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Feature: The Saleen Solution

Gregory Anderson

Steve Saleen is obsessed with speed."Roll into the throttle," the former Bob Bondurant racing school instructor commands me as I navigate a makeshift test track, which consists of the public roads that surround the Saleen automotive company’s headquarters in Irvine, Calif. Heedless that his S7—a certified supercar equipped with 750 hp and no traction control other than the driver’s right foot—is already roaring through the industrial park well over the speed limit, he urges me on: "Faster, faster!"

A Saleen S7 will hit 60 mph in 2.8 seconds from a standstill—while still in first gear. It is capable of traveling a quarter mile in the 10-second range and will achieve 200 mph in another 10 seconds. But as I take a sweeping right-hand turn and press the accelerator deeper, the clutch pedal moves simultaneously toward the floor and—with a clink, and then a clunk—flops backward, smacking my shoeless left foot with the subtlety of a ball-peen hammer. I shift out of first, but the clutch refuses to engage second gear, so I lift my foot just as Saleen is begging for more throttle.

With its "angel wing" doors—and 750 hp engine—the Saleen S7 soars to 60 mph in less than three seconds. (Click images to enlarge) 


As we soon discover, the pin that held the clutch pedal in place has become dislodged, rendering the transmission inoperable. We coast to a stop, and the ride is over.

"You broke it," Saleen deadpans. "Way to go."

Exotic supercars are notoriously temperamental, and the American-born Saleen S7 apparently is no exception. The car, which made its production debut in 2002 at 550 hp, gained twin turbochargers in 2005, giving it the additional 200 hp and a total of 700 ft lbs of torque. "But that is only using 6 to 7 pounds of boost pressure," says Saleen. The factory, he notes, offers an aftermarket package that generates 1,035 hp, and the S7’s twin turbos are capable of handling as much as 23 pounds of boost or—theoretically, at least—as much as 2,000 hp.

"Even at 750 hp, the S7 will eat Bugatti’s lunch," says Dan Reiner, Saleen’s chairman, in a phone interview while he is purchasing tickets at the Montreal Grand Prix. He is willing to put his money where his mouth is. "Want to go for pinks?" he quips. "I will stake the title of an S7 that it could beat a Veyron on any road course." Perhaps Bugatti would be willing to take that bet for two S7s, as the Veyron’s $1.3 million sticker price is more than double that of Saleen’s supercar.

Reiner’s boast could apply even to a course with Hot Wheels–style loops: The S7’s aerodynamics are so effective that, at 160 mph, the car generates its own weight (2,950 pounds) in downforce, meaning that if it were driven upside down through a tunnel, it would stick to the ceiling.

"I don’t care what you’ve driven before," says Saleen. "The S7 is so beyond a normal driving experience that if we don’t custom fit and adjust literally everything as you would on an F/1 or Indy car—the race pedal box, steering wheel, seat—if it isn’t that tight on you, you cannot drive the car properly."

Skipping the fitting in the interest of saving time for my test-drive was perhaps not such a good idea. However, with my shoes removed, the S7 felt like a well-tailored moccasin. "We’ve made the car so that it can accommodate the big and tall," Saleen says. "If you order an S7, we fly you in first class, put you up at the Ritz-Carlton, and give you a Saleen Mustang to drive while you’re here."

S7 buyers spend a day being measured and tested at the Irvine factory, followed by a day of driving the car to get acclimated. "At the end of the day you become part of the Saleen fraternity," says Saleen. "As an owner we want you to have a lifelong relationship."(Click images to enlarge)

Ironically, Steve Saleen himself may not have a lifelong relationship with the company that bears his name. Our meeting is Saleen’s first—and perhaps last—official work duty after ostensibly retiring just two weeks earlier at the age of 56. According to a company press release, Saleen is stepping away from the day-to-day operations to become a sort of brand ambassador.

"Awkward," Saleen answers when asked to describe how it feels to leave the company he founded more than 20 years ago. "Basically, management and I were just heading in different directions. But the company is in good hands with the current investors. I’m helping to advise and consult, so that’s a different role for me. In the not too distant future, you’ll see more."

