Ford yesterday announced that it would be dusting off one of its classic badges and bringing the Mustang GT California Special back for another lap, so we thought it would be a good time to take a look back at why California got a special at all.
To properly tell the story of the California Special, though, first have to start with Shelby—we wouldn’t have it any other way. While a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that all Shelby Mustangs were largely the same, the truth was that there was some serious engineering and futurology happening at the Shelby skunkworks.
In 1967, the result of that futurology was a red Mustang notchback that came to be known as “Little Red” thanks to its red paint job. Bedecked with all the usual visual cues that accompany a Shelby (scoops along the side, a ducktail spoiler, etc), Little Red’s party piece was its 428 ci Cobra Jet engine that had been paired to twin Paxton Superchargers.
Paxton had been working with Ford since ’57 when factory blown Fords started dominating NASCAR and had to be banned. By ’65 Shelby and Paxton were working together on getting more power out of the 289. But the muscle car era was all about size, so it wasn’t long before the 428 became the recipient of Paxton’s forcible induction.
Reportedly able to churn out more than 500 hp and chirp the tires at 80 mph, Fred Goodell, Shelby’s chief engineer, was so pleased with the car that he drove it personally, giving rides to the stars of the day.
As you’d expect, Shelby was pretty pleased with the result and they took Little Red to the LA Auto Show that year where Lee Grey, Southern California Ford’s sales district manager, saw it.
Grey, as you’d expect, was also impressed and thought that his dealers might be able to offer something similar.
The idea of dressed up cars, at this point, was pretty common with Mustangs like the High Country Special selling in Colorado. That car was a normal Mustang that got special paint colors (Aspen Gold, Columbine Blue, Timberline Green) and brass fender badges to help out with sales.
Grey was convinced that a similar package could sell in Southern California. He told Ford that if they didn’t pick up Little Red (which they didn’t) they could just sell the parts necessary to make it at Ford dealerships.
Turns out, though, that installing twin-superchargers and a whole whack of body mods is a bit too much for your average dealer. So instead Grey took the idea to Lee Iacocca who could make it happen, less the superchargers, at the factory. It won’t surprise you to find out that the born salesman was intrigued and eventually managed to order a run 5,500 cars.
These cars were built in San Jose and came to be known as the Mustang GT California Special. Sadly, none left the factory with Shelby’s engine, nor were they all necessarily Mustang GTs, which is particularly confusing because they were all known as Mustang GT/CSs.
Featuring taillights from a ’65 Thunderbird (not the Cougar, as is sometimes claimed, so no sequential taillights for GT/CS), fiberglass scoops over the rear wheel arches (non-functional, unlike the Shelby scoops that inspired them), a blacked out grille, square fog lights, a pop-off gas cap, and sold only as coupes, the original GT/CS did also share the Shelby’s jazzy red paint scheme.
Although they were known as California Specials, made in California, and conceived of in California, the cars weren’t exclusively sold in California. With models selling in Dallas, Kansas, Seattle, and even Canada, California Specials, like Johnny Cash, have been everywhere man.
Unfortunately, by the end of the GT/CS’s run, only about 4,000 were made, far from reaching the original target of 5,500. That was still considerably more than other “dealer specials,” though. Only about 250 of the High Country Specials ever sold.
Unfortunately, after just one year of production, Ford stopped production of the Mustang GT California Special, but the story doesn’t quite end there. Ford revived the marque in 2007 and then again in 2011.
Based on the 4.6-liter Mustang, the 2007 California Special featured a familiar sidestripe, 18-inch wheels, and a special rear bumper. The 2011 model, meanwhile, was based on the 5.0 and came with 19-inch rims, a chrome billet grille, and a tri-color pony logo.
Now, 50 years after the original first rolled off the line in San Jose, the California Special is back, though this time it’s a convertible (apparently some people claim there was a ’68 GT/CS convertible, but this is an unverifiable claim, so let’s just agree that it probably didn’t actually happen). Continuing in the rich tradition of the GT/CS, though, it is largely an appearance package, with a fading stripe along its side, special badging, a blacked out grille, the Mustang Performance Pack 1 front splitter, and unique five-spoke California Special rims.