The June 2019 Ride of the Month is Royce Peterson's '68 XR-7 Cobra Jet

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The June 2019 Ride of the Month is Royce Peterson's '68 XR-7 Cobra Jet


Post by xr7g428 »

Cobra. Jet. Cougar.

The biggest thing to happen to Ford performance since the introduction of the Flathead V8 happened on April 1st 1968. Ford and Mercury announced the availability of a new engine that could really deliver the kind of street performance enthusiasts had been begging for. Yet, some how the new Cougars with this incredible engine under the hood would not carry even a single badge decal or insignia to announce the presence of the monster motor within...

In the beginning, the summer of 1967...

Total Performance was the promise but on the street Ford wasn't delivering. While Ford vehicles were beating the living daylights out of the competition on the track they were failing completely on main street. The venerable 390 might have been almost good enough to keep up with the Chrysler 383, but the Chevy 396 was showing its tail lights to Blue Ovals everywhere. There was briefly a glimmer of hope that the 428, originally developed to toil under the hood of massive station wagons and lead-bottomed Thunderbirds, might be the answer. Regrettably the answer turned out to be no. It all became abundantly clear when the new for 1967 Shelby GT500, with a whomping 428 equipped with two four-barrel carbs, could do no better than 15.5 seconds in the quarter mile when tested by Car and Driver magazine. Incredibly, it was no faster than the 390 in the same car.

Almost under the radar, Bob Tasca a Rhode Island Ford dealer, did what Carol Shelby had not been able to do; he made the 428 fast, and he did it on the cheap. The result was the King of the Road, KR-8. Although Ford had always made the claim that enthusiasts could be competitive by using over the counter parts, when Tasca actually did it, they didn't believe it.

Tasca drove a KR-8 equipped Mustang from Rhode Island to Dearborn. Ford lined up a few 427 powered factory specials for comparison. The KR-8 proceeded to run 13.3 seconds in the quarter mile at 105 miles per hour, beating everything Ford could line up against it. The engineers were impressed but still not believing this was possible. They were determined that the KR-8 drive train wasn't going back to Rhode Island. Tasca agreed, but he got a Ford GT40 Le Mans 427 in the swap, and proceeded to drive the Mustang home with the nearly priceless Le Mans motor under the hood. (When a rocker arm broke on the way home, Tasca just removed the broken pieces and continued on his way!)

A letter writing campaign sponsored by Hot Rod magazine had pushed reluctant Ford top brass to green light the new motor and it was christened the 428 Cobra Jet. The name took advantage of the recent acquisition of the Cobra name from Carol Shelby and also thumbed its nose at Chevy's Turbo Jet nomenclature. (If Cobra Jet makes no real sense than neither did the Turbo Jet that certain wasn't a Jet, and didn't feature any sort of turbo.) The sense of joy and relief in the halls of Ford was palpable. Now that they had an answer to the performance question, they wanted it on the street as quickly as possible. Waiting for the '69 models would not do, the new engine had to hit the streets at the earliest possible date.

On January 24th of 1968 Mercury formally requested immediate availability of 30 of the new Cobra Jet engines, with a demand that the first two arrive even sooner to meet obligations made to enthusiast magazines for testing. Four days later Hubert Platt laid down a 12.62 second run at the AHRA Winter Nationals in Los Angeles. Had he not red-lighted on that first round run, he might have established Cobra Jet cred on its debut. That would happen just a week later at the NHRA Winter Nationals in Pomona California.

Five drivers would campaign six Cobra Jet equipped Mustangs. Four of the CJ Mustangs made it to their respective class finals. Al Joniec would go on to win the C Stock final by defeating another CJ Mustang driven by Hubert Platt, and then take the overall Super Stock Eliminator title. The drivers were Gas Rhonda, Jerry Harvey, Hubert Platt, Don Nicholson, and Al Joniec. The new CJ had impressed them all. The introduction date for consumer deliveries was less than 90 days away, April 1st, 1968.

Dyno Don spun a bearing on his first run giving him the opportunity to watch the other Cobra Jets in action.

Even before the first 428CJ equipped Mercury was shipped to a customer, Mercury was making some very big plans about how they could capitalize on the new performance motor. In the same way that the clerks run the Army, and the generals take the credit, most of the real work in the Lincoln Mercury division was done by hard working staff. On May 3rd of 1968 The Mercury Marketing Plans Office would make a presentation to senior management to gain approval for a very ambitious Performance Marketing Plan.

