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Haunted Highways: A Series Exploring The Ghosts of Cars Gone By (Quickly)

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On: Fri, Sep 2, 2011 at 2:05PM | By: Lou Ruggieri


Haunted Highways: A Series Exploring The Ghosts of Cars Gone By (Quickly)

For well over three decades, the battle for Ponycar supremacy has raged on between Mustang, Camaro, Firebird, and a host of other pavement pounding miscreants at race tracks, stoplights, and bar stools across the country. Each new edition of one car brought about new brags and taunts about how antiquated the other car was in contrast. 

Over and over it went, and throughout most of the 1990s, the LT1 and later LS1 Camaros and Firebirds wreaked havoc on the psyches of Mustang owners everywhere. Even though the more 'advanced' single and dual overhead cam modular motors of the Mustang GT and Cobra theoretically had a technological edge over the GM's antiquated pushrods, the Blue Oval just got out-muscled by the General's good 'ole fashioned torque and tuning. Mustang owners noticed, as did Mustang builders. 

In a pound-for-pound fight, there was no fight. A bone stock Camaro SS or Firebird WS6 would obliterate any Mustang Cobra (discounting the ultra-limited 2000 Cobra R model, but even then in a straight line it was still a driver's race). At the turn of the millennium, even though the Mustang was the decidedly more popular car (thanks in no small part to enormous V6 sales) it seemed that not all 300-horsepower cars were created equal, and the General's 325 Thoroughbreds were more than the 320 Clydesdales that Ford was offering up at the track. But then in 2002, everything changed and the Mustang struck back with a one-two punch that knocked the Camaro out for the next seven years.

Even though the Mustang was the inferior car in terms of performance, it was by far and away the more dominant machine in terms of popularity, and so much so that GM actually decided to axe the F-Body twins due to perpetually declining sales numbers. And so the Camaro and Firebird ceased to exist in very unceremonious fashion. At the same time the last GM cars were rolling off the production line, Ford dropped the most dominant, argument-ending mass-produced Mustang the world had ever seen. The supercharged 2003 Ford SVT Mustang Cobra, also known quite aptly as the Terminator.

Quite simply, the Terminator lived up to its nickname. In one fell swoop, Ford addressed just about every complaint Mustang owners ever had about previous models. The big and all-important upgrade was of course—under the hood. What had previously been the mechanical 98-pound weakling suddenly became a deep-breathing, juiced-up, muscle-bound monster due in no small part to the Eaton M112 Roots-type blower force-feeding the DOHC 4.6-liter motor beneath it. Of course, Ford did more than just bolt on a supercharger like some power-crazed 19-year-old with too much money and a Summit catalog. No, an iron block was chosen (with the notion that owners would more than likely be upping the stock eight pounds of maximum boost in the very near future), a forged steel crankshaft and complimenting forged connecting rods, new camshafts, lowered compression ratio (to 8.5:1), and a water-to-air intercooler are all part of the go-package that produced 390-horsepower and 390-lb-ft of torque, and Ford backed it up with a 3-year 36,000-mile warranty.

But, with the realization that the early 2000s were a far cry from the 1960's, Ford engineers didn't stop with only a brutalizing engine. Ford took several cues from the GM cars that had plagued them for so long. An upgraded clutch was installed to handle the bigger, badder motor's twist, as well as the first appearance of a sixth gear into a mass-produced Mustang in the form of the very same Tremec T56 transmission that found its way into the F-Body twins. That new and improved transmission connected to an aluminum driveshaft on the way to a 3.55:1 rear end gear. Big Camaro SS-like 275/40ZR-17 Goodyear Eagle F1s were set at each corner. Those wide rubber patches helped the Cobra handle extremely well at the limit, but as good as wide tires can be, the very un-Camaro independent rear suspension helped make the Cobra much easier to live with over broken pavement and daily commutes or around the skidpad (to the tune of 0.90 g).

The 2003 Cobra is differentiated from the previous venom-less model by a slightly different front facia, vented hood, lip spoiler on the rear deck, and, of course, the tell-tale blower whine emanating from beneath the hood. The white-faced gauges, leather upholstery, and Cobra insignias about the cabin were mostly a carry-over from the previous car, but, then, the Terminator was never really about creature comforts.

No, what the 2003 Cobra was mostly about was putting an end to a debate about which was the better car between the Mustang and the Camaro. Compared to the outgoing (and final) 2002 Camaro SS, the SVT powerhouse bested it in just about every measurable performance test. The Cobra's 0-60 mph time of 4.5 seconds, 0-100 mph time of 10.4 seconds and standing quarter-mile of 12.9 seconds @ 111 mph stood as a gauntlet that had been laid down to all challengers. Unfortunately for the GM faithful, there were no challengers. The '03 Cobra had bested the Camaro, and with nothing on the horizon to hope for, Camaro and Firebird drivers were suddenly spouting off the same lame excuses they had been persecuting Mustang drivers for using only a year earlier. But the truth was that the debate was now settled, and the winner was wearing a snake emblem.

But as bad as the F-Bodies end was for the GM faithful, it also seemed to have a negative effect on Ford as well. It is no secret in the world of automotive competition that racing improves the breed, but with no arch-nemesis to constantly measure themselves against, the high-powered Mustang Cobra only lasted two model years, and after 2004 it disappeared and gave way to the beginning of the retro-craze that has perpetuated to this very minute.

It took three more years before another dominating Mustang emerged on the scene in the form of the GT500 (wearing a very familiar snake emblem), and thankfully that car was only king of a lonely hill for two years before GM finally resurrected the Camaro nameplate after seven agonizing years. The battle for Ponycar supremacy raged on once again, and all was right with the world.

But even to this very day, the battle of which car was better in days gone by still persists. Denial is a very powerful tool, but the truth of the matter is that the 2003-2004 SVT Mustang Cobra was a force that no stock F-Body could handle given equal driving skill behind the wheel, end of story. So if ever a debate about stock Mustangs versus stock Camaros arises, just remember that the driver that whines is usually behind the wheel of the car that doesn't—debate Terminated.


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