Hate the road and track cliché? What if we tried to apply it to a car that many people believe can never do both. Andrew Leopold headed to Kyalami, and then finished his schooling in the Mustang California Special.
You’ve probably heard that muscle cars have a bad reputation when it comes to racing on the track – especially technical and unforgiving ones like the Kyalami. That’s why I’m here at Kyalami with the new Mustang California Special, to see if Ford muscle cars can change that prejudice.
But before I start writing about the nuances of its trackability (or lack thereof), I have to admit one glaring void in my automotive career: I haven’t driven a 5.0-liter V8 Mustang since the right-hand drive version arrived. at dealerships in South Africa in 2016.
I’ve driven the defunct 2.3 EcoBoost version that’s no less controversial than the all-electric Mustang Mach-E, but the true, unfiltered Mustang experience has somehow eluded me until recently.
California Special is the last of the current generation. It will soon be replaced by the new Mustang which makes its international debut later this month at the Detroit Motor Show, with the V8 engine still under the hood.
The Mustang California Special revives a name from the original 1968 film and then tries to mold that nostalgia into an interesting and relevant package, 20 years later. Comfortably uses the Mustang GT as a foundation while introducing a few upgrades (some cosmetic, some functional) for a unique look that manages to look very different from the Mach 1 and Bullitt that preceded it.
Among the exclusive add-ons are a new grille, rear spoiler, new front bumper and side air scoops which upon closer inspection have no cooling function. There are also some Special California badges inside and out as well as nine new paint options – the Rapid Red on our test car was probably our least favorite. This is a package limited to just 100 units in South Africa, all automatic and all on sale.
These facts left my mind as soon as I peeled the pitlane, the sound of the 330 kW V8 for once drowned out by the Shelby Super Snakes and the sleeker Shelby Cobra and Daytona. We’re here waving Team Shelby colors at the Kyalami Motoring Festival and the top three from the event’s Time Attack will advance to the final knockout round.
My first sense of California’s size and weight came as I braked to the fast right at the ‘big-kahunas’ Sunset bend – the car jolted just before crouching back down on the track. The lap times highlight this ‘moment’ with a time of 1:45 seconds (on the slightly shortened Kyalami) which is still enough to keep me in the pack and give me plenty to work on.
I adjusted my driving style for the second lap. One thing about the ‘Stang’s is that they are very transparent cars, even if communication is sometimes delayed. Even with the traction control loosened up, they give you enough warning early on, and when you massage your inputs it’s a much more precise and useful machine than they get. As a result, lap times continue to decrease, before it’s time to go home and drive the ‘Stang back on the open road.=
I took it out of Sport mode, where gearshifts are a bit louder and throttle sensitivity is higher, and instead used the engine’s wide shoulders and ten gears to absorb kilometers quietly, with the V8’s track-haust temporarily extinguished. The soundtrack is still there, but now in a beautiful, harmonious backing burble.
This is a comfortable and practical Gran Tourer with a level of maturity and duality that is often lacking in the sharp, sharp, and honed nature of a Nurburgring sports car. The seats are spacious and comfortable, you can sit high enough to easily see through the long hood and have visibility of most traditional blind spots. You can also approach speed bumps and steep driveways directly by prying the front bumper.
It’s not armed with the latest autonomous gizmos (despite lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control) but I suspect that will be changed in the new version. Instead, you get heated seats, dual-zone climate, SYNC3 infotainment (which is starting to feel outdated), keyless entry, and a reverse camera. All of this is presented in a retro-modern juxtaposition with toggle switches and large round buttons.
Back on track the next morning, Shelby’s friendship grew with the racers sharing tips on the race track and the braking point between a sip of coffee and a bacon and egg roll. Given that I was in the only standard Mustang in the pitlane, the California Special’s out-the-box performance was noticed and flattered me tenfold – not a description often used for Mustangs but reflecting the constant evolution of these cars.
Compared to roads where a ten-speed gearbox does well, this track makes one wonder if ten is actually too much. It’s easy to lose track of what gear you’re using and there’s still a tendency for the gearbox to make its own decisions. I find myself thinking that Heads-up View will solve at least half of this problem.
Despite these bugbears, I continued to cut the stopwatch, eventually finishing a consistent 1:32 which wasn’t enough to break the final firefight but the car did nothing wrong all weekend and rewrote some misconceptions about Pony cars and their handling nous. Mission firmly accomplished, and what a wonderful way to be a guest of the South African Shelby Team.
Time to hand over the keys at Shelby South Africa for power-ups and cosmetics…
Photo: Alex Shahini (@alexshahini) and Andrew Leopold