What does the largest venomous snake on the planet have in common with the Greek God of archery? Among the many crucial events in American history that set 1968 in stone, one affair, in particular, has an echoing rumble in the collective consciousness of the quarter-mile worshippers.
On Christmas Eve of that year, humanity was gifted with the image of a stellar event: Earth rising over the Moon’s horizon, captured in a photo taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders. However, several months before this monumental achievement of mankind’s technological progress, a very different rise captured the imagination (and lustful wallet-stripping inclinations) of gearheads on the west side of the Atlantic.
A king cobra was rising over the mechanical stud of piston-reined wild stallions of the prairies. Indeed, true-blue (oval) hot-spirited muscle car ultra-fundamentalists have recognized the hints – the birth of the Shelby Mustang GT500 KR.
Carroll Shelby got wind that GM was planning to advertise their 1968 Corvette as “King of the Road,” so he went ahead and registered the moniker before Chevrolet. Thus, the King of the Road (KR) appellative appeared at the end of the “GT500” badge.
One of those initial model-year KRs is now in the caring custody of classic (muscle) car restorer Dennis Collins. He has found yet another dethroned King in a garage in Texas and took it home for a complete overhaul; his find is documented in the first video below.
The two-letter suffix added at the end of the GT500 nameplate wasn’t the only difference between the “regular” version and the King (Cobra) of the Road. A new engine, the Cobra Jet, made its way under the hood of the Shelby Mustang. The big-block powerplant had 428 cubic inches (seven liters) of displacement and whipped 335 hp (389 PS) and 440 lb-ft of torque (597 Nm).
Now, urban mythology has it that the manufacturer uncompromisingly understated the sales-boosting power rating. Insurance hindered customers from buying too-powerful cars, hence the merciless paper shaving of the horse numbers. According to the street hearsay, the actual dyno reading of the Cobra Jet was rumored to glide between 410 hp and 430 hp (416 – 436 PS).
Come to think about it – a 400+ hp figure would have been the correct gauntlet-picking answer to the horsepower wars of the era. However, official documents only retain the meager 335 horsepower. Nonetheless, the engine had already made its racing name at the beginning of that year. It won the National Hot Rod Association’s (NHRA) eighth Winternationals event in Pomona, California, in early February.
Out of the six 428 Cobra Jet Mustangs lining up on the dragstrip that February, four made it to the finals. The winning car mastered the 1,320-foot sprint in 12.12 seconds – a good time even for half a century-younger supercar. In April, the street-friendly GT500 Mustang got the Cobra Jet drag champion.
Granted, the car was significantly heavier and more comfort-driving oriented than the bare-metal quarter-mile athlete, but it still packed a punch. The second video is a Car and Track review of the then-newly launched Shelby Mustang.
It was slightly less feisty than the 1967 Police Interceptor 428 (rated at 355 hp – 360 PS) but had more torque (440 lb-ft over the 420 lb-ft of the non-Cobra-sized V8). It didn’t bother Carroll Shelby one bit to have lesser horses. The man famously advocated spinning force over twisting speed. “Horsepower sales cars. Torque wins races,” is one of his famous sayings.
He was proven correct by the Cobra Jet’s drag championship-winning feats in ’68. So, without further ado, the GT500 KR hit the streets in 1968 and became a sensation among buyers. Although it had a half-year production handicap under the GT500, the KR sold just 90 fewer units (1,452 versus 1,542).
One of those 1,452 Kings from ’68 was retired into garage storage in 1979. It stayed there until December 2022, shedding its 428 Cobra Jet V8 and four-speed manual transmission during the long hibernation. The YouTuber and classics hardcore fan Collins took it out to revive it – and the car should emerge triumphant from the resurrection, given how sound and solid it looks.
When it rolled off the assembly line, this Candy Apple Red original paint Mustang carried a 3.50 Track-Lok rear-end to send the power to the rear wheels. Not the top-of-the-Christmas-wishes list of choices for drag racing addicts, but the compromise between strip sprinting and highway commuting was a solid sales-boosting argument.
An ad for the car from 1968 saw Ford poking its tongue out at GM with this smart-Aleck gem of sarcasm: “Carroll Shelby has pulled the trick of the year. He’s combined Ford’s new drag champion 428 Cobra Jet engine with his complete road car, the Cobra GT 500. Result? Cobra GT 500 KR… King of the Road.”
The trick wasn’t the choice of the less powerful drag champion engine but the copyrighting of the “King of the Road” title. The flick of legal switches stripped the C3 Corvette of any chance to stamp this nobility on its quarters.
To make it even more obnoxiously conceited, the ad playfully stirred up the competition. “The game is Follow-the-Leader. The name of the game is Cobra GT 500-KR.” (Take a look at the entire text in the gallery).
The interior received many amenities for the same day-to-day driving experience. Evidently, this story’s ousted sin-bearing snake has little to pride in on the inside. Although the car’s history is kept private, the video is frank in calling it what it is. It’s not a crusher candidate, but it’s not a lucky survivor, either. It sits somewhere in between, stirring the embers of hope for a bright future.