Brad Bowling
December 1, 2006
Photos By: Jerry Heasley

Kevin & Carmel Doolittle's 1996 Saleen S-281 Convertible
Car guys get attached to engine families with the same ferocity a city displays for its baseball team or the way a political party defends its candidates. 'Discussions' about the differences between, say, Chevy's 350 and Ford's 302 often require referees if bloodshed is to be avoided.

Ford Motor Company knew it would ignite a firestorm of criticism when it phased the beloved cam-in-block 5.0-liter V-8 out of the Mustang family at the end of 1995. That year's 302 was the end of a royal line going back to the 260-cid engine that powered Mustang number 000001 - a white convertible built on March 9, 1964, that now resides in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. The first 302 appeared in 1968, and up until that point, only in the years 1974, 1980 and 1981 were Mustangers deprived of a 302-cid option.

Its replacement for '96 was a single-overhead camshaft version of the modular V-8 powerplant that had been reliably serving Lincoln customers and many police and government types for five years before Ford tapped it for Mustang duty. Ford's engineers considered the SOHC Mustang engine to be "modular" because a range of powerplants could more efficiently share major components and designs with it. In other words, everything from a gas-sipping four-banger to a thundering V-10 truck motor could spring from the same drawing board.

At 281 cubic inches, it displaced 31 cubic inches less than the outgoing 302, but the free-spinning overhead camshafts gave it a redline 1500 rpm higher. Eliminating those 16 pushrods meant a reduction in valvetrain inertia and a more direct transfer of cam rotation. Lightweight pistons and connecting rods further reduced parasitic drag, and a compact plastic intake manifold increased runner length for greater performance, while reducing weight and improving heat transfer. Greater deck height meant engineers spent a lot of time moving and redesigning components so everything would fit under the flat hood. The '96 281 was rated at 215 horsepower at 4400 rpm, and it produced 285 lb/ft of torque at 3500.

On paper, Ford was able to make favorable horsepower comparisons between the 5.0 and 4.6 engines, but the buff books were condemning the new V-8 before the first test drives. Enthusiasts were upset that so many high-performance parts had been developed for the 5.0, and that it might take years to build a similar catalog for the SOHC. When the inevitable comparisons were made between the '95 and '96 GTs, acceleration numbers were close enough for government work, although old school Mustang owners complained the new car 'felt different' and it didn't have enough power.

Hindsight tells us the SOHC and DOHC 4.6-liters have become some of the most popular V-8s to modify for performance since the smallblock Chevy. What could have been Ford's 'New Coke moment' turned out (in the end) to be a wise investment in the Mustang's future.

Steve Saleen was betting the new mod motor would find acceptance among Mustang fans. His 1994-95 S-351 had been wowing the car magazines with its acceleration and top speed numbers, especially in supercharged form, but price tags in the neighborhood of $40K made the 351-cid V-8 model a low-production, premium-priced sports machine. Saleen was looking to add an entry-level car to the lineup with all of the aerodynamic and handling upgrades of the S-351, but with Ford's stock 4.6-liter V-8. Thus was born the S-281, which at $28,990 in coupe form and $33,500 as a ragtop, was one of the most stylin' Mustang models available for the money.

There was some extra performance built into Saleen's version of the 4.6-liter. It was upgraded with high-performance sparkplug wires, a high-flow air filter and Borla mufflers - enhancing it to a claimed 220 horsepower.

The S-281 received the full Racecraft suspension, large 245/40-18 BFGoodrich tires on 18-inch, five-spoke wheels, a short-throw shifter, white-face gauge treatment, the complete Saleen lower body kit and a rear wing unique to the model. Seats were stock Mustang GT units, and the fender badge was Ford's "GT/4.6L" piece. Extra-cost upgrades included magnesium 18-inch wheels ($2,500), 13-inch front brakes ($2,188), a 3.55:1 rear axle gear ($812), and a Speedster package for convertibles that included a hard tonneau cover and two-point chassis stiffener ($2,315).

Even though Saleen had offered superchargers on its earlier models, federal standards had tightened the loopholes that once made those blown engines possible. Production S-281s would not be offered with any type of supercharger until 1999, when Saleen opened its own in-house research and development lab. It was not widely advertised, but S-281 buyers looking for extra horsepower could have Saleen build their cars from SVT Cobras, which came that year with 305-horsepower DOHC versions of the 4.6. S-281 Cobra coupes sold for $38,900; convertibles were $41,000.

Total S-281 production in that first year reached 438 units, which included 30 convertibles Saleen built for Budget Rent A Car.

