Review: 2009 Mustang GT California Special

Don Gammill Jr.
by Don Gammill Jr.

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.

Don Gammill Jr.
Don Gammill Jr.

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  • Bomis4 Bomis4 on Feb 04, 2011

    I own this 09 GT/CS,same one as shown,and I love this car!Take off the TCS and it will Smoke from here to kingdom come,the car is so lite the rear end wants to dance on ya bad (way fun) I pop that 2nd gear it wants to start skipping rope.1st 40,2nd72 and 3rd 120 easy and still have 4th and 5th too go,havent been able to do that yet.The seats in this car are very comfy and beautiful with the two tone color,and when its cold they heat up, Awww thats nice.It"s looks are what got me,a blast from the past,Ford nailed it at least they did for me:) on this one and I have never been a Ford guy.57,63,67,68,73 and 88 chevys and Loved them all,they were all fast too with exception for the 63.For me this 09 GT/CS is all those car together and better.I didnt buy it for its handling abilitys,bought it for its throw back looks and American Muscle and I just flat out took my breath away and to boot they only made 938 convertibles and I have one ,happy about that also!Now I need to go drive my Awesome and I still cant believe im saying,my Ford GT/CS fully loaded convertiable Mustang;)

  • Fsheff Fsheff on Sep 15, 2012

    After lo, these many years, I'm not going to bother pointing out the several errors by posters on both sides of the GT/CS desirability issue. I will tell you what was happening and why I eventually owned two of them. In mid-2008 the S197 Mustang was well-established as an attractive, useful package to serve as the base for "personalization" of a good-looking, relatively inexpensive, relatively high-performance car. When I was shopping Mustangs the GT/CS and Shelby GT front valence and the GT/CS, Shelby GT, and Shelby GT500 rear valence were common add-ons that could distinguish those cars from the standard GT. The hood scoop is part of the GT Appearance option, not the GT/CS. The wheels, 18x8.5 "Bullitt"-style items were popular and attractive. Two-tone seats and interior were addtitonal distinctions. "Rolled-tip" exhaust came with both the GT/CS package and the GT Appearance thing. (I got both; still seems to me I was over-charged one way or another.) I did the "careful shopping" among GTs and found that the GT/CS package was a good deal cheaper than sourcing and adding the individual options that I liked, and although a few Mustang GTs slipped out of the factory with two-tone interiors, I've never heard of a GT with the two-tone seats. So, the answer was: I expected to add just about all the GT/CS options to a GT, the GT/CS made it easy, plus the two-tone business. Worked for me. The first one I bought was the 2009 manual-shift coupe version, in white. Carroll Shelby his own self derogated it in person, in Lajitas/Terlingua, Texas. It eventually did creditable work in a track day at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway and in quite a few autocross efforts. Just last week I traded it on a 2013 black six-speed 5.0 coupe. I didn't get the new-and-different GT/CS because it and the Brembo brake (and wheel) package are mutually exclusive. Looks as if Ford doesn't expect purchasers of the decorative GT/CS package to be willing to pay for the big brakes as well. And /vice versa/. Second GT/CS I bought was the left-over 2008 convertible automatic version in black. It's a beauty, my wife drives it, and we're keeping it! Any road, it's all well and good to criticize the designers' and purchasers' decisions (why are there /any/ fake scoops at all?) but you can't challenge anyone's likes. They may be different, unusual, less-than-informed, but they are genuine and personal, and account for a whole lot of joy that someone might be missing! Frank S San Diego CA USA

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