In addition to my day job, I’m also a jazz pianist. Recently, after playing an hour of cocktail music for a swank black-tie occasion, I spied an automotive anomaly while walking to my car. The familiar face of a 1968 Mustang broke up the row of elite (or elitist?) German and Japanese iron in the valet lot. “Ah,” I thought poetically, “an oasis of sincerity in a desert of automotive pretense.” But then I noticed the rectangular grill-mounted fog lamps and the lack of a pony emblem. Drawing closer, I realized that I stood before the height of Sixties automotive fluff: a 1968 Mustang GT California Special. The “sincerity” part of my previous thought immediately sprouted hooves and sauntered away.
Compared to the ’68 model, the 2009 Mustang California Special is more California, less special. The LBJ-era car, built exclusively for Southern California Ford dealers, consisted of a garden-variety GT with a graphics package, special interior trim and sequential turn signals. The new one loses the sequential turn signals and it’s built for everyone, including those yearning for an open car like the one I recently sampled (‘68’s were hardtop only).
Although the current-generation ‘Stang shares its good looks with the original, the California Special treatment adorning today’s example seems more like a dealer-installed profit-booster than the “Shelby-for-less” appearance package of yore. The cheap, fake plastic hood scoop and rear spoiler available on lesser GT’s compliment the cheap, fake plastic side scoops dedicated solely to the CS model– quite well, actually. Except that they’re cheap, fake, and plastic. When the new Camaro starred in Transformers a few years back, Ford stylists must have visited the movie set, because they ganked a piece of wild, robot-looking “satin silver” plastic and used it for the fuel door on this Superflustang. Nonetheless, the unique front and rear air dams look decent, and the bright chrome exhaust tips are so righteous you’ll never notice the “California Special” badge between the taillights.
By contrast, the interior has no bright spots. Well, actually, it has several, but like the atrocious fuel door, they’re made of fake, satin-silvery plastic that looks like the chrome spray paint I used on model cars as a kid. From the steering wheel spokes to the automatic shifter to the door latch levers, I kept thinking paint might come off on my fingers. Overall, the interior doesn’t look bad, but functionally, it disappoints. For instance, the two-halved, econo-crap hand brake handle threatens to come off in your hand. And although the two-tone black and “dove” leather seats look like legitimate sporting buckets, they’re neither comfortable nor supportive.
The function-follows-form theme continues with the optional cloth convertible top. Sure, it looks a thousand times more upscale than the standard vinyl affair. But it’s not appreciably quieter when up. That ‘s a real shame, because the Shaker 1000 sound system doesn’t sound too bad (shaker, not stirred).
The real music in any Mustang should come from under the hood. In this, thankfully, the California Special succeeds. Initially, the new-for-’05 electronic throttle wasn’t the most responsive unit on the market. Now, it’s flawless; I felt like my right foot was connected to a perfectly-calibrated mechanical throttle linkage (how kinky is that?). The Stang’s 4.6-liter engine has never owned the low-end torque of Ford’s famous small-block V8, but this latest iteration brings on the fun stuff a lot sooner and smoother than any of its cammer predecessors. And although the California Special’s five-speed automatic trans isn’t the snappiest thing on the street, you’d have to leap back at least 35 years (to the crisp, old C6 three-speed) to find a Mustang automatic less slushy than this.
The same can (not?) be said of the California Special’s ride. Maybe it’s a compliment that a car can wear Z-rated performance rubber and not relentlessly proclaim the depth of every pothole to its driver. Still, you have to wonder what happened to the chassis that felt so modern and composed under the now-defunct Lincoln LS. Oh, wait…a live rear axle happened! God bless the beancounters. Or not.
Although the California’s numb steering feel is decently weighted (go figure), mid-corner road undulations undo the car’s poise enough to conjure-up the mirage of a hood ornament five feet ahead of you. Get too fast in a corner and dirty old Mr. Understeer slides into second base. But you probably won’t get too fast too often, because the brakes are less reassuring than a politician’s tax promises.
But who cares when you’re riding California-style? Be safe, adhere to the Mustang’s straight-line performance heritage, and you’ll probably have just as much fun by cruising around town, waxing adolescent-driven imports at stoplights, and – maybe – by showing up as the “different” one at your next black-tie event. Maybe even in a good way.