When Plymouth introduced the Road Runner in 1968, it was literally the Second Coming of the supercar. After the advent of the 1964 Pontiac GTO and the “me too!” responses from competitive brands, the market was skewed towards the mature buyer who was able to spend $4,000 on a car, which was out of reach to the average kid bagging groceries at Piggly Wiggly. The Road Runner talked to those folks.
So just like when the competition responded to the GTO in 1965, the competition responded to the Road Runner in 1969. FoMoCo’s low-buck competitor was the Ford Fairlane Cobra and Mercury Cyclone CJ. Unlike in previous years, FoMoCo didn’t have a competitive entry in the market.
To appreciate how important the Cobra and Cyclone CJ were to FoMoCo, you must visit 1966 when Ford introduced its answer to the GTO. The Fairlane GT and GT/A (the “A” standing for the Sport Shift Cruise-O-Matic automatic that allowed manual control) looked good on paper: 390/335, fancy “performance” hood, racing stripes on the rockers, chrome detailing, and more.
However, on the street Ford had one very big problem in its hands – the Fairlane GT was a stone. GTOs were creaming them left and right, and so was the Chevelle SS 396, Olds 4-4-2 and, obviously, HEMI Mopars; only the Buick Gran Sport was equally uncompetitive. Road tests of the day pegged the Fairlane GT as a low-15-second car on average. There was a 427 Fairlane, but only 57 were built, so any impact being made was likely on the strip, not the street.
Nineteen sixty-seven wasn’t much better for the Fairlane, with the 390 GT losing 15 horses and 427 production reaching 299 units – again, hardly enough to make an impact on the street. Meanwhile, Chrysler introduced the Dodge Coronet R/T and Plymouth GTX, both with standard 440 power, and Buick debuted a much-improved Gran Sport with a new 400 that completely smoked the Fairlane’s 390.
Mercury’s Comet Cyclone was in a similar pinch. There were two Cyclones, the base Cyclone and the GT, the latter coming standard with the same 390. Not much changed for 1967 although the 427 became available for the base Cyclone and lesser Comets. Considering Ford’s Total Performance global racing program and Mercury’s success with “Dyno” Don Nicholson’s Eliminator I funny car, FoMoCo street fare was not measuring up.
By the time the 1968 model year began, FoMoCo was still behind the competition. Brochures and magazine articles claimed the 427 was available, but it ended up only being installed in the rare Cougar GT-E. But after FoMoCo finally got its act together in April by taking the 428 from the Galaxie and raiding the parts bin by adding several heavy duty 427 items (the 427 and 428 were both in the FE engine family), Ford had the animal it should have had in 1966. Calling the new motor the 428 Cobra Jet, FoMoCo winked and rated it at 335 horses (same as the 390 from a few years before), then kicked some butt in the 1968 Winternationals at Pomona and on the street. Alas, despite the raves, only 840 Fairlanes and Torinos were built with the CJ, plus a couple thousand Mustangs and Shelbys.
Meanwhile, over at Highland Park, Plymouth had introduced the Road Runner at the start of the model year. Based on the cheapo Belvedere, it had a massaged 383, standard four-speed manual, and a cutesy horn that went “beep beep.”
Plymouth ended up selling 45,000 and making everyone take notice, including sister division Dodge who responded a few months into the 1968 model year with the Super Bee. But for every other manufacturer, the soonest they could respond was 1969.
FoMoCo entered the 1969 model year in confident fashion with a successful new engine and a redesigned Mustang and Cougar. In mid-size news, the Torino GT continued to play the role of Ford’s sporty mid-size car but, to counter the Plymouth Road Runner, Ford released the Fairlane Cobra. (Confusingly, there is some controversy whether it’s simply “Cobra” or “Fairlane Cobra,” with references to both.)
The main difference between the GT and Cobra was that the Cobra had fewer frills and came standard with the 428 CJ. Only available as a SportsRoof fastback or a two-door hardtop, the Cobra also included a four-speed manual, beefed-up suspension including high rate strings front and rear, large diameter front stabilizer bar, high dampening shocks, and F70-14 Wide Ovals.
If you wanted to go faster, you could order a vacuum-operated ram air system but, for the true enthusiast, you could also order the Drag Pack (available with or without ram air), which added external oil cooler, LeMans connecting rods, and more heavy-duty items for a more durable reciprocating mass. Drag Pack Cobras only came with 3.91 or 4.30 gears.
SCJs were solid high-13 second cars, and they would absolutely kill a 383 Road Runner for only a few shekels more. What about a HEMI Road Runner? The HEMI was tough to beat, but the Cobra Jet was fully capable plus it didn’t require the know-how and maintenance that the Mopar required.
Mercury also got into the action by introducing the Cyclone CJ. Available only as a fastback, Mercury touted it as having “outstanding performance, bold styling, [and] an aggressive personality.” Like the Cobra, ram air was optional, as was the Drag Pack, but the Cyclone CJ had the option of dual upper body stripes along the sides to give it a racier appearance. An optional Sports appearance group included vinyl bucket seats, remote control left-hand racing mirror, turbine wheel covers, and rim-blow steering wheel. Hi-Performance Cars magazine claimed the Cyclone CJ had “the unique distinction of being one of the most “in” cars on the supercar scene.” With 3.91 gears, Cars claimed 0-60 in the mid-6s, high-13s in the quarter, and average fuel consumption of 12 mpg.
At the end of the model year, only 11,099 Fairlane Cobra fastbacks, 3,786 hardtops, and 3,261 Cyclone CJs were built. That wasn’t a bad showing considering these cars were among the fastest standard supercars out of the box, but in comparison, over 80,000 Road Runners were built in 1969. Still, the word was out, and the Fairlane Cobra and Cyclone CJ stopped the sneering and helped solidify FoMoCo’s reputation on the street.