MUSTANG MADNESS : Steve Saleen’s Special Editions Satisfy Drivers’ Craving for Excitement

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Carroll Shelby, meet Steve Saleen.

For those who may not remember, Shelby is the guy who put race-car muscle into Ford’s sporty Mustang more than 20 years ago. He started in a garage outside Los Angeles and rode his famous Shelby Mustang into a multimillion-dollar business that he eventually sold to Ford.

Saleen started in a California garage, too, and the agility and eye-popping speed of his Saleen Mustang have earned it cult status among slightly fanatic driving enthusiasts in just four years.

As heir to the Mustang crown, Saleen transforms assembly-line, V-8-powered Mustangs from Ford into something special, with racing suspensions, aerodynamic alterations and other refinements. The final result, says Car & Driver magazine, “looks like a take-no-prisoners street fighter.”


William Bryant, an actor who loves cars, owns a candy-apple red 1968 Shelby Mustang convertible. He heard about Saleen from other Mustang loyalists and wound up getting a ride from him in one of his cars.

“We entered a freeway on-ramp and came out at 97 miles an hour,” Bryant said. “I said, ‘I’ve got to have one.’ ”

He wound up with three in the family stable, a 1985 fastback and a 1987 convertible for himself, and an identical ’85 fastback for his daughter. All three cars are black. Bryant has also persuaded 15 friends to buy Saleens.

Despite such devotion, Saleen has not reached Shelby’s legendary stature. But Motor Trend magazine recently called him “one of America’s hottest limited-edition automotive designers,” and his business has accelerated faster than a Saleen Mustang. The number of cars turned out has grown more than 20-fold in four years, and employment has gone from three to 65.

In May, the privately held company, Saleen Autosport, moved into a new 45,000-square-foot production facility in Anaheim. For the first time, the auto-conversion operation and the growing marketing division will be in the same spot.

The company maintains its racing and engineering division in Detroit, where it can be closer to Ford headquarters. But Saleen said he has no intention of moving design and production out of Southern California. “The trends and the fads really are created here,” he said.

In the sparkling-clean, hangar-like building off the Artesia Freeway in Anaheim, Saleen Autosport is tapping a new trend that started in Southern California. A special-edition Ford Ranger truck, with high-performance additions, is being added to the Saleen line, and sales will start this month.

In addition, refinements are being completed on an ultrafast “supercar” for the fall that Saleen promises will outperform a Chevrolet Corvette. A mean-looking black prototype sits in a corner of the building; the standard fuel-injected, 225-horsepower, 5.0 liter Ford V-8 is juiced to 300-plus horsepower and a roll bar arches over the leather interior.

Raced Professionally

By moving into the growing sport truck market and producing 250 of the supercars, Saleen expects to double production to 2,400 vehicles next year. A 100% production increase would sound overly optimistic if it came from someone with a less impressive track record.

And Saleen’s record actually started on the track. At 39, he has been racing professionally since 1975--and his first win came in a Shelby Mustang. He moved up through Formula Super Vee to Formula Atlantic. Last year, his Mustang racing team won four major championships on the Sports Car Club of America circuit, and Saleen plans his debut in the Indianapolis 500 next year.

It was on the race circuit that Saleen met some Ford Motor officials and decided in 1983 to produce his cars with their cooperation.

In 1984, the year Saleen started production in a garage in Santa Rosa, he turned out 50 Saleen Mustangs. The next year, he moved to the Los Angeles area, and output jumped to 180. In 1986, it was 290; in 1987, 400. This year he will turn out 1,100 to 1,200 Mustangs.

Saleen said he could probably double production to 2,400 in Mustangs alone, except that he cannot get enough of them through the Ford dealerships.

“Our biggest problem is getting enough base cars from Ford, not selling them all,” Saleen said as he threaded his way among 50 or so Mustangs and Ford Rangers in various stages of transformation.

Among the many problems that have beset Detroit in recent years has been a difficulty in competing with the high-performance, glamour cars from West Germany, Sweden and, of course, Japan.

Chevrolet’s two-seater Corvette has always had its devotees, but, at prices topping $30,000, it is out of reach for a lot of people. Many who want performance at a more affordable price, if $20,000-plus can be considered affordable, turn to turbocharged versions of Toyota Supra, Nissan 300ZX and Mazda RX-7. BMW, Porsche 944 and Saab’s 900 Turbo also get the high end of the affordable market.

Can Help Image

Detroit has been successful in putting V-8 muscle back in such American standards as the Mustang GT, Chevrolet’s IROC-Z Camaro and Pontiac’s Firebird Trans-Am. But there is still a segment of the driving public that craves more excitement.

