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.

Saleen's first "engine upgrade" consisted of this single part-a Cal Custom chromed air cleaner lid.

MM: Does Hancock Park still own Saleen Inc.?
Saleen: As far as I know, [it is] still the main investment house.

MM: Is it producing cars? The production numbers claimed over the last few years seem awfully high compared to what we see on the street or at shows.
Saleen: As for the production numbers, I believe we built nearly 2,000 vehicles in 2005; in '06 we were well into the thousands. I would not know the numbers for '07.

MM: When did you start SMS?
Saleen: We incorporated last year, but didn't announce it to the public until the first of this year.

Since Ford failed to produce a 25th anniversary Mustang model, many in the hobby consider the '89 Saleen SSC to be that car. Although it was announced that 250 would be produced, delays in getting the enhanced 5.0L through EPA certification meant only 161 were built before the season ended.

MM: What direction are you going to take the new business?
Saleen: Where we go in the future is hard to know right now. It depends on the success of our new product. I have a little different formula going forward. It depends on how the performance market works out.

MM: Currently, at SMS, what is being offered, and where are cars being built? Do you have cars being delivered to customers? Is there a network in place?
Saleen: With the new company building high-performance cars, we are going to expand to go after "American muscle," as opposed to focusing on Mustangs. I like being known for what I've done with Mustangs, but I want to kick off SMS by showing versatility with different platforms. Our first offering is the new Dodge Challenger, which I'm excited about. Then we'll eventually work our way to the new Camaro and Mustang. Don't be surprised to see a supercar thrown in at some point in time.

The SSC was a single-year model, but its drivetrain and certain styling cues were carried through, with annual improvements, to the '90-'93 SC. This is one of five SCs built in 1993, available only with a 450hp supercharged engine.

MM: Like the S7? Built from scratch?
Saleen: Definitely. One really positive thing about SMS is that I already have a core base of engineers and designers who have been with me a long time. We actually have a larger facility in Anaheim, on Coronado Street, with more equipment than before. We will be able to produce a lot more cars. As far as the retailing of cars, we'll continue to use existing dealer bases. We're also going to add our own stores. We will be opening SMS stores across the country and going global. Our first store should be open in a couple of months, and we will be offering vehicles, parts, accessories, and clothing for sale through those stores. I think the best way to do it is no different from Apple having its own stores but still selling through other retailers. Louis Vuitton is another example. It will be a unique atmosphere, and a unique way to purchase our products.

MM: Is this going to start from scratch, or will it be part of an existing brand?
Saleen: It will be from scratch.

MM: How close is that new facility to the Hunter Avenue plant you were in during the late '80s in Anaheim?
Saleen: About 3 miles. Same neighborhood.

MM: How different is the aftermarket or low-volume manufacturing environment today compared with the '80s? Your engine upgrade for 1984 consisted entirely of a Cal Custom chrome air cleaner lid.
Saleen: When I started building cars, finding wheels, body kits, or anything was nearly impossible. Today, you can build just about anything you can draw on paper. At SMS, we have all of that technology and equipment. We can have lunch, draw some parts-literally on a napkin-go back to the plant, and have the engineers put it in CAD format. We have a new machine, the largest one in Orange County, that can take that CAD data and make the part for us in a couple of hours or overnight. It's a part we can literally put on the car and test in the real world. We can do that in plastic or metal. Technology has had a major impact on our business.

Today, we were looking at the 100mm mass air sensor and the cold-air kit [on the anniversary car]. That kit was made by that machine. We have a lot of CNC equipment that can reproduce anything in quantity. The nice thing is that technology has kept up with what we want. Before, what we wanted was just a dream; but now it can be a reality overnight.

At $60,000 a pop, it's not surprising the supercharged 480hp SR only found two buyers in 1994. The ultra-performance Saleen was a thinly veiled race car whose existence on the company's brochure opened the door for Steve's competition versions.

The other area of big improvements is in electronics. That has come to play such a big part in automotive products. The ability to do calibration changes on engines has helped dramatically. In 1984, the Saleen Mustang had 175 hp. Today, we can have 720 hp with better emissions. It also gets better gas mileage. That's actually pretty good progress in that respect.

That's a point I need to make that's relevant to what's going on in the world. In the past, high-performance cars were real gas hogs, but with modern computer controls, better aerodynamics, and six-speed transmissions, they don't have to be anymore. My 25th Anniversary car can get very high gas mileage on the highway-of course, that depends on how hard you use your right foot.

