Tom Wilson
June 1, 2007

Horse Sense: Parnelli Jones may be "trying to slow my life down at this point," but that hasn't stopped him from enjoying fast cars. In addition to the Saleen PJ, he has also commissioned a restored '70 SportsRoof in Grabber Orange for his personal pleasure.

The worst thing we can say about the Saleen/Parnelli Jones Mustang is that by the time you read this, you'll have a tough time finding one for sale at any price, especially at the $59,015 list. Saleen [(949) 597-4900; www.saleen.com] is only building 500 of these special editions, and half were sold before production began in late 2006. If the other half hasn't already sold out, it will quickly.

We're not surprised. This car is more Parnelli than the GT 500 is a Shelby, and it's a great drive with plenty of personality. The tie-ins between Parnelli and Steve Saleen are real and go back 20 years. The styling is a dead ringer for one of the best-looking Mustangs of all time: Parnelli's '70 Trans-Am championship-winning Boss 302.

Hot handling and ripping naturally aspirated power are the standout Saleen/Parnelli Jones attractions. It's the best combination of power and handling we've seen in production S197 Mustangs.

But what clinches the historical linkage for us is the car's slightly high-strung, revvy personality. The 302 soprano in this Saleen is a sweetie that had us rowing the vintage Boss 302 of our memories. Even better, it's one handling Mustang with a lightness and precision to the frontend we wish all Mustangs had.

It began when Parnelli came to Steve asking for a nice late-model Mustang. Parnelli wanted a fun car to drive. After racing with Saleen in the '80s, and with Saleen's headquarters close to Parnelli's Southern California stomping grounds, Steve's company was a logical place to go. Recognizing an opportunity when it came knocking, Steve answered with the 500-example run of the limited edition we see here. The car is wholly a Saleen production-it was designed, engineered, and produced in-house at Saleen, but Parnelli instigated the idea, gave the prototype a good thrashing during development, approved the car, and has taken a pair for his own use.

Mechanically, the PJ, as the Saleen/Parnelli Jones is known around Saleen digs, is well-developed. The heart of the matter is the engine. Saleen begins with a new Mustang GT, removes and disassembles its Three-Valve engine, and then rebuilds it using a forged-steel stroker crankshaft and connecting rods, as well as forged pistons. The cylinder heads are ported and fitted with more rpm-oriented camshafts, better valve springs, retainers, and such. Supporting pieces are underdrive pulleys, a more boisterous 211/42-inch stainless steel exhaust system, 24-lb/hr injectors, a 98mm mass airflow meter, and a more functional version of the late Mach 1 Shaker hoodscoop.

To achieve the maximum early Trans-Am effect, Saleen generated unique fascias and other bodywork for the PJ. When the numbered roundel is affixed, the result is especially racy.

Some machining takes place along the way. The cylinders are lightly bored, "to get them round," according to Saleen's Vice-President of Engineering Bill Tally. Combined with the stroke increase, the result is a true performance engine with an increase in displacement to an honest 302 ci, along with 400 hp at 6,000 rpm and 390 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. These power numbers may sound tame compared to the massive thrust generated by the current crop of supercharged 'Stangs, but in reality, it's plenty of power for a real-world road car.

Downstream, an aluminum flywheel sharpens the throttle response and the stock five-speed manual and 8.8-inch live axle are retained. Final gearing is 3.73 in a Traction-Lok differential. Suspension duties are the expected upgraded gas shocks, springs, and sway bars. Saleen has also replaced the Panhard bar with its own Watts link. Front braking is upgraded with 14-inch slotted and vented front disks; the rears remain stock.

With a Shaker scoop, funny cams, high compression, and 302 ci, the 400hp Saleen/Parnelli Jones engine stands out in a sea of supercharged modular Mustangs.

As for those Minilite-inspired wheels, they're Saleen's. They measure 19x9 inches in front and 19x10 inches in back. To say they make the car is an understatement-the multispoke design, similar to the American Racing Torque Thrust D, is one of the timeless classics born in the '60s. It will always be associated with-among other cars-the early Trans-Am Mustangs. It's simply the wheel for the PJ. We'll bet Saleen sells a few sets through its aftermarket channel as well.

Parnelli once again got the nod by Saleen for tires. The P-Zero Rossas are monitored by an onboard pressure system.

While Saleen has earned a reputation for robust powertrains, its stock-in-trade has always been appearance. The Saleen/Parnelli Jones makes no missteps in painting a contemporary Parnelli picture using a vintage brush. Not a cue is missed, starting with the exclusive-and mandatory-Grabber Orange paint along with the black hood stripe, 302 stripe, and black decklid. Just as vital are rear-window sport slats, rear wing, and hood pins. Saleen has freely adapted other vintage cues, such as the bar across the headlights. The front air dam is a welcome reminder of the way it was to those of us who were there the first time around, as is the Shaker hoodscoop.