Looking back, Both Ford and Mercury brands had not been able to capture much of the performance market. Bob Tasca did the math. He complied statistics for performance car sales and even performance options like the Equa Lok rear axle. The bottom line: only 7.5% of the rapidly growing performance market was being captured by Ford. Mercury wasn't just barely in the game. In 1967 there were only two performance oriented vehicles in the Mercury Line: Comet and Cougar. Both powered, at best, by 325 horsepower 390 4V engines.

The tried and true maxim that if you win on Sunday, you sell on Monday had developed a new corollary: you have to sell what you race, or at least something close. As recently as 1964 Mercury had some of the top drivers under contract: Don Nicholson, Ed Schartman, Jack Crisman, Ronnie Sox and Buddy Martin. They had produced almost fifty 427 Comet dragsters, and in 1965 had taken orders for another 300 271 horse power high performance 289 equipped Comets. (A shortage of engines resulted in cancellation of about 50 of those orders.) For 1966 Mercury pioneered the tube-frame fiberglass flip-up bodied funny car; the Comet Eliminator driven by Don Nicholson. But things were beginning to slip, Sox and Martin had accepted an offer from Chrysler that Mercury simply could not match. Plymouth had very effectively put them to work not only on the track, but also in dealership clinics that sold cars.

The best way to measure the 1960s performance market was in the intermediate size class; cars like the Comet, Fairlane, Chevelle, Tempest, Cutlass, Coronet and Charger, among others. The numbers were not good for Ford, combined sales of 390 equipped 1967 model Comets and Fairlanes, some 23,000, amounted to about half of Chryslers comparable sales, and only 7% of what Chevy was moving. The intermediate market had grown dramatically, by about 400,000 units in just three years, and 300,000 of those had engines over 300 HP. Ford was left at the starting gate.

What made this even more disturbing is that Ford was the most successful brand in racing at the time. But what happened on the track was no longer meaningful if you couldn't also deliver on the street. There was a lot at stake as the Marketing Product Plans office began their presentation.

The new Cobra Jet engine appeared to be as advertised: a winner. And they had two aces up their sleeve: Dan Gurney and Don Nicholson. In the presentation they stated "The Division has recently signed a 6-year agreement with Gurney and his participation in the XR7-G program described is virtually assured. Things were far less secure with Don Nicholson. Chevy was actively wooing him with the offer of a special edition Chevy II equipped with the 427, and of course a full sponsorship deal to boot. (It kind of sends a shiver up your spine to think that the Eliminator could have been a Nova...)

After losing Sox and Martin the idea of losing Nicholson must have been terrifying. On the same day as the presentation, May 3rd, 1968 the L/M Detroit District Sales Office placed an order for a very special Cardinal Red (a close match to the bright red on Dyno Don's Eliminator Funny Car) Cougar XR-7 with the 428 CJ under the hood and an X code 3.91 ratio Traction-Lok out back. It was released from the Dearborn plant on the 15th. It was imperative that they get Don Nicholson in a Cobra Jet Cougar as quickly as possible.

Fifty years later; lost and then found.

Royce Peterson is a name that most Cougar owners are probably familiar with. Possibly because he has owned and driven more Cougars than just about anyone else. Or if your interest includes the XR7-G, well Royce is the registrar for those. And if your interest is in serious FE based power, well Royce has done that as well, leaving a trial of terrified but impressed passengers to testify to his skill. A career devoted to making sure that corporate jets never fall out of the air and all of the responsibility that goes with that makes him ill equipped to condone things done half way, or really any way but the right way. A good example of his work ethic is his extensive restoration thread entitled R code

A very long string of Cougars always starts with the first one. Royce tells us; "My first Cougar was purchased by me in 1974 as a junior in High School. It was a standard 1967 Cougar with only one option – AM Radio. It had a 289 – 2V / three speed manual with dealer installed under dash air conditioning that worked very well. I had zero money and worked part time jobs after school to pay for things like gas and insurance."

"One of the things that didn’t work on the car was the speedometer. I took the dash apart and found the speedometer cable was broken. A trip to the Mercury dealer revealed that a new speedometer cable could be purchased for about $30. This sounds cheap today, but back then gas was around 50 cents a gallon. A friend suggested I could buy a used speedometer cable at a junk yard. We went to a junk yard and there was a row of ’67 – ’68 Cougars. One of them was a ’67 XR-7 with factory 4 speed. It was hit in the rear but basically complete. The yard owner informed me that I could not take any parts as it was sold. Just then the guy who had bought the car arrived. I made a quick deal with the guy to purchase the XR-7 dash, the transmission, and the speedometer cable."

