By: GERRY MALLOY on August 31, 2002
Original Article: TORONTO STAR (CANADA)
Supercar, Muscle Car Combo Drives Early Racing Success
Steve Saleen stunned the automotive press at the Monterey Historic Races at Laguna Seca when he not only announced that he was going into the supercar business, but unveiled a sleek prototype.
That was two years ago. Much has happened since.
The high-performance, mid-engined supercar is the purest form of the modern automobile.
Exemplified by such exotica as the Ferrari F50, Lamborghini Murcielago and McLaren F1, it is a barely tamed race-car, adapted for use on the street.
Predominantly a product of Europe, the genre has been the subject of numerous North American concept cars. The few attempts that have been made to build and market such cars on this continent have ended in ignominy.
Saleen aims to break that pattern. If anyone outside the Big Three can do it, he is probably the one.
He is already well on his way. When I visited the Saleen assembly plant in Irvine, Calif., his fabricators were working on chassis number 19 in the company’s S7 lineage.
Not only does he have the facilities and expertise to achieve his production goal of 15 to 20 vehicles a year, he has the critical mass to support it; he is also building 20 Saleen Mustangs a week in the same plant.
Total production of those highly modified Mustangs has approached 10,000 units over the 19 years since he began the business.
Saleen himself is a racer at heart. He competed in everything from autocross and Formula Atlantic to Trans-Am and Indy cars.
He is a businessman, with a degree from USC and a flair for promotion. He is the most successful private North American auto manufacturer in modern history.
Because most of his creations are Mustang-based, many regard Saleen as little more than a tuner. But the changes he makes to the Mustangs are such that the cars must be individually certified for both emissions and crash-test performance.
So Saleen’s operations are afforded full-fledged manufacturer status.
Everything about his 14,000-square-metre plant, located in the heart of California’s aerospace and automotive community, supports that designation.
The Mustangs are disassembled as they arrive from Ford, then they go on dollies through a 13-station assembly line, each with its own team and tasks, for reconstruction.
Saleen supplies three body styles: coupe, roadster and speedster for each of three models, designated S281, S281 Supercharged and S281-E.
The number 281 derives from the displacement, in cubic inches, of the Ford 4.6-litre SOHC V8 that serves as a base for modification.
In S281 trim, the Saleen engine is rated at 285 hp. Adding a supercharger bumps that figure to 365, and the E-model raises it again, to 425 hp and 440 lb-ft of torque – which is delivered through a six-speed, quick-ratio manual gearbox.
Suspension, drivetrain, brakes, interior, wiring, front and rear fascias, hoods, and, in some cases, even external body panels, are replaced by Saleen-designed and, in many cases, Saleen-produced components.
Many of the cars are fitted with full roll cages.
A separate finishes-and-composites division, soon to be integrated into the main plant, is responsible for manufacturing many of those parts, and for finishing them and the cars themselves in a range of exclusive and evocatively-named Saleen colours, including Lizstick red, named for his wife.
The combined operations employ more than 150 people, including a support team for Saleen-owners’ many racing efforts.
The success of Saleen’s Mustangs on the track have pushed him and his cars into the limelight, and supported the success of the manufacturing business..
The real excitement these days lies on the other side of the shop in the eight race-car bays where the exotic S7s and S7Rs (the racing versions) are assembled.
Developed with Ray Mallock, a British race- and specialty-car builder of considerable repute, the original protype supercar was as stunning as its Laguna Seca announcement.
Long and low, with the engine amidships and air vents everywhere (every one with a purpose, Saleen says), its silhouette showed the influence of cars such as the Jaguar XK 220 and Lamborghinis and Bugattis.
But it had its own distinctive form.
It remains powered by a 7.0-litre, OHV V8, which had its genesis as a Ford service-parts aluminum racing block, but is now all-Saleen.
The engine is rated at 550 hp at 6400 rpm, and 525 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm – more in racing trim, and more than enough to make it a supercar.
Just as impressive are the rest of its credentials, which resonate pure race car: lightweight tubular-steel space frame with aluminum honeycomb structural panels; carbon-fibre body panels; double-wishbone front-and-rear suspensions; six-speed transaxle; and gigantic Brembo brakes.
Some members of the automotive press, who had seen such hopes raised and dashed before, dismissed the idea as a publicity stunt or a dream.
Saleen made believers by fielding a racing version of the prototype – which showed considerable promise – before the end of the year.
In 2001, an S7R won the 12-hours of Sebring, beating GM’s Corvette C5-Rs, qualified on the GTS class pole and finished on the GTS podium at Le Mans, and propelled lead driver Terry Borcheller to the ALMS GTS driver’s championship, beating out Ron Fellows (who’s dominating this season).
Saleen S7Rs won four separate championships in Europe and North America in their first full year.
Some people, Saleen says, have suggested that he is in the production car business just to support his racing habit – a motivation Enzo Ferrari openly admitted. But he claims it is the other way around; he races to support his production car business.
The production cars reflect this. They have high quality materials throughout, impeccable workmanship and a host of premium features, including a custom-fitted driving seat, an integrated DVD/GPS/TV/NAV-system, and custom-fitted luggage by Mulholland Brothers.
Would you expect less for US$395,000? Automobiles Bugatti of Montreal has been appointed Canadian distributor for the S7, which, Saleen says, will comply with all Canadian regulations, but price and delivery details have yet to be determined.