Tom Wilson
December 1, 2008
Photos By: E. John Thawley III

Horse Sense:
SMS happily mentions that at 720 hp, the 25th Anniversary car's Three-Valve is approaching the 750 hp output of the exotic Saleen 427 twin-turbo engine the same engineers developed. True, but the pushrod S7 engine makes its power on a bare 4.5 pounds of boost or a fantasy-fulfilling 1,012 hp at a mere 8 pounds. Both engines are emissions-legal, but we wager the 25th's Three-Valve costs less than the $50,000 price tag for the 427. Don't even think about comparing the two cars' performance; the S7 weighs at least 1,000 pounds less than the 25th car.

Saleen Autosport was Steve Saleen's first car company, and when it came time to celebrate five years in the business, the resulting anniversary car was called the SA5. Later, as the company morphed from Saleen Autosport to Saleen Enterprises to Saleen Performance and finally simply to Saleen, there were SA10s, SA15s, and SA20s. Today, there is the solitary SMS 25th Anniversary Mustang Concept as laid before you.

Packing 720 hp and a combination of traditional Saleen and new SMS features, Steve Saleen's one-off 25th Anniversary concept is designed to hold our interest until production SMS Mustangs hit the market. A new feature is the silver paint. Steve Saleen's commemorative SA specials have been some combination of black, yellow, and white, but since 25 is the "silver" anniversary, this fishing-lure flash called Chromosome was worked up. Saleen made a reputation for outstanding colors in the last decade, and SMS seems poised to continue the trend.

Tradition is no match for corporate lawyers, and now that Saleen the company is divorced from Saleen the man, the SA moniker is now SMS, in honor of Steve Saleen's new company.

Still, the 25th Anniversary car celebrates all of Steve Saleen's years as a specialty car maker, which is why this unique Mustang unashamedly wears the current Saleen Mustang body kit as well as a few crafty, never-before-seen items from SMS.

The Saleen-sourced 20-inch wheels shroud six-piston front brakes with cross-drilled rotors for looks. Slots work better, but on the street-and especially the show circuit-it really comes down to looks.

Starting with a fresh '08 Mustang, Steve and company at SMS began construction by purchasing a body kit from Saleen. "I couldn't improve on perfection," Steve coyly smiled, acknowledging that SMS is new and busy enough with multiple domestic performance projects that it couldn't create Mustang bodywork from scratch so soon. Besides, the current Saleen body kit is the product of Steve and SMS design chief Phil Frank, so the heritage is hardly borrowed.

Those looking closely will notice the carbon-fiber air splitters all the way around the lower edge of the car. These aren't Saleen parts, but new SMS pieces for the 25th Anniversary car. The rear diffuser is also unique; the better to accommodate the large, single-exit center exhaust outlet.

The glass roof is a current Saleen option, but we're sure you noticed that the hood and its integrated scoop and throttle blades are fresh. In fact, the hood is a composite carbon/fiberglass SMS part, newly tooled for the anniversary car, but you can bet your last lug nut we'll be seeing this engine lid again on future SMS-production Mustangs.

Those dragster-like "throttles" are a fun bit of trickery SMS calls the Red Butterfly Induction System. Yes, the red butterflies open and close in response to driver input; the command comes from an electronic controller and the power through a stepper motor in the hoodscoop. SMS engineers were sure to make the butterflies open when rapping the throttle at a stoplight, so they're a dead cinch to impress. The entire system is separate from the powertrain control module-there's a switch on the throttle pedal-so emissions legality isn't affected.

SMS engineer John Spruill developed the anniversary car's one-off Light Blade LED rear lighting. It's dual intensity for both running and brake functions, and yes, the seven banks flash sequentially for turn and hazard duty. This Light Blade system could see volume production; the LEDs aren't overly expensive, but the control mechanism is a little pricey, according to John. Like all LEDs, this system draws little current, is nearly unbreakable, and bulb life should outlast the car. It lights up like a fire truck and is a real attention-getter.

The more mechanically astute will realize that no, the red butterflies aren't the actual throttle body, but rather a nifty, operable cold-air intake. In practice, air passes through the butterflies, runs through a duct built into the hood, then through a separate duct forward to the cavity surrounding the open-element air filter in the usual spot behind the driver-side headlight. The air then passes through the air filter, an SMS 100mm mass air meter, and the throttle body atop the Saleen supercharger. SMS is already offering the air filter, air dam, and 100mm mass air as a cold-air kit. They're the start of what promises to be a full line of hot-rod and appearance parts.

