The Mustang California Special Is The Perfect Sunset Strip Cruiser

Ascending the on-ramp onto the 405 departing LAX, my right foot goes to the floor. The 460-horsepower Gen 3 Coyote under-hood comes to life as the revs head for the 7,500-rpm redline. The flirtation is brief, as this is a highway, but the buzzing commuters of Los Angeles hardly notice the speed. A blast of the wide-open Active Valve Performance Exhaust might have snapped them out of highway hypnosis for an instant, but our chariot soon blended into the traffic — as much as a bright-red Mustang can.

Taking a 2019 Mustang GT with the California Special package on a weekend adventure in Hollywood was the perfect venue to enjoy this stylish package in its namesake state. The Race Red machine looked right at home along the Sunset Strip as it held court in front of the legendary Rainbow Bar & Grill.

There was, of course, a mission in mind. This wouldn’t be carving canyons or ripping up racetracks. This was a pure street mission to a historic swath of road that has as much history as this optional package.

This signature design takes its cues from the original California Special, while enhancing the personality of today’s Mustang. — Mark Conforzi, Ford

Whether it is cars, movies, or music, the Golden State has a long tradition as the birthplace of cool. Back in 1967, Carroll Shelby developed his prototype Shelby GT500 Mustang, Little Red, which inspired Ford to create the California Special Package. Over the years, it re-appeared for retro runs from 2007-2009, 2011-2014, and 2016-2017.

With a 460-horsepower Gen 3 Coyote 5.0-liter engine underhood, the latest Mustang GT is a potent performer. Having the auto-rev-matching MT-82 six-speed manual in the tunnel made for a fun ride during those rare breaks in the Los Angeles traffic.

After a two-year break, it returned for the 2019 model year, and last fall we took one for a spin to the historic Sunset Strip. We visited to see a pair of shows at the Whisky A Go Go, which opened its doors a few months before the Mustang debuted in 1964. Now a historic landmark, the club is one of the few remaining venues that helped give the strip its reputation. These days, modern hotels and restaurants surround its neighbors, the Roxy and Rainbow, but these stalwarts help keep the area authentic.

While there is little to complain about in the modern Mustang interior, it seems as though the Cal Special could be a bit more special on the inside. While it features Miko suede door and seat inserts as well as floor mats with the California Special logo, it doesn’t seem quite as "special" as it could be on the inside. Of course, there is a California Special dash plaque to let you know it is a limited edition.

Much the same can be said of the latest California Special. It has all the creature comforts a modern Mustang with the Premium package has to offer, plus a bit of throwback style that reminds us all where it came from. Setting it apart from the crowd are special 19-inch wheels, Ebony GT/CS stripes, signature grilles, and California Special badging. The splitter is borrowed from the Performance Pack option.

“This signature design takes its cues from the original California Special, while enhancing the personality of today’s Mustang,” said Mark Conforzi, Ford designer.

Aside from the splitter, the California Special doesn’t benefit from the chassis, rear gear, or suspension upgrades found in its native option. Instead, this is a base Mustang GT underneath with the Premium toys and GT/CS swagger.

The Cal Special package is all about style, and from the backstage view, its 19-inch wheels, pedestal rear spoiler, and signature faux gas cap badge help it stand out from other Mustangs on the road.

In practice our example was just what the doctor ordered. Sporting the aforementioned active exhaust and manual trans, the Cal Special still served up plenty of performance fun, despite the softer suspension. As one of the first vehicles announced with the new-for-2019 auto rev matching, the GT/CS made for a fun ride around some of those cloverleaf California off-ramps as the downshifts were smooth and effortless.

Even in traffic, the rev matching makes the GT/CS fun. Decelerating and downshifting toward a stoplight, the automatic blip of throttle elicits a growl from the Sport-mode enabled exhaust. Like a great memory, it brought a smile to my face every time — and it happened often. Running out for lunch or to venues on and around the 1-½ miles known as the Sunset Strip, the striking red pony car held its own with the supercars and high-dollar machines out to grab attention.

There are details inside and out that call out just what package option is on this car. The machined-face aluminum, 19-inch wheels with black accents stand out and the badging on the strut tower says this is not a basic GT.

After spending a few days in the car, it proved the perfect companion for a weekend in West Hollywood, but it lacks the sort of sharpened performance that really stokes the fires of your scribe. The package continues on with the 2020 model year, but choosing it is a definite move of style over substance as the Performance Package options can’t be tacked on with it.

However, for just $2,000 it does give the latest Mustang an injection of style that harkens back to his storied past — and when you are cruising the Sunset Strip, what more do you need?

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About the author

Steve Turner

Steve Turner brings decades of passion and knowledge in the world of Ford performance, having covered it for over 20 years. From the swan song of the Fox Mustang to the birth of the Coyote, Steve had a front-row seat.
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