Brad Bowling
March 1, 2007
Contributers: Brad Bowling

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Randy Pethel's 1989 Saleen SSC
Steve Saleen still makes a point of correcting people when they describe him as a Mustang 'tuner.' When I worked as Saleen Autosport's public relations coordinator, he told me on my first day in 1988 to "never, ever use that word," especially with the media. "We are," he stated emphatically, "a small-volume manufacturer. We produce Saleen Mustangs." He was right, of course. The company was recognized by Ford Motor Company, the Sports Car Club of America and several State of California bureaus as having that status.

Saleen had manufactured 280 of its turnkey high-performance Mustangs in 1987, and was headed for a record 708 units for '88 - a clear indication that the 40,000-square-foot Anaheim plant was no mere speed shop. (Staff members were so afraid they might slip that they avoided using the term altogether, even in private conversation. If absolutely necessary, we would say 'the T-word,' as in "Uh-oh, Car and Driver called Steve 'the T-word' again.")

Steve had been applying chassis, suspension, body and brake upgrades to new Ford Mustangs since 1984, gradually increasing the amount of Saleen-unique parts as he brought more vendors into his program. His Racecraft suspension package, which consisted of stiffer springs, premium shocks, urethane bushings and body stiffeners, turned the wallowing Fox chassis into an entirely different animal - one that was quite happy on a road course. In 1987, Saleens received four-wheel disc brakes and five-lug rotors for the first time, an improvement that helped the Saleen Autosport race team win all four SCCA Showroom Stock Escort Endurance championships.

Anniversary Ambitions
Despite the many enhancements that transformed a Mustang LX hatchback, coupe or convertible into a canyon racer, the 225-horsepower, 5.0-liter engines were left alone so Saleens could be sold through Ford dealerships while retaining the factory's powertrain warranty. Sure, there was the occasional Paxton supercharger install, but such equipment was - for official purposes - arranged through Saleen's parts department, and not openly promoted to the public. In the late '80s it was a widely held opinion that only the big automakers had the resources and know-how to navigate the EPA's vast and confusing regulations. Aftermarket parts companies were becoming adept at certifying individual components, such as camshafts, carburetors, mufflers and low-restriction air filters, but no one had attempted to walk an entire powerplant through the process for a very limited run.

Steve dreamed of selling a Saleen Mustang powered by a 50-state, Environmental Protection Agency-certified, high-performance version of the 5.0-liter V8 for 1988. The car was to be called the "SA-5" to celebrate the company's fifth anniversary, but by the time a single black prototype was shown to the press at Road America in the summer of '88, everyone involved knew the certification process alone would push its introduction well into the '89 model year, if it could be made to happen at all.

Saleen juggled the timetable to accommodate reality, and there were other changes to announce, as well. The new plan was to build 250 identical copies of the supercar for '89, all of them Oxford White (a choice Steve made when someone pointed out that black cars seldom appear on magazine covers) with 306-horsepower engines, all standard Saleen upgrades, and several other performance enhancements for a retail price of $36,500 - about $13,000 more than a regular Saleen hatchback, and well over twice the cost of a fully loaded GT convertible.

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Performance Renewed
Randy Pethel, a custom finisher from Hiram, GA., was in his mid-20s when the SSC debuted, but he could not afford such an extravagant vehicle. It wasn't until 2004, when he found SSC-0018 for sale with less than 40,000 miles on the odometer, that Randy decided he was ready to put one of the special Saleens in his garage. The price was right, but the car's factory paint had lost its luster and a few original Saleen pieces were missing. One other factor convinced Randy he wanted to modify his new ride: the engine.

"Back when the SSC came out," he recalled, "it was an awesome car. No other manufacturer had an engine that put out close to 300 horsepower, so the car was special from that standpoint.

"The only problem is that today thereare Japanese sedans with V6s that have300 horsepower. It's no longer a magicnumber; I wanted to give my SSC some-thing with some grunt."

Keeping much of the Saleen horsepower formula intact, Randy added a 70mm Professional Products throttle body, 80mm mass air flow sensor, 42-pound FRPP injectors,255-lph Walbro 344 fuel pump, Kirban adjustable fuel pressure regulator, and a Bassani cross-pipe with Bassani catalytic converters. He turned up the charge with an MSD Probillet distributor and ignition control box,Autolite 23 sparkplugs and MSD 8.5mm wires.

