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How Ford’s budget supercar – the 1969 Cobra – compared to the competition

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Video and photos courtesy of Ford Motor Company. Advertisement images courtesy of the Automotive History Preservation Society. 

Ford’s new-for-1969 response to the budget-muscle Plymouth Road Runner was the Cobra, and it piqued the interest of road testers.

The Blue Oval crew stuffed into the midsized and unitized structure a standard 335-hp FE-series 428 CJ engine; four-speed; competition suspension with coil springs, shocks, and an anti-roll bar up front and multi-leaf springs and staggered shocks in the rear; and 14 x 6 wheels and F70 x 14 tires; and they added hood pins, blacked-out grille, and Cobra callouts. There was also a choice of a Sportsroof (fastback) or a formal-roof hardtop.

A 428 Cobra Jet Ram Air engine was optional (hp rating remained 335), as was a SelectShift Cruise-O-Matic three-speed automatic transmission, power front disc brakes, Traction-Lok differential for the 9-inch rear with various gear ratios, a tach, bucket seats, and more. A 428 Super Cobra Jet engine featuring durability upgrades could be obtained by ordering 3.91 or 4.30 rear gears, and the Drag Pack name was later applied to that parts grouping in February 1969.

Coincidentally, three different multi-car road tests that included the Cobra appeared in the same month—the January 1969 issues—of Car Life, Car and Driver, and Motor Trend.

As part of its “Explosion in Budget Supercars” article, Car Life tested a Cobra with the optional 428 CJ Ram Air engine, a Road Runner with the standard 383 engine (modified with a Holley carb, aluminum intake, headers, and a hotter factory cam) and Hemi suspension, and a 340-powered Dart Swinger. The reason for the choices was explained: “The three road tests in the budget Supercar package were chosen to show just how many directions the Road Runner idea can go.”

With the optional engine, standard four-speed, and extra-cost 3.50 Traction-Lok differential, power steering, power disc brakes, a curb weight of 3,845-pounds, and a test weight of 4,105, the Cobra ran 0-60 in 7.3 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds at 95.2 mph.

The 340 Swinger with a TorqueFlite, 3.23 rear gears, and a 3,605-pound test weight was a bit quicker at 6.9-seconds 0-60 and 14.8 in the quarter-mile at 96 mph. With a four-speed, 3.90 rear gears, the modified 383, and a test weight of 3,940-pounds, the Road Runner went 0-60 in 5.1 seconds and posted a 14.7 ET at 100.6 mph.

As expected, in the apples-to-oranges comparison with the modified Road Runner, the Cobra wasn’t quicker, but the difference was less than anticipated, which prompted the comment, “…we learned that the big plush Cobra can hold its own even in a rigged match race. The best part of the Cobra is the Cobra Jet engine.” And the vacuum-controlled Ram Air induction system was deemed “very sensible and clever.”

The Cobra was reported to be very solid, and quieter and smoother than the Road Runner, but “less agile.” On the handling course, “the heavy engine caused understeer, and the powerful engine would put the tail out on command, but the Cobra had more body lean than the other cars in the group.” Yet, “the Cobra was comfortable—in town on freeways and on winding country roads. It felt stable at high speeds and could be maneuvered easily.”

“The gearshift was disappointing. The lever moved easily, but it lacked precision.” A distorted view out the back window via the rearview mirror, and long clutch-pedal travel were other grumbles, but the overall impression of the Cobra was favorable.

Car and Driver pitted “Six Econo-Racers” against one another, in an all-out showdown. Included were the 335-hp 428 Cobra Jet Ram Air Cobra; 335-hp 383 Dodge Super Bee with Ramcharger engine cool-air intake system; 425-hp 426 Hemi Plymouth Road Runner with Air Grabber; 325-hp Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396; 335-hp 428 Cobra Jet Ram Air Mercury Cyclone CJ; and, initially, Pontiac’s 366-hp Ram Air 400 GTO Judge.

The Judge was later disqualified due to the discovery of components and tuning that weren’t correct or emissions-legal for 1969. Also notable is the fact that adding the Judge option didn’t result in a stripped-down budget supercar, but rather a premium GTO. That point may not have been apparent to all at the time, however, since the Judge had yet to be released to the public when testing took place.

All the test cars had automatic transmissions, 3.50, 3.54, or 3.55 rear gears (except for the Mercury’s 3.91), limited-slip differentials, power disc brakes, power steering, tachometers, and a radio. The SS 396, Cobra, and Cyclone CJ also had additional comfort and convenience options.

At a 3,890-pound curb weight (test weight not available), the Cobra ran 0-60 in 5.6 seconds, 14.04 seconds at 100.61 mph in the quarter-mile, and made a panic stop from 80 mph in 248 feet. Its 0-60 time and quarter-mile ET tied the Super Bee (C and D questioned the Dodge test car’s ignition and exhaust system specs), were slower than the Road Runner’s 5.1 and 13.54 and the Cyclone CJ’s 5.5 and 13.94, but were better than the SS 396’s 5.8 and 14.41. The Cobra’s panic stop was shorter than the Super Bee’s 250 ft, the Cyclone CJ’s 283 ft, and the SS 396’s 304 ft, but longer than the Road Runner’s 245 ft.

