within mere days, the entire “proposed” build was “sold out” – and that’s before some interested Ford dealers, even those with a solid performance business, were able to find out enough about the program to even place an order in the first place. Former SVT Marketing staffer Jessie Kershaw (now Ford Racing’s NHRA program manager), backed by Ford Racing Technology’s new Director, Brian Wolfe, were spearheading the program because they correctly figured the car would be a sellout.
After producing a series of road-racing Mustangs (the FR500C in 2005, the FR500GT in ’06 and the FR500S in ’07), the new Ford Racing CJ (actually, the FR500CJ) is basically the drag-racing equivalent of the Mustang FR500S. It allows those interested in NHRA Sportsmen drag racing the opportunity to enter the series with an affordable car that can compete right off the truck and run dependably in the 10-second range.
“This is a full-fledged, ready-to-race vehicle,” Allison had said in a media statement. “There’s a full team of engineers from Ford Racing who have been involved on the engineering side of the Ford Racing Mustangs, (ex-SVT engineer) Andy Slankard leads the group.” Allison also gave credit to Ford Racing’s new boss, saying, “On the 40th Anniversary Cobra Jet, that group was personally directed and overseen by Brian Wolfe because of his personal background of racing in the Sportsmen class.”
Just as Ford took the 1968 NHRA Winternationals by storm with the then-new Cobra Jet Mustang (only 50 factory lightweights were built, and the Cobra Jet won in its very first appearance), Ford Racing has continued the legend with its new NHRA-legal race car built to win at the strip – which is exactly what it did at the 2009 NHRA Winternationals. Cobra Jet history indeed repeated itself when John Calvert, driving the 40th Anniversary 2008 Mustang FR500CJ Cobra Jet, won the AA Stock Eliminator class in February at Pomona, California, duplicating Al Joniec’s success of the original ’68 Cobra Jet.
“I couldn't be happier for Brent Hajek and John Calvert who have taken the car that we designed, and created a championship race car in just six weeks,” said Brian Wolfe, Director of Ford North America Motorsports, after the CJ’s debut victory. “I am especially happy that John was able to drive the Al Joniec tribute car that won in 1968 to a victory in 2009. It is an unbelievable debut for the Cobra Jet.”
Calvert, a former world champion (1991 Stock) and a three-time NHRA Winternationals champion, normally runs a 1968 Cobra Jet. He agreed to drive the Hajek ’08 entry in Stock Eliminator at this year’s Winternationals.
“I am really excited and I am really pleased at the result,” said Calvert. “The thing I am most pleased about is that Ford Racing thought about this project and reached out to the grassroots level of racing. This wasn’t an easy race weekend; in fact I would say it was difficult. The weather certainly created some consistency issues, especially with an iffy track. Still, the Cobra Jet ran very well in the elimination rounds and we were able to bring home the trophy.”
“How cool is this? It was like a storybook ending that was meant to be,” said Hajek, who had entered four Cobra Jet Mustangs at Pomona. “It is our first time entering a national event and we won! This program was always about paying tribute and respect to the drivers from ’68 who started the legend of the Cobra Jet – Al [Joniec], Gas [Ronda], Hubert [Platt] and Randy [Ritchey]. This was about upholding their honor – and everyone involved with this project deserves a great deal of credit.”
Basically, the 2008 Cobra Jet starts out as a stock Mustang V6, except that its firewall is moved back somewhat from the stock location to facilitate engine work and swapping. It is built with a lightweight plastic rear window and without any of the insulation or HVAC componentry at the same Auto Alliance International (AAI) assembly plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, which builds all Mustang models. The CJ hood is fitted with a large scoop, under which sits a Ford Racing-spec, supercharged 5.4-liter V8 rated at 400 hp.
It can be had with either a six-speed manual or a three-speed automatic transmission. As you’d expect, the live rear axle is none other than pure, 9-inch Ford, and its special Cobra Jet wheels come shod with racing tires, Inside, seats and gauges carry the Cobra Jet logo, and a large dashtop-mounted racing tach is included. Oddly, the Mustang Cobra Jet is available as either a Coupe (3,240 pounds) or a Convertible (3,325 pounds). List price for the new Cobra Jet Mustang is reported at $69,990.
Collectors should know that the 2008 Cobra Jet Mustang (known in “parts speak” as simply the FR500CJ) is a factory-built, non-street legal race car – which means it is serialized, but has no VIN. It’s ready for the dragstrip and will pass tech with only minor additional prep required. Most of the parts and pieces required to turn a regular Mustang into a CJ – including the optional Cobra Jet graphics – should be found in the Ford Racing Performance Parts catalog soon.
“The Cobra Jet is one of the transformational vehicles for Ford Racing,” said Brian Wolfe, director, Ford Racing Technology. “The 2008 CJ will get us more involved with the sportsmen racers in drag racing. At this point there are a lot of little guys who are running Fords from the ’60s, ’70s and even a few from the ’80s, but those cars aren’t necessarily relevant to what we are producing today.
“Those Ford racers are among the most loyal Ford supporters and customers we have,” Wolfe added. “The CJ makes a statement for our company that even in times as tough as these, we can introduce something as special as the Cobra Jet. As a guy who has tracked Ford history from the beginning and understands the significance of the CJ, this is by far the best factory drag car that we have produced.”
Look for the 2008 Cobra Jet on a dragstrip near you this summer. After the CJ Job 1 ceremony, Wolfe mentioned that he thinks Ford Racing could sell somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 Cobra Jet race cars. But he didn’t tip his hand as to how many will be made available for 2010. Customers or competitors looking for more information on how to get behind the wheel of their own Cobra Jet Mustang should keep checking www.fordracingparts.com.
• Unique 5.4 Cobra Jet engine
• Cobra Jet cold-air kit and throttle body
• A/C delete
• Crankshaft damper and Cobra Jet bell housing
• 6-speed manual or 3-speed automatic transmission with SFI bell housing
• Stainless steel long-tube racing headers
• 9" rear axle assembly
• One-piece driveshaft and single hoop driveshaft loop
• Cobra Jet rear control arms and stabilizer bar
• Ford Racing adjustable dampers
• Drag race spring kit
• Cobra Jet wheels: 15x4-inch front, 15x10-inch rear
• Painted Cobra Jet “Body In White”
• Cobra Jet hoodscoop
• Cobra Jet Lexan backlight
• Flush quarter-window louvers
• 5-inch pedestal tachometer
• SVT Mustang short-throw shifter with black shift knob and handle
• Cobra Jet seat package