The Saleen S7 – The Culmination of One Man’s Dream
There have been a lot of quick Mustangs through the years, but some of the fastest ones ever are made by a man named Saleen. This car is called S7. It’s the fastest American production car ever built and its the culmination of one man’s dream. That man is Steve Saleen: “It’s been very satisfying at some points in time to take a passion that one would have and turn it into a business that one could make a living at. To do the kind of cars that we do, I think you have to have more than a business, you need to have a passion and a big desire to carry it through.” The S7 is a mid engine 2500 pound GT class race car for the street. It’s the latest high performance creation from Saleen speed lab and its credentials are impressive.
This carbon fiber body was developed using today’s most advanced wind tunnel techniques. The Saleen designed suspension uses lightweight components everywhere. And the massive 15″ front and 14″ rear brakes are race ready. Despite the high tech running gear, its lightweight steel space frame houses a traditional engine. The block and heads are all aluminum but the architecture is good old fashioned Detroit style horsepower with a 427 cubic inch two valve per cylinder and cam shot in the block. At 6400 RPM, this engine is making over 600 horsepower and feeding 550 foot pounds of torque to the 18″ rear wheels. At wide open throttle, this car will top out at over 220 mph. Now here’s the good news, Steve Saleen will make you an S7 of your very own for around $450,000. Should we put you down for one?
A World Class Racing Machine
Obviously the S7 isn’t an entry level muscle car. It’s a world class racing machine with just enough street legal components to get through a DOT inspection. But the S7 is a perfect example of the Saleen mindset. First, they establish a benchmark of performance. Then, they design a car that hits that mark. Finally, when off the shelf parts can’t do the job, they build parts that can. This is a corporate attitude that comes from years of endurance racing. “Endurance racing is very good if you are in the business of building production cars, which is what we are,” Says Steve Saleen, “Endurance racing is one of the best you can on a production base because what it does, it focuses on the weak parts of the car and allows you as a manufacturer to build a stronger car tomorrow.” At nearly a half million dollars a copy, there’s not much chance you’ll be fighting with an S7 for a parking space at the mall. But there are plenty of people who want the same kind of white knuckles driving with a more affordable price tag. And for them, there’s the Saleen S-281, a perfect balance of Detroit’s best ideas raised to a higher level by the high performance fanatics at Saleen.
The Dream World of Steve Saleen
The S-281 is just one of a parade of Saleen super cars that have reestablished the Ford Mustang as one of the winningest cars on America’s race tracks and a kick in the pants for street fighter. The S7, the S-281 and all the other Saleen cars grew out of Steve Saleen’s dream of building his own brand of muscle car, a dream that dates back to 1984 when Steve was a young man with a need to go fast and Ford was a company whose performance image was in desperate need of rebuilding.
When the Mustang came onto the automotive scene in 1964, it had everything going for it except muscle. But its great looks and young person appeal still sent almost a million buyers into Ford’s showrooms in its first two years. But almost immediately, big cubic inch competition from GM and Chrysler dragged the Mustang into a horsepower race. Never one to back down from this kind of a fight, Ford soon unleashed a string of muscle Mustangs starting with the high performance 289 which cranked out 271 horsepower at 6000 RPM. About this same time, Steve Saleen was discovering how much fun muscle cars could be. “Growing up as a kid in southern California, I grew up looking at all the hot cars coming out primarily from Detroit. But then looking at Porsche, Ferraris, Lotus, a lot of the imports were exciting as well. I think that all had a big influence on my perspective of cars.”
While Saleen was exploring all the fast cars he could get his hands on, Ford was continuing to build the Mustang into a first class muscle car. Mustang was now packing the highest horsepower engines in Ford’s stable. With everything from 390s all the way up to the mighty Cobra Jet 42. But as potent as these ground pounders were, the Mustangs that grabbed all the attention were the ones built and raced by the godfather of American sports car racing, Carroll Shelby.
In the early 60s, Shelby had taken a little British sports car called the AC Bristol, replaced its four cylinder engine with Ford’s 289 and blew away the competition in US road racing. He called it the Cobra. Shelby leveraged this race car building success and his relationship with Ford into another project based on that old Mustang. Shelby’s race package improved the car’s suspension and heated up the 289 even more to make 306 horsepower. As soon as it hit the track, the Shelby GT350 immediately started cleaning up at SSCA racing. For a young man like Steve Saleen who wanted to get into racing, the Shelby Mustang was made to order. “Shelby certainly had int he mid 60s all the ingredients that catapulted him above and beyond the rest.”
Driving a Shelby Mustang, Saleen won the first race he ever entered and from there his need for speed drove him to faster cars. In the next few years, he raced everything from Super 8 to Trans Am, going pro in the Atlanta series where he set 13 records and finished third in the championship. But by 1983, racing had taught Steve Saleen two things. One, it cost a fortune, And two, he could build a better car than he was currently driving.
