By: PETE LYONS on April 14, 2008
Original Article: AUTOWEEK, VOL. 58 ISSUE 16

He’s a firm giant, too, and Dan Gurney is making sure more than his name
goes into Saleen’s new Mustang

“If my name’s on it, I want a very user-friendly automobile. It should be able to withstand a certain amount of abuse and still not work up a lot of perspiration. It’s an elusive thing, but it’s well worth reaching for.”

Dan Gurney’s name is indeed on this car, and it sure is a name worth protecting.

That’s why one of the great drivers of American auto-racing history-who is also a longtime manufacturer of race cars (Eagle) and motorcycles (Alligator), though he’s never produced a street car-has been personally involved in developing Saleen Automotive’s new Gurney Signature Edition Mustang.

In particular, Gurney has been insistent that its ride and handling meet his exacting, distinctive standards, never mind that only 300 will be made and selling the entire run probably would require no more than his name.

Not that Saleen CEO Paul Wilbur had any such plot in mind when he approached Gurney about five months ago. A fellow race driver with keen appreciation for the sport’s history, Wilbur certainly knew that Mr. All-American Racer has never been able to keep his hands off his cars-cars that have won in Formula One, IndyCar, GTP and so many other spheres.

So, although this project is a direct follow-up to Saleen’s successful 2007 venture with Parnelli Jones and his own version of the Mustang, Wilbur fully expected Gurney to call for something different.

How different is it? For one thing, the Parnelli edition’s V8 was “honed and bored” to the historic Trans-Am displacement of 302 cubic inches and was rated at 400 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque. Gurney’s retains the standard 281 cid (4.6 liters) of Ford’s sohc, three-valve engine, but Saleen adds its supercharger package, wherein the belt-driven, twin-screw blower with intercooler nestles neatly in the engine’s V. Power is 465 hp at 5800 rpm, with torque of 425 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.

“It’s a doggone nice engine. It feels good,” is Gurney’s verdict. “And it still feels light.”

The cars differ in style, too. Gurney’s celebrates the two times he raced a Mustang for Shelby American in 1969, before the cars grew separate rear wings. That suits Gurney just fine. “If you have a choice between gaudy and stealth, give me stealth every time.”

True, “stealth” isn’t quite the word for the car’s graphics package, but at least owners will be able to peel off their magnetic number roundels. (The first production car, pictured here, which will become Gurney’s own, had decals applied amid the inevitable rush to make its world premiere at the recent New York auto show.)

There are other unique elements-hood, fascia, interior trim, five-spoke wheels, new Pirelli Corsa tires-but what makes this edition special is Gurney’s personal touch on the suspension. He’s been flogging a mule car on roads and tracks around Southern California, working with Saleen engineers Derk Hartland and Steve Stafford to capture that elusive user-friendliness.

He explains what that means: “Usually, you’re driving below what you consider to be the margins of the particular road. Now, if you have mis-calculated and you find yourself approaching a turn too rapidly, or maybe getting close to driving over the double line, a user-friendly car says, ‘Aw, don’t worry. I’ll just help you turn some more. I still have some margin left.’ That’s a great feeling to have!”

In contrast to many Saleen buyers, who Wilbur says are track-focused and willing to accept a harsher street ride, Gurney wants his signature car to blend high performance with highway comfort. “You’ve got a spectrum,” he says; he wants a full-spectrum car.

Above all, he wants one that doesn’t demand “a high-strung, kind of razor-sharp driver in order to cope with it. If you’re unfamiliar with the road and the conditions, and you find yourself going slightly too fast, if you’re in a car that’s razor-sharp in terms of its reaction to your input, then it can be a serious problem.”

He demonstrated to AutoWeek on an autocross course how close he is to reaching his goals. In his hands, his 001 car is magic, of course, but even in ours, it feels marvelously responsive and quick, predictable and stable, flat and taut but not tight. Yes, it’s very user-friendly, very forgiving. In half a lap, we started throwing it into moves we knew would provoke many others to bark or bite, but this car just seemed to be laughing.

As Gurney quipped through his timeless grin, “Even though you’ve got the tail out, it’s controllable, it doesn’t give up. It gives you confidence that you shouldn’t have!”

Last-minute tuning was ongoing at the time of our test, dialing in the final ride heights and spring and damper rates and differential lockers. And Gurney still had to put his stamp on his car’s open-road, rough-road behavior. What a ride-along that would be …

“This is kind of funny,” he commented. “Here I am approaching 77, wanting to do a signature car. It’s probably something they don’t want to broadcast, how old this old fogy is, but it doesn’t change the sportiness and the user-friendliness and the ‘I’ll work with you’ kind of attitude that the car exhibits, once you get it right, and I think that’s an ageless situation.”

We could not resist asking, does Gurney have any notion of a race-off between his Mustang and that of his old racing rival and enduring good friend Jones? That famous face crinkled again.

“You know, as a joke, when they asked me if I’d do it, I said, ‘Yes, if you can make mine handle better and be a little faster than Parnelli’s.’

“I’m sure Parnelli’s is a very good car. But, we’ll have to see.”