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Saleen Brings Its Midas Touch to the High-Performance Market

The mainstream automotive industry has long been focused on mass production: producing as many vehicles as possible in an effort to meet the needs of the average consumer and keep costs down through economies of scale. But when satisfying everyone and keeping prices low are no longer driving factors, it opens up the door to the kind of innovative experimentation that can result in some truly wild and exciting automotive creations. For every one of the stolid old automakers we know by heart, there are a host of plucky upstarts rarely spoken of outside of auto clubs and obscure internet forums.

While some of these brands and their charismatic creators have bubbled up into the mainstream – Caroll Shelby, we’re looking at you – there are plenty of smaller-scale operations out there who haven’t quite risen to the level of being portrayed on the silver screen. Saleen Automotive is a perfect example of one of these unsung specialty manufacturers. Much like Shelby American, Saleen Automotive was founded by a successful race car driver who turned his passion for high-speed thrills into a successful specialty business, but the similarities don’t end there.

It’s Steve Saleen’s decades-long relationship with Ford that really provides the most striking similarity between the two specialty brands, with both Saleen and Shelby making a name for themselves thanks to their bold, race-inspired takes on Ford’s flagship muscle car: the Ford Mustang. With 2023 marking the company’s 40th year in the business, we thought it might be the perfect time to dive into Saleen’s background in the automotive world from his racing days to the brand’s first production vehicle, examine some models from Saleen’s past and current lineup and look at what the future might hold for this homegrown American automaker.

Earning His Stripes

Steve Saleen’s introduction to the high-octane world of motorsports began in 1966 when he bought his first car. While most teen drivers would feel lucky to find themselves behind the wheel of a half-decent hand-me-down vehicle, Saleen got his start in style with a 1956 Porsche Type 356. The coupe wasn’t just the coolest car in the high school parking lot; it was also Saleen’s ticket into the world of club racing, with the future automaker joining the Porsche Owners Club soon after its purchase.

In a move that would foreshadow his future in the tuning world, Saleen got right to work customizing the Porsche Type 356 to fit his style and lofty performance demands. Saleen added a number of modifications to increase the coupe’s horsepower and gave the Porsche a new coat of Robin’s Eggshell Blue paint to boot. While far from the type of top-down redesigns Saleen is known for today, it spoke to Saleen’s never-ending quest for automotive perfection, but he was just getting started.

In 1969, Saleen would make a fateful move with the purchase of a Shelby GT 350 Mustang that would begin a decades-long love affair with Ford’s iconic pony car. While this would eventually culminate in official Saleen-branded variations of the Mustang, Saleen’s resources were not quite as robust at the time, so he settled for some more modest upgrades that included a new paint job, wheels, suspension, roll cage, and side exhaust. Saleen notched a few amateur wins behind the wheel of the Mustang before starting his professional racing career in 1974 and moving on to open-wheel racing in 1975.

It was in the Pro Formula Atlantic racing series that Saleen would truly hit his stride, winning the Southern California championship in 1977 and setting multiple track records along the way. This success would continue throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, but it was a fateful race in 1983 that set Saleen on the path to becoming one of the country’s most renowned specialty manufacturers.

Saleen, who had founded nascent Saleen Autosport earlier in the year, met a team of Ford auto executives while racing in the Sports Car Club of America Trans-Am series. The racer would strike up a relationship with the legacy Detroit automaker that would culminate in the release of Saleen Autosport’s first vehicle, the Saleen Mustang, in 1985. The souped-up pony car got the full Saleen treatment, including new suspension, tires, wheels, interior, and retooled aerodynamics. The Saleen Mustang would mark the first time a certified supercharger was ever used on a production version of the car, cementing Saleen’s engineering bona fides and garnering considerable interest from the industry and gearheads alike.

The Saleen Mustang saw success right out of the gate, taking home the checkered flag in its class at the 1986 Mosport 24-hour race. But Saleen wasn’t content to restrict his automotive imagination to the Mustang. In 1987 his company entered two new Saleen Sportrucks into the inaugural Coors Race Truck Challenge. Built with a powerful 6-cylinder, 2.9-liter engine, the Sportruck included all the performance upgrades Saleen had become known for.

As Saleen’s reputation within the industry grew, the company grew along with it. In 1990, Saleen founded Saleen Performance Parts in an effort to meet the growing demand for aftermarket parts. Saleen Automotive would continue to produce its own line of high-performance Mustangs, sticking with the 351-cubic-inch engine developed by Saleen even after Ford itself switched to a new modular V8 setup. The Saleen and Ford bond was as strong as ever, with Saleen producing its own concept version of the Ford Contour and a production version of the Ford Explorer known as the XP8.

Homegrown Power

The turn of the millennium would mark a milestone for Saleen as it introduced its first in-house vehicle, the Saleen S7 sports car. A true supercar by any measure, the S7 was noted for its power (the 7 represents the engine’s considerable 7-liter displacement), lightweight carbon fiber body, and all-aluminum design. The engine, which was based on Ford’s 351 Windsor small-block architecture, was unique for its mid-engine design, where the motor sits between the front and rear axles instead of at the front of the vehicle. As only the sixth American-made sports car to feature a mid-engine design, the S7 was able to provide an exceptionally comfortable ride despite the vehicle’s massive 550 horsepower output. The S7 was actually the first street-legal production vehicle to break the 500-horsepower mark. 500 lb-ft of torque allowed the supercar to accelerate from zero-to-sixty in just 3.3 seconds, with an updated 2005 version featuring a twin-turbocharged engine upping the ante even further with a blistering 750 horsepower and a top speed of 248 mph.

