Esquire: Men Will Be Boys


Original Article: Esquire

“I was headed out to the Mojave to test the Saleen when I met the Porsche.”
1988 Esquire Saleen Mustang
Man At His Best: ARNOLD ROTH

Headed for the Mojave Desert, the bright red Saleen Mustang came up behind a white Porsche Carrera. The Porsche was cruising at 70 miles per hour when the driver seemed to sense the intruder. Without a glance in the mirror, he eased the Carrera up to 80. The Mustang hung close.

Suddenly the Porsche accelerated, switched lanes sharply, and cut into an opening in the traffic. The Mustang was still on his tail. In the Mustang the driver’s hands tightened on the leather-covered steering wheel. The muscles in his stomach tensed.

I know about those knotted muscles. I was the fool clutching the Mustang’s steering wheel, about to risk life, limb, and a jailable traffic offense.

Shopping for a Mustang GT a couple of weeks earlier, I had come upon my first Saleen Mustang at a Ford dealership in Los Angeles. Now, the Mustang GT is plenty of car straight out of the box, with a 225-horsepower V-8 and sleek styling. But the red fastback with SALEEN MUSTANG across the top of the windshield had the sheen of a handcrafted touring car and the profile of a street brawler.

It made me think of rural Indiana.

When I was growing up there in the 1960s, one object of my many youthful lustings was the Shelby Mustang, a rocket-fast pony car created from a stock Mustang in exotic California by Carroll Shelby. The heir to Shelby’s legend is Steve Saleen, a shy thirty-nine-year-old race driver who began converting Mustangs in a garage in 1984. Since then, his Saleen Autosport has boosted production nearly fifty-fold and moved into a sparkling new plant in Anaheim last June. In 1988, he will turn out about 1,200 special-edition serialized Saleens for sale through some 150 performance-oriented Ford dealers nationwide.

The Saleen starts life as a stock Mustang LX direct from Dearborn. The 5.0 liter V-8 and five-speed transmission are left alone so the Ford power-train warranty remains in effect. But the cars are stripped of their interior, suspension, brakes, wheels, and rear wing. Special Flofit Sport seats are installed along with a leather-covered Italian steering wheel and a six-speaker Pioneer sound system. The aerodynamics are re-worked with a front airdam, molded side skirts, a new rear wing, and a rear valance. These track-developed modifications improve both speed and handling, helping to keep the car squat in corners. Saleen says the valance tucked under the rear end adds 4 mph alone.

The new suspension also reflects Saleen’s racing experience. Shorter, stiffer springs lower the car 1.5 inches to improve handling. Six Monroe Formula GP gas struts and shock absorbers and chassis-stiffening’ steel braces keep the car solid and balanced under the harshest cornering. All four sixteen-inch wheels get Ford SVO disc brakes for firm stopping power, and the four-lug wheels are replaced by ones with five lugs, which are less likely to break off under the stress of a screaming slide through a hairpin turn.

By the time the car is shipped to a Ford dealer, the price has gone from the factory’s $13,000 or so to $21,500. Add four grand for a convertible, and expect to pay more for either model because the limited supply means dealers often charge a premium. What you get, however, is a car that surpasses much pricier models, a Mustang that roars along a twisting mountain road as if it were on rails and boasts a top speed of 149 mph, the same as a Porsche Carrera.

I spent most of a day in a scarlet ’88 Saleen, cruising beach towns in a throaty second gear and plunging down hilly roads. I was headed to the Mojave to test the top-end boast when I crossed paths with the Porsche. Speeding east on the Riverside Freeway, I followed the Porsche onto a two-lane ramp leading to Interstate 15 and San Diego. We hit the ramp side by side at 85 and exited side by side at 115. The Porsche driver smiled, lifted his right hand and pointed jauntily down the highway. My adrenal glands were way past the redline, but the Saleen was glued to the pavement and accelerating. As I wove in and out of sparse traffic at ridiculous speed, the image of a video game called Pole Position flashed into my mind. I always smash up the little electronic cars.

Summoning the courage to take my eyes off the road, I was stunned: 142 mph, 5,600 rpms, holy cow. The Porsche was a couple hundred feet ahead. The Saleen had some left. I did not. As I coasted back to 75, the Porsche drifted alongside. The driver smiled and waved suavely. I took the first available exit.

Physically spent, dripping with sweat, I was giddy, grinning stupidly. As I pulled gingerly back onto the interstate in the other direction, a black-and-white California Highway Patrol car swept past. Suddenly I didn’t feel too suave.