A Vortech SC-trim supercharger really makes this SSC growl, with 10 pounds of boost and 3.12-inch pulleys. The Saleen/Vortech intake was polished and is fed by a custom-made power pipe. The blower pushes the 5.0-liter to 405 horsepower and 370 foot-pounds of torque at the rear wheels on pump gas. Keeping everything cool is a set of Ramcharger electric fans, Ford Racing blue silicone hoses and a vented fiberglass hood. Randy kept the rest of the stout SSC drivetrain in place, but substituted a Centerforce II clutch and Ford Racing aluminum driveshaft.

The late-model Mustang aftermarket was just discovering the benefits of subframe connectors when the SSC was being developed, and Steve Saleen considered attaching a set to the underside of his supercar. Without adequate time to test and evaluate the different types and designs of connectors, Steve felt his other chassis enforcements were sufficient to keep the Fox platform tight. Randy decided the extra horsepower and torque of his improved 302 required a little more steel between the subframes and welded in a pair. He also installed a rear shock tower brace from Saleen's parts department and painted it yellow to give the silver-gray interior some color. Caster/camber plates from UPR give the SSC a greater range and accuracy of suspension alignment.

The three-way cockpit adjustable shocks Monroe developed for Saleen turned out to be not so reliable, so many SSC owners have switched to conventional units. Randy replaced his problematic system with Tokicos all around, but retained Saleen's specific-rate springs. The correct General XP2000 tires, now available only through collectors of vintage rubber, were replaced by Cooper Zeons in the stock sizes.

Although the car was complete and in good running shape when he bought it, Randy found a downside to restoring a rare, classic Mustang. "The hardest part of the build was acquiring the correct parts," Randy told me. "I searched eBay and many other sources to find parts."

Randy brought the body back to life with fresh coats of Ford's Oxford White and performed most of the minor mechanical chores himself. By painting the beltline molding white (instead of Saleen's silver or Ford's black), Randy recalls the monochrome treatment Ford applied to Mustangs in the early '90s. He credits Jeff Harris, of Pro Speed Performance in Powder Springs, with the advanced mechanical work.

It is obvious to Randy the SSC's appearance has stood the test of time; the white hatchback is as attractive today as it was nearly 20 years ago. Because it is the grandfather of many street-legal supercars that followed - the 1991-'93 SC, the 1994-99 S-351, the 2002-present S-281E and, it can be argued, the Ferrari-fighting S7 - the SSC holds a special place in the hearts of Saleen enthusiasts.

Interior / Exterior
Randy Pethel's 1989 Saleen SSC

Saleen aerodynamic body panels; Saleen rear wing; vented fiberglass hood

FRPP boost, fuel pressure and water temperature gauges on the A-pillar

Saleen Racecraft components; Tokico shocks and struts

Wheels And Tires
16 x 8" DP five-spoke rims; Cooper Zeon radials (225/50-16 front, 245/50-16 rear)

Special thanks to Jeff Harris of Pro Speed Performance in Powder Springs, GA.; George Gast in Douglasville, GA.

Randy Pethel's 1989 Saleen SSC

Ford 302-cid V8

Engine Modifications
70mm Professional Products throttle body; 80mm mass air flow sensor; 42-pound FRPP injectors; 255-lph Walbro 344 fuel pump; Kirban adjustable fuel pressure regulator; Bassani X-pipe; Bassani catalytic converters; MSD Pro billet distributor; MSD ignition control box; Autolite 23 sparkplugs; MSD 8.5mm wires; Vortech SC-trim supercharger (10 pounds of boost); 3.12-inch pulleys; polished Saleen/Vortech intake; custom-made power pipe; Ramcharger electric fans; Ford Racing blue silicone hoses

Borg-Warner T-5 heavy-duty five-speed transmission; Ford Racing aluminum driveshaft; 3.55:1 gears; Auburn differential; Centerforce II clutch

UPR caster/camber plates; welded-in subframe connectors; rear shock brace

405 RWHP, 370 RWTQ