"All of these things were used to upgrade my ’67 standard Cougar. In the driveway of my grandmother’s apartment, on a steeply slopped driveway, in December, in St Paul Minnesota, I changed out the transmission. As a 17 year old it was not too bad but today it would be a stretch."

"Since that time I have always owned at least one Cougar, and sometimes as many as 5. All have been ’67 – 68. Many have had optional engines. In the past 30 years I have concentrated mostly on the XR7-G and GT-E versions."

Among the many Cougars that Royce has owned was another 428 CJ powered '68 XR-7. It had originally been Cardinal Red, but had been painted Black Cheery before Royce got it. The CJ under the hood was not the original, but it had been rebuilt by Jack Tarner and it was fast. (I know this for a fact because I bought it from Royce!) In 2001 Royce took the car to the All Ford Drags in Columbus Ohio. As he was sitting in the staging lanes waiting for the track to get cleaned up, Dyno Don opened up his passenger door and sat down in the passenger seat of the Cobra Jet Cougar. Nichoson was there as a representative of Ford Motorsport but this was personal. Don thought he recognized his old Cougar. Don and Royce struck up a conversation that ended with Don's signature on the CJ's snorkle and a quick photo of the two of them together. However Don also realized that this wasn't his old Cougar, it had been Cardinal Red with a black interior, and this car had a white interior.

Royce had heard about another Cobra Jet Cougar that was a match to what Dyno Don described, but that one had seeming slipped through is hands... for a while. Royce tells us how he found the Cougar that is our June 2019 Ride of the Month.

"This car is both the “one that got away" and the one I eventually bought. Back around 1993 I was looking for a Cougar project car. I had been looking mostly for a GT-E with the 427 engine. This car was advertised for sale in Hemming's Motor News as a factory 428CJ XR-7. I called the phone number, spoke to a guy named Jack Miller. He sent photos of the car to me. It had damage to one of the rear ¼ panels that was likely repairable and was wearing its original but faded paint. It was reportedly numbers matching. It ran and drove. He wanted $7500 which was a little more than what I paid for the car that I eventually bought which was my green GT-E.

"The car also had a story with it that it had belonged to famous drag racer Don Nicholson. I forgot about the car until around 2006 when a fellow GT-E owner, Mike Wyndham, told me he had bought the car. Mike planned to restore the car, which now had the rear ¼ panel straightened out and a cheapie paint job applied not too carefully."

"Plans got sidetracked, and Mike simply stored the car. His business is recycling and selling vintage wood products, and that business burned to the ground in 2016. Mike called me and offered to sell me the Cougar. It had around 100,000 miles. It ran well. The interior had been kept in relatively good condition except a family of mice had moved in and ate the foam out of all the seats. The engine and transmission were the originals. The car had no significant rust issues and still had all of its original sheet metal. The ram air cleaner was there, but the snorkel and smog were not. The original exhaust manifolds were in the trunk, with a ratty set of Hooker headers on the car."

After the CJ Cougar arrived in Texas the decision was made to do a complete restoration to original specs. The restoration is very well documented here in a thread that runs nearly 30 pages but Royce sums things up: "The car has its original engine, transmission, and rear end. During the restoration only the hood had to be replaced, all of the other sheet metal and the hood scoop are the originals. I did all of the restoration work except for the plating and paint. Significantly this car has the first automatic transmission that I ever have rebuilt myself. Thanks to Bill Dempsey for the tear down assistance, loan of tools and encouragement.

"A local upholstery guy helped me with the seats, taking the vinyl parts from the West Coast Cougars kit out to use as patterns and making proper covers with leather in the appropriate grains only where it should be. He also helped install new foam on the seats to replace the formerly mouse ruined parts. The paint shop, Ramsey & Sons, was recommended by Bill Basore and is in a small shop in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Their work was outstanding and is as good as any paint work that I have seen."

"West Coast Classic Cougar and eBay provided a lot of the parts needed. Rich Ladd sold me a lot of NOS parts in 1998 that were used in this restoration. Dave Loughead also contributed significant NOS items. Instrument Specialties did a great job re - plating the dash. Economy Plating did all the chrome work, straightening the original bumpers and rechroming them. Noles Davis polished all the aluminum trim on the car. Truett Worral rebuilt the original rear springs, and re – arched them properly. Randy Goodling provided a correct set of original 1968 shock absorbers that I was able to restore using techniques found at Jeff Sneathen’s outstanding Concours Mustang website. Lots of time has been spent looking at photos of unrestored ’68 Mustangs on Jeff’s website in order to find out the proper original finish used by Ford when the car was new."

