Curbside Classic: Ford's Deadly Sin#1 – 1975 Mustang Cobra II

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

Powered By Ford. There’s something special about those words, something iconic, something that evokes nightmares of an uniquely American scope, from our first family cross-country trips in a 1954 Ford that perpetually overheated and stalled from vapor lock (when it actually started) to the last one, Mother’s craptastic 1981 Escort (replaced by a Civic) that could barely do seventy wheezing unsteadily along the rain-soaked I-70 straight. Powered by Ford. It’s the peeling logo hastily slapped onto the valve covers of this five-liter Mustang II, but you won’t need to raise the hood to understand what it means. The first time this pathetic lump of an engine tries to suck air through its tiny two-barrel carburetor and wheezes its feeble exhaust through soda-straw sized tailpipes, it will be more than crystal clear.

My apologies to Jack Baruth (and it’s not the first time I’ve stolen some of his words). But his stirring words of worship at the altar of Ford compels me to release the anti-Ford held safely thus far in my digital files, and unleash its full 122 horsepower V8 fury upon his Mustang love poem. Nature seeks a balance, and for every heroic blue oval exploit at Le Mans in 1967 and Topanga Canyon Road in 2010, there is a 1971 LTD or this 1975 Mustang Cobra II to offset the glory. We wouldn’t want to be accused of being Ford fan-boys at TTAC, now would we?

The Mustang II was a truly wretched car. Obviously, it couldn’t have been much worse than its predecessor, that hideously oversized barge of a draft-horse car, the ’71-’73 ‘Stang. Or could it? One wants desperately to give Lee Iacocca credit for trying to do the right thing: dramatically downsize the Mustang to make it competitive with the Euro style “super-coupes” that were the hot thing after the pony car market collapsed under the weight of its wretched excess.

So the target competition for the Mustang II were the Toyota Celica, Opel Manta, and Ford’s own European import, the Capri (sold by Mercury). Therein lies the sum and substance of Ford’s enormous mistake with the Mustang II, the same one that GM and Ford repeated endlessly until they were finally pounded into submission. Instead of just building the highly competent Capri as the Mustang II, or in the case of GM, the Manta/Opel 1900, in their US factories, they threw themselves repeatedly on the sword of hubris: we can do it better in Detroit, even small sporty and economy cars, something the Europeans had been building and perfecting for decades.

GM’s Vega was the first to go down this path, if we generously give the Corvair a pass. The Opel 1900/ Manta was a delightful-handling and well designed car, and with a tiny fraction of the money wasted on the Vega’s development, it could have been made truly superb. Ford’s Pinto was only marginally better than the Vega because it didn’t blow up or rust quite so instantaneously, but its silly low, short and wide and cramped body were retrograde from the perfectly practical English Ford Cortina that donated much of its guts for it.

That was 1971. That was also the year Mercury started selling the Capri here. Surprisingly, or not, it became a genuine hit, and at its peak, was the number two selling import in the land after the VW Beetle. Reviews praised it: (R/T) “a very attractive sporting car. It’s solid as a Mercedes, still compact and light in the context of 1974 barrier busters, fast, reasonably economical of fuel, precise-handling, and quick-stopping: its engine and drivetrain are both sporty and refined.” Apparently not good enough for Lido; he had wrought a true miracle turning the Falcon into the original Mustang, so why not do the same thing with the Pinto? Why not indeed! Unlike lightening, hubris always strikes after someone’s first success, deserved or not.

A reworked front end and some new longer rear springs were designed to quiet down the Pinto’s notorious trashy interior noise levels and general structural inefficiencies ( the whole car rattles and rustles like a burlap bag full of tin cups. Self destruction seems only moments away. C/D 1971) . Lee wanted the Mustang II to have a touch of luxury to it, especially in the padded-top Ghia series; a sort of mini-T Bird. So, yes, let’s put lots of cushy rubber and soft springs in the suspension to give it a nice ride on the freeway.

But somehow, all that sound deadening and whatever else the Ford boys did to transform the Pinto into the Mustang II must have weighed a lot; well, lead is a terrific sound barrier. The unfortunate result was that the Mustang II weighed more than the original Mustang, despite the fact that its wheelbase was now a full foot shorter and it sported a four cylinder engine. But Powered By Ford was stamped or glued to the new 2.3 liter OHC four, a noisy and thrashy lump that soldiered on for decades. Generating all of eighty-eight horsepower, Ford’s long investment in racing engines was now really paying off.

If the four wasn’t quite recreating the Le Mans Mulsanne straight experience adequately, the Cologne V6 was the only option for more go in 1974, the II’s first year. C/D tested the new Mach 1 version with the 105 hp 2.8 six, and noted right off the bat that it was saddled with too much weight: “Our test car weighed over 3100 lbs…(the V-6 Capri we tested in 1972 weighed slightly under 2400 lbs)…the (Mustang’s) engine is more notable for its smoothness than any feel of power”. The quarter mile took over eighteen seconds (@74 mph), and zero to sixty took over twelve seconds. Ouch. But it probably had a nicer ride than the Capri. Oh, did it ever:

As the Mustang II Mach I (with the optional “competition” suspension) approaches its cornering limits, the front end transmits the fact that it definitely is plowing…enthusiasts are going to be disappointed..excessive body lean was present in all handling tests…” The Mustang II plowed and handled like crap with the light four and little German V6 under the hood, so it doesn’t take much of an imagination to speculate what it handled like when Ford finally shoehorned the 302 V8 into it for 1975, for all the wrong reasons. And the fact that it was still riding on 13″ wheels didn’t help any either.

