While Lee Grey, a Southern California Ford district sales manager, receives credit for creating the Mustang GT/CS, his inspiration came from a Carroll Shelby design. As every Mustang enthusiast knows, Carrol Shelby’s association with Ford in general and Mustang in particular is nothing short of legendary.
In 1967, Grey attended a Ford Preview event in the hopes that he might find something unique that would spark Mustang sales in Los Angeles. At this event, he noticed a prototype of the Shelby GT-500 that was named “Little Red.” Impressed by the supercharged 428 coupe with a C-6 automatic transmission, Lee became inspired to use elements of Shelby’s design to market a “California Only Mustang.” With the help of Shelby Automotive, the necessary parts were designed and engineered, and the Mustang GT/CS was born.Ford initially planned to create 5,000 of these vehicles in a 5.5 month stretch from February to August 1968. However, only 4,188 were produced, and this number included 251 cars that were later remarketed in Denver as the “High Country Special ‘68.” The California Special sports the qualities of both a Mustang coupe and a Shelby GT, making it one of the most appreciated classic Mustangs.
The California Special featured a variety of specifications that made the model stand apart from the competition both functionally and in appearance. Most models were produced with C-4 automatic transmission and a small block 289 two barrel carburetor. Features included Lucas or Marchal fog lights, side scoops, a rear spoiler deck lid, and a taillight panel that offered 1965 Thunderbird taillights. Stripes were painted along the side to include the “GT/CS” logo, and a rear stripe was found on the deck lid. While stripes were only available in a few colors, the vehicle was produced in all standard colors for Mustang in 1968.
California Special Facts
As one of the most prized Mustangs ever made, there are a variety of misconceptions reported about the vehicle that have been accepted as facts. Many car enthusiasts believe that the GT/CS utilized functional Shelby side scoops. In fact, the fiberglass scoops used in the GT/CS were modeled after Shelby scoops, but they were non-functional and closed. They had a unique part number and differed from Shelby scoops, which worked to channel air toward the rear brakes in order to keep temperatures down.
It is also important to note that most of the GT/CS models were not GTs. Like any other Ford Mustang, a GT/CS had the option of being ordered with our without GT equipment. Additionally, despite rumors that have circulated about the production of a convertible GT/CS, all 1968 models were made as coupes.
The California Special has some identifiable features that set this model apart from the Shelby GT350 and GT500. First, the GT/CS came equipped with a unique pop-off gas cap similar to those found on Shelby models but without the Cobra or GT emblem. The depiction of a running horse in a rectangular corral was used instead. While the California Special’s tail lights are the same as those found on the 68 Shelbys, the GT/CS featured a unique tail section comprised of quarter panel extensions, a fiberglass trunk lid, and an integral spoiler.
In 2007, Ford Motors revived the name “California Special” from the original version in order to introduce a new GT/CS Mustang. The new model offered some of the same appearance features as the classic version, including side scoops and body striping. The new GT/CS was only made available with the GT Premium Platform, so it received all available GT performance enhancements. Both coupe and convertible options were offered, and the model was so popular that it extended through 2014, with a brief absence in 2010.
Despite the modern revival of the California Special, the classic 1968 model reigns as one of the most popular editions to the Mustang family. The Shelby-inspired design reminiscent of the GT350 and GT500 put Lee Grey on the map as a prominent automotive designer. The California Special also gave the country a glimpse at what a California design aesthetic could do for the popular Mustang, and it has made a lasting impression on classic car collectors.
Article by Matt Robertson
Matt is managing partner at Leland-West Insurance. As an avid classic car nut, Matt has been known to work for parts:) You can reach him at matt at LelandWest dot com.