By: CHRIS KNAP on Aug 20, 2000

Aug. 20–Specialty-vehicle builder Steve Saleen will expand his business next year with the production of a $375,000 supercar intended to challenge Ferrari, Lamborghini and Jaguar.

Saleen was to unveil the prototype of the Saleen S7 at the Monterey Historic Races Saturday.

He eventually hopes to build 100 of the 550-horsepower road rockets each year at a new factory in Irvine.

“Part of the American dream for every kid is to build your own car. I’m fortunate in that I’m in a position to realize that dream,” Saleen said in an interview.

Some might call him a tuner, but Saleen prefers the term manufacturer. In the past 17 years, he has built more than 7,000 high-performance Mustangs. He does this by stripping factory-fresh cars and reconstructing them with bigger brakes, more powerful engines and race suspensions, among other improvements. The Saleen Mustangs sell for $33,000 to $75,000.

The S7 is a quantum leap forward.

The car will be based on a Saleen-built chassis with a body built of carbon fiber, an aerospace material similar to, but many times stronger than, fiberglass.

The engine will be a 7.0-liter aluminum V-8 mounted behind the driver mid-engine in sports-car parlance. The car will feature leather on every interior surface and a built-in camera and video screen for better rear vision.

“We are basically building our own car from the ground up,” Saleen said. Building your own supercar is a risky and expensive venture, a lesson many automotive entrepreneurs have learned the hard way.

Gerry Wiegert, builder of the much-heralded 600-horsepower Vector sports car, ran out of capital in the 1980s after building fewer than 15 cars.

Even Carroll Shelby, who built the legendary Cobra sports cars of the 1960s, has run into trouble with his latest project, an Oldsmobile V8-powered supercar called the Shelby Series 1.

After taking deposits from dozens of buyers, Shelby had to tell them the car would be months later than expected and cost $25,000 more than first promised. Saleen has one asset these other builders didn’t have: a substantial line of capital from his silent partner, auto-parts millionaire Tony Johnson, who is the chairman of Dura Automotive Systems and Hidden Creek Industries of Minneapolis. “Saleen certainly has the financing behind him to make this project happen,” said Gordon Wangers, managing partner of Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc. of Vista.

“With the strength of the automotive market and the enthusiast market, they might have a chance of doing it. “But at $375,000, it better be a true supercar.”

Saleen promises it will be. With a weight estimated at 2,700 pounds, Saleen promises that the car will accelerate to 60 mph in less than 4 seconds and complete a quarter-mile in 11 seconds. The cars will be sold through the 75 Ford franchises already certified as Saleen dealers, plus 15 new exotic-car dealers that Saleen is recruiting. Saleen, whose 150 employees are headquartered in Irvine, plans to move to a larger factory by early next year.