It's also worth noting that the PJ doesn't use the otherwise-standard Saleen front and rear fascias, nor does it wear Saleen's trademark rear extension. Instead, it introduces its own front and rear fascias, rocker panels, and quarter-trim panels, along with able chrome trim around the rear lamps and a billet-fuel filler door.

The bodywork panels are referred to as special-edition parts in Saleen's press materials, leading us to believe we may see them on other limited editions from Saleens.

If it's Saleen or Parnelli Jones badging you want, the PJ doesn't fall short. We didn't count the number of "Saleen" or "PJ" badges or logos, but there's one on every hubcap, on the gas cap, atop the shift knob, the center of the steering wheel, the front floor mats, and the doorsills. Both men have signed the dashboard centersection of every car. That's a lot, but thankfully Saleen no longer shouts its name in 10-inch letters across the windshield, so what badging there is is relatively subdued. This is especially true of the dash plaque, which is now a bit of black plastic mounted unobtrusively on the far right of the panel.

Each Saleen/Parnelli Jones comes with reusable number roundels and "Parnelli Jones" script. While not suitable for driving, the graphics are intended for an extra zing at car shows.

There are times to be overt, in which case the magnetic cling "15" roundels and "Parnelli Jones" script can be taken out of the trunk and pressed into show-car duty. Don't count on impressing the neighbors with your race-car look at speed, as the panels tend to fly off. They're for static or low-speed use only.

Inside, the orange and black seats dominate the initial impression, but the details pop out. The steering wheel is stock, but the center button is now a Saleen PJ medallion. It doesn't take long to see the PJ logo scribed on the weighty aluminum shift knob; the shifter it's mounted on is a short-throw unit. Peering into the instrument wells show that the instruments are recalibrated into PJ specials. Thankfully, they're black-faced. But they do retain the MyColor feature-something Parnelli Jones never dreamed of in 1970, we assure you. Saleen opted for all the bright faux chrome and silver dash upgrades Ford offers. Combined with the orange-seat inserts, this relieves what otherwise would've been a cave of an interior.

The PJ offers all the excellent upgrades Ford built into the S197 Mustang. Dual-stage airbags, a crash-severity sensor, powerful air conditioning, rear-window defroster, and the wonderful chassis rigidity are all present. Gee-whiz sound systems aren't part of the Parnelli heritage, however, so the car does fine with the stock Ford Mach 500 tunes on those rare occasions when the engine and exhaust aren't enough aural stimulation.

To avoid a trail of lost roundels, our press car had an adhesive number on the driver door and a clean passenger door so we could see the car both ways.

In many ways, the things that make the PJ so fun to drive aren't amplified in the spec box. Weight and balance are the two biggest examples. True, the specifications list the PJ's weight as 3,550 pounds and weight distribution at 53/47 front to rear, but it's not until you get behind the wheel and feel the big orange unit carve into the turns that you strongly recall that there's more to life than massive horsepower. The PJ is noticeably lighter on its feet than any other Mustang, short of heavily modified aftermarket specials. That's thanks to its aluminum block, cylinder heads, no supercharger perched on the engine's nose-bleed section or water-filled charge cooler, as well as the benefits brought by performance suspension tuning and rubber.

Furthermore, midcorner stability and controlled corner exits at full throttle are standard equipment, thanks to the Watts link and rigid chassis. Additionally, the 19-inch tire and wheel package isn't Saleen's more image-conscious 20-inch fitment. This returns some needed compliance to the Saleen suspension, letting the tires better conform to the road for increased grip. They also ride better than the locomotive wheels on standard Saleens, meaning bumps aren't as upsetting when maneuvering or cruising.

On that subject, the live axle was good enough for Parnelli and certainly fine with us. It's a simple, honest approach that fits the Mustang well, even one as refined as this. Sharply located by the Watts link, the rear axle provides ample traction, is tough as nails, cost effective, and doesn't introduce any of the motions so prevalent in stock Mustang suspensions that-we have to admit-we don't notice much any more. Until they're gone, that is.

And it's not like you're missing the supercharger. We didn't. Instead, we let the PJ's expressive exhaust goad us into holding the throttle down and letting the revs soar. The power swells and the exhaust wails in a song we haven't heard or felt in a long time. A revving V-8 is a thing of beauty, and kept on the boil, the PJ engine is a crisp and powerful motive force. By the way, the boiling point underhood is at 4,000 rpm. Below that, power is adequate but misses earning our "snappy" label; rev through the noticeable transition at 4,000, however, and the rip and tear are abundant.

Saleen's Minilite-inspired wheels are a great new addition. Similar to the Cobra R wheel or Ford's Torque Thrust D knock offs, they're destined to be seen on many more than the 500 Saleen PJ's.

So, is the PJ, like the Boss 302, lethargic below its magic number? Not really; the old Boss 302 was a revvy, clattery, mechanical beast. The identically sized PJ engine is tuned to top out 500 rpm earlier-redline is 6,500 rpm-and has the benefit of EFI to pick up the bottom end. Around town, the hydraulically lash-adjusted PJ is polite and asks few favors when prodded for the daily grind. But to get the excitement, you need to rev it.