Saleen Autosport always paved the way for aftermarket performance products. Look at it from my standpoint. We were the first to really do this type of business. There have been a lot of people who have come along and tried. There is a big difference between offering aftermarket parts and being certified to meet OE standards. We were the first to start certifying the engines. We were first to use superchargers-at first centrifugal designs, later Roots-type, now twin-screw technology. We were the first to adapt four-wheel disc brakes to a V-8 Mustang for production. We were first to put glass roofs in Mustangs, the first to offer complete paint jobs on our cars.

In April 2003, Saleen began building its "Hollywood Horsepower" commemorative packages. The company had just seen its products appear in three big Hollywood productions and chose to release replicas from two of them. Customers could order one of 18 red supercharged coupes as featured in 2 Fast 2 Furious, but older, more sedate drivers could imitate Harrison Ford as they cruised around in 1 of 23 Hollywood Homicide silver convertibles.

MM: What is going on with the Chinese deal? The last we heard, you were going to work for ZX Automobile to import cars and SUVs. Now there seems to be some litigation pending.

Saleen: Technically speaking, SMS is not one of the firms involved in the litigation in New Jersey. A number of other people and I brought litigation in this case. I can't comment any more on that. I'm still doing consulting work for other larger OEs on a global basis.

MM: Tell us about the anniversary car.
Saleen: As you know, historically, I have always created an anniversary model every five years, the first being the SSC. It was the unofficial Saleen and Mustang anniversary car. What I've tried to include with every anniversary car is the best of each current model, plus a sense of what was to come in the future. Back in 1989, the SSC was a fully certified engine in a unique package-a formula we immediately took into the '90s. Five years later, we put a centrifugal supercharger on the SA-10 anniversary car, which we carried into the 21st century, plus some suspension innovations. Five years later, the SA-15 introduced a Roots-style supercharger, hard tonneau cover, and some unique pieces. Five years later, the SA-20 introduced a twin-screw supercharger, different suspension, and exhaust system that again showcased where the future was going to take us.

At 25 years, this car now represents where SMS is heading in terms of horsepower. The engine is a 5.0L aluminum V-8 that produces 720 hp-612 at the rear wheels -and 670 lb-ft of torque. The complete drivetrain, including the six-speed manual transmission, is different from the radiator back. Even the supercharger we're using has been significantly changed to add horsepower. The suspension has a new type of Watt's link built from billet aluminum that has taken the ride to a whole different level of performance.

We've created a new induction system we call the Red Butterfly that's very effective. It allows air through the hood's ducting into the new airbox. The current hood is a composite, but we will probably use carbon fiber on some models and aluminum on others. One thing I've always taken pride in is that everything is functional. The butterflies open and close with the throttle, just like the intake on an AA dragster. It's pretty cool to watch it cruise through a parking lot and see them activate as the engine revs.

Just as it had done for the previous 20 years, Saleen one-upped Ford's new design in 2005. Shown here is the first S-281 SC. The "SC" indicates it has the supercharged 4.6L V-8, which produced 400 hp thanks to the Saleen Series VI integrated twin-screw supercharger and dual-stage, water-to-air intercooler.

On the taillights, we've used the latest LED technology. We've added carbon-fiber trim on the skirts. On the inside, we've used a two-tone application that I've liked in the past. We've wrapped it in a new color called Chromosome Silver from BASF. It's chrome-like paint, and it picks up the reflective qualities of different angles. The level of light reflection off of it is unbelievable. In Irvine, there is a big movie complex. We came out one night from the movies. There was a silver Mercedes, a silver BMW, a silver Infiniti G35, and an Audi. Then, there was this car. My car looked like it was plugged in and giving off light-the others looked flat and dark. Everybody was stopping to look at it.

MM: What chance is there you will work out an arrangement with Saleen Inc. to produce the usual 10 anniversary cars?
Saleen: None. This will be the only one. This is my personal car, so it's not for sale. I felt that I should create it as a milestone to commemorate the past 25 years-an indication of where SMS is going. Even though it's silver, I've traditionally created my anniversary cars in yellow, black, and white. Those colors are inside this car.

MM: Are you going to be doing a Mustang-based car in the future as labor-intensive as the '94-'99 S-351, where you stripped new Mustangs down to the shell?
Saleen: Maybe. I would say . . . why don't we just stay tuned?

MM: Do you have any plans to be involved in racing at this point?
Saleen: One of our business associates originally bought the two Saleen S7s that campaigned the last two years in Europe. He recently brought them back to the U.S. We have been out practicing. I will note that I have been practicing as a driver as well. I never officially retired from racing. This is the first time I have put on a helmet in a while to see how fast I can go. It's been very enjoyable. Things are moving in a positive direction.