So what do we know for sure about the connection to Don Nicholson? At this point we do not have hard documentation to prove the story. What we do know and have verified is that Don had another Cardinal Red CJ Cougar with black interior, but no black vinyl top that was his drag car. We know that Don himself said he had a daily driver CJ XR-7 Cougar in the same color combination and equipped the same way. We also know that the order for this Cougar was placed the same group who made the presentation. It was also ordered on the same day that the presentation was made to the Mercury brass and that they were very concerned that Nicholson would jump ship. Nothing says "we care" like a new car. Nicholson's daughter tells us that he was being showered with new cars during that period. The 3.91 rear axle was a very rare option and Mercury never would have provided such a car to a magazine for testing as they could count on it getting blown up. Giving a car equipped like this to the average driver would have also been a high risk venture. No promotional value comes from a car that has been wrecked or blown up. More research is being done to see what else was built around that date and what the DSOs were for those cars. Only 101 XR7 Cobra Jet Cougars were built, and that includes the GT-Es and XR7-Gs. Perhaps some fine day we will have a document that will establish what seems to be so highly probable.

Every Cougar has its challenges and many of them are discussed in Royce's build thread. At the CJ Cougars very first show it decided to keep Royce on his toes; "The car has been to one show at the local college, Southern Methodist University (SMU). It blew a power steering hose as I backed into the parking space. Not such a great way to start out a show! It is set to “debut” at the MCACN show in November of this year where it will be judged for the first time."

In the bigger picture, a very rare and important Cougar has now been restored to it's original glory. Many years after all of us are gone this Cougar will still remind everyone that sees it that there was a time when driving fun was measured by the quarter mile. Congratulations Royce on a job well done!

Bill Basore, Editor / Publisher
Legendary Cougar Magazine
Currently in the Cat House
'67 XR7 GT 390 4 speed, AC, AM FM, Lime Frost Green
'68 XR7-G 428CJ C6, Tilt-Away, AM, Black Cherry
'68 XR7-G 390 4 speed, Sunroof, Cardinal Red
'68 XR7 GT-E 427 C6 AM Cardinal Red
'68 XR7 resto mod 351W, soon to be AOD, Black Cherry

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Re: The June 2019 Ride of the Month is Royce Peterson's '68 XR-7 Cobra Jet


Post by badcatt »

Fine wright up Bill. Great Cougar Royce! Congratulations on June's Cougar of the month.
Neal Jacobson.
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See ya on the hiways,
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they are an entire banquet
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Re: The June 2019 Ride of the Month is Royce Peterson's '68 XR-7 Cobra Jet


Post by 93RGTE »

+1 Just spectacular!

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Re: The June 2019 Ride of the Month is Royce Peterson's '68 XR-7 Cobra Jet


Post by jcbingcougar »

Great car! Congratulations, Royce!
Jeff Bingaman
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Re: The June 2019 Ride of the Month is Royce Peterson's '68 XR-7 Cobra Jet


Post by BossElim69 »

Congrats on ride of the month!
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Re: The June 2019 Ride of the Month is Royce Peterson's '68 XR-7 Cobra Jet


Post by Al Bundy »

Great write up and a great car.
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1968 J code - madras blue/aqua
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Re: The June 2019 Ride of the Month is Royce Peterson's '68 XR-7 Cobra Jet


Post by Royce »

Thanks for the great write up Bill! since those photos were taken the car has been pin striped. Phil Parcells supplied photos that were a great help for that effort.
1968 pinstripe detail gap.jpg
1968 pinstripe detail gap.jpg (84.26 KiB) Viewed 619 times
1968 GT-E XR-7 W code 427 Augusta Green / Saddle
1968 XR-7 R code 428CJ Ram Air Red / Black
1910 Model T Ford Touring Red / Black
1914 Model T Touring Maroon / Black
1915 Model T Ford Touring Black / Black
1917 Model T Ford Torpedo Runabout Green / Black
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Re: The June 2019 Ride of the Month is Royce Peterson's '68 XR-7 Cobra Jet



Sox and Martin, Dyno Don, Et Al. are such great names. Reading this was a pleasure. As I recall, back in those days, ABC's "Wide World Of Sports" was the most likely place to see the big drag races and Nascar. B&W in my Dads house.

Congrats Royce!

Gary Hill
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Re: The June 2019 Ride of the Month is Royce Peterson's '68 XR-7 Cobra Jet


Post by 1970puma »

awesome story and great car,,,,

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Re: The June 2019 Ride of the Month is Royce Peterson's '68 XR-7 Cobra Jet


Post by zman »

Congrats Royce.
Great write up Bill.
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