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.
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.