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1968 Mustang California Special

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by Joe Babiasz  More from Author

"California Made It Happen!"

Photography by Tony Firpi


The ’60s were a time in history where automotive companies used every means conceivable to increase vehicle sales and exposure. Arguably, Ford was perhaps the best at bringing specialty cars to market. A perfect example was the partnership with people like Carroll Shelby. The other was continuing to develop unique cars for a specific market. In 1968, Ford decided to produce a limited edition Mustang specifically built for the California market. Hence, the California Special or GT/CS was born and “California Made it Happen!” became its marketing theme.

This wasn’t the first time Ford toyed with the idea of a regional car. The California Special had its roots from the very low production High Country Special (HCS), produced in 1966. Developed especially for Denver area dealers, just 333 High Country Specials were sold. Unlike the California Special, the only unique feature of the High Country Special was the exterior color and an identifying badge on each fender.

Lee Gray, Ford’s southern California district sales manager, wanted something special and convinced Lee Iacocca to produce a car just for the California market. Lee agreed and Shelby Automotive was tapped to develop the California Special. While the letters GT were on the side stripes of all GT/CS vehicles, the car was not necessarily a GT unless the GT package was ordered along with ordering a California Special. All California Specials would be available as a coupe only and all cars would be built at Ford’s San Jose, California, assembly plant. In early February 1968, several prototypes were shown to California dealers and orders were taken. Production began on February 17, 1968. All colors and options of a regular Mustang were available on the California Special.

Unlike the 1966 High Country Special, the California Special would not be mistaken for a typical Mustang. Up front, special foglamps sat within a blacked out grille opening. All California Specials used the deluxe hood with integrated turn signal lamps and special hood locks. From the side, a quarter-panel side scoop added a muscular look with a side stripe including a GT/CS logo exiting the scoop. Finishing off the side was a California Special emblem located at the rear portion of the quarter-panel. The rear end was perhaps the most aggressive showing the Shelby influence using the same 1965 T-Bird taillights, quarter-panel extensions and built in decklid spoiler used on Shelby vehicles. All GT/CS cars were given a GT-styled pop-off gas cap but with a Pony emblem replacing the GT emblem. If a GT CT/CS was ordered, the same Pony emblem was used.

Engine options ranged from a low-performance six-cylinder to the stump pulling 428 cubic-inch V-8 Cobra Jet engine. Customers could order a three-speed manual, four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission. As with all standard Mustangs, typical options including air conditioning, power steering, power brakes and a host of other comfort features made their way onto the California Special order sheet.

To keep other regional managers happy, as well as increase sales and visibility, a modified version of the California Special was produced for the Colorado area. Production began in June 1968. The High Country Special was a very close cousin to the GT/CS. In fact it was identical with the exception of a special emblem in place of the GT/CS lettering and the removal of the quarter-panel emblems. The High Country Special is today a very rare commodity with only 251 produced.

By the end of the model year, Ford sold 4,118 California Specials. Today, it is a highly sought after collector car and much recognized for its uniqueness. The CT/CS serves as an illustration of a time when car guys ran auto companies and imagination was limitless.


Specifications

Number built – 4,118 units
Construction – Unibody
Engine – 200 cubic-inch six-cylinder, 302 cubic inch V8, 390 cubic-inch V8, 428 cubic-inch V8
Power/Torque – 120/190 (200 six-cyl), 230/310 (302 V8), 325/427 (390 V8), 335/440 (428 V8)
Transmission – three-speed manual, four-speed manual, three-speed automatic
Suspension front – independent ball joints, single lower control arm and upper a-type control arm with coil springs
Suspension rear – leaf springs
Steering – recirculating ball and nut
Brakes – front and rear drums standard, optional front disc brakes
Length/width/height – 183.6/70.9/51.6 inches
Wheelbase – 108 inches
Weight – 2,635 lbs shipping weight
0-60 mph/quarter-mile – 9.5 seconds/17.0 seconds at 81 mph (200 hp V8) (Motor Trend, June 1966)
Top speed – 105 mph est.
Mpg – 13–17 mpg est.
Price – $2,652 (base convertible) Today – $31,100 (high)


Fuel For Thought
One of the coolest looking Mustangs ever built
Could have been ordered with a six-cylinder (but who would?)
Often mistaken for a Shelby
High fun factor


Insurance cost
Insurance cost is $220/year for a $20,000 1968 Mustang. This is based on 3,000 miles per year of pleasure driving.
*Based on a quote from Heacock Classic Car Insurancewww.heacockclassic.com


Engine
Ford’s small block V8 offered moderate performance and a lighter weight front end. The FE big-block gave blinding performance with the cost of added front-end weight and poor cornering. Both engines were reliable and affordable to rebuild.


Handling
Handling was considered somewhat better than most domestic cars of its era that typically had a longer wheelbase and higher center of gravity. Big-block Mustangs were front heavy and leaned excessively hard into corners.


Alternatives

1968 Camaro Rally Sport
Number built – 40,997
0-60/quarter-mile – 7.8 seconds, 15.6 seconds at 93 mph (Motor Trend, April 1968)
Top speed – 135 mph (Motor Trend, April 1968).
Price – MSRP – $2,670; Today – $11,650 - $26,100

1968 Barracuda
Number built – 45,412
0-60/quarter-mile – 8.1 seconds/ 15.2 seconds at 92 mph
Top speed – 125 mph
Price – MSRP – $2,842 Today – $5,025 - $12,650


Strong Points
Highly desirable today
Unique looks
Affordable
Aftermarket parts readily available
Wide variety of powertrain options


Weak Points
Unrestored vehicles have rust issues
With only 4,118 produced, are somewhat difficult to find
Unless equipped with the big-block, not considered a performance car


Vehicle Category
Most vintage Mustangs are used regularly as both weekend drivers and cruise nights participants. Very few are locked in garages and trailered to shows. Mustang owners are a tight-knit group who enjoy getting together to brag about their pride and joy.


What To Pay
1968 California Special
MSRP – $2,652
Low – $10,850
Average – $17,900
High – $31,100
*Based on prices from the Classic Cars and Parts Price Guide, fueled by NADA and available wherever Mustang & Ford magazines are sold.


Parts Prices
Front seat covers $201.95 (pair)
I/P top $224.95
CT/CS quarter-panel scoop $264.95
CT/CS deck lid $557.95
Front bumper $99.95
*National Parts Depot
www.npdlink.com
(800) 521-6104


Websites
www.californiaspecial.com
www.mustangforums.com
www.allfordmustangs.com
www.mustangblog.com
www.vintage-mustangs.com


Books
CT/California Special by Paul Newitt
Mustang Dynasty by John Clor
Ford Mustang and Cougar, 1964-73 (Chilton Automotive Books) by Chilton
The Complete Book of Mustang: Every Model since 1964½ by Mike Mueller
Mustang Restoration Tips and Techniques by R.M. Clarke


Review
Unlike basic Mustangs, the California Special offers the privilege of driving a limited-production car that is moderate in price and easy to maintain and restore. Today, many enthusiasts know little about it and the fun begins when owners attend cruise nights and the questions begin.

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