Before we get on to the Cobra II, let’s note that C/D felt that the new four speed transmission that was developed in the US specifically for it was “not as smooth shifting as the current Pinto 4-speed” (sourced from Europe). And the fact that it was given the Pinto’s brakes without change wasn’t too inspiring either: “difficult to maintain precise directional stability during hard stops”. C/D sums the Mach1 up this way: “its acceleration and performance don’t match expectations. Much of that is due to weight and some to emission standards, but neither of these factors justify the car’s flaccid handling”.

Given that Ford had to do some fairly extensive work on the Mustang II’s front end to accommodate the V8 implant, it’s obvious that they never planned on that outcome. And given that the 302 put out a mere 122 hp in 1975, one wonders why go to all the trouble, given the dramatic increase in front end weight it caused. Ford should have spent money on its turbo-four program a few years earlier. Or found a way to federalize the DOHC and fuel injection engines it used in Europe. But the American legacy of Ford was built around V8s, and what’s a Mustang without one: Powered By (genuine US) Ford.

Now we can finally speak our vile words about the actual Cobra II. Please note that this is the very first automobile to carry that august name since the original. As thus, it was one of the most disastrous abuses of destroying equity in a name that was a true legend. That it was put on such a ridiculous pretender of a car, a Pinto (barely) in disguise, is almost mind boggling. Anything positive anyone can say about the Mustang II program is instantly offset by this cruel joke made by Lido and his not-so Whiz Kids. And it only got worse with the King Cobra version a couple years later. The seventies really were the pits, US-built automobile wise anyway, and the Mustang II was the little pebble lodged at the bottom of the pit.

It turned out that real V8 performance in an excellently handling coupe was still in demand, and very much available, in the form of the Camaro Z-28. And at a price that put the Mustang II Mach I and Cobra II to infinite shame. In the very same issue of C/D is a test of the 1973 Camaro Z-28 with the slightly civilized but still very satisfying 350 V8 that churned out 245 hp, exactly double (plus one) of the Mustang’s V8. And the Z 28 cracked off the dash to sixty in 6.7 seconds, almost exactly one half of the Mustang Mach I’s time. And ran a 15 second quarter at 95 mph. And handled and steered most properly indeed.

C/D summed it up the Z28 this way: “Because few cars at any price offer the refinement in going, stopping, and turning abilities. And that refinement is housed in one of the most handsome forms ever to roll out of Detroit. But the real clincher is price: the latest Z-28 is a blue chip investment.”

Here’s the shocker: the Z-28, equipped with the potent V8 and four speed, stickered at $4066 ($19k adjusted). The 1975 Mustang II Mach I with the V6 listed at $4188; how much more the Cobra II package and the V8 cost is a guess. Half the horsepower, twice as long to sixty, miserable handling, in a ridiculous and mal-proportioned body with a yard too much front overhang. No wonder the Camaro rated a “GM’s Greatest Hits” designation at CC ( here’s the full gushing writeup), and this Mustang II earns Ford’s first Deadly Sin. Powered By Ford.

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Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • DarronS DarronS on Dec 01, 2013

    "The Mustang II is one of the top ten best selling Mustangs ever produced, which clearly stated means, we friggin loved them, as a child of the 70′s I can attest everybody wanted a Mustang II back in the day." Randy, you started your defense of the Mustang II with a logical fallacy and a falsehood. Popularity does not equal correctness or goodness, and not everyone wanted a Mustang II. Most of my friends and I detested them. As for performance, outrunning an Opel Manta isn't much to brag about. The only good thing I can think of is the Mustang II kept the Mustang name alive for Ford.

    • Randy911 Randy911 on Dec 01, 2013

      "Everybody wanted one" is not, nor was it intended to be factual. Sorry if I confused anybody with the statement. Of course other cars were sold during the time in question. Where I grew up the Mustang II V8 variant was a very hot commodity for anyone who could afford a brand new Mustang. A V6 Mustang of 2.8 liters outrunning a Opel GT was a huge deal back in the 70's. Historical context please. The Opel Manta GT was rated at 105hp@5400 RPM in a 2100 pond car with a gear ratio of around 3.55:1. These Opel's were much more performance oriented than many of their contemporaries such as the Celica (11.5 0-60) and Vega (16.4 0-60. I merely used the Opel as a comparison to the V6 powered II which, while flawed from the factory a bit could be made a very respectable import fighter which is more inline with what Ford was trying to achieve. Although you personally don't like the II, I have correctly identified some of the biggest misconceptions, and also tried to explain some of the reasoning behind the car. Hey, if you weren't alive to see gas rationing in the early 70's the II might seem like a horrible mistake. Ford's head was definitely in the right place at the time. Historical context please.

  • Bill mcgee Bill mcgee on Dec 16, 2013

    They sold well , back in the day . But they were total " chick cars " back then , except for the Cobras . Being of the boomer generation , I must have known 6 women who drove them back when they were new . The only one I recall driving was a GF's new Mustang ll Ghia , pale yellow with the olive color vinyl top and interior ( Ford loved that peculiar color combo back then , nobody else did except AMC , IIRC ). It was loaded , with the V-6 , 4-speed , A.C., eight-track and moonroof . Back in the day I thought it was rather luxurious and certainly quicker than the rear-engined VWs I was driving at the time . Like all cars , they must be considered in their historical context , and compared to their competition, which was more likely to be the horrible Chevy Monzas rather than a Z-28.

  • 3-On-The-Tree I don’t think Toyotas going down.
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