Thomas Jackson
December 5, 2000
Contributers: Thomas Jackson

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A line of finished Saleens awaits final detailing before being loaded into the waiting enclosed car transporter. Note the custom Saleen front-nose assembly and how well it matches the stock body contours and paint color.

There is a rich tradition in America of specialty companies taking factory high-performance cars and adding unique character and style to them to make them special. The Yenko Camaros and Shelby Mustangs of the '60s immediately come to mind. These cars have appreciated fantastically in value over the years, a testament to their intrinsic value and desirability to begin with. To be sure, others have tried to do the same, mostly to make a fast buck. Every single one of these impostors has gone down in flames, making cars that were little different from the factory original and not worth the money when new, let alone years later as a collector car. There is one legitimate exception to this history: the Saleen Mustangs of racer and enthusiast Steve Saleen.

The first thing that happens to each incoming Mustang GT in the transformation process is to strip the car of its engine, suspension, exhaust and more. Jimmy Moore says that sometimes the Saleen assembly teams find mistakes or omissions in the construction of the original Mustang from Ford. This Mustang GT was missing the lower radiator mounts, the radiator being held in place by the upper and lower hoses only. Needless to say, the error was caught and the correct Ford parts were installed. This is an added feature that goes into every Saleen, since the level of attention to detail in prepping a standard Mustang for delivery is rarely this involved, and such problems, while uncommon, are rarely found by dealers.

With the engine bay gutted, the assembled and prerun hi-po 351 engine is removed from its pallet, hung on the adjustable engine chain and carefully dropped into the waiting compartment. Saleen uses a special front-end cover that extends from the left door all the way around the front of the car to the right door, protecting all the body panels in the process as shown here. The engine is mated to a Tremec 3550 five-speed HD transmission.

Steve Saleen, a longtime racer and performance enthusiast, first applied his talents to massaging Mustangs in 1985. This corresponded with the beginning of the revival of the Mustang as a low-priced musclecar with performance worthy of the ponycar name. From a small start, Saleen has grown over the years. There are many reasons why Saleen succeeded where all the others have failed, but the most important is that Steve injected a real element of his personality and enthusiasm into his Mustangs. A Saleen Mustang of the '80s was one that handled exceptionally well, yet did not detract from the supple and compliant ride characteristic of the basic Mustang. As the years rolled by, Saleen began adding more and more in the way of power modifications as well. After 10 years of production, Saleen Mustangs are indeed far different from the standard Mustang GT you can buy at any Ford dealer. As a matter of fact, Saleen Mustangs now employ an entirely different engine, the 351 Windsor instead of the 5.0 powerplant we have all come to love.

In order to install the special Saleen body components front and rear, the stock bumper covers are completely removed, exposing the expanded foam reinforcement in the bumpers. A custom-designed Saleen one-piece body panel covers the front nose and rear bustle. Notice the conical air filter that Saleen installs in the right front fender.

Saleen maintains a small fleet of press/publicity S-351s. Periodically, they are overhauled and brought up to the latest specifications. One thing that has always been true with Saleen Mustangs is that the technology never stands still, with each model year reflecting improvements over the previous model year.

We obtained special access to the production facilities at Saleen in Irvine, California, and recorded the process that the company goes through to transform an ordinary Mustang GT into an extraordinary Saleen Mustang. The Saleen Mustang's aura of exclusivity starts at the very beginning, with an attitude among the Saleen production staff that exudes the highest professionalism, an attitude that "nothing but perfection is good enough." This attitude seems to be imbued into every Saleen Mustang that rolls out of its doors and into the enclosed 18-wheel car haulers that are waiting to take the plastic-wrapped Saleens to the special Saleen dealer that ordered it. Then it is finally ready to be delivered to the customer.

The front brakes are 101/2-inch diameter rotors on all S-351s, but the customer can opt for the larger 13-inch front rotors, complete with four-piston racing calipers. The 13-inch rotors are grooved for cooling, and the combination is very close to the brakes used on Steve Saleen's race cars. Notice the Saleen Racecraft front struts, which employ urethane bushings at the top.

