The cars we loved.

1978 Ford Mustang II King Cobra: Disco Compact Supercar?

1978 Ford Mustang King Cobra

1978 Ford Mustang King Cobra

The Mustang is the longest running pony car nameplate in America. It hung in there when the Javiln, Charger and finally the Camaro and Firebird had bowed out. Its longevity came at a cost during a time when you’d figure the pony car should have died. Although it was not always pretty, Ford fans could take pride in knowing that the Mustang was always there. Forged out of crisis, the Mustang II had the burden of upholding the weighty legacy the Mustang had created as a cut rate performance car while trying to satisfy EPA and Federal regulators.

1979 Ford Pinto

1979 Ford Pinto

Ford was able to achieve these lofty goals with varying degrees of success because the Mustang would be based on the lowly Pinto. The marketing guys in Dearborn did a good job of pretending it’s new Mustang II connected to the heritage of the first gen car, but it took very little imagination to see that the Pinto and Mustang II were visually related. Even Carol Shelby kept his distance. After 1973, no new cars based on the Mustang II were produced.

In 2+2 form the Mustang II was actually an attractive car. It’s sleek fastback/hatch body style was both sporty and practical. As Ford tried to move the Mustang away from the image of a secretary’s car and give the gruff manly vibe that the Trans-Am had, they gradually ruined its appearance with questionable aero and decal enhancements.

GM fared better with it’s Camaro and Firebird, as far as staying close to the integrity of their original themes, but the Mustang II sold well despite its many faults. Ford was concocting an all new Mustang that promised European flair with good olde American ingenuity, but until that car came, Ford would have to sell the concept of the ultimate Mustang II in the interim. The result was a super Mustang in the form of an option package called  King Cobra.

What put the King in the regular Cobra was just a package of spoilers, scoops and decals that were more outlandish than a standard sporty Mustang. Standard Cobras could be outfitted with the 5.0 V8 and be realitivly free of tacky decals. The King Cobra took the concept of decal racer to the extreme with big cobras on the hood in trying to catch some of the heat of Pontiac’s bandit era Trans Am. The King Cobra could be had in a gold and black color scheme that mimicked the famed F body car, but undercut it by nearly $2,000.

The King Cobra package was only available on 2+2 cars. With less than 140 hp from a 5.0 liter (, the 78 Mustang II King Cobra would have struggled to keep up with today’s compact family cars. It was clear that the King Cobra was a lesser animal than the Firebird or Camaro that had over 200 hp in its base V8s. The Mustang’s power output was closer to cars like the Celica GT or Chevy Monza Sport.

For roughly $6k or so buyers got a T-top, lacy spoke 14in wheels with chrome trim rings and blackout treatments for the grille and window trim. More importantly in distinguishing the King Cobra from other Mustangs was it’s aero kit that included a deer scooper front and a deck lid rear spoiler. Let’s not forget the decals. Ford had multiple schemes for the King Cobra and even had its own version of the Firebird’s screaming chicken in its hood cobra head graphic.

King Cobra interior

King Cobra interior

The King Cobra drove like most other V8 powered Mustangs of the era. The rear wheel drive setup meant that its live axle leaf spring suspension offered a rough ride, especially in the King Cobra where firming up the suspension was supposed to improve responsiveness.

The truth of the matter was that the Mustang was outclassed by most of its traditional competition (Camaros and Firebirds), but it did offer some advancements over them in the form of its front compact suspension. Still, the smaller Mustang was more likely to be cross shopped with Monzas and Celicas than F body cars, especially in V6 or 4 cylinder form. Even with smaller engines, there were a number of new imports and GM compact cars that could almost match the King Cobra’s power output.

1978 Mustang II Cobra sans decals

1978 Mustang II Cobra (sans decals and full aero)

But were talking the ultimate Mustang here and the harsh riding, bump hoping live rear axle King Cobra was neither a straight line rocket or curve carver, but it had looks. Those looks appealed to the disco crowd and for the buyer more interested in the image of performance, the King was the car to beat. I have to admit that its sleek shape has lots of potential if some modern touches were applied. Low profile wheels and monochromatic paint (sans decals) would reveal the attractive silhouette of the 2+2. Despite its reputation the King Cobra or any stang from the time has some potential.

That would be little concession to the Ford performance enthusiast of the 1970s. The King Cobra would point the way to the acceptance of smaller more practical pony cars in America. While Ford was trying to get traction in the West as a style leader, Japanese cars like the Toyota Celica and Datsun 260Z were already a steep ahead in managing performance and practicality in a smaller package.

By 1980 all of the Big Three would follow suit (as close as they could) with new smaller rear or front wheel drive pony cars. Ford got a jump on GM and Chrysler and was able to re-join the pony car club with a modern entry for the 1980s while Chrysler fell out by having to resort to front wheel drive cars derived from its K Car platform.

The Cobra and King Cobra may get their spotlight in car shows of the far future, as these cars represent Ford trying to please everyone juggling multiple demands (not always well). The fact that there could even be a V8 powered rear wheel drive pony car during the ’70s is reason enough to give the Mustang II King Cobra another look.

1978 Ford Mustang King Cobra

1978 Ford Mustang King Cobra


3 comments on “1978 Ford Mustang II King Cobra: Disco Compact Supercar?

  1. Dan Smith
    July 12, 2015

    That’s not a King Cobra interior. That looks like a Stallion option interior, judging by the horn button with the obvious Stallion image. Kings didn’t have woodgrain on the dash, either.
    All the negative talk of the Mustang II has always amused me, since the Mustang II is my favorite Mustang of all time. When mildly modified, they handle better than all the other Mustangs, and they’re lighter than any other car Ford made with a V8 option, except for the AC Cobra. A stock II coupe weighs in at 2700 lbs with a 302. I’ve built them for 30 years, I can tell you every nut, bolt and detail of the cars off the top of my head. If you were to buy a used Mustang II back then, pull it into your garage, and install aftermarket heads, intake, carb, cam and headers, you would pull out of the garage with a 400+ hp car that weighs 2700 lbs and will SHRED anything on the street, that has twice the money invested that you would spend on the II. And how long does it take to swap all those engine parts? One afternoon. The only people that don’t like the Mustang II are non-mechanical types who expect to buy performance from the showroom. Perhaps that’s the majority of the population. The mustang “purists” who love to say the II isn’t a “real” Mustang have no qualms about installing a Mustang II front suspension system in their “real” Mustangs to make them handle like a new performance car, though.
    You think the Mustang II is a poor performer? Come and pit your “real” mustang against mine. We can compare curb weight, handling, acceleration, braking, ride quality, and money invested and we’ll see how “real” your mustang is, compared to my lowly little Mustang II.

    Dan – Hudson Valley New York

    • autopolis
      July 14, 2015

      You’re right that’s actually a ’78 Cobra II interior. I added the proper King Cobra interior when I can find it. As for Mustang II bashing, that’s not a fight worth scrapping over. I actually love the Mustang II, especially the hatchback Stallion versions, but all Mustangs from this era were a compromise – any true Mustang fan will admit that. But its all good because without these cars there might have never been The Turbo GT, SVO, LX and Cobras of the following decades.

  2. Tom S
    August 15, 2015

    The white car is not a Cobra sans decals. It is a Rallye Appearance Package car with the unique gold pin-stripes. I had one identical to it, including a 302 with manual and T-Tops. As Dan notes, it was a blast to drive.

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This entry was posted on June 22, 2014 by in 70's Cars, Ford Motor Company and tagged , , , , .
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