Sometimes, these drivers turn to the so-called “after-market” converters who add sizzle and varying degrees of steak to factory cars.

The big auto makers worry about converters who skimp on quality, since owners of the converted cars have been known to focus their blame on the original manufacturer. But good converters can have a carryover effect that helps the image of an entire product line.

Shelby is back at the after-market game again, building a limited number of Dodge-based, Shelby-modified cars in Whittier. Shelby’s new CSX has only a four-cylinder engine, albeit a turbocharged one, and sells for less than $15,000.

The suggested price of $21,500 for a Saleen hardtop, while not in a league with a Corvette or Porsche, is salty for a Mustang. A top-of-the-line stock Mustang sells for about $13,000 to $15,000. Saleen’s convertibles, which make up about a quarter of the annual run, list for nearly $24,500.

But sharp demand and limited supply mean that plenty of Ford dealers are selling Saleens for well above the suggested price. One Los Angeles area dealer had a hardtop bumped up to $25,500 on the showroom floor, and a nearby convertible was $28,000.

These Saleen Mustangs are not the crude hot rods of garage mechanics who bolt on parts for pure performance. They are the result of Saleen’s years on the track and of race-bred engineering. Saleen and his engineers also work with Ford and other suppliers, such as General Tire and Monroe shock absorbers.

“We actually change the car dramatically,” Saleen said. “But we do it subtly and we are constantly fine tuning, just like you do with a race car.”

A key to Saleen’s success has been his relationship with Ford. Customers can walk into more than 150 performance-oriented Ford dealerships across the country and order a Saleen Mustang.

“His product seems to carry a very good reputation, particularly with the people who are more interested in racing and who have more of an enthusiast nature,” said Mike McCabe, Ford’s marketing manager for Mustang.

The basic car is a Mustang LX, with the 5.0 liter V-8. Most of the cars have a five-speed transmission, although occasionally a buyer wants an automatic. The car also has luxury options such as power windows and locks and air conditioning.

Ford ships the cars to Saleen by rail. He works his magic on the cars then ships them by covered carrier to the dealers who have ordered them. Most of the cars are sold outside California, and they can only be bought through Ford dealers.

When the cars first arrive at Saleen’s plant from Ford, they are stripped of their interior, suspension, brakes, wheels and many body parts. Saleen does not monkey with the engine or transmission, which means that Ford’s power-train warranty and the emissions-control certification remain in effect.

Workers install special FloFit Sport seats upholstered in fabric that matches the new rear seat upholstery and door panels. A leather-wrapped, three-spoke Italian steering wheel goes in, along with Hurst shifter linkage. An 80-watt, six-speaker Pioneer stereo cassette system is installed alongside new instrumentation that includes a 170-m.p.h. speedometer.

Sure Handling

Specially designed 16-inch alloy wheels are fitted with high-speed tires that Saleen developed with General Tire. Standard Mustang brakes are disc in front and drum in back, but Saleen replaces all four with top-of-the-line Ford SVO disc brakes. An optional 3:55 rear-end gives even sharper acceleration.

Parts removed are sold to salvage yards because they cannot be sold as new. But Saleen recently started selling the discarded wheel and tire sets himself out of the Anaheim building for $699, and he also plans to market special Saleen auto parts.

The Mustang’s aerodynamics are altered subtly with a urethane air dam on the front end, special side skirts, a rear-wing spoiler and a hidden aerodynamic edge under the back of the car. Saleen keeps two nearby body shops working almost full-time painting the new parts.

The critical element in the advanced performance of the Saleen Mustang, and the product of its racing lineage, is hidden beneath the new styling.

The new suspension uses shorter, stiffer springs and six Monroe gas struts and shock absorbers to lower the car and improve the handling. Triangular steel braces on the chassis, including one across the top of the engine, stiffen the suspension and eliminate wallowing through fast turns.

The result is a car that sits about two inches lower than the stock Mustang and slings through a corner at high speed as if it were on rails.

The Saleen-added aerodynamics improve the handling and help push the Mustang’s top speed to 149 m.p.h., compared to 145 m.p.h. advertised for the stock Mustang GT, the fastest production version of the car. But it is the sure handling and quick response produced by the new suspension that mark the Saleen as something special.

Driving fanatics will recognize the silhouette of a Saleen, which has earned strong reviews in the motor magazines. So no one else can miss its heritage, the car gets a big “Saleen Mustang” decal across the top of the windshield.

Saleen has put his name in 10 or so other places around the car, from the interior door panels to the center of each wheel. A special serial number is stamped in a secret spot on the chassis.

“The value of these cars is escalating and knockoffs are showing up,” Saleen said. “With the hidden stamp, someone can take their car in and find out whether it’s a real Saleen Mustang.”