When the conversion into a full Saleen Mustang is complete, a full engineering validation test is conducted on the public roads. Last, each car is detailed to show-car standards. The entire body is washed and polished, the tires and wheels are detailed, the interior is vacuumed and cleaned, the glass is spit-shined and everything is made perfect. The car is then fully wrapped in plastic and loaded into an enclosed delivery 18-wheeler. No Saleen is transported across country in an open trailer the way stock Mustangs are. When a Saleen gets to the dealer, it is so clean and ready that no prep is necessary, and the car is immediately available for delivery to the customer.

The production of a Saleen Mustang starts with an order from one of the 75 national Saleen authorized dealers. Normal Ford Motor Credit financing is available for these cars, which makes acquiring one of them no different than the purchase or lease of any Ford product. This is an important factor that has helped Saleen become a success. Most Saleen dealers keep a Saleen Mustang in stock in their showrooms for immediate sale to the customer. However, if a customer wants a different color, a convertible or other option that was not ordered for the dealer's showroom Saleen Mustang, a special order can be placed directly to Saleen. According to Jimmy Moore, production manager for Saleen, it takes only four to five weeks to deliver a finished Saleen Mustang to the dealer once an order is received. This is about half to a third of the time it normally takes to special order a Mustang from Ford Motor Company. Given that a customer becomes quite anxious for the delivery of his new steed once the contract is signed and the deposit money is laid down, this is good news.

The stock dash unit is removed and converted to a 200mph speedo and white-face gauges. It helps to remove the steering wheel in the process. The stock wheel is reinstalled later, retaining the airbag designed into the wheel from Ford. If the customer opts for the supercharger, the stock clock on the dashpanel is removed and replaced with a boost gauge and a fuel-pressure gauge that is fed by a steel-braided line, a la race cars. As another option, the seats can be ordered in leather instead of the standard Saleen/Recaro cloth logo design.

The Saleen facilities are all collocated--the parts division, the car division and the racing team. The building is modern and sleek, not where you would imagine an automobile constructor to be located.

Saleen orders cars directly from Ford's Dearborn Assembly Plant (DAP) where Mustangs are made. All Saleen Mustangs start life as a stock Mustang GT. At one point in the past, Saleen built its cars from V6 Mustangs, but it no longer does. Saleen takes delivery of the unregistered Mustang GTs under a special provision that allows it to qualify as a small auto manufacturer in its own right. Thus, when the final car is delivered to the customer, it is legally a Saleen, and the customer will be the first-ever registered owner. This is important to those who buy a Saleen with an eye toward keeping it forever and wanting to prove its authenticity and pedigree.

When the delivery truck from Ford's DAP arrives at Saleen's facilities, the cars are unloaded and brought into the assembly facility. Saleen uses a team-build concept. Each Mustang stays in one place as a team of technicians swarms over it in the great traditions of the best European and American coach builders from days gone by. There is no production line at Saleen, where each worker does only one small task on the car. The assembly team does the whole job from start to finish based on the unique work order that accompanies each Saleen. Quality is superior with this method, although the bean counters at America's largest manufacturers would say it costs too much to do it this way.

Unique body panels are a trademark of Saleen Mustangs. This hood is an optional carbon-fiber unit that can be requested on any S-351.

Steve Saleen came down from his offices on the second floor to autograph the inside of the trunk on one of the newly completed S-351s for a customer who requested it.

Each Mustang GT is first put up on jackstands, whereupon it is disassembled in preparation for reconstruction as a Saleen. The disassembly process is quite extensive--it has to be because significant changes are made to turn the base GT into a real Saleen. The entire stock 5.0 engine is completely removed and sent to the parts department. In its place, a Saleen-designed 351W engine, which is assembled by a Ford Motor Company engine supplier in Texas, is installed. The 351 engine is pure Saleen, with a special Saleen-designed intake manifold, 30lb injectors, a Saleen 77mm mass-air meter and a 65mm throttle body. The engine also benefits from special Saleen-spec cylinder heads and Saleen ceramic shorty headers. The camshaft profile is also changed, substituting a Saleen-spec bumpstick that matches the electronic fuel injection and bigger intake breathing, yet is also 50-state EPA legal.

An extensive parts warehouse is included in the Saleen facility, ensuring that everything needed for construction of an S-351 is on hand at all times. Total construction time takes about 60-70 man-hours, far more than it takes to build the original car at Ford's assembly plant. The team assembly method is slower, but attention to detail and quality is far higher.

The front sway bar installed is a big one, corresponding to about 34 mm in diameter. This greatly reduces body roll in the corners, yet keeps the ride supple on the straightaways.

