Wes Duenkel
March 28, 2012

In 1984, Steve Saleen saw a need for an exclusive, high-performance American pony car. Starting only with an idea, he scraped together the pennies and parts to transform his sister's new Mustang GT into a prototype and sold the idea to Ford Motor Company. The Saleen Mustang was born. The cars offered the performance, style, and exclusivity lacking in the post-fuel-crisis cars—at a price point within reach of many consumers. Saleen Mustang production quickly ramped up, and over the next two decades thousands of Saleen Mustangs drove off dealership lots onto America's streets and racetracks.

For nine years, Saleen had the V8-powered high-performance Mustang market cornered. But in 1993, Ford's SVT Mustang Cobra entered the segment. Compared to the Saleen Mustangs, SVT Cobras were understated. Performance was conservative at first—the early Mustang Cobras sported just a few more horsepower and slightly-massaged chassis. But over the next ten years SVT's Mustang Cobra evolved into the supercharged "Terminator." By 2003, the market was vastly different. Not only did Saleen have to face competition from Ford's in-house tuning division, but also from newcomer Roush Performance.

Against this backdrop, consider the Saleen S281-C. While the vast majority of Saleen S281s were based upon Mustang GTs, the "C" suffix designated a specially-ordered Saleen based on the SVT Cobra.

Saleen-izing a '03 Cobra took a slightly different approach than producing the standard S281. Some Cobras were shipped directly from the Dearborn Assembly Plant to Saleen, while others were pulled from dealer showrooms and sent to Saleen for conversion. Since all other Saleens used the "stick axle" rear suspension of the standard Mustang, special rear springs and shocks were developed for the Cobra's independent rear suspension. While most Saleens were characterized by the plethora of Saleen-logoed equipment, many Saleen-specific parts were conspicuously absent on S281-Cs: the seats, brakes, and gauge faces were standard SVT-issue. Because the Saleen hood didn't clear the 32-valve engine's supercharger, all '03-'04 S281-Cs wore a Cobra hood. The part mismatch left a sizeable gap between the top of the Saleen front bumper cover and the hood's leading edge.

The fact that Saleen Cobras retained many of their SVT-specific parts hints at the difficulty ahead for Saleen. In contrast to the Fox-platform '84 Mustangs with which Saleen first started, the '03 Cobras rolling out of Dearborn were quite good and much harder to "improve." The Cobra's seats, brakes, and drivetrain were vast improvements over standard Mustang GT equipment, and Saleen left them alone.

Whether it was lack of customer demand, or Saleen's reluctance to build them, only 29 SVT Cobras were converted to Saleen S281-Cs for '03 and '04.

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One could surmise that the S281-C was created from a car that would ultimately lead to Saleen Autosport's demise. With many Saleen dealers selling SVT Cobras alongside S281s, it was becoming increasingly difficult for a customer to justify spending thousands more for what was essentially a massaged Mustang GT. In 2007, when the 500-horsepower Shelby GT500 was reintroduced on the new S197-chassis, the writing was on the wall. Steve Saleen resigned from Saleen, Inc. in May of that year, and the company dissolved three years later.

The S281-C's intriguing back story and its rarity attracted Brett Cornett to '03 Saleen S281-C #97. It's one of 11 '03 S281-Cs, only six of them hardtops and just two of its color. Cornett bought the car after his '03 Mach 1 was totaled by a drunk driver. Being fond of Mustang Cobras, he searched for a replacement.

"A friend of mine who owned a dealership tasked an employee to look for a particular Mustang Cobra for me," Cornett says. "My criteria were specific: unmodified, a convertible, and any color other than red. He found a few cars that were close to the type of Cobra for which I was searching, but when I got there I saw the red Saleen."

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Cornett learned that the original owner requested that Ford build an SVT Cobra without the rear spoiler and ship it to Saleen. After it rolled off the Dearborn assembly line, SVT chief John Coletti autographed the radiator cover in the engine bay before it was sent to Saleen. When the S281-C conversion was complete, Steve Saleen signed the car in several places before it was loaded onto the truck and shipped to the dealer.

Later, the original owner delivered the car to LaMotta Performance in Longwood, Florida, for power upgrades, including a smaller supercharger pulley, Steeda belt tensioner, high-flow catalytic converters, and a computer tune. These mild modifications brought power up to 525hp and 550 lb-ft of torque.

Cornett admits, "Even though a red Mustang coupe is the complete opposite of what I thought I wanted, I couldn't be happier!"

For owning such a powerful piece of Saleen Mustang history, who can blame him?