Brad Bowling
October 1, 2007

There was a time when state and regional dealer organizations would use their influence to create special models for customers. "Send us 400 Mustangs and Torinos painted bright pink with Cobra Jet V-8s," the dealers would command, and Ford Motor Company would ask, "With or without floormats?"

Throughout much of the '60s and into the early '70s, promotions such as the hypothetical one we pose above were successful marketing tools for slow-moving models or depressed sales seasons. Many of the packages appealed to local or regional pride. For example, is there a Texan worth his spurs who didn't secretly yearn to park a '67 Lone Star Limited in the driveway so neighbors could get a good view of the Bluebonnet Blue paint (named for the state flower), Texas-shaped fender badge, and standard Sports Sprint equipment? "Only 175 for the whole state-get yours today!"

The popularity of each edition depended on the resourcefulness and creativity of the area dealers and how much pull they had with Ford. Most specials, such as the '67 Indy Pace-setter, boasted nothing more than a tape stripe, but in some cases, Ford was convinced to build distinctive models with many nonstock features to reward successful sales districts.

The uniquely styled '68 California Special (also known as the GT/CS) is the regional edition to end all regional editions with its Shelby-esque appointments and West Coast go-go allure. The GT/CS story, some historians will argue, begins not in the Golden State, but in the Rockies, where one of the first-if not the first-regional Mustang limited editions was created in 1966.

Despite a strong national case of Mustang fever, sales slowdowns were occurring in certain markets during the line's second full year of production. Whether the drop was due to oversaturation or a slowing economy wasn't important to Thurlo Newell of the Denver-area district office, who took delivery in July of 333 High Country Specials from the San Jose Ford plant. The HCS cars, distributed through 100 Denver dealers, were available with any '66 powertrain and body style in one of three special colors: Aspen Gold, Columbine Blue, or Timberline Green. Receiving dealers installed shield-shaped brass plaques to the HCS front fenders (with sheetmetal screws-yikes!) that featured a horse galloping across high mountain tops. Because there were no exact specifications for placement of the badge, restorers have documented cars where the plaque sits above and ahead of the Tri-bar running horse. On some, the plaque rests above the "Mustang" lettering.

The uniqueness of the promotion must have created strong sales because in 1967, Denver dealers raised the order to 400 units. Similar to the year before, the High Country Special could be ordered with any Mustang powertrain and body style. Aspen Gold, Columbine Blue, and Timberline Green were the only available colors, although records indicate the green was a slightly different mix than before.

In 1968, Denver's success with the High Country Specials inspired Ford to design and produce 4,118 copies of a limited edition coupe for its West Coast dealers. Based on Carroll Shelby's "Little Red" '67 show car hardtop, the GT/CS was an attractive combination of Mustang GT and GT350/500 parts. Its development was spearheaded by Southern California District Sales Manager Lee Grey.

Lee was impressed with Little Red. The notchback featured a supercharged 427, automatic transmission, and black vinyl top. In short, it was a super Mustang with understated appointments. He later borrowed Little Red from Shelby and convinced Lee Iacocca to green light a California-only spin-off of the sporty coupe for '68. After a command viewing of Little Red by Henry Ford II, Shelby Automotive received approval to begin development of the California Special. Seven prototypes were shown to dealers in February 1968, and more than 1,000 were ordered a few weeks later at the official unveiling. GT/CS production began at the San Jose plant on February 17, and the first customer car was sold March 1. Production ended July 30.

In production form, the GT/CS wore a fiberglass decklid with an integrated spoiler (a Shelby convertible piece), fiberglass rear-quarter extensions, sequential '65 Thunderbird taillights (identical to the '68 Shelby units), a blacked-out grille (minus Mustang identification), a pop-off gas cap, fiberglass sidescoops, Marchal or Lucas foglamps (depending on supply), hood locks, unique body striping, and chrome "California Special" script on the rear quarters.

California Specials could be ordered in any color and engine combination as other Mustangs. Wheel covers were the same ones used on '68 GTs, but they only featured the "GT" letters if that dress-up package was specified. Sales fell short of the 5,500 Ford had estimated, but the faux Shelby styling has made the GT/CS a popular collector car in the 21st century.

The folks who first proved there was appeal for a regional Mustang package-the Denver-area Ford dealers-received a High Country Special for '68 that was identical to the California Special. Featuring all GT/CS equipment and available in any powertrain and color combination, only 251 High Country Specials were sold.

Quicklook
Model: '68 California Special GT/CS
Engine: Any Mustang powerplant
Production: 4,118

California Red
Joel Franckowiak enjoys driving this desirable 302-powered GT/CS through the hills of Pennsylvania and winning trophies at AACA and Mustang club events. It was well equipped when new with factory air conditioning and the GT Equipment Group.

California made it happen-again:
Unique regional models faded from the scene more as a result of the auto industry's system of mass production than from any lack of interest on the part of dealer networks. The '65 Mustang's list of optional powertrains, equipment, and accessories boggled the mind: It was possible to build millions of cars without producing identical twins. That figure doesn't include the special-order color combinations the factory provided to individual customers for a fee.

The trend in Detroit since that heyday of personalization has been to eliminate options, to package related items, and to work as many features into the standard equipment list as possible. By 2001, Ford reduced the entire Mustang line (not counting SVT's Cobra or Saleen's models) to approximately 50 possible order combinations based on engine choice (V-6 or V-8), transmission (five-speed manual or four-speed automatic), trim level (standard, deluxe, or premium), and color (10 to choose from; no special orders accepted). This effort to economize kept the Mustang's price tag at an acceptable level for buyers, but it ended any chance to own a modern factory-built custom or interesting state/regional special edition, which has sparked the explosion of growth in the aftermarket industry.

California Made It Happen-Again

In spring 2007, after several successful limited edition nostalgic Mustang models such as the '01 Bullitt, '03-'04 Mach 1, and '07 Shelby GT 500, Ford announced the return of the California Special. Available through dealerships around the country, the new GT/CS was a $1,895 Premium GT option package for coupes or convertibles. Showcasing the GT's 300hp, 4.6L, Three-Valve V-8, the GT/CS featured unique stripes, sidescoops, model-specific front and rear fascias, and a chin spoiler that sat 1-1/2 inches lower than the standard GT unit. The GT/CS rear diffuser was inspired by a similar treatment on the Ford GT supercar. Exterior colors included Redfire, Vista Blue, Performance White, and Black. Valencia Yellow was scheduled for a late introduction.