Past the intake trickery awaits a standard Saleen supercharger, as used in the last few years of Saleen production and offered as a popular aftermarket kit. Below the blower is a stock bore, stroked, 4.6 Three-Valve engine. You're forgiven if you wondered whether this is one of the prepped 5.0 liters used in the Parnelli Jones and other Saleens. We wondered, but were assured by SMS chief engineer Billy Talley that the 25th Anniversary engine is a one-off, prepped Mustang GT plant.

"We started with a standard, aluminum-blocked Three-Valve engine, dropped in a forged 3.800-inch stroker crankshaft, Manley rods, and our own piston design," Billy says. "Compression is knocked down to 9.2:1."

The heads are also stock Three-Valve castings but ported on SMS's new CNC-machining centers. The valvesprings, retainers, and such were upgraded for a good 7,000-plus-rpm operation, but the timing chains, tensioners, and other valvetrain parts were left stock. Also stock are front-engine-dress items such as the water pump and air conditioning.

Oiling is another stock area, save for the windage tray, which was clearanced to fit the stroker crankshaft through the CNC machines. Billy emphasized that nearly all the machining operations to this engine were developed on a computer, then whittled out by the CNC machines.

When you have over 700 hp under the hood, a little showing off is allowed. The hoodscoop butterflies open in response to throttle position, allowing cold air to flow to the air filter. The Red Butterfly Induction System is mimicked at the sidescoops; they sport nonopening red butterflies as a design element. SMS says it took more work than planned to get the butterflies working the way it wanted.

Besides the noodling that went into the optimized piston dome shape, the real work on this engine went into the supercharger and manifold combination. Like the body kit, the blower and manifold assembly was sourced from Saleen but massaged on SMS' CNC machines for optimum airflow.

"On the intake manifold and supercharger, well, there were a few issues, so we worked on the shortcomings-the choke points," Billy says. "We have a few new pieces of equipment on the shop floor, so we got rid of the casting issues, CNC'd the manifold and intake tube, CNC'd a blend on the throttle body, cut down the shafts It was a blueprint thing on the throttle body."

The work to the mass air and inlet tube was major. This is hardly surprising, as our experience with big-power screw blowers has shown that the inlet side is critical to feeding their voracious appetites. Thus, SMS emissions/driveability specialist John Spruill finally indulged his need to build a full-on 100mm mass air meter, complete with, "a large venturi [and] a nice shape to transition from the air filter." In fact, John said the cross-sectional area throughout the inlet tube is held at a constant 100mm for airflow integrity.

Unlike other parts of the 25th Anniversary Special Concept, which were hewn from aluminum billet just for a little bling, the inlet tube uses another technology new to the SMS crew: in-house SLS rapid prototyping. This is a Doc Raynoid process where parts are built up from a primordial goo by laser etching; it's the rage in aerospace and Formula 1 but is just making it to the best-equipped tuning shops. In the SMS inlet's case, the material is nylon and held to exacting tolerances, unlike the hit-and-miss dimensions of rotomolded inlets. Again, look for such parts in production SMS cars and its spin-off parts as they hit the market.

Besides the name of his new multiplatform performance automotive company, SMS isn't just the name of the company, but Steve Saleen's initials as well.

On the outlet side, the stock Ford exhaust manifolds and catalytic converters are retained, Saleen mufflers are used, followed by the new SMS center exit "boom tube." This gives the 25th car the familiar Saleen exhaust, where the gases normally exit under the car near the mufflers. During full-throttle efforts, however, valves open to the center outlet, which greatly increases the exhaust exit's area, thus reducing backpressure.

Backing the engine is a McLeod twin-plate clutch and aluminum flywheel. It feeds a standard Shelby GT500 Tremec T-6060 six-speed manual transmission with a stock shifter. A one-piece, aluminum driveshaft leads to the 8.8-inch live axle; it's fitted with 4.10 gears and a TrueTrac limited-slip differential. Its gear-type construction gives both durability and linear response. Both are important in such a high-power application.

Reinvention is the necessity of longevity, Saleen has found.

In the wheelwells, SMS again stayed with its Saleen roots, using the entire Saleen Racecraft suspension, save for the Watt's link. Here, SMS designed a new Watt's link, an all-billet affair to make good use of-by now you can chorus the answer-the company's CNC machines. Billy said the new Watt's link employs upgraded geometry with a redefined roll center and different-length arms; puts all hardware in double shear; and features a trick, new bushing that provides improved precision without a road-noise penalty. He said to think of a spherical bearing with a damping material around it. Obviously, the Watt's link is bound for parts sales-and production SMS Mustangs-so we'll be able to detail its construction shortly.

