The name Saleen has been synonymous with Mustangs since the early 1990s. Their race-inspired take on the popular car started back with the Fox Body and has stretched the last four generations of the mustang. Their greatest popularity was in the late ‘90s—early 2000s when their cars became the epitome of the SN95 chassis. During their heyday, fans either wanted to own a Saleen or make their car look like one, as the trendiest body kits mimicked Saleen’s S281’s design.
They were involved in the production of the 2005-2006 Ford GT, and they created their own supercar, the 427 powered Saleen S7, that won races including the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans. In the past decade, Saleen’s name has fallen into obscurity. No longer were their cars in the mainstream, as the company fell on hard times, but today, they are making a comeback. Once again, Saleen is manufacturing new cars and trucks, next to their brand new in-house developed sports car, The S1. Every Saleen is infused with a racing spirit, but to tell the story of Saleen Automotive is to tell the story of the man behind the name, to figure out where it all began. Ironically, it started in the most unlikely of places: at the bottom of a cliff in a wrecked Shelby G.T. 350.
Steve Saleen grew up in California where he was immediately fascinated with cars. Sitting down for an interview in his Corona, CA office he tells of “growing up in Southern California, I really got the bug on sports cars and [other] hot cars. [In SoCal], we’re really into the car culture aspect of it. My dad purchased, from a church member, a ‘56 Porsche, and I got to drive that quite a bit, and that got me involved in looking at road racing. I realized that when I grew up, I really wanted to be a race car driver.”
Saleen says, “I think, from my standpoint, Southern California has always been kind of the international car culture of the world,” and the races he watched transformed him.
Saleen became a local at many racetracks, and at one track in particular that later in life he says became his home, Riverside International Raceway (RIR). “They had NASCAR events, they had IndyCar events, they had Can-Am events, Formula 5000 events, drag racing, and off-road events—Mickey Thompson when he first started using the turn 6 area, over the grandstands, and we were up there watching him. Literally almost year-round, you had professional race series at Riverside, and I would say that literally the top drivers in the 60s, 70s, and 80s—any of the top drivers in the world would say that they raced at Riverside.
He sat at RIR, watching and becoming a witness to one of the most famous Trans-Am races of the era: the “Mission Bell 250,” as Saleen describes, “you had Parnelli Jones, Mark Donahue, and George Folmer, Dan Gurney, and Swede Savage all battling it out. [I] watch[ed] Parnelli Jones and Mark Donahue, fight for the lead, and we were up in turn 6. [I saw] Mark punt Parnelli off [the road], going on the backside in turn 9, and he had to make a U-turn, and he still won the race!”
These experiences inspired Saleen to try to build a race car, he started with the Porsche that his father had. It was given to Steve for his graduation. He quickly began modifying it, “I changed the colors. Kind of the same stuff that we do today,” says Saleen recalling his story fondly. “Then I sold it and I ended up buying the Shelby. The guy [who] had it, put black stripes on it and put the ‘Hollywood School of Self Defense’ on the car. That’s how I [bought] it from him, but I didn’t like that color, so I painted it Black and Gold, the Hertz colors. I liked that, but I did not do a good job of painting—[it] had a lot of orange peel, so about two weeks after I finished the car, a guy hit me. I had the insurance money, so I changed it to big bad green, which was an AMX color at the time in the 60s. I then added the spoilers on it and started really doing more heavy modifications to it. I painted it, I put the spoiler on it, put in the roll bar [in]—this is me doing all of the stuff,” says Saleen as he points to a picture of the car, “Then I put Webber carburetors on it.”
Saleen took his new pride and joy out to car club events, the “first-time trial [was] in October of 1969—[that was the] first time I took that out, then I showed it—I was still in college [at the time], I organized a car show at USC—I graduated from USC, and it was on display. I won first place, then I started taking it to Riverside, turn 7,” recalls Saleen, who says “I was gradually modifying as I had finances.”
Steve had a full-blown case of the modification flu, as he kept developing his car, he changed the color to candy apple red, installed Webber carburetors, modified the front end, swapped the wheels, and fabricated a side exhaust that was little more than straight pipes. “I always had tickets for excessive noise, and because I had Webbers on it, it ran a lot of gas through it, and you could rev it up to 6500 rpm. Instead of shifting, I just let it come down on its own, and the backpressure with the excessive gas would cause flames—I’m talking big flames would come out of the side of the exhaust—baked the paint on that [car], but it would light up, and we’d drive through downtown Whittier and they had all the windows in the shops, and we would look at the reflections in the shops and it would look like we were on fire!”
Like many teens, he had turned his streetcar into his rendition of a race car, and it had the same teenage design tastes that many of us, later in life, cringe at, “The only thing that I did that was a little over the top was that I tiger skinned the interior,” laughs Saleen.
Saleen kept showing the car, winning car shows along the way, but as Steve says “I really wanted to race.”
