Ford’s Mustang California Special harks back to 1968

By Miles Downard

The year was 1968. Ford’s Mustang was running rampant and California state accounted for the lion’s share of the US market. Lee Grey, the district sales manager for Ford Southern California, was looking for something unique to spark the sales of Mustangs in Los Angeles. The objective was to make the Mustangs sold in California unique, thus differentiating them from the standard models available elsewhere.

Lee Grey attended the Ford Preview event at the Los Angeles Coliseum in August 1967, a display of new Fords coming for 1968. It was there that he saw a Shelby GT-500 prototype coupe nicknamed ‘Little Red’. This car was being used to gauge market response as a possible Shelby line-up Mustang so its bright red paint and vinyl roof weren’t the only tweak. A supercharger was added to the 428 cubic inch V8 motor (seven litres in English money) to enhance its performance status. Lee saw this as an opportunity to use the elements of this prototype to market his California-Only Mustang and contracted Shelby Automotive for the task of designing and engineering the necessary parts and assembly procedures for the California Special. This was done right alongside the development of their 1968 Shelby.

That original version featured a blacked-out grille, fog lights and side racing stripes that ended ahead of the rear side air scoops, as well as a Shelby-inspired spoiler. 

I recently spent a week with the newest interpretation of the Mustang California Special. It reflects the original with a honeycomb front grille finished in Ebony Black and featuring a GT/CS badge in Race Red, as well as lower side stripes finished in black, red and grey. Incorporating GT/CS logos, the stripes run from the front to the rear wings and feature a hidden ‘California Special’ script that is almost invisible in low light conditions but becomes much more prominent in stronger sunlight.

Like the original, aerodynamic enhancements hint at V8 performance, including a larger front splitter, a rear wing from the GT Performance Package, and the introduction of side air scoops behind the doors for the first time on the Mustang range in SA, all of which give the car a more muscular stance. At the rear, quad 4.5-inch tailpipes linked to the Active Valve performance exhaust.

Aside from the throwbacks, further touches and comfort features add to the specialness of the new California Special. Standard heated and cooled front seats, SYNC3 infotainment including Android Auto/Apple Carplay, adaptive cruise control with pre-collision assist and lane-keeping alert all make everyday driving more enjoyable. The leather seats and door inserts are part-finished in grey Miko® suede – an ecological, synthetic material made from recycled polyester – with red stitching. Seats and floor mats are embossed with the GT/CS logo, and the instrument panel is finished in Carbon Hex aluminium with a unique Mustang California Special badge.

Under the hood lies Ford’s 5.0-litre V8 engine, delivering 330kW and 529Nm of torque as in the standard Mustang GT, which is likewise mated with a 10-speed automatic transmission. Traction and cornering grip are maximised by a standard limited-slip differential and MagneRide active dampers, which adjust based on the drive mode selected by the driver.

What the above all boils down to is a nicely dolled-up Mustang GT 5.0. Its plush sport seats and a tyre with sensible sidewall profile, the California Special is very comfortable. Yet when the roads get twisty, those MagneRide dampers firm up to control the tyres’ contact patch. The 5.0 litre V8 up front makes all the right noises, howling up to its red line, or just tootling around in traffic. Even the fuel consumption is palatable.  

The automatic ‘box, when left to its own devices, is bearable but if you decide to use the paddles to override the gear change, you are often left with a clunky downshift that is terribly unsatisfying. Unsettling, even, when driving in an enthusiastic manner. 

Overall, the California Special is a nice addition to the Mustang line-up. Different enough from a standard GT to offer discerning buyers that unique edge, while maintaining all the other great aspects of the GT, most notably the naturally aspirated power unit and its compliance over undulating, uneven road surfaces. 

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