Cali Special: History of the CS Mustang


California Made it Happen

“California Made It Happen” was the tagline Ford attached to their newest specialty Mustang in 1968, the California Special. Although there have been a litany of specialty Mustang’s over their half-a-century production, few have withstood the test of time like the California Special—one of the very first one-off stallions to be offered from Ford. While many enthusiasts may be familiar with the California Special Mustang, there are still large amounts of true blue fanatics who don’t know about the car’s legacy, much less its colorful history.

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Little Red and the Dealer Demand

In the mid-1960’s, the golden era of the hot rods and muscle car wars, California was responsible for 20% of all Mustangs and Thunderbird’s sold in the country; between the warm weather and thriving car culture, CA residents couldn’t get enough of the Mustang. Ford corporate as well as California Ford Dealers took notice of the large West Coast sales, which spurred one Cali-based Ford Dealer to come up with an idea.

Lee Gray, the Southern California district sales manager for Ford, wanted to bring a unique idea to the market to increase the sale of Mustangs in California. Lee wanted Mustangs sold in California to look unique and custom, giving them clear separation from models sold elsewhere in the country.

The Shelby Red Print

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When Lee attended the Ford Preview in Los Angeles in 1967, he saw the infamous Shelby GT500 prototype that had been dubbed “Little Red”, which was a supercharged 428 ci tire-shredder dressed in—you guessed it—bright red paint. While the car was supposed to gauge the market’s response to a Shelby Mustang lineup, Lee saw the big picture, or rather the picture he was trying to paint for the California car market; he wanted to use elements from the Little Red prototype to create and market his California-only Mustang.

Taken with his vision, Lee met with the father of the Mustang in LA, Lee Iacocca, to discuss the Mustang, which Iacocca himself was a fan of. The limited edition Mustang was given the thumbs up and plans were made to bring the prototype to Dearborn to develop the car. Originally, the car was going to be labeled as a GT/SC with “SC” standing for “Sport Coupe, but after mulling it over executives decided upon GT/CS with the “CS”
standing for “California Special.”

Key Design Elements

The key differentiation between a stock Mustang and GT/CS model were:

The Forgotten Prototypes

Shelby Automotive was delegated to working on the GT/CS project, which was worked on right alongside the 1968 Shelby Mustang. A lot of Shelby styling elements and parts that appeared on other Shelby Mustangs made their way onto the GT/CS. While production of the California Special began in February of ’68, Shelby purchased a production GT/CS from Ford in April of ‘1968 to use as a development tool. It was called the “Green Hornet EXP-500” and utilized an independent rear suspension and fuel injection—two major automotive developments that wouldn’t become common in American cars for almost two decades. And yeah, you read that right—a 1968 Mustang was the first to rock an IRS setup, something that the Mustang wouldn’t see again for almost a half-century.

The “Little Red” Shelby Coupe and “Green Hornet” were the only two Shelby produced California Specials, yet only one survived. While Little Red’s road ended at the crusher, the Green Hornet went on to survive and recently popped up at an auction in 2013.

Marketing a New Legacy

The Shelby designed GT/CS was released in early ’68, mainly to two sales districts in Southern California, however it also ended up in Washington, Nevada, Texas, Utah, Oklahoma, Arizona, Western Canada, and Colorado. While target production was for 5,000 California Special Mustangs, only 4,118 were produced for 1968. 251 of those 4,118 ended up in Colorado as mentioned earlier, but they were re-branded, as the “High Country Special ‘68”, and overtime have become one of the most desirable and rarest Mustangs to find.

Ford marketing capitalized on “California Made it Happen” as their main advertisement for the GT/CS, a take on the national Mustang marketing slogan, “Only Mustang Makes it Happen!” ’68 California Specials were offered with everything from a 289, to the big-block 390 and Cobra Jet 428, with the later bringing considerably more at auction.

Resurrecting the Nameplate

The fifth generation of the Mustang channeled the design elements of the 60’s, and Ford being as thorough as they are, also channeled the GT/CS into the lineup. Offered again in 2007, the GT/CS came back in limited production, bringing with it the same key design elements that helped the ’68 GT/CS achieve that custom look Lee Gray was trying accomplish. The GT/CS has since been offered in 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and once again in 2016 on the S550 platform.

While “California Made it Happen” rings all-too-true of a marketing tagline, as the West Coast’s unrelenting demand for the Mustang brought the creation of the GT/CS package, the unfaltering passion of Mustang enthusiasts has allowed the legacy of the GT/CS to live on in newer generations of Mustangs—still carrying Lee Gray’s original vision for a factory custom car.

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