Although he had yet to compete in an official race, he still had all the gear—racing helmet, shoes, and gloves. He tried to sell the mustang so that he could buy a sports car to go racing in, but it was so modified that he had no takers. He then decided to turn the mustang into a dedicated race car. The year was 1971.
On June 6th, the young Saleen took his candy apple red, heavily modified Shelby mustang up the canyon by his parent’s Whittier house. He was trying to fix an oil pressure issue, so after installing a new windage tray and oil pan, he took his car up the canyon road to see if the issue had been solved. After driving hard up the mountain, everything seemed fine, and after reaching the top, he decided to turn the car around and head back down. “I drove it up around dusk to the top of the canyon, and was like I did it, and I put my helmet on. I had my Nomex gloves, and I had a full seat with a 5-point harness and all of that,” describes Saleen, “I started down the canyon, and there was a section in the canyon where you could really carry speed. If you look ahead, you can see if anyone is coming up, and if it’s clear, [you] can cross the double yellow line and hit the apex—to carry more speed. I’m glancing at the oil pressure, and glancing ahead—it’s clear. I come across the yellow line, and around the corner, [here comes a] family in a station wagon, with dad driving, mom, daughter and son, and a big German Shepherd in the back. I’m going to have a head-on [collision] with them—going flat out. I had enough where I could make a turn and I was able to miss them, but I’m making a hard right in a corner that goes left, and just like the movies, I ended up going through the guard rail and went off a cliff—200 feet, into the riverbed below.”
“[Thankfully], it wasn’t much of a river there,” says Saleen, “it was a trickle, so I landed in a big sand barge, so that really cushioned [the crash]. That was the end of the car. My knee hit the steering wheel, my teeth hit [it as well], and [my head] hit the windshield—fortunately I had my helmet on. There aren’t too many people I know who drive around with their helmet on the street.”
“I blacked out for a little bit. I was able to crawl out of the passenger side window. I made my way back up the hill.” The station wagon with the family in it had stopped, and after the father told Steve that he was bleeding from his ear, they drove him to his parent’s house. He stayed in the hospital for over a week for observation. “The accident made me promise myself that I would never race on the street. I would leave it to the track,” says Saleen on his hard-learned lesson.
After his run-in with death, he decided to continue with his dream of becoming a race car driver. He bought a shell of a 1966 mustang for $300.00, another Shelby G.T. 350, and he installed in it, the parts from his old car. Once completed, he and his friends, towed the car up to the Whittier, canyon—the same canyon where he had his crash. Speaking of that moment Saleen recalls that “I towed it up to the canyon where I went off the cliff, to where I first started again.” Saleen had found a sense of redemption after the crash, but he didn’t build this new car for sentiment, he built it to race.
Saleen’s first attempts at competition were three short-lived trips that ended in three broken motors. “I went out to race it. There was a club event at Ontario Motor Speedway, fired it up—first time, and made one lap, and during the lap, it was fine, and I got up on the oval part of [the track] and [the engine] choked… the spark plug [was] broken, and that’s because a piston [had] come loose and [it] hit the spark plug, and it wrecked the motor. I made one lap on this motor that I had built, and that was it. Again, I was living at home, I didn’t have any money, so this took months to rebuild it,” says Saleen.
He rebuilt the motor, and then he had his friend Bill Miller take the car out to Lions Drag Strip to break the motor in on the strip. The trip did not end as planned, as a large oil fire started after an oil hose blew off from pressure. The car was engulfed in thick black smoke, and the motor that ran dry, spun its bearings and the second motor lay in pieces, in its first time out, only after driving 10 feet passed the drag Christmas tree lights. Far away from a fast run, Saleen watched his burning and smoking car coast through the finish line making a 21.5-second pass in the quarter-mile.
The third motor was destroyed while he was taking the car off the trailer at Willow Springs Raceway in CA on its first time with its third motor, “We pushed it on the trailer and take it out to willow springs. I get in, back it up and no problem, I push in the clutch, and all you hear is ‘clank-clank-clank-clank!’” recalls Saleen. An issue with the thrust bearing caused the crankshaft to move which immediately destroyed that motor. Frustrated, Saleen says “I went from one lap at Ontario, to one lap at Lyons, to where I couldn’t move the damn thing off of the trailer.”
“By this time, I had built and rebuilt the engine [so many times that] every single part in it—we were on a first-name basis. So, in the meantime, I painted the car again—I do a lot with paint,” laughs Saleen. He rebuilt the motor for the fourth time, and “then we showed up at Riverside and everything worked, went in my first race and won. So that’s whole the whole thing got started.” He says he didn’t give up because “tenacity is one thing that I will probably say that I possess.”
He says ironically that winning his first race was probably the worst possible thing to happen, “I should’ve just quit then, but to actually race in Riverside, [to win my first race], and subsequently I then grew in all the different types of vehicles.” Steve raced and won in the mustang before selling it, buying a Formula Super Vee race car. He took on the nickname “GAS SALEEN”, which was proudly painted on the side of his car’s cockpit.