Braking is performed by 15-inch six-piston front and 12-inch rear discs. All discs are cross-drilled because it looks sexy and this is a fishnet-stocking sort of show car. The only comment on brakes was that the rears remain a little "small" because Mustangs don't respond well to huge rear binders. The floating axles in the live axle move laterally, while the rigidly mounted aftermarket calipers don't, so rear-pad wear can be an issue.

When we approached the car as it sat idling in front of SMS headquarters, we first noticed the luminescent silver paint, then-through the open driver's door-the surprisingly bright and light-filled interior. The glass roof was less tinted than any we've previously seen, rendering the interior in a soft-but-bright glow, and when we slid underneath it, the sun's heat magically diminished. It was a warm summer day and the glass roof proved no match for the air conditioning. SMS personnel assured us the infrared heat load is manageable even in torrid 115-plus-degree desert temperatures, although wearing a hat is desirable under such extremes. After our sampling, we believe it. Even in our hot SoCal climate, count us as enthusiastic glass-roof fans.

Aiding the bright mood is the two-tone upholstery. Custom-made for the 25th Anniversary car, the leather trim covers firm seats-shades of the Flofits in vintage Saleens-and extends to the door panels. SMS billet-aluminum brightwork around the shifter lends a hint of street rodding to the proceedings, while the shift knob itself is leather-wrapped around an SMS aluminum whittling.

Besides its all-out speed, the 25th Anniversary concept has a comfortable gran turismo side to it as well. The exhaust doesn't drone, stability is rock-like with the new Watt's link-even with the steamroller Pirellis-and the view is exceptional. It's a fun ride to look out of and be seen in.

Clutch action proved perfectly normal, with medium weight and no elongation in the take-up. And with that, we were off. The ride is taut and lowered but hardly punishing, and devoid of the rear-axle hula thanks to the Watt's link. In fact, stability was improved, although our short hop didn't include much cornering daring-do, so we can't report on all corners of the 25th's performance envelope. We can say the understeer seems nicely limited, and higher-speed stability seems assured, too, given the accuracy we felt through medium-speed action in bumps and humps on surface streets.

We did open those red butterflies, of course, and the results were grin-inducing impressive. At the risk of confusing those who haven't pedaled true big-block displacement muscle cars, we'll start by observing that the current crop of megapowered modular motors just doesn't hit with the instant torque slap upside the head as a 408ci Windsor sporting a 12:1 compression. But then, those don't pass emissions or gas pumps, either.

That's not to say the SMS's first Mustang doesn't snap on the go. With 609 lb-ft of torque on duty at just 3,000 rpm, it can't help but get moving. Still, it helps to be a few hundred rpm above idle. Total urge is an impressive 720 hp at 7,000 rpm and 667 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. The long rpm gap between peak torque and power is the first clue that this engine has a wide working range-and it does, with an especially eager and rpm-happy top end. Billy confided that ripping up to 7,300 rpm is beneficial, which we confirmed in some deeply satisfying romps to redline in Second gear. No doubt the funny cams and massaged intake passages are at play here. We certainly were.

Muscling up 720 hp and 609 lb-ft of torque at the flywheel, the 5.0-liter Three-Valve stroker shows what can be done with a touch of hot rodding and much attention to detail. The power is smooth, linear, and winds into a rage at the top end. It's exciting stuff we're looking forward to driving again.

Equally so, the cams were likely at play immediately off idle. We're picking the smallest of nits here, as John worked over this SMS engine long and hard on the SMS chassis dyno. It drove great, and we barely noticed a minor sog and surge transitioning from idle to running at parking lot speeds.

Maximum indicated boost on the gauge-pod-mounted instrument just ticked 15 pounds; max boost on the dyno sheet Billy let us ponder was in the 12s around the torque peak, dropping to 11.3 pounds by the power peak. Clearly, the supercharger or its manifolding is all done in this application, as Billy noted. That can only mean we'll see more in this department in the future.

The SMS 25th Anniversary Mustang Concept represents a legacy and a promise as long as its name. That we'd even mention driveability 25 years ago in a 720hp street car that meets emissions standards illustrates how incredibly far performance-and Steve Saleen-has come. Today we're blessed with all the power street tires can hope to hang on to, clean emissions, polite driving manners, and tight handling. If the next 25 years hold the same degree of progress, we'll be fortunate.

Steve's Silver Anniversary
Dismal with hope is the best sketch of the automotive landscape 25 years ago. The national speed limit was 55 mph and the country was lost in disco apathy-not a pretty backdrop for performance fans. Hope came from emerging computer technology that promised clean emissions and performance, plus the reality that 15-year-old muscle cars can't remain the paragon of automotive performance forever.

