Ben Cole was "just looking for a fastback, any fastback," adding, "I was going to build an Eleanor or something like that."
Then fate intervened. Ben owns and operates Roy's Fried Chicken in Coweta, Oklahoma. One day he asked a customer, Mike Badley, if he knew where he could find a '65-'68 Mustang fastback.
"Mike raced dirt track with my dad, so I knew he'd been around cars a lot. He once owned a salvage yard and I thought there was a chance he might know where I could find something."
To Ben's surprise, Mike had an R-code '68 1/2 fastback, one of the original Cobra Jet Mustangs. The car was in his garage just a couple of miles down the road.
At the time, Ben wasn't aware of the '68 1/2 Cobra Jet Mustangs, with a production run of only 2,870 units (2,097 fastbacks, 221 hardtops, and 552 convertibles). The two men agreed to talk later-after Ben got an education on the famous R-code Mustang, which was introduced to the public on April Fool's Day in 1968. Dreams of an Eleanor evaporated as Ben uncovered the Cobra Jet's fabled history.
Ben made an appointment to see the fastback and found a rough CJ fastback not far removed from its drag racing days 40 years ago. The real heart-stopper was the odometer reading-1,298 original miles, most of them added a quarter-mile at a time.
"The body was in good shape, but it was ugly," Ben says. "The body was painted blue all the way to the back of the car and it had red, white, and blue stars and stripes on the hood."
The CJ had been resting in Mike's garage since the mid '70s. Ben figures that when the Tulsa dragstrip went from NHRA to AHRA in the early '70s, it left "a lot of people without a class to run in." That's when Mike switched from drag racing to the dirt tracks and retired the CJ from quarter-mile competition. He had sanded off the original racing paint job, but had done little else.
Of course, the fastback had been altered for drag racing in its heyday. Ben spotted rear spring shackles and a rollcage. The rear fenders had been hammered to clear drag slicks and the battery had been relocated to the trunk. The engine block was sitting outside with a cracked cylinder and plenty of surface rust. The original Holley 735-cfm four-barrel was still there, but an aluminum 427 intake replaced the stock cast-iron CJ manifold. The distributor was a dual-point from a 427.
Ben purchased the red fastback in October 2005. He had a lot of work ahead of him to return the low-mileage '68 1/2 Cobra Jet fastback to stock. Still, he considered the low-mileage car "a great starting point."
He also knew how fortunate he was to make the purchase. "A lot of people from around the area had tried to buy it at different times during the past 20 years."
Why Ben got the car is hard to say. Mike wouldn't even show him the original block and engine parts until he determined that Ben was serious about buying it. Ben recalls, "He had three sets of Cobra Jet heads and told me to pick two sets to go with the car."
Later, as Ben researched CJ engine stampings on the 428 Cobra Jet Registry's Web site (www.428cobrajet.org), he wondered if the stampings on his heads matched the chassis. "The heads were at my Dad's house, so I drove over in the middle of the night to look at the numbers. Sure enough, I'd picked the right set. The car's VIN was on one of the sets."
Ben's Cobra Jet restoration proved fulfilling, but the best was yet to come. In April 2007, he took the car to a Mustang Club of America show in Mustang, Oklahoma. There, he ran into David Byrd, the car's original owner.
"He drove up in a white '68 1/2 Cobra Jet Mustang and we started talking," Ben says. "He kept telling me how fast his old red car used to be, but nothing ever clicked. When he mentioned that he had bought his first Cobra Jet in May of 1968 at Dub Richardson Ford, I knew I had his old car."
Mustang enthusiasts can imagine David's surprise when Ben announced, "That's your old car sitting up there on top of the hill."
Ben tells us, "David said, 'There's no way, son. That thing was so rough nobody could ever fix it that nice.'" Ben retrieved his pictures of the Cobra Jet as he found it in Mike Badley's garage. As David looked through the pictures, his eyes lit up.
Ben continues, "He told me that he was the one who beat the rear fenders in with a hammer. He was the one who took out the radio delete panel and hung gauges. He put in the rollcage and the headers. He had done all the work to the car."
David wanted his old CJ back, but Ben couldn't go that far. He did give him the old four-piece headers and assorted parts for old time's sake. David lives close to his old Cobra Jet racer and can visit the car, now restored to stock, at local shows.
Ben hasn't driven the car much since the restoration. Mainly he takes the 4.30-geared muscle Mustang to shows and basks in the glow of the original 428 Cobra Jet's rich heritage. In fact, he now owns another Cobra Jet, one of the 50 "135" series factory drag cars.