The Cobra came in third overall in the test, based mostly on its strong acceleration and braking performances. It was called out for a lack of instrumentation, aside from the optional tach, and its “numb” power steering feel. Handling was described as “strong understeer,” but it was also praised for a “very comfortable and silent ride, exceeded only by the Chevelle.” The staff also said, “There were very good qualities in the Cobra. Enough that placing it third instead of second started kind of a C/D civil war.” The Hemi Road Runner was first, the Super Bee was second, the Cyclone CJ was fourth, and the Chevelle SS 396 was fifth.

In “Analyzing Supercars” Motor Trend included a Ford Cobra with the optional 428 CJ Ram Air engine, the standard four-speed, and a 3.50-geared extra-cost Traction-Lok rear-end. This time, however, its competition wasn’t other budget muscle cars, but instead premium ones, most with more features included in their higher base prices.

The Plymouth GTX was equipped with the standard 375-hp 440 engine, Air Grabber, TorqueFlite automatic, and the optional Super Track Pak with the 4.10-geared Dana 9¾-inch Sure-Grip rear. Except for an extra-cost Performance Axle Package with the 3.55-geared 8¾-inch rear, the Dodge Charger R/T’s drivetrain was the same.

Pontiac’s GTO was fitted with the standard 350-hp 400 engine, optional four-speed, a 3.55-geared Safe-T-Track, and the Ride and Handling Package. The Chevelle SS 396 sported the optional 350-hp 396, Turbo Hydra-Matic trans, and 3.55 Positraction rear-end. Buick provided a Buick GS 400 convertible with the standard 340-hp 400 engine and optional Turbo Hydra-Matic, 2.93-geared Positive Traction differential, and the Rallye Ride Control Package.

All entries wore F70 x 14 tires and had received power steering, power brakes, and radios, and all but the GS 400 had front disc brakes.

The cars also possessed many additional options too numerous to detail here. A few notable examples include the Chevelle SS 396’s A/C and tilt wheel, the Buick GS 400’s power seat and door locks, and the power windows in the Chevy, Buick, and Dodge.

Not surprisingly in this company, the Cobra was the lowest-priced entry at $3,945 after the options were tallied. Its base price was listed at $3,139, just about $120 more than the Chevelle with the SS option added.

The Cobra featured the aforementioned extra-cost engine and differential, as well as optional bucket seats, power steering, power front disc brakes, AM/FM stereo, dual rear-seat speakers, and chrome styled-steel wheels.

Many of the curb weights listed in this article appear somewhat lower or much lower than usual, especially considering the amount of options most of the cars had, so they aren’t listed here. Test weights weren’t provided, but it was stated that testing was performed with two people aboard.

The Cobra ran 0-60 in 6.3 seconds and posted a 14.5 ET at 100 mph in the quarter mile. “Performance was great,” read the article text, “but not as fantastic as we had expected or hoped for. The Big 428 has a docile idle and performs smoothly under all normal conditions.” Conversely, “At the dragstrip or during fast acceleration when the Ram Air cuts in, the car really puts you back in the seat. Lots of wheelspin results from any full throttle start with clouds of tire smoke.”

Ultimately, the Cobra was quicker than the GTO’s 7.2 and 14.9, the SS 396’s 7.6 and 15.4, and the GS 400’s 7.7 and 15.9. However, it was slower than the GTX’s 5.8 and 13.7 and the Charger’s 6.1 and 13.9. The article did add this caveat, however, “There’s no escaping the attraction of sheer power in a car and we fell for the GTX, even though its virginity was in question, as it had been romanced by Plymouth’s fine tuning experts before we met it.”

Stopping distance from 60 mph was 137 ft for the Cobra, which was the best of the group. The GTX’s was 141 ft, Charger’s was 143 ft, SS 396 was 139 ft, GTO’s was 144 ft, and the GS 400’s was 149 ft.

The testers’ comments summed up the Cobra thusly, “[The] suspension [is] great for freeway and city streets, but can be hairy in hard corners. Ride is springy soft. [The Cobra is] terrific for family use. [Its] interior [is] comfortable and plush. [The] fastback trunk has too small [of an] opening. Body solidity and quietness [are the] absolute best. [There’s a] low noise level from [the] road [and] wind. The GTO was declared the “most versatile and best all around,” but none of the other cars were ranked.

Judging by these excerpts from these vintage road tests, Ford had developed a competitive budget muscle car in the Cobra. Unfortunately, just 14,885 were built for 1969, while Plymouth sold over 84,000 Road Runners and was the Motor Trend Car of the Year.

The link to the TV ad for the Cobra (and the Torino GT) reveals one method used to get the word out about Ford’s new Snake. Notice that the ad also shows the earlier Cobra decals before they were replaced with smaller metal emblems.