As the owner of several collectible Mustangs, Johnny Johnson was certainly aware of the Shelby-style rearend on the faded blue Mustang sitting in a shed less than a mile from his home in Alpine, Utah. Spotting the hardtop roofline, he quickly realized it was a '68 California Special, not a Shelby. He just never took the time to stop for a closer look. It wasn't until friend and restorer Armond D'Agostini introduced him to the owner that Johnny discovered this GT/CS was truly special indeed. In addition to being one of only three California Specials built with the 428 Cobra Jet engine, it was still in the possession of its original owner, John McGilvary, who bought the high-performance hardtop shortly after landing his first job in late 1968. Based on their love of Mustangs, Johnny and John struck up a friendship, one that would eventually lead to a change in possession and the restoration of the rare CJ GT/CS. So how did McGilvary end up with one of the rarest of all performance Mustangs as his first car?
"I knew I wanted a performance car," McGilvary explains. "I looked at everything from SS Chevys to R/T Dodges but finally decided I wanted the new 428 CJ engine in a Mustang. I went to Whetman Ford in Draper because they had several CJ Mustangs on their lot. The salesman then drove me to another lot, more like a field, where they had five or six more CJ Mustangs. That's when I saw the California Special and loved it. I put down a $200 deposit right away." As you might expect, McGilvary's father didn't want his son driving a performance car and refused to co-sign for a loan. But that didn't stop the determined 18 year-old. Two months later, his loan request was approved by a local credit union and he finally took possession of his CJ GT/CS in January 1969. With options like the GT Equipment Group and High Ratio Axle (3.91 with Traction-Lok), the window sticker listed the hardtop at $4,154; with '69 Mustangs already in the showroom, McGilvary got the left-over '68 for $3,700.
The fun was short-lived; a few months later, McGilvary entered the military. From late 1969 to 1973, his new CJ Mustang sat in his father's garage. When McGilvary returned from duty, the 1973 oil crisis had hit with fuel rationing, so the thirsty big-block was limited to weekend duty, plus the occasional drag race at the local strip in Magna, where the GT/CS ran a best of 13.1. at 105 mph. In 1980, with fuel prices continuing to climb, McGilvary drove his Mustang into his backyard shed and parked it. In recent years, people heard about the rare CJ-powered GT/CS in a shed. McGilvary says many of them stopped by with a "handful of cash." But he wasn't interested in selling his Mustang to someone looking to turn a profit. Then he met Johnny Johnson.
John McGilvary's CJ-powered...
John McGilvary's CJ-powered '68 GT/CS was still looking good in 1973 when he returned from military service.
This is how the rest of the...
This is how the rest of the world saw the California Special as it sat in McGilvary's shed for nearly 30 years.
The GT/CS was in pretty good...
The GT/CS was in pretty good shape, other than badly faded paint, when Johnson took possession in 2008.
After their introduction by D'Agostini, McGilvary and Johnson struck up a friendship which was partially fueled by the fact that Johnson never tried to buy the Mustang. "We talked Mustangs all the time but he never asked about buying my California Special," McGilvary says. "One day I was sitting there looking at the car and decided to offer it to Johnny. He had the wherewithal to restore it and I didn't." Johnny agreed to purchase the hardtop, with one stipulation: "After the restoration, I wanted John to drive it and even take it to shows so he could tell people his unique story."
In May 2011, Johnny delivered the car to D'Agostini, the friend who introduced Johnny to John and owner of D'Agostini Restorations in Lehi, Utah, for a restoration to Mustang Club of America trailered concours specs. D'Agostini confirms that the car was well used by its original owner with over 125,000 miles and mild rust creating the need to replace the rear quarter panels and patch the floorpans. Ron Kiiha stitched the upholstery using NOS material, while Clegg Machine rebuilt the 428 Cobra Jet engine, which had never been apart. D'Agostini usually handles the paint work, but because he had injured his shoulder and hand, he credits Josh Carter at Carter's Body Shop for spraying the Brittany Blue Sikkens paint.
The goal was to complete the restoration in time for the judged competition at the MCA national show in St. George, Utah, last April. D'Agostini made it – barely. "At 2:30 on Friday afternoon, I finally loaded up the car and headed to St. George," he says. "It was ready for judging on Saturday morning, but I was in a complete daze from lack of sleep." His efforts won a Gold in the concours trailered class. Original owner John McGilvary was there to accept the trophy with current owner Johnny Johnson. True to his word, Johnson loans the freshly restored GT/CS to its original owner. When we talked to McGilvary for this story, his old Mustang was sitting in his garage after an outing to a local car show, where it won an award for Best Ford. Turns out, it's a win-win for both owners, then and now. McGilvary puts it into perspective: "If Johnny hadn't bought it, it would still be sitting out there in my shed."
- Ford production data from Marti Autoworks indicates that 12 Cobra Jet-powered California Specials were built. However, nine were converted into High Country Specials for the Denver sales district, leaving only three as California Specials.
- Two of the CJ GT/CS hardtops were originally sold in Utah.
- The three CJ California Specials were painted different colors: Brittany Blue, Wimbledon White, and Candyapple Red. The white car has not been found.
- For the CJ-powered California and High Country Specials, the standard GT/CS louvered hood was replaced by the CJ hood with functional scoop and center black stripe.
- According to the Mustang 428 Cobra Jet Registry, the VIN for Johnson's GT/CS is currently listed as the first Cobra Jet Mustang built at Ford's San Jose assembly plant.
- With its automatic trans, Johnson's GT/CS did not come with staggered shocks. However, McGilvary noticed early on that the car had the staggered shock assembly welded into the trunk, although it was never used.
- McGilvary purchased the GT/CS from Whetman Ford salesman Leroy Page, who is still selling Fords today and lives near McGilvary and Johnson.
Original owner john McGilvary (left) and current owner Johhnny Johnson have established a unique relationship, with Johnson loaning the freshly restored GT/CS to McGilvary for crusing and shows.