You'll love the exhaust note. It's as loud as we'd enjoy, and like a good high-rpm exhaust should, it trumpets euphoniously with just enough rasp to recall its racing legacy. Similar to impulsively ringing all the samples in the hardware store's doorbell display, wringing out the PJ is a can't-help-it proposition with that toneful exhaust.

Of course, when the pipes are this eager, they can be too much at lower rpm. The PJ is sonically over-extended at trundling speeds and grunting engine loads. We ultimately figured we'd just have to rev it to get rid of the 35 mph sound.

The Saleen/Parnelli Jones is the agile gymnast of the current Mustang family. If there are too few to go around, or the price of admission exceeds our reach, we can at least take the PJ as an excellent example of a smart performance Mustang. As a daily driver, we found few faults with the car. The exhaust can be too much of a good thing when stuck behind a truck. We also found the PJ bucket seats a bit of a pinch for our editorial largesse, if we may play freely with the language. And the engine nibbles close to the edge of separating high-rpm thrills with low-rpm sloth. We might reach for 4.10 gears should our PJ not log cross-country flights, but chances are better we'd just drop down a gear when necessary.

Generous bright work dresses up the PJ's dashboard. It's an area unquestionably better than its '70 counterpart.

Such gear changes could be better, but with the S197's half-here/half-there shifter, mounting Saleen has done well with what's possible. Another minor bother are the quarter-window covers. They darken the interior and do a passable job of blinding rear vision while adding visual bulk to the exterior. But that said, we're the first to admit the narrow slits in the panels do a far better job clearing the blind spot than we originally thought. Amazingly, if someone is gawking at your hot new PJ from your rear-quarter, that little slit is just enough to let you know they're there.

But step on the gas or turn the wheel and it all comes clear. The engine cuts like broken glass and the chassis grabs the pavement like it loves it. With this balance of power and handling, the PJ earns its special spot in the Mustang pantheon.

Youngsters in the audience are forgiven if they aren't sure who Parnelli Jones is, as he's from an earlier generation. His was a bare-knuckled, hard-charging generation, and Parnelli was a class leader. With a career that started in the '50s and still hasn't officially ended, he is from the old school where switching sanctions and disciplines was part of making a living. Thus he's won on asphalt and dirt, from the '63 Indy 500 to the Baja 1000 via the '70 Trans-Am championship. Parnelli's trademark is a powerful aggression and a dominating desire to win, coupled with fabled smoothness at the controls. In the '80s, Steve Saleen hired Parnelli and George Follmer, another hard-charger, to win the Escort Endurance Series Championship. They did, paving the way for the Saleen/Parnelli Jones 20 years later.

For us, a great benefit to the PJ introduction was getting to spend some quality time with Parnelli Jones. Like all successful people, his energy and vitality are tremendous, and we're happy to report his appetite for fun cars is undiminished. He likes this car, joking that Saleen calls them Saleen/Parnellis and he calls them Parnelli/Saleens.

As he put the idea for the car forward in the first place, his input on the PJ was immediate. Once the prototype was ready, he shook it down and was so happy with it that he asked for no changes. His genuine enthusiasm for the finished product couldn't be contained, which he summed up best by saying the car was so good that if he could go back in time, he thinks he could beat himself with it. That's one contest we'd love to witness.

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5.0 Tech Specs
ENGINE AND DRIVETRAINSUSPENSION AND CHASSIS
BlockFront Suspension
Stock aluminum K-member
DisplacementStock
302ciA-arms
BoreStock
StrokeCaster/Camber
Cylinder HeadsStock
Stock, portedStruts
CrankshaftSaleen gas-filled
Saleen forged-steelSprings
CamshaftsSaleen specific rate
SaleenWheels
Intake ManifoldSaleen Minilite-inspired aluminum;
Stock19x9-in
Throttle BodyTires
StockPirelli PZero Rossas; 275/35-19
Power AdderBrakes
None14-in slotted and vented discs,
Exhaustfour-piston caliper
Saleen, 2.5-in stainless steelRear Suspension
Fuel SystemSprings
Stock, 24-lb/hr injectorsSaleen specific rate
TransmissionShocks
Stock five-speed manualSaleen gas-filled
RearendControl Arms
8.8-in, 3.73 gearsStock
 Wheels
ELECTRONICSSaleen Minilite-inspired aluminum;
Engine Management19x10-in
{{{Ford}}}, with Saleen PowerflashTires
tuningPirelli PZero Rossas; 285/40-19
IgnitionBrakes
Stock 11.8-inch vented disc, single-piston
Instrumentationcaliper
Saleen-Parnelli faced six-pack;Chassis Stiffening
{{{200}}} mph speedo, 7,000 rpm tachNone
(6,500 rpm redline); two-gauge 
dashpod (oil pressure and 
temperature)