The most powerful production Ford Mustang ever built¿the SVT Cobra¿turns one decade old this year and, to celebrate, a 10th Anniversary edition was unveiled today as part of a special Cobra birthday display during the April 3-6 Food Lion AutoFair at Lowe¿s Motor Speedway.

SVT, which is an acronym for Special Vehicle Team, was formed in 1991 as the high-performance, limited-edition arm of Ford Motor Company, with the initial goal of taking the long-in-the-tooth Mustang platform to new levels of speed and handling.

Deliberation over the name of the new steroid-fed pony was quick and decisive¿it would be called ¿Cobra¿ after the world-class sports cars Carroll Shelby began producing and selling through Ford dealerships in 1962. Although production barely topped 1,000 before the end in 1967, Shelby¿s Cobra roadsters and coupes were the cars to beat on the track and on the street for the rest of the decade¿leaving everything from Corvettes to Ferraris in their wake.

In 1968, the Cobra name was applied to Shelby¿s Mustang-based GT-350s and GT-500s, as well as to Ford¿s top-performing V-8 powerplants, where it was used to indicate various 351-, 428- and 429-cubic-inch engines through 1973. In 1976, the model and emblems were revived as a ¿Cobra II¿ cosmetic package for the very low-performance Mustang II, a line that culminated with the extremely garish, but no more powerful, King Cobra in 1978.

A re-design of the Mustang for ¿79 brought with it another attempt to recall the memory of those early Cobra roadsters¿this time as a cosmetic and performance upgrade accompanying the turbocharged four-cylinder or V-8 engines. In 1982, the new GT displaced the Cobra as Ford¿s performance Mustang, and the coiled snake emblem seemed destined to fade into history. (It should be noted that Ford continued using the Cobra name on GT Mustangs sold in Canada from 1984-¿92.)

The enthusiasts at SVT knew they were planning a car worthy of a revered name, so when the new model was introduced as a ¿93, it was unashamedly wearing Cobra badges. Although not substantially different in appearance from its GT and LX V-8 hatchback counterparts, the Cobra¿s 5.0-liter V-8 produced 235 horsepower¿30 more than stock¿and was backed by a stronger five-speed transmission.

Cobra-specific alloy wheels hid the four-wheel disc brakes and modified suspension components. On introduction, the new SVT model exemplified the group¿s emphasis on improving a car¿s performance, substance and exclusivity, although some enthusiasts were confused to find the Cobra¿s ride was actually smoother than the GT it outran.

The next year, 1994, brought with it an all-new Mustang design, which put SVT in the position of producing packages for two entirely different cars back to back without a break. Cobras were offered in both the new coupe body style as well as the re-designed convertible (including the super-rare removable hardtop option). Refinements to the SVT philosophy continued, and output of the 1994-¿95 5.0-liter V-8s was rated at 240 horsepower.

Cobra evolution took a giant leap forward in 1996, when the Mustang lost its aging but well-loved 5.0-liter V-8 and received a new ¿modular¿ 4.6-liter V-8 with single overhead camshafts. SVT took its version to new heights of performance by installing a hand-assembled aluminum 4.6-liter V-8 with double-overhead cams and four valves per cylinder that put out 305 horsepower¿90 more than Ford¿s own GT. To handle the extra power, SVT installed a Cobra-unique five-speed transmission.

When the GT received a facelift and horsepower increase (to 260) for the 1999 model year, SVT boosted the Cobra¿s output to 320 and introduced the first independent rear-suspension (IRS) installed on a production Mustang. An unforeseen production glitch, however, caused many of the Cobras to produce less horsepower than claimed, resulting in a recall of the entire line for inspection and repair. This unprecedented effort kept SVT busy well into what would have been its 2000 model year, so there were no Cobras produced for the street that season.

Production resumed for 2001 and 2002, with few changes from the 1999 specs, but rumors were circulating among the Ford faithful of a Cobra more powerful than any Mustang ever made¿including the Boss 429s and Super Cobra Jets of the 1960s.

The 2003 Cobra not only met the high standards set by those tire-shredding musclecars; it easily surpassed them. Sporting a supercharged 4.6-liter double-overhead cam engine, the new SVT Cobra is in a league of its own, with a six-speed manual transmission and output rated at 390 horsepower.

With driver and passenger airbags, anti-lock braking on four-wheel discs, traction control and independent rear suspension all standard, the new Cobra is also safer and better handling than its legendary predecessors. As a yardstick of how far the Cobra name has come since the dark days of the ¿70s, realize that the 2003 model puts out more than three times the horsepower of the ¿76-¿78 Cobra II and King Cobra V-8s and it more than quadruples the output of the four-cylinder version.

Just when fans of the nearly 40-year-old Mustang thought it couldn¿t get any better, the folks at SVT announced the introduction of its 10th Anniversary Edition SVT Cobra, which goes into production this summer. It will be available in either coupe or convertible body styles with 17 by 9-inch argent wheels, red leather seating surfaces, carbon fiber-look interior trim and special anniversary badging on the floor mats and decklid. Only 2,003 of the anniversary Cobras¿to be painted red, black or silver¿are scheduled for production.

Food Lion AutoFair continues through Sunday. Hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., today and Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Tickets are $8 for adults. Children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult and parking for the event is $5.