If those figures weren’t enough to cement the S7’s supercar status, the price tag would be. Ringing in at $400,000, the S7 was aimed at a very specific sector of the market, and those customers liked what they saw. The S7 performed just as well at the track as it did in the sales department, with a racing-spec version of the supercar known as the S7-R winning four GT championships in 2001 and setting new records at the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. The automaker discontinued the S7 in 2009 after producing an estimated 1,500 models. The S7 might be gone, but the legend lives on with collectors willing to pay as much as $650,000 to get their hands on what’s become known as America’s first supercar.

Meanwhile, the company’s relationship has grown as Ford was as strong as ever, with Saleen landing a lucrative contract to serve as an assembly and paint partner for the Ford GT. This cemented Saleen’s status as a tier 1 supplier to Ford, a relationship that’s only grown in the years since. Painting, in particular, has become a niche for Saleen – little surprise given Saleen’s own youthful enthusiasm for switching up the paint on his Shelby GT 350 Mustang – with the company performing all paint work for the Dodge Viper.

Want to own a piece of the Saleen empire without forking over a half-million bucks for a top-of-the-line supercar? Just visit your local stockbroker. While Saleen might be one of the smaller automotive entities around, it’s been a publicly-traded company since 2013, when Saleen entered into a merger. The move put Saleen on a firm financial footing, allowing the company to expand to a new four-acre campus in Southern California that includes operations, manufacturing, R&D, and paint facilities.

New Models Get Saleen-ified

Saleen’s current lineup reflects its founder’s passion for putting his own high-performance signature on a range of high-end production models, including the Dodge Challenger, Ford F-150, Chevy Camaro, Tesla Model S, and of course, the Ford Mustang. Let’s take a closer look at some of the highlights of the current lineup, starting with the modified Mustang, which is rebranded as the Saleen 302 Series. Available in both fastback and convertible configurations, the souped-up Mustang includes a number of performance upgrades that inject some serious power into the already-brawny muscle car.

The 302 is sold in three distinct trim levels with White, Yellow, and Black Label models to choose from. The entry-level White Label generates an impressive 500 horsepower, but things start to get really ridiculous when you move into some of the upper trim options. The Yellow Label version of the 302 boasts a rubber-burning 745 horsepower while the upper-end Black Label up it to some 800 horses along with 660 lb-ft of torque. Aerodynamic upgrades allow the 302 version of the Mustang to cut with the air with ease, improving top-end speed and providing an exhilarating ride.

The Dodge Challenger-based S570 and Chevy Camaro-based S620 have a lot in common with the 302 when it comes to applying the Saleen approach to popular sports cars, but the new GTX represents an exciting departure for the company. Based on the Tesla Model S, the GTX takes the popular EV back to the drawing board with reimagined styling that results in a sleek, aerodynamic body that’s sure to turn heads. The addition of a new brake and suspension settings go a long way in improving handling, and even the interior gets some Saleen touches with new infotainment features and premium leather throughout. While it’s not common to see specialty manufacturers tackle EV models, Saleen’s experiment seems to have turned out well, retaining everything there is to love about the Model S while delivering all the performance tweaks necessary to produce up to 690 horsepower.

While Saleen might have made a name for himself behind the wheel of some sporty, low-slung cars, no vehicle type is safe from the Saleen treatment. The specialty manufacturer’s Sportruck and Sportuck XR see the addition of myriad performance and style upgrades, transforming America’s most popular vehicle into a sleek, powerful pickup. The base-model Sportruck is more focused on speed with improved aerodynamics thanks to a refreshed design, grille, body sculpting, and air dam. The Sportrack XR, on the other hand, is all about off-road performance, adding heavy-duty components like rock sliders and an upgraded suspension that can make all the difference in challenging off-road scenarios. Off-roading often comes down to ground clearance, and the XR has that well-covered with 2.5 and 6-inch lifts to choose from.

Like the 302, the Sportruck and Sportruck XR are offered in a variety of trims, with the highest-end options topping out at 700 horsepower. Saleen has been experimenting with the Sportruck concept since the ’80s, but it’s not the only off-road-ready model in the current lineup, with the automaker recently introducing a Saleen-branded version of the new Ford Baja 1000 Bronco. Like the Sportruck XR, the Saleen Bronco includes a generous complement of performance and off-road upgrades as well as some striking additions to the SUV’s styling like a solid carbon-forged bumper array, adjustable roof spoiler, and rocker panel guards.

Then there’s the Saleen 1, Saleen’s first fully in-house model since the S7. The Saleen 1 might not have its predecessor’s mammoth 7-liter engine, opting for a 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four in its place, but it still manages to produce an impressive 450-horsepower. The two-door coupe does incorporate many of the high-performance features that made the S7 such a cult favorite, including ultra-lightweight construction (just 2,865 lbs) thanks to its aluminum mesh and carbon frame. It’s no slouch in a drag race either, trailing the considerably more expensive S7 by just .2 second in the all-important zero-to-60 test. The two cars are also similar in their exclusivity, with Saleen producing only 1,500 units per year with the sports car regularly selling out.

Leaving a Mark on the Market

Between his background in auto racing and a passion for high-performance modifications, Steve Saleen was always going to leave his mark on the automotive world. Saleen Automotive is that mark, carving out a niche in the market and delivering some truly innovative designs along the way. A close relationship with some of the country’s top auto manufacturers has allowed Saleen to flourish over the years, with every successful model garnering more interest for the brand’s one-of-a-kind creations. From the Saleen-branded versions of popular sports cars, trucks, and SUVs to proprietary creations like the Saleen 1 and S7, Saleen boasts a strong track record that’s kept the specialty manufacturer and high-performance parts supplier on the tip of gearhead’s tongues for almost 40 years. Whether it’s a new take on a beloved classic, a high-performance version of an emerging best-seller, or a unique in-house model, we’re always excited to see what type of over-the-top creations Saleen is cooking up.

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