Saleen Auto Sport
So in 1984, Saleen Auto Sport was formed and like Carroll Shelby, nearly 13 years earlier, the car he would build would be based on the Mustang. “I had always had an affinity with Ford. Mustangs were close to my heart. Knowing what the base car represented and where I could take the base vehicle from a performance standpoint, I decided that we’d go down the road with Ford.” Saleen’s first generation Mustang included a full arrow package and his own race craft suspension along with a few creature comfort upgrades and at a little over $13,000, the first edition Saleen sold just three cars. But a tradition had been born that year. Ultra quick Fords from Saleen, every once with his very own Saleen sequence number.
For the next two years, Saleen Auto Sports concentrated on improving their race track suspension and their manufacturing operation. The car’s distinctive appearance package of side stripes, Saleen ID, and wide wheels and tires blended with the interior upgrades to make Saleen Mustangs a cut above the showroom cars. But what really put these cars on the map was their racing success. “We won the whole championship in 1987 and that really started putting us on the map.”
Sales topped out at 608 cars for the first four years and this figure more than doubled in 1988. In addition to building, Saleen was now creating a strong group of loyal owners. Just as Steve Saleen had forecast, racing had done a number of good things for his cars. It had attracted the attention of the enthusiast community, it had built the reputation of serious muscle car builders, and racing had developed the Saleen Mustang into a full on street fighter. The formula was working. By 1989, Saleen Mustangs were no longer a novelty on the streets or the race track. The word was out. These things went fast and they handled great. The time was right to crank it up even more with a special Saleen, just in time for the Mustang’s 25th birthday: the SSC.
If the original Saleen Mustangs were great cars, the SSC was a super car. In addition to the usual Saleen goodies, great handling and brakes, the aero package and a killer stereo, this car packed more punch under the hood than any Saleen car yet. The Mustang’s 302 cubic inch engine was treated to a set of tubular headers, a low restriction exhaust system and a 65 mm throttle body. These upgrades helped this little screamer produce 300 net horsepower. Out back, 355 gears gave it a real boost off the line and 16″ wheels with 225s upfront and 245s on the rear stuck it to the ground. In addition to the 160 SSCs built in 1989, Saleen also created 731 regular models, which sold for considerably less than the SSC’s $36,500 base price. By now the Saleen formula was well established. Cornering like its on rails, fantastic looks, and the full on luxury treatment inside. Saleen delivered on the last part of his promise with interiors that featured flow fit seats, leather upholstery with embroidered Saleen logos, a full gauge package, and a full stereo system.
Even though Saleen’s 302 cubic inch engine was still very much standard issue Ford, its six second 0 to 60 times and its 14.5 second quarter miles were the product of improved breathing on the intake and exhaust sides. With a top speed of over 150 mph, the Saleen Mustangs had bridged the gap between nice American car and world class sports racer. And that’s where Steve Saleen had wanted to go from the beginning. He did it with a great design and good ol’ American muscle. “I always felt that the American V8 was the better choice to go with and history has proven that to be a wiser decision.” But unlike many muscle cars, the Saleen’s performance didn’t come purely from a mega-powered engine.
The difference between Saleens and ordinary Mustangs was a careful blending of individual pieces to create a car that excelled at everything. The race craft suspension was designed to make the Mustang handle like a race car and every piece from the special springs and the shocks to the suspension pushings to its chassis stiffening components worked together to help the Saleen generate some eyeball fattening cornering courses. And unlike many of today’s racy models, Saleen’s aero package wasn’t just a cosmetic feature. It all worked. From the side skirts and spoilers to the front air dam and rear balance.
This ground up approach toward building cars is unique to Saleen and it dates back to their first days as car builders: “I always focus on building the complete car. We focus on the Mustang improving it in areas that I felt we could add value from the consumer standpoint. That was in the aerodynamics, the suspension, the interior. By doing a complete car, certifying it, putting a serial number on it from the get go was always our main focus and objective.”
By the early 90s, the fox bodied Mustangs were getting a little long in the tube, styling wise. Ford’s special vehicles operations made made this little ride into a pretty mean muscle car and Ford was selling over 200,000 of them a year at a sticker price of around $15,000. Steve Saleen’s ultimate Mustang was packing a $25,990 price tag. Even though the Saleen was literally rolling off showroom floors and winning SSCA races, the recession of the early 90s took a big bite out of Saleen’s sales. Between ’90 and ’92, less than 400 Saleens were built. But even during this time, the car continued to develop into a more amazing package. Saleen celebrated their tenth anniversary in 1993 and their latest and best development, the Saleen SC rolled out with even more performance. 17 by 9″ wheels with 45 series tires, Saleen SBO four wheel disc brakes, and new race craft struts and springs improved the car’s already excellent handling. And the new two tier rear spoiler and bold graphics told the world that this was a horse of a much different color.