MM: Is there anything else you want to tell us about the last 25 years?
Saleen: It's amazing I'm still married. I couldn't have done it without my family and their support. Over the 25 years, the whole family has been working for the business. We have Clint, our older son; he is the comptroller of the company. Sean is the head of sales. We have Molly, who will be in charge of the retail store, assuming that her NASCAR career doesn't interfere with that. My wife, Liz, is good at telling us all exactly what we're supposed to be doing every day. We have two grandchildren, and they bring a whole new perspective to life.

What I like to remember most are the people we met over the 25 years-some good, some not so much. Everybody always has this, no matter what their occupation. We've had great support from a lot of people, a number who have been with me a long time from the company standpoint, from [engineer] Bill Tally to [designer] Phil Frank, and a number of other people. If you had asked me 25 years ago if we would have the success and this number of people, it would have been beyond what anybody was dreaming.

There are a lot of Saleen owners-and, of course, none of this would have been possible with the owners themselves-who make me exceptionally welcome at car shows and fly the Saleen banner high. I enjoy talking to each and every person. I hope the next 25 years will be just as fruitful.

MM: Let's end with the "elephant in the room" question. How are high gas prices and the slow economy going to affect the high-performance automobile market?
Saleen: What do I look like, a crystal ball? Just kidding. I think it will have a short-term effect. People temporarily change their spending behavior when we go through tough economic times. Overall, the economy will rebound at some point. Fuel prices will never go back down to what they were; they will probably continue to climb. The type of vehicle SMS will build should not be hurt because even though the cars can be used as daily drivers, they really aren't. They are mostly driven on special occasions or at the track. People are passionate about their cars, especially fast ones, and they will sacrifice a lot of other things before they quit spending money on their cars.

Where the biggest effect will be is in terms of the base vehicles the OEMs offer. How they are equipped over the next three, four, or five years can be heavily affected. From my standpoint at SMS, our ability to design, produce, and certify cars and trucks should not be impacted in a major way.

I've seen this before. The economy, the fuel prices, competing products from the big automakers-we've all been through this before. What's different this time is that a company like ours will really cater to the enthusiast in a way that was not possible in the '70s, when I first lived through a slow economy. You pretty much had to drive a Pinto dressed up like a Mustang back then if you wanted something different.

In short, the answer to your question is this: Performance will never go out of style.

Editor's Note: Brad Bowling has been involved with Steve Saleen and his Mustangs since 1986. He conducted Mustang Monthly's first interview with Steve in 1988, and later worked for Saleen Autosport as public relations coordinator. In 2004, Brad wrote and published The Saleen Book: 20 Years of Saleen Mustangs. For more information, visit www.thesaleen book.com.

Saleen Twenty-Fifth
Wait! Don't rush to your Ford dealer to put down a deposit on this '08 SMS 25th Anniversary Mustang. Only one is being produced, and it is already spoken for. To celebrate a quarter-century of turning stock Mustangs into high-performance machines, Steve Saleen created for himself a one-of-a-kind coupe with enough horsepower and handling prowess to keep him happy for the next 25 years.

From its mirror-like Chromosome Silver paint to its Red Butterfly induction system, Light Blade LED taillamps, clear roof, and carbon-fiber splitters and diffusers, this anniversary car will not be mistaken for anything else in the parking lot. The interior is wearing white, black, and yellow-Saleen's traditional anniversary colors. Handling is superb owing to a billet-aluminum Watt's link suspension system; 275/35ZR20 Pirellis (305/35ZR20 in back) on billet-aluminum wheels; and cross-drilled, 15-inch, six-piston rotors in front (12-inchers in back).

The centerpiece of Saleen's new ride is the aluminum-block 5.0L V-8. Saleen's new-generation supercharger, aluminum heads, and cold-air intake augmented by SMS's patented Red Butterfly induction system help squeeze 720 hp (612 rwhp) and 667 lb-ft (565 at the wheels) out of the powerplant.

A smooth-shifting six-speed gives the engine tremendous flexibility when commuting or driving around town, but then lets the driver stay in the powerband under hard acceleration or-as we found out during our test drive-when the mountain roads get twisty.

The 25th Anniversary Mustang is the first Ford-based product from Saleen's new company. SMS's debut vehicles were the 570 and 570X Challengers, road rockets built from Dodge's retro ponycars that deliver between 500 and 700 hp.