The Talladega King Cobra: Ford’s Charger Daytona Fighter
Recently, we featured the rare, homologation-special 1969 Ford Torino Talladega—the car that broke Dodge’s NASCAR dominance and won 13 races that year.
But the Torino Talladega was just one battle in a larger conflict. Midway through Ford’s reign of terror, Dodge rolled out the Charger Daytona at Talladega Superspeedway, and won. Then, Dodge won five of the six remaining races. Ford finished the 1969 season with a Manufacturer’s Cup, but Dodge was breathing down its neck.
Ford wanted to take things to the next level. Waiting in the wings was Ford’s next salvo: the Ford Torino King Cobra and Mercury Super Cyclone Spoiler II, both attempts to out-aero the Daytona and Plymouth Superbird. All four cars wielded their aerodynamic secrets to 200-mph heights. Come 1970, the aero war went nuclear.
Unlike Ford’s preceding NASCAR special, of which the company built more than required, these nose-coned King Cobras were nearly lost forever. Had it not been for the legendary team owner Bud Moore and a chance encounter, these cars never would’ve made it out of the murky depths.
Larry Shinoda was in charge of Ford Special Design at the time. With a GT40 fresh from Le Mans in the design studio, his team had inspiration: they fabricated a dramatic nose that stretched ahead of the windshield and sloped down to a point. Instead of a tacked-on piece à la the Mopar twins, this would be a single, smooth piece of fiberglass. And with the fastback roof, there would be no wing, just like the GT40.
Racing team Holman-Moody began testing the car. Its Boss 429 engine was reportedly pumping 700 horsepower, and that sleek nose was generating over 200 pounds of downforce. It wasn’t enough. What was worse, there was back-end lift as well, and driver Cale Yarborough reported spinning the rear tires all the way down the straights. The car was unpredictable to drive and downright dangerous in some instances. Shinoda and his team had to go back to the drawing board.
Two things happened that saved them the effort.
In September 1969, both Shinoda and “Bunkie” Knudsen, the Ford president who invested so much of his energy into Total Performance, were fired. In came Lee Iacocca, who immediately slashed Ford’s racing budget.
Then, for 1970, NASCAR upped its homologation requirement. Instead of 500 prescribed cars, each manufacturer had to build one example for every two dealers it had in America. For Plymouth, that meant 1,920 Superbirds. For Ford, however, that meant around 3,000 King Cobras, and 519 Mercurys.
Ford and Mercury balked. Aside from the fact that these aero cars never sold well—Mopar dealers chucked the bodywork of Daytonas and Superbirds just to move them off the lots, an action tantamount to sacrilege—Ford would’ve had to sink $2 million into putting them into production.
Iacocca would have been none too pleased, but it didn’t matter. At 200 miles per hour, the speed of these cars was outstripping what their tires could handle. In response, NASCAR mandated a 301-cubic-inch (5.0-liter) limit on cars with aero enhancements, and, combined with the significant weight on those skinny tires, the cars were suddenly uncompetitive. Ford’s remaining teams stuck with their 1969 Talladegas, and Richard Petty was lured back to Plymouth to drive the new Superbird. For 1971, no manufacturer entered aero cars. The war was over.
But the veterans survived.
In 1970, Bud Moore headed to Dearborn to secure some Mustangs for the upcoming Trans Am season. He couldn’t help but notice two Torino King Cobras languishing on the Ford grounds. For a mere $1,200, Moore grabbed both King Cobras alongside a pair of Mustangs.
Moore held onto both cars at his Spartanburg, S.C., garage. He repaired one example and sold it, ditching the damaged nose, and it wound up in a junkyard before a pair of Ford fans restored it. (And the circle of life continues anew.) At a Mecum auction in 2013 it was a star showing, but it didn’t sell.
The other, a yellow example, had just 500 miles on it. Moore added only a few more before selling it. In January 2016 it also found its way to Mecum with just 831 miles on the odometer.
It is thought that Ford built three King Cobras, and just two Mercury Super Cyclone Spoiler IIs. Ford executives had been driving them around right before they were fated for the crusher. Moore had two King Cobras, while a man named Steve Honnell bought one directly from Holman-Moody. And the Mercurys were all but myths until Honnell found one in an Amish barn in Indiana.
That’s how easily this bit of Ford history could have slipped through the cracks. And if you’ve got a cool half-mil lying around, and you happen to be in Charlotte, you can snag one of the three Torino King Cobras that endured. It may be one of the rarest Fords on the planet.