Brad Bowling
November 1, 2008
Steve Saleen poses with 25 years worth of Saleen Anniversary editions. From the back forward: '89 SSC (the "unofficial" anniversary car), '93 SA-10, '98 SA-15, '03 SA-20, and the 720hp SMS 25th Anniversary model.

A lot has changed in the 25 years since Steve Saleen modified a white '84 hatchback Mustang in a California garage.

His self-named company has won racing championships and built 10,000 high-performance versions of Ford's Mustang, Ranger, Explorer, F-150, and Focus. Saleen Autosport developed and sold the SSC, the first EPA-certified, modified 5.0L Mustang. Bringing supercharger technology to the showroom, he set new benchmarks for Mustang performance with the 450hp '93 SC, the 480hp '94 S-351, and the 445hp '03 S-281E.

Steve Saleen realized his dream of racing at LeMans. He scratch-built one of the world's fastest exotics, the 200-mph S7, whose 550hp 7.0L V-8 could perform on par with Ferrari and Lamborghini V-12 sports cars, then added twin turbochargers for another 200 hp.

Times weren't always good, though. Saleen's return to open-wheel competition in the CART series in 1989 met an abrupt end when he smacked the wall attempting to qualify for the Indy 500. Despite a growing lineup of high-performance Mustangs, Saleen Autosport hit the rocks of recession in 1990. In 1992-a year that saw only 17 Saleen Mustangs built-Steve restructured with backing from industrial investor Tony Johnson and the celebrity exposure of comedian Tim Allen.

This is where it all began. Steve Saleen borrowed his sister's plain white 5.0L V-8 hatchback and transformed it into a race car for the street. The first production Saleen, shown here, was numbered 84-0032 to suggest that more had already been built. It now belongs to collector Stu Akers.

Partner Johnson and the introduction of the all-new SN-95 put Saleen right back on top of the Mustang performance heap, where he stayed until resigning from the company-now called Saleen Inc. and owned largely by investment group Hancock Park Associates-in May 2007.

It was announced almost immediately that Steve had been appointed CEO of ZX Automobile Company of North America, an importer of Chinese-built cars. Less than a year later, Steve formed a new company, SMS Ltd. (www.smslimitedusa .com), to manufacture "lifestyle ultra-high-performance vehicles" based initially on Dodge's new Challenger, Chevrolet's upcoming Camaro, and, of course, Ford's Mustang.

Last August we spent a few hours talking to Steve when he let us behind the wheel of his latest personal ride, the world's only 720hp Saleen 25th Anniversary Mustang concept. True to form, the car sets new standards for ponycar performance.

Sometimes referred to as the "bumblebees," General Tire's yellow-black-and-white race cars swarmed SCCA's Showroom Stock Escort Endurance Series in the late '80s. The most successful of the bunch were Saleen Autosport's Mustangs, which won all four series championships in 1987-team (Saleen Mustang), manufacturer (Ford/Saleen Autosport), driver (Steve Saleen/Rick Titus), and tire (General Tire).

Editor's Note: As this interview was being conducted, Saleen Inc. shut down its Irvine factory and separate storefront; held two auctions to sell off everything, including car parts, tools, coffee makers, computers, and desks; announced it would be combined with American Specialty Cars; and relocated the main office to Troy, Michigan.]

MM: The first Saleen Mustang to go to a customer was a Bright Copper Glow five-speed hatchback, purchased on October 2, 1984. With a quarter-century of hindsight to draw from, is there anything you would have done differently with your career?
Saleen: I would have lifted a little earlier before entering Turn 4 at Indy in '89. Oh, you mean in business? I learned a very hard business lesson, and that is to never give up control of your company.

MM: Could you verify for readers your current relationship with Saleen Inc.?
Saleen: There is no connection anymore. I founded the company. I was the moving force behind Saleen Inc. for nearly 25 years. I'm not involved with any of the day-to-day activities. I'm going forward in a different direction. SMS-which happens to be my initials-allows me to make a fresh start, to apply what I have learned over 25 years in unique ways and with applying new technology. I have a lot more freedom than I would have if I had stayed with the company. They will continue to use the Saleen name, and that's fine. You may see phrasing like "Steve Saleen presents." SMS will be more personal. I'm looking at doing very special things and offering unique experiences I wouldn't have been able to with Saleen the company.