There’s no hiding the fact that there have been some pretty appalling special edition Mustangs ever since the model launched in 1964. If you thought the 1979 Pace Car was bad (it was — check out the hilarious wild horse decals on the fenders!) then you clearly haven’t heard of or seen the 1972 Sprint, built to commemorate the Munich Olympics that year. The ads featured bizarre red, white and blue stripes which looked identical to the Aquafresh logo, but this pony sure wasn’t as fresh as the toothpaste... The list goes on — for a laugh, check out the Ski Country Edition, Heat Edition and perhaps the worst offender of the lot, the Ghia. This one had the envious task of merging the powerful all-American GT with the renowned Italian design house — using the woeful Mustang II, aka Disgustang II, at its foundation. It didn’t work out well, but for all the flops there have been as many hits and one such is the California Special.
Back in 1968, the residents of US state of California, which had a car culture like no other, were buying Mustangs left right and centre. They made up a whopping 20 per cent of all ’Stangs sold in the country and helped to make the coupé a resounding success. This gave Lee Grey, a Southern California Ford district sales manager the bright idea of creating a special edition on the back of the impressive West Coast sales. Ford loved the idea. Based on Carroll Shelby’s “Little Red” ‘67 hardtop prototype, it was the regional edition to end all regional editions. Packing a supercharged 427 cubic inch V8, automatic transmission, and a black vinyl roof, it was an understated powerhouse. The CS trim package has remained that way ever since, but it hasn’t always been a regular fixture. Almost 40 years would pass before it would return (the Blue Oval added a limited production factory GT/CS to the line-up in 2007 as a tribute to the original) and then it disappeared again only to comeback in 2013 and it’s popularity has been rising since.
That brings us to this 2017 pony which is a wild yet well-trained sort. Yes, it does wonderfully smoky burnouts and you shouldn’t expect anything less not when under the muscular bonnet resides that magical/maniacal 5.0-litre V8 mated to a slick six-speed auto which is good for 435 galloping horses and 542Nm of torque. But the CS package adds an attractive layer of retro appeal on top of the nicely aging sixth-gen model. Our tester, finished in an understated silver paint, gets a large black front splitter, black stripes on the bonnet, a tri-bar Mustang pony emblem in the grille, black side view mirrors housings, a faux rear petrol cap with “California GT Special” emblazoned on it, raised black rear spoiler and unique 19in black painted aluminium wheels. The cabin has Alcantara seat covers and a silver plaque on the right of the dash and although that might not sound like much, the GT/CS also has Fords latest SYNC 3 infotainment system. It’s much better than the previous one and far more user friendly not to mention more responsive and it has Apple CarPlay. This is a cool looking car both inside and out. I mean, what else has the words ‘Ground Speed’ on the speedo buried deep in those round binnacles? Some of the other tech includes heated and cooled seats and a 12-speaker Shaker audio system but it’s all about the drive in this and indeed all Mustangs.
Just like the regular GT, the chassis is firm and you’d expect nothing less — but it never becomes uncomfortable, not even after hours of driving. The independent rear suspension sure improves handling and there’s always plenty of power in reserve when you punch the throttle. The automatic has been tuned perfectly to handle the massive grunt of the V8 and when you mash the throttle you’re met with a mix of all-American thunder and the fat rear tyres screaming for life. When cruising down the highway the motor is barely audible; this isn’t anything like the muscle cars of the Sixties — it’s far more civilised but when called into action, boy can it perform.
Ford’s ‘California made it happen’ tagline in ‘68 was spot on, because it did and the Mustang owes a great debt to the state but I wonder if Ford knew that the rest of the world would eventually also get to appreciate this subtle but smart variant? It’s good to see Grey’s legacy has lived on and is still as classy as the original.