Indeed, only a week after our meeting, the automotive entrepreneur announced his plans to head the North American arm of ZX Automobile Co., a subsidiary of Chinese manufacturer Chamco Auto, which aims to design and build performance cars in the United States at some point in the future. (Click image to enlarge)

"They came to us with that deal, but we ultimately turned them down," says Reiner when asked about Saleen’s new role. "Apparently it captured Steve’s interest. We wish him luck in the venture."

Saleen’s automotive career, which he began in his native Southern California as a racecar driver after graduating from USC with a business degree in 1971, has been marked throughout by luck—both good and bad. "I won my first-ever race, so I probably should have quit then," he says. After enjoying some success in Formula Atlantic and Trans Am with Pontiac, Saleen teamed up with Ford in the early 1980s, when he suggested to the company that the Mustang would make a good platform for racing. At the time, he was building a performance- and aftermarket-parts business, a venture that would weather several periods of insolvency.

In 2002, after Ford introduced the GT40 concept car at the Detroit auto show, a new chapter began for Saleen. With the overwhelmingly positive response to the car, Ford made a decision: "They sent a team to our facility in Irvine," recalls Saleen. "We changed the locks on the door, and around the clock for the full month of February, we talked about everything from engineering, design, sales strategy, colors, manufacturing, literally every aspect of building the car."

Soon thereafter, Ford rewarded Saleen with a contract to produce the Ford GT, a contemporary supercar tribute to the Ford GT40 of the 1960s. "All the GTs, in essence, were built out of our facility," he says.

Saleen’s S7 supercar also shares a bond with the original GT40 racecar, which was a Ferrari beater in its day. In September 2004, in Imola, Italy, the racecar version of the S7—"which is basically the same as the production car but with a lower ride height and a couple of extra structural bars to meet FIA safety standards," says Saleen—faced off in an FIA GT Championship series race against the brand-new Maserati MC12 supercar. Ferrari/ Maserati CEO Luca di Montezemolo (whom Saleen describes as "next to the pope, the second most popular man in Italy") hosted a party of epic proportions to commemorate the launch of the new racer. According to Saleen, the press event alone consisted of "a three-ring-circus tent, a full orchestra, supermodels, and all the famous chefs from Italy." (Click images to enlarge)

 

A Ferrari earned the pole position for the Imola race, while a pair of Saleen S7s started in the second and third rows of the grid. Before long, one of the Saleens took the lead. "The Maseratis had been sandbagging," recalls Saleen. "But about three-quarters of the way through, I said, ‘We have a chance to win this thing.’ " At the end, despite a dramatic run by an MC12, one of the S7 cars finished first, 43 seconds ahead of the second-place Maserati. "I told Billy [Tally, Saleen’s former chief technology officer] to pinch me. To go to Ferrari’s home track and come away with a win was surreal."

Thanks in part to its racing success, the Saleen brand has a loyal following. The company sells everything from caps and T-shirts (with slogans such as "Ferraris for Breakfast, Porsches for Lunch, Corvettes for Dinner, Vipers for Dessert" emblazoned on the back) to aftermarket parts and the cars themselves. A Saleen factory store sits next door to Nordstrom at the Irvine Spectrum Center mall. "We won ‘Best Automotive Store’ by Maxim magazine this year," says Saleen on a visit to the mall just before our afternoon test-drive. "I don’t think Maxim is the world’s automotive authority—that’s Motor Trend’s tagline—but I’ll take Maxim any day." (Click image to enlarge)

At the store, a driving simulator allows you to race an S7 around the world’s foremost racetracks. A wall of plasma televisions splashes video footage of S7s racing at Le Mans, and the floor space is decorated with two vehicles. "What would you classify that color?" asks Saleen, motioning to the electric-pink Mustang that dominates the store entrance. "I call it Mollypop." Saleen’s daughter, Molly, runs the store. Another signature color is Lizstick Red, named after Saleen’s wife, Elizabeth, and "one of our most popular colors."