Kevin Doolittle, a landscaper from Cantonment, Florida, had been dreaming of owning a Saleen for many years when his wife Carmel saw a Crystal White '96 convertible sitting on a local used car dealer lot.

"I had never really wanted a convertible," Kevin said, "but the fact that it was a Saleen - and one of only 234 S-281 convertibles - got my attention."

Having had a '92 5.0-liter LX, Kevin was eager to get another Mustang. The Doolittles bought the S-281, Saleen serial number 96-0165, a few days after Christmas in 1999. With the stock GT's five-speed T-45 manual transmission and 3.55:1 rear gears, the couple found the convertible peppy enough to enjoy without expensive engine mods, but they did decide to give it a fresh look by way of the paint and body shop.

"We shaved the door handles and the antenna," Kevin remembered. "We removed the badges. Carmel and I wanted it to be a really smooth body when we were done, something that would really stand out when it went down the road."

By 'we,' Kevin means California Customs which, despite what its name might suggest, is located in Pensacola, Florida. R.J. Henson and Ralph and Tina Gill worked with Kevin on the bodywork and extensive painting chores. They laid down layers of non-pigment white, then applied custom violet and candy blue flames for a stunning, almost animated, effect.

One night during the painting process, while the car sat outside the garage, some incompetent crooks broke the rear quarter window and attempted to gain entry into the convertible. Because the outside handles had been shaved, they were unable to open the door after lifting the lock and left the car with only minor injuries.

"They weren't very smart criminals," Kevin says. "The car was actually on blocks, with its Saleen wheels just sitting against the rotors and the lugs hand-tightened. Those wheels and Nitto 555s would be worth more than whatever stereo equipment they thought they were going to get."

After that bit of excitement, the Doolittles and Johnson's Trim Shop breathed some life into the interior by complementing the fire outside with black custom leather seats wearing blue inserts. The inside door panels were given the same color-matching treatment, as was the shift knob. Blue neon lighting was placed beneath the undercarriage, and it is activated by a switch in the cigarette lighter.

Ken's Car Tunes made sure entertainment upgrades were plentiful, including an Alpine four-channel MRV-T420 amp, two-channel MRV-F340 amp, CDA-9835 head unit, a pair of 12-inch S-type woofers and a custom fiberglass trunk enclosure.

As expected, the S-281 has been mechanically solid, the rare exception being an intake manifold seal that blew out a few months after the Doolittles drove it home for the first time and a three-core radiator that sprang a leak. Now that the exterior and interior are suitably mind-blowing, Kevin and Carmel have started thinking about power upgrades. They have already installed a Centerforce clutch, C&L elbow intake, MAC cold air kit and K&N filter. Kevin tells us there are more modifications sitting in his garage floor.

"I have a set of headers, a '99-and-later PI intake and matching heads ready to go right now. I'm waiting to put them on until I can put on a supercharger at the same time."

Has Kevin felt handicapped by his choice of a post-5.0 engine? Not in the least.

"I don't know what the fuss was all about,but I remember a lot of people were upset about losing the 302," he recalls. "Now it looks like I've got more parts to choose from than what they used to offer for 5.0s." Don't saythat too loudly, Kevin, there may be some 5.0 guys listening.

Interior / Exterior
Kevin & Carmel Doolittle's 1996 Saleen S-281 Convertible

Exterior
Saleen front fascia, side skirts, rear valance, rear wing

Interior
Black custom leather seats with blue inserts, color-matching inside door panels, leather shift knob

Chassis
Racecraft G-load brace, balanced and customized driveshaft

Suspension
Racecraft progressive-rate front/rear coils, gas shocks and struts, special strut mounting bushings, urethane swaybar bushings

Wheels And Tires
18 x 8.5" Saleen five-spoke alloy wheels (front); 18 x 10" (rear), Nitto 555 tires (245/40-18 all around)

Specifications
Kevin & Carmel Doolittle's 1996 Saleen S-281 Convertible

Engine
Ford 4.6-liter SOHC V-8

Engine Modifications
High-performance sparkplug wires, MAC cold air kit, K&N filter, Borla mufflers

Engine Management
Ford EEC-V

Driveline
Short-throw shifter, Centerforce clutch, 3.55:1 gears

Numbers
220 horsepower (Saleen-advertised crank output)

Acknowledgements
California Customs of Pensacola, Florida, Ken's Car Tunes, K&D Lawn Services, Blue Oval Motorsports Car Club and especially Carmel, Mattie and Grayson Doolittle