Saleen is one of the few specialty automotive companies that has ever obtained federal EPA certification of its cars. This is great news for those who do not want a "gray market" car, and there is never the need for trepidation when a Saleen Mustang has to go through annual emissions inspection in those states that have such programs. The other good news is that the Saleen 351 engine is rated at 371 horsepower in its naturally aspirated configuration. This is about a 150hp increase over the stock 5.0 engine--a whopping 75-percent increase! As we said earlier, Saleen Mustangs are fundamentally far different from the Mustang GTs they start from.

Something important to all Saleens is the registration of each car. During assembly, registration numbers are hand stamped on the ID plates, which are mounted on the firewall under the hood and in the interior. A third ID number is installed elsewhere, in a secret location, to help verify the pedigree of every car ever made, if necessary.

When it comes to the chassis improvement Saleens are famous for, the stock springs, shocks, struts and front sway bar are completely removed. In their place goes a huge 13/8-inch bright-red Saleen tubular front sway bar. A tubular sway bar is hollow and saves a lot of front-end weight compared to standard solid steel bars. Springs are replaced at all four corners with Saleen-spec custom units. Rates on these springs are higher and the car sits lower as a result of them, but from firsthand experience, we can attest to the fact that ride quality remains excellent--no rock-hard suspension here.

Special Saleen adjustable front struts and rear shocks are installed as well. These units are custom made for Saleen with the right valving that Steve Saleen feels makes for the best ride and handling combination with the springs that are used. The struts employ polyurethane bushings at the upper tower mount, as does the Saleen sway bar.

The master log stays with each S-351 during its entire stay at the Saleen facility, occupying a special pocket in the front of the protective cover that surrounds the front end of each car.

All Saleens are given a unique serial number that is reflected on the underhood panel and the dash plaque. The last two digits are also inscribed below the front left headlight.

Appearance items and creature comforts are carefully addressed as well. All Saleens get a special 200mph speedometer, and all gauges are changed to white faces. Custom Saleen/Recaro cloth bucket seats are installed in place of the stock front seats, and the stock rear seat is reupholstered in the same Recaro material used in the front seats for a perfect match. Saleen floor mats are installed, as well as a special Tremec shifter with a Saleen leather-and-suede shift knob.

On the outside, special Saleen graphics are applied, along with ground-effects-style side body panels. A completely new nose and rear-bumper assembly are installed, as well as a unique rear wing that comes on all S-351 Saleen Mustangs, a trademark of all Saleens over the years. All body panels are painted in the original Ford Mustang body color to match the original GT. No special paint colors are used with Saleen Mustangs, so whatever Ford offers each year is what a Saleen can be ordered in. The graphics package comes in one of four colors: blue, white, silver or gold. This includes an angled hash stripe on the side body and a Saleen windshield graphic, which Saleen calls a windshield banner.

There is still more to the Saleen story that we will explain through the photos in this article. However, it should be noted that the standard Saleen is the S-351 that comes with the 351ci Windsor engine. A unique, specially made Vortech 8psi supercharger can be optioned for the motor, as can a whole lot of other options as well. The other Saleen Mustang is the Saleen SR. It comes with lightweight racing seats in the front, no rear seat and a special carbon-fiber hood, all designed to save weight. It employs the same 351W engine, but the supercharger is standard. The Saleen SR is more like a Mustang Cobra R model, but it retains the air conditioning, power windows and stereo. Saleen used to offer an entry-level V6 model, but demand for the S-351 became so strong that all production resources are being channeled into these cars. Despite the advent of the overhead-cam 4.6L engine in 1996, Saleens will continue, at least for the immediate future, with the powerful 351 engine. Down the road, as Saleen develops sufficient custom parts and power levels from the 4.6L engine, it may find its way into the Saleen line, but only if the performance can be brought up to Saleen standards. There is no pressure to do this, since the 351 engine is an EPA-certified powerplant in its own right.

In the end, a Saleen is truly a special vehicle, worthy of inclusion with the Yenkos and Shelbys of yore. Each year, Saleens have gotten better and better, diverging further and further from the stock design to now become unique cars in their own right. The prices range from the 30s to the 50s for one of these exclusive cars, but given that you get things that cannot be purchased from Ford at all, like the 351 engine, full EPA certification and full warranty honored by your local Ford dealer, a Saleen is indeed something special. 5.0