To the right of the Mollypop car is an S281 Extreme Mustang that was sliced in half lengthwise by a laser and then framed in glass. Saleen walks me through the bisected auto—literally—while explaining its unique attributes. Although it begins life as a Mustang, the Saleen S281 Extreme is designed and engineered by the same technicians who build the S7 supercar, and few of Ford’s original parts remain. The car is 350 pounds lighter than the Shelby GT500, and, with its Saleen Racecraft suspension of coil-over springs, front and rear sway bars, and a live rear axle, the S281 carries itself, aptly enough, like an extreme Mustang. The twin-screw supercharged, 4.6-liter (281 cu in), three-valve V-8 develops 550 hp at 6,100 rpm and 525 ft lbs of torque at 4,900 rpm. (Click images to enlarge)

"This is our own hood," says Saleen, as he moves between the car’s two halves. "It’s 2 inches longer, which gives us a 190 mph top speed." He taps on the glass. "And this—this is the supercharger. The air comes in through here, goes through the rotor—with its twin screws—up through the intercooler, and then back down the runners into different crank, rods, pistons."

The S281’s 550 hp then "comes in through a different flywheel, the clutch, into a different 6-speed transmission that’s unique," adds Saleen. "See the short-throw shifter? Then an aluminum driveshaft, again, it’s a different length—different balancing into the differential—and this differential is unique to Saleen, too. That’s all been engineered by us."

According to Saleen, each of these alterations has a practical purpose. "Everything designed by Saleen is functional," he says, although it is unclear whether he is referring to himself or his soon-to-be former company. "This is a true airfoil," he offers, signaling to the cross section of the rear wing, "not just a cosmetic piece."

The S281 Extreme may have the same basic shape as a Mustang, but that is where the similarities end, as I discover on the road. The vehicle’s steering is tighter and more precise than that of any current Ford product. "There’s a lot of car here for $71,000," Saleen says, and his estimation is indisputable. Every gear feels as powerful as the last. When I run out of third and the car continues its linear acceleration, Saleen chimes in again: "Fourth gear doesn’t quit either. Pretty amazing, huh?" (Click images to enlarge)

Last year, Saleen teamed up with Parnelli Jones to create a special edition of the Mustang, limited to 500 units, the last of which are being assembled at the Irvine facility during our visit. When the company recently took the PJ edition to Willow Springs International Motorsports Park in Rosamond, Calif., the car turned a better track time than the Shelby GT500, despite its 100 hp handicap. "All because of superior handling," says Saleen. "It’s just a very balanced car."

"When Motor Trendtested the Parnelli," Reiner says from Montreal, "they lapped the streets of Willow faster than they did with the Corvette, and we were 3.5 seconds faster than the GT500 per lap." Saleen himself drove the Parnelli on the track, and Reiner claims the time was faster than anything Motor Trend had ever tested, including the Ford GT and Ferrari F430. "It has the power, but it also has balance and the whole package," he says. "And for the 2008 model year, we are working on a 600 hp car and a 650 hp car."

The S7, the company’s first complete car from the ground up, also was an exercise in extremism, and drivers likely will not explore the edges of its performance envelope on a freeway on-ramp. "Your right foot and your heart and your brain will disengage before you get to the limit of what that car will actually have on adhesion," Saleen says. "It teaches you smoothness at a high level."

Saleen cites a recent event at which IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves tested several supercars. "Castroneves got in the S7 last," says Saleen. "He went around the track and stayed out there longer in the S7 than in any of the other cars. When he came in, he said, ‘Holy shit,’ having never driven anything like this. ‘In order to drive this car, you need to be a current IndyCar driver.’ Then he said, ‘Correction: You have to be in the top half of the current Indy field.’ Just being an Indy driver wouldn’t be enough skill." (Click image to enlarge)

Sitting at the intersection of Fairbanks and Alton Parkway, I can see the factory where the S7 was assembled, perfectly framed by the car’s rear-mounted camera and displayed on the dashboard-mounted video screen. Still, the transmission refuses to engage, reducing this particular supercar to a $605,000 roadblock.

We unlatch the doors—letting them swing up and out like angel wings—then I put my shoe back on and lift a leg over the side sill. Together, we push, slowly rolling the vehicle back toward the factory.

"What’s the top speed again?" I ask.

A smile emerges from beneath Saleen’s mustache. "How fast do you want to go?" he replies, again, deadpan. "It’ll do over 250 [mph]."

I am content to take him at his word.

Saleen Inc.,www.saleen.com

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