Under the hood, a Saleen design intake manifold with a huge ’77 millimeter air flow censor and upgraded fuel delivery and ignition systems helped the five liter Mustang engine develop 304 horsepower and 326 foot pounds of torque. Even though times were hard, Saleen’s attitude still showed. Their sales literature stated, “If you drive a Saleen, you win. Everything else is just watching.”
The Best of Times and the Worst of Times for Saleen Mustangs
For the Saleen Mustangs, it was the best of times and the worst of times. The early 90s were scary times for anyone building super cars. And Saleen was no exception. Still, though, the heartbeat of competition was strong. And this resulted in some exceptional cars. Thanks to this spirit, the company emerged as a stronger, tighter, organization, just in time to work its magic on another new Mustang. Once again, racing was key to the car’s development. Team Saleen wasn’t just getting their jollies out there on the race track. They were building a database. Once again, Saleen Mustangs were winning everything in sight. “We really needed to have the pedigree of the racing to help elevate us to further our sales on the street side.”
The Saleen S-351
Saleen performance, as the company was now called, was ready to unveil another special super car. And this time the accent was on pure muscle. The S-351. In addition to the usual Saleen handling and aerodynamics, the S-351′s Windsor crate motor finally provided enough cubic inches to make this car a Bonsai street machine. But for good measure, they leaned on the 351 just a little with a specially designed roller cam, Edelbrock aluminum heads, and Ford SVO upper and lower intakes. ceramic coated headers and an exhaust system helped this engine produce over 370 horsepower at 5100 RPM. And 422 foot pounds of torque at 3500 RPM. For hardcore muscle car fans, an optional super charger was available, which raised horsepower to 480 and made the S-351 a true cruise missile. And, of course the race craft suspension still turned in skid pad numbers that would make a Porsche drivers envious.
Of all the special order super cars, the Saleen ranks at the very top of the touch and feel scale. And Saleen’s interior treatment was as posh as European cars costing several times as much. Even with all the new power, Saleen’s focus stayed fixed on building the perfect car in every area of performance from quickness to driver comfort.
The Saleen S-281
The S-281 rolled out in 1996 as a lower priced entry into the Saleen stable with exceptional bang for the buck. It’s got all the Saleen goodies at a price that puts it in the range of many of that day’s factory racers whose performance is more than cosmetic. The Saleens of the 90s represented the highest level of performance from any Saleen yet. But far from being through, they had even more exciting cars ready to roll out. And it was getting harder to tell the race cars from the street cars. In fact, that was part of the plan. Saleen ended the 90s in a very different place than they were going in. From a low of just 17 cars produced during 1992, the 90s ended for Saleen with four back to back SCCA manufacturers championships including the FIA championship in Spain. The Saleen Allen speed lab racing team formed with TV star and auto enthusiast Tim Allen had raced successfully at LeMans and had won the SCCA driver’s championship in 1998.
Since its debut a few months earlier, the racing world had been waiting to see the S-7 on the race track. It performed exactly as advertised with wins at Sebring and Donnington Park. Just like Saleen promised, racing has provided solid engineering for their street cars. Development has continued on all the Saleens. And for 2001, the Saleen speedsters turn it up even more. The S-281 was built around the 4.6 liter engine. Its high revving characteristics were reminiscent of the 281, which powered the early high pull Mustangs and Shelbys. In a car like the S-281, there was a perfect blend of lightweight and big horsepower. The engine made over 365 horsepower thanks to a good ol’ hot rod speed seeker, a supercharger. The big difference is that the charge from this blower went through a Saleen design inter cooler. The S-281 contained a feature dating back to their first car, the individual serial number. This little number always found on the left front corner of the car is a very important part of Saleen Mustang. Saleens are some of the best documented cars ever built and as they passed from owner to owner, this number is like a pedigree helping to trace the car’s lineage. As Saleens become more valuable as collector classics, being able to identify a genuine Saleen takes on even more importance.
Like all the Saleens from the very first one, the S-281 is a perfect example of why Saleens are so prized by their owners and why the Saleen name is so respected by high performance enthusiasts. But the Saleen customer isn’t Joe Everybody, which is why the company’s slogan is power in the hands of a few. Debbie Blaylock, the president of the Saleen Owners and Enthusiasts Club, says: “I think that Saleen has mastered the design of the Mustang in my opinion and of course I’m a little biased but with the design you have the performance and I don’t know it just wraps up a muscle car, you get a little bit of everything.” Debbie Blaylock has been a Mustang lover all her life. Today she owns three Saleen Mustangs and helps coordinate Saleen owners clubs. “You cruise down the street, no matter where you go, just downtown the country road, wherever, you are the baddest around. And that’s what I like about it. Because I like to be bad!” That pretty much says it all. Advanced technology blended with the best of good ol’ American go fast, creating cars that carve up to corners and reach up and grab you with a rumble that only comes from a muscle car. What else would you expect from a kid who grew up in southern California during the 60s. Steve Saleen says: “I have to ask you, who has more fun than I do? Let’s go for a ride!”
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