The cars we loved.
The late 60’s was an exciting time for Ford’s American wing and the US auto industry in general. The emergence of racing as an important element in the marketing of cars started gaining traction (again), spawning the term “race on Sunday, sell on Monday’. For Ford, the most visible lessons learned from racing found their way to the production line in the form of aerodynamics.
The banks of ovals all across America had become a collective classroom for designers and engineers. The rush to apply race proven techniques to road cars fed a curious by-product of the Muscle Car or Super Car era as the media called it at the time. Performance was moving beyond intermediates, the original source of the Muscle Car. Larger formally leisurely cars were getting in on the act. in ever-increasing numbers. Detroit always had its share of big V8 powered sedans, but now a new breed of large personal coupe was stirring up another segment of the market with power and performance. Pontiac had considerable success with the ‘Wide Track” Catalina and MoPar fans had hot versions of Dodge’s Polara coupe to choose from. Aerodynamic advances were proving their value on the track and had practical applications for performance on the street. Now even big cars were not immune to the popularity of fastback ‘C” pillar designs.
Ever since the 1964 Plymouth Barracuda ushered in the concept, fastback designs were starting to come from all the major manufacturers. Ford’s contribution to the aero craze started with the fast back Mustang and gradually worked its way to the larger Fairlane/Torino line. When the Fairlane was redesigned in 1968 it featured a striking new profile called the ‘Sportback’. Due in part to Mustang mania, it would only be a matter of time before Ford would push the performance envelope with the Fairlane and the more upscale Torino.
Ford’s intermediate had become quite popular and was of basis for a few performance models and a few special editions. The most sought after, released in the middle of the 1966 model year, was a limited run of Fairlaine 500 GTA’s with a rare and special “R-code” 427 V8 that produced 425 hp! This car came only as a 2 door hard top, but may have laid the ground work for the Cobra in the new for 68’ body style.
In another mid year introduction, Ford introduced the Torino Cobra in 1968. There was and still is quite a bit of confusion based around the actual name of the Sportback car that featured the big Cobra Jet 7.0 engine. Ford marketing materials called it simply “Cobra”, as not to be confused with the many Shelby Cobra related projects being sold at Ford dealerships at the time. The press loved it and many referred to the conservatively rated 335 hp car as the Fairlane Cobra. After all, it was based on the Fairlane 500, yet had more standard features like a Torino. The 1969 NASCAR entries from Ford were called the Torino Cobra, to add to the confusion. For the sake of this entry, we will call it Cobra, since that’s what Ford advertising billed it as – a sub section of the Torino.
The Cobra came as a traditional two door hardtop or the new Sportback style. The Cobra was a big car, capable of seating six adults (maybe five of today’s Americans). As a big car with a 116 inch wheel base, the Cobra offered a decent ride, but was tuned for performance. Those bench seats probably did not do a good job of holding you in place, except when the force of the 427 was pinning you to the seatbacks. The suspension was typical 60’s muscle car with semi-elliptical leaf springs and a solid rear axle in back. Up front there were coil springs on upper control arms with thick anti roll bars in front and back.
The sporting theme continued inside with a four pod dashboard layout with a series of warning lights framing a 120 mph speedometer. There were plenty of choices when it came to transmissions. Standard shifting duty fell to a three speed manual, or you could opt for the Cruise-O-Matic three speed auto or a proper four speed manual. All models of the Torino got a boost in exposure with a Torino GT being chosen to pace the 1968 Indianapolis 500.
The following year would see very few external changes. All Fairlanes and Torino’s got improved performance, but the highlight of 1969 included a pair of new Cobra models. One used a popular method of air induction to increase horsepower. Known as Ram Air induction, it would separate the Super Cobra Jet from the standard Cobra. Visually, the 428 Cobra Jet differed primarily by its functional hood scoop. Otherwise, like the standard Cobra, Ram Air cars had a similar differential, heavy-duty cooling package and a dual exhaust. Ford advertised power as the same as the year before at 335 hp.
Cobra Jet cars did have special badging similar to what had been used on some of Fords big cars. The Cobra Jet made more efficient use of air, boosting peak power sooner in the rev band. That same year, another Cobra, the rarest, entered the fray. Using the 428 with or without Ram Air, the Super Cobra Jet came with special connecting rods, pistons and other enhancements like the Ford exclusive ‘Detroit Locker’ rear differential. Because of this, Ford intended for the 428 Super Cobra Jets to appeal more to drag racers. It was often referred as the “Drag Pack”, not an uncommon sales practice at the time.
The Fairlane families of cars sold very well, even as production was winding down to make way for the new 1970 models. No specific production numbers are known for the number of Cobra’s and Super Cobra Jets. Ford certainly had no problem selling even more Torinos and Fairlanes in the years ahead. Whatever you might call it, the Ford Cobra was certainly a SuperCar. So much so that cars like it retained the term untill powerful and expensive European exotics would take add new meaning to the term by the late 70’s. Thanks to their legacy of performance, Fairlanes, Torinos and Cobras enjoy sustained popularity today with car clubs worldwide.