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1968 Ford Mustang California Special

In this edition of Muscle Car Milestones, we focus on the 1968 Ford Mustang California Special. When Ford introduced the Mustang in April 1964, it soon became a sales juggernaut. However, sales started to dip during the 1967 model year and Ford needed a hit to help rejuvenate sales. Even though 20 percent of Mustang sales occurred in the Los Angeles District, management at Ford realized the competition was starting to eat into sales. It was time for action.

During a visit to Shelby American, Southern California Ford sales district manager Lee Grey witnessed Ford engineer Fred Goodell working on a 1967 Shelby prototype known as “Little Red”. Grey became smitten with the prototype and believed a special edition Mustang would help invigorate sales in his region. Grey met Lee Iacocca and presented “Little Red” to Iacocca. Grey persuaded Iacocca that the alterations done on “Little Red” would be perfect for a special edition Mustang. Since Iacocca was Ford’s national sales manager, he was able to convince the brass at Ford to build the California Special.

Ford revealed the California Special to Southern California dealers at the Century Plaza Hotel in Beverly Hills, California in February 1968. A second reveal for Northern California dealers was hosted at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, California. The public got its first look at the California Special in March.

The California Special, or GT/CS as it was also known, was planned to be a 5,500-unit special edition for Southern California. The California Special package added just over $194 to the price of Mustang. The cars were produced at Ford’s San Jose plant and shipped to Shelby American to be converted into California Specials. Outside fabricators such as A.O. Smith and A.G. Stearns also helped craft parts to be featured on the California Special. At the end of the production run, 4,118 California Specials had been built, with approximately 250 sold as the High Country Special in the Denver, Colorado area.

The California Special featured a blacked-out grille, rectangular foglamps, and a functional louvered hood with integral turn signals. The GT/CS also included chrome hood pins, mid-body tape striping, and nonfunctional side scoops with GT/CS badging. Out back, the California Special’s exterior styling included unique a rear ducktail spoiler, spoiler fender extensions, and “California Special” script badging on the rear quarter panels. Another distinctive feature of the California Special was the horizontal taillamps borrowed from the 1965 Ford Thunderbird. Oddly enough, with all the exterior modifications performed on the California Special, the interior was left completely stock. However, buyers could outfit the interior with amenities from the Mustang option sheet such as cruise control, stereo tape system, and tilt steering.

A myriad of myths and misconceptions have surrounded the California Special since its inception. One is that all California Specials were GT models. Not so. One of the advantages of the California Special was it could be outfitted with any engine and transmission combination available from Ford. Also, the GT/CS was only available as coupe. No fastback or convertibles were ever produced. And even though the California Special was built in California, not all were sold in the Golden State. Further, the California Special’s taillamps did not feature the sequential turn feature like the Thunderbird.

The 1968 Ford Mustang California Special didn’t take the “one size fits all” approach like much of the competition. With so many ways to equip the GT/CS, Ford gave buyers an abundance of options from mild to wild to outfit their car. Even though the California Special didn’t meet sales expectations, it proved a regional special edition could still grab the buying public’s attention. Today, the limited production 1968 Ford Mustang California Special is revered by Mustang aficionados and collectors alike. However, due to limited production, finding one for sale or auction may prove to be a challenge.

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