Airy and bright, the concept car's interior presages what SMS design chief Phil Frank has in store for future SMS Mustang buyers. The allegiance to both Saleen on the doorsills and SMS on the floor mats highlights the transitional nature of this point in Steve Saleen's career.

Ford was the first to move, debuting the daringly high-performance '82 Mustang GT with dual exhaust and a two-barrel carburetor. Into this recuperating market stepped Steve Saleen with a stock-engined, tightly suspended, and thoroughly taped-up Saleen Mustang in 1984.

It was a bold move, something already a specialty for Steve Saleen. Starting as a salesman for his dad's pet-supply company, the recent USC business school grad was already lost to road racing in the late '70s. Starting with a GT350 Shelby, followed by a Super Vee formula car-then the crucible of professional Formula Atlantic racing-Saleen worked his way through the racing realities of speed and financing.

A side job with Mecham Motorsports and the company's short-lived Pontiac-based specialty car venture gave Steve the idea of a limited-edition domestic sports car. The Mustang proved to be the correct platform, and the venture prospered from 1987 to 1990. A few thousand Saleen Mustangs sold, with the company-by then, solidly based in Steve Saleen's SoCal home region-moving to ever-larger facilities.

Always the racer, Steve and his car teams competed in the Escort Endurance series, a popular sedan-based circuit. Steve even went back to his Formula car roots, mounting an IndyCar effort, but it all went to hash in the economic downturn of the early '90s.

However, by then, Saleen had debuted the SSC, one of Steve's favorite cars from the Fox era. It was the first fully rounded Saleen Mustang, with power improvements-Vortech supercharging-to complement the suspension, braking, and appearance upgrades. Even as the company was sold off piecemeal, the idea of these hot Mustangs was embedded in the performance consciousness, and with a series of partners, Steve bought back all the pieces of the dismembered company. This is the format which, starting in earnest by 1994, built the S351, S281, S7, and current S302 Saleens. It also saw Steve and company racing at Le Mans with both Mustangs and the S7.

We really enjoyed the 25th car's glass roof. It gives a near approximation of the light from a convertible with the climate control of a coupe. Heat from the burning summer sun is amazingly muted; we wouldn't hesitate to order one.

After 12,000 production Saleens sold, differences in business and creative direction resulted in Steve departing the Saleen company last year to start SMS. Always the optimist, Steve sees SMS as a rare third chance to reorganize a car company. Gathering the core technical people from his past, Steve is now poised to build performance cars based on any manufacturer, or indeed, make his own. Parts sales and engineering consulting are also SMS main points.

We first started covering Steve Saleen in 1987. We assure you he is, while occasionally controversial and sometimes overeager, an incurable optimist and possessed of a tenacity and never-say-die character that will keep him in the performance-car business for decades to come. He's also benefited from one of the longest, most demanding apprenticeships in the specialty-car school of hard knocks. That we'll see exciting performance production cars from SMS is a given, and we'll be there to document them for you.

5.0 Tech Specs

Engine And Drivetrain
Block
Stock aluminum

Bore
Stock

Stroke
3.800-inch

Displacement
5.0 liters

Crankshaft
Forged-steel

Rods
Manley, forged-steel

Pistons
SMS custom-dome, forged

Compression Ratio
9.2:1

Camshafts
SMS custom

Heads
SMS CNC-ported Three-Valve

Intake
Saleen, CNC-ported by SMS

Throttle Body
Saleen

Mass Air Meter
SMS 100mm

Injectors
Saleen

Power Adder
Saleen Stage VI screw supercharger

Intercooler
Saleen

Headers
Ford, stock cast-iron

Exhaust
Ford cats, Saleen mufflers, SMS center outlet

Transmission
GT500-spec T-6060 six-speed manual

Flywheel
McLeod

Clutch
McLeod dual-disc

Rear Axle
8.8-inch, 4.10 gears, TrueTrac limited-slip

Electronics

Engine Management
SMS custom-tune

Ignition
Ford

Gauges
Saleen gauge pod; boost, charge-cooler temp

Suspension And Chassis

Front Suspension
K-Member
Ford

Control Arms
Saleen Racecraft

Springs
Saleen Racecraft

Struts
Saleen Racecraft

Brakes
Six-piston, cross-drilled, 15-inch rotor

Wheels
Saleen forged

Tires
Pirelli P-Zero, 275/35ZR20

Rear Suspension

Springs
Saleen Racecraft

Shocks
Saleen Racecraft

Control Arms
Saleen Racecraft, SMS billet Watt's link

Brakes
12-inch, crossdrilled

Wheels
Saleen forged

Tires
Pirelli P-Zero, 305/35ZR20