TBT: Why California Got Its Own Limited-Edition Mustang in 1968

Nov 09, 2023

The Ford Mustang started out as a red-hot sales success, but by 1967, Ford officials were anticipating a looming wane in Mustang fever. They looked to California, where the Mustang was already immensely popular – L.A.-area dealers were selling as much as 20% of all Mustangs – and dealers there were already creating one-offs of Mustang and other Ford models for a Southern California market that was saturated with custom rides. This scenario made the California Special the perfect solution. 

The 1968 Mustang California Special was based on a prototype 1967 Mustang Shelby notchback coupe created by Shelby American called “Little Red.” A dealer retrofit option using parts purchased from Shelby was briefly considered, but ultimately deemed unfeasible and a limited-edition production run was used instead. 

The car, sold only in California, where Mustang was outselling Chevy’s Camaro by a two-to-one ratio, was produced at Ford’s San Jose plant alongside the original Mustang and Mercury Cougar. The California Special came at a $194 upcharge from the two-door hardtop Mustang it was based on. It included a new rear end with a raised Shelby fiberglass decklid bordered in dual racing stripes, side panel air scoops branded “GT/CS,” horizontal taillamps across the back panel, rectangular fog lamps suspended on a blacked-out grille – with no Mustang Pony badge – and bold stripes that ran along the car’s body. Also, “California Special” was written in script on the car’s rear fender. 

“Inspiration by Shelby GT. But priced like a Mustang,” read a Mustang California Special brochure.

Just over 4,000 California Specials were produced, with a reported 250 of them being shipped to Colorado for sale as “High Country Special” models. Other unsold models were redistributed among other western U.S. sales districts.

Due to the CS’s popularity and rareness, knockoffs became common. The special edition was produced in coupe only, making convertible and fastbacks with upgraded fiberglass parts and “California Special” script added easily detectable. Several other telltale signs have been documented, including VIN number designations. 

Following the California Special, Ford introduced other special edition Mustangs: the luxurious Mustang Grande and the performance-oriented Mustang Mach I. California Special would make its return, though, in 2007. But the reborn Mustang model would now be available nationwide, as would its successors. The specialty model also made its debut in Europe and South Africa last year.

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