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Editor’s Note: As the Mustang II Cobra II celebrates its 40th Anniversary during the “Mustang Memories” show in Dearborn on Aug. 21, 2016, now seems the perfect time to provide Ford Mustang fans the inside story of how the Cobra II overcame the odds and caused a stir in the marketplace. Few historians know that keeping the Mustang passion alive during the mid-70’s had been a key goal for Edsel Ford II, who had pushed Ford Division to gear some Mustang II product offerings more toward driving enthusiasts, despite overwhelming market pressures for fuel-efficiency instead of performance. After the Mustang II launched in 1974 without a V8 engine option for the first time in the car’s history, the push was on to pump up at least the Mach 1 model with a V8 / automatic option by 1975. But Edsel Ford II wanted more and felt that the company’s own new-for-1976 “Stallion” appearance package, sporting a blackout body treatment and fender decals shared with the Pinto and Maverick lines, was not the answer. So he turned to a company run by a former GM exec who had been part of the group at Pontiac responsible for the GTO (and later the Pontiac Can Am) for some help. Jim Wangers and his Motortown Corporation responded with the Cobra II package, and Edsel found a way for Ford dealers to order some. Thanks in part to a recurring role in the hottest hit show on TV, the car was a smash hit. Motortown produced some 25, 259 Cobra II’s, forcing Ford to take the model in house for 1977-78.1976 Mustang II Cobra II (2) While a Cobra II could be had with and I4 or a V6 to be socially acceptable at the time, it was the 302 V-8, ordered along with the new wide-ratio four-speed manual, plus the Rallye Package (with Traction-Lok differential, enhanced cooling, and Competition Suspension option that included heavy duty springs, Gabriel adjustable shocks, rear stabilizer bar and 70-series Raised White Letter radial tires) that helped fulfill the promises made by the Shelbyesque look of the Cobra II. To get Wangers’ view of how the Cobra II came to be, we sent noted auto journalist and author Matt Stone to interview the former Motortown chief at his home in California. Below is Stone’s exclusive report:

Jim Wangers is considered one of the most innovative and influential specialty automotive marketers of the original and post-muscle car eras. During that time (1963) he was Pontiac’s chief marketing manager, working for the GM division's contract advertising and public relations agency. Wangers confirms that he, John DeLorean, Bill Collins and Russ Gee were responsible for the original Pontiac GTO's creation. Even Ford fans must acknowledge that this original big-engined Pontiac Tempest-based machine marked the birth of the 1960s American mid-sized Muscle Car era. There had long been heavy, full-sized cars with big horsepower engines, but the formula that these bright and creative gents crystalized was to mate the big engine with the smaller, lighter mid-size platform, getting “free speed” by drastically improving the car’s weight-to-power ratio. They gave their new muscle Pontiac a more performance-oriented suspension tune, some nice badges, a catchy name, a four-speed trans and sporty quad-tipped dual exhausts, and the GTO legend – and with that the entire 1960s-era Muscle Car phenomenon – was truly born.

The package worked, and it sold big, forcing the rest of the Big Three to respond with muscle offerings of their own. The punchy Poncho was a marketer’s dream, and not only did Wangers help create it, he knew how to market it. There was creative advertising of all kinds, lots of racing-related activity, smart Pontiac dealerships that developed even higher performance versions of the GTO, a promotional deal with a national shoe company, and so forth. Wangers was in heaven, partially because he helped create it.

Of course we all know what happened a decade later; fuel and insurance prices increased dramatically, and safety and automotive emissions became the government-mandated talk of the day instead of performance. By 1973 cars got large, heavy, and in many cases had to be fitted with ugly crash-standard bumpers. Big-block engines (and most of the convertibles) went away, and by 1974 we had smog equipment-choked engines restricted to unleaded gas, wheezing out less and less horsepower through their catalyst-cleansed single exhausts. The original ’60s muscle car era, as we knew it, was over.

So for 1974, Ford wiped the slate clean and gave us the all-new Mustang II. Many were four-cylinder powered, and the hottest ride in the ’74 Mustang lineup was a 2.8-liter V-6 powered model still called the Mach I. Even though performance wise the Mach 1 was a shadow of its 1969-71 heydays, it was a solid performer against its direct-facing market competition. The cars were relatively light, could still be had with a manual transmission, got reasonable fuel mileage, handled quite well with rack-and-pinion steering - and sold like crazy.

With nearly 386, 000 produced in its first model year, the Mustang II proved it was the right Mustang at the right time, or at least the best Ford could do within government regulations at that point. And in spite of all of the challenges facing the automotive industry (and a waning enthusiast market) during that era, it worked. Many Mustang enthusiasts lamented the loss of their Bosses, Shelbys and Cobra-Jets, but a massive chunk of the car-buying public bought into a svelter, lighter, more efficient, somewhat more globally inspired Mustang with snazzy exterior looks and optional luxury inside, albeit with a bit less power on board.

So how did that ’74 Mach I V6 Mustang II flagship model morph into the birth of the V8-engined Mustang II Cobra II? Today, as he pushes hard on his 90th birthday, the still sharp and engaging Jim Wangers tells the story that, “after I retired from Pontiac and Chevrolet, I got involved with a Michigan-based outfit called Motortown, ” Wangers said. “Of course at the time the government had come down with a pretty serious set of mandates for emissions regulations, so most of the carmakers’ engineering departments had to spend their time and resources developing engines, and anti-pollution equipment to meet these regs. And they also had to be working a few models in advance, as the regulations got more stringent just about every year. So ‘image’ and ‘performance’ cars just weren’t high on anyone’s agenda of priorities at that moment.”

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