1989 Ford Mustang Saleen SA-5 - The Sinister Saleen
Steve Saleen Wanted His "Super Mustang" In Black, But This SA-5 Would Be The Only One Built
The year 1988 was one of explosive growth and crucial decisions for Saleen Autosport. Encouraged by the previous season's SCCA Showroom Stock Championship and sales of 280 high-performance Mustangs, the company was taking seriously its status as a small volume manufacturer.
Although his 5-year-old business was thriving, Steve Saleen was restless to push the Mustang platform to a new level of performance beyond improved aerodynamics, suspension, and brakes. He knew Ford had no short-term plans to replace the Fox chassis or even perform a superficial restyling for several years, and that he was in the perfect position to leapfrog his standard Saleen with an enhanced "super Mustang." Having grown up in Southern California, the nation's poster child for automobile emissions standards, Saleen knew it would not be easy to build an engine that met federal guidelines. With his SCCA race team shop square in the middle of the Detroit auto scene, however, the idea was at least possible.
"There was no precedent in 1988 for certifying a powerplant on the scale we were talking about," Steve Saleen remembers. "We invested time, money, and effort into a project that might not have had a payoff. There was no guarantee we could even pull it off because everything the Environmental Protection Agency dictated was still being defined on our level."
Terry Hudyma, a former EPA employee, went to work for Saleen with the sole responsibility of walking Steve's proposed engine modifications through the unmapped regulatory jungle. Steve announced his intention to legally sell a 300hp '89 Mustang-based supercar in all 50 states on June 2 at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. The prototype was a black hatchback, 88-0003, owned by Saleen employee Phil Hubbard, decked out in black DP5 five-spoke wheels and sporting some of the planned engine mods. In July, Saleen gave passenger rides in the prototype at Sears Point during the Shelby American Automobile Club's national convention. The high-speed rides not only generated publicity for the proposed model, but Saleen used the free track time to research and develop a supercar suspension.
Although Saleen liked the purposeful Darth Vader-like appearance of the prototype, his hope to blanket the enthusiast magazines with the new model caused an immediate color change when a photographer pointed out that no editor likes to put black cars on the cover. Not only are they hard to photograph under natural lighting conditions, but there is a long-held belief in the newsstand business that black cars equal low sales. Saleen decided against red because Ford was making a change to its red paint. White, he felt, had a more subtle appeal that suggested refinement, not just raw horsepower.
As for what to call it, company memos from the period indicate Saleen intended to name the new model "SC," but changed his mind when Ford announced its upcoming supercharged Thunderbird with that same designation.
"I liked the name 'SA-5,'" he remembers, "because it was a big deal that we were celebrating our fifth year of production. The name meant 'Saleen Anniversary 5,' but we weren't going to get it certified in time for the close of '88."
He chose "SSC" because it had no meaning whatsoever but sounded racy. Contrary to legend, it does not stand for "Saleen Super Coupe" or "Saleen Super Car."
One month later, Saleen unveiled a white SSC in Boston during a show of Ford's '89 cars and trucks. It had gained the short yellow and black markings commemorating the Saleen Autosport race team colors and the gray wraparound body molding that would become its signature look.
No longer needed for publicity, the one-and-only SA-5 was eventually upgraded to SSC specs as per Saleen's deal with Hubbard, although there are many differences from what went into production. Cross-drilled rotors sit at each corner, whereas the SSC brakes were merely grooved. Saleen's buildsheet indicates it is equipped with the optional factory ABS system, but in reality it has the old-fashioned standard type. In the late '80s, Saleen Autosport fitted its press and prototype vehicles with custom-ordered springs from Betts to make them sit lower and handle better than the Racecraft coils used on production cars; the SA-5 sits on more-expensive Betts units. In this final year before Mustangs got driver-side airbags as standard equipment, the SA-5's buildsheet indicates a Momo Monte Carlo steering wheel, although it came from Saleen with Momo's Veloce model-the current owner installed the Monte Carlo to match the documentation. Seat leather in the SA-5 was a Mercedes-quality perforated material; the SSC chairs are covered in saddle hide. The SA-5 and SSC both had Monroe's three-way, cockpit-adjustable suspension, but the SA-5 is wearing a set of prototype, rebuildable, nitrogen-filled shock absorbers.
Like the SSC, the SA-5 powertrain is a mix of Ford Motorsport and SVO high-performance parts assembled by Saleen with the goal of creating 300 reliable and emissions-legal horsepower. Starting with a stock 5.0-liter, Saleen added a high-performance air filter, 65mm throttle body, high-flow heads, a modified Mustang intake manifold, 1.7:1 rocker arms for increased valve lift, and free-flowing, stainless steel headers. A heavy-duty radiator kept the hopped-up V-8 cool, and Borg-Warner's "world class" T-5 five-speed manual transmission was judged to be capable of handling the increased horsepower and torque. Dress-up features for the SA-5/SSC engine included polished stock aluminum valve covers, a special engine plenum plate, and Champion plug wires.
At some point in its 16,000 miles, the SA-5 was repainted, perhaps by Saleen. Hubbard sold the well-documented car at auction in the '90s to Eric Peterson, who maintained its originality for the better part of a decade before passing it on to Mark LaMaskin of Performance Autosport in Richmond, Virginia, where it now is the centerpiece of a collection of low-mile, unique Saleen Mustangs.