He transitioned over to Formula Atlantic, starting his professional career racing against Gils Villeneuve, KK Rosberg—who later won the 1982 Formula One Championship, Danny Sullivan, and Bobby Rahal.
Saleen even led the championship in 1980, until the race in Mexico City. He finished the season as the runner up to the championship.
Formula Atlantic was a stepping stone, “You either went into Indy Car or Formula One,” he says.
Unfortunately, the big-league teams didn’t come calling, however, an OEM manufacturer did. “Formula One and Indy Car did not present a clear path for me,” he says, “but Pontiac Motor Company offered me a full-time position driving the Pontiac Trans Am in the Trans AM series. I thought, ‘Do I lower my standards to drive a sedan,’ I [eventually] said ‘Okay, I’ll go take the drive.’ That’s when I went back to Detroit for the first time and interfaced with a major OEM company.”
BECOMING A MANUFACTURER
“During the weekends we would race. We ended up winning the championship in ‘82, but during the week I was back at the proving grounds—doing production car evaluations, but because of my background and schooling, I was walking by the design studio one day and they were trying to put a spoiler on [a car]. They asked me my thoughts, so I gave them my thoughts and it went over pretty good—the design went from [appearance to] functionality.”
“The next thing I know is that I’m helping them design some of the special edition cars. Then they were having trouble selling them, I [would then] go out [as a member of the] Pontiac field staff to the Pontiac dealers around the country, showing them how to market and merchandise special edition cars.”
“During that time Ford Motor Company was coming back [to] racing—they had just shut the door in 1970—they had stopped racing and everyone went underground. They set up SVO (Special Vehicle Operations) to start racing parts and cars, and they [started] running the mustang in the trans am series.”
“We were beating them pretty handily, but I started to get to know the guys at Ford. They said they were going to start their own division to do the cars, and I thought what car are you going to do first, they said ‘mustang.’ Them not knowing my history with the car, I asked what version and they said we’re going to do a 4-cylinder turbo. I said ‘Ugh! I think the American public would really want a V8.’ They said, ‘Well, we’re doing the turbo and if you had interest we might support you,’ so in 1983 at the end of the racing season, I decided to leave my position with Pontiac and start my own company doing Saleen Mustangs, with the aspect that this could be sponsorship that I could sell, that I could start doing my own race program. I built my first Saleen Mustang, we built a race car, debuted it, took it to Sears Point, and a guy in the corvette crashed into me on the pace lap, so it didn’t get off to a good racing start, but the streetcar got a lot of interest from the Ford dealers, so I ended up taking a lot of orders, and I had to fulfill those orders and that’s how I got involved in the streetcars, and that takes us to where we are today.”
Saleen’s cars became a hit, and it spawned many different generations of streetcars from the Fox-body, to the Saleen S281, S351, and the Saleen SR, which had a streetcar for homologation and a racecar that saw racing duties under the Saleen-Allen RRR Speedlab race team. Saleen then went further than many small car manufactures have ever gone—he built his own car. Before his cars were always based off of Ford’s Mustang, but in order to go racing at the highest levels he decided that he wanted a car that his team built from the ground up.
Based around a Ford 427 cubic inch FE big-block that severely modified, his small firm designed a futuristic supercar that comprised of an aluminum monocoque with carbon fiber body panels. The Saleen S7 was born, and it became the dream car that replaced Ferrari posters on young children’s bedroom walls. It was even featured in the movie Bruce Almighty. Like every car before it, Steve built it for racing. “That car,” Saleen says proudly, “is really the most successful supercar to date, in the respect of its racing pedigree, the car has won at every major race track in the world, and I’m talking about Shanghai, China; to Mount Fuji, Japan; to Laguna Seca; Daytona; Sebring, Watkins Glenn; Silverstone, England; Barcelona, Spain; Imola, Italy; Nürburgring, Germany; Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Bahrain—then we finally won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and we have more race wins with it, with privateer teams than Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Mclaren combined.
The company disappeared for a few years, losing their name and donning the banner SMS Supercars before regaining their trademark and returning the company to its leader’s surname—Saleen.
Saleen is now building ten new S7 supercars to celebrate their historic racer. The cars sold for one million dollars each.
They had a short stint building Camaros and Challengers, but today they are back building Fords.
Saleen Automotive offers three models of mustangs that they call the S302. The White Label comes with exterior body modifications, some light suspension changes with their signature brand RaceCraft bushings and springs. The Yellow Label is their intermediate car that adds more race-inspired modifications that turn the car into a road carving specialist, and then there is the black label—Saleen’s ultimate mustang that gives you all of their suspension tweaks, exterior and interior changes and throws in a supercharger to up the power to over 730 horsepower.
Saleen also has an F150 off-road truck that takes on Ford’s Raptor. They recently released the “SportTruck” that aims to fill in the void left by Ford’s street super truck, the SVT Lightning.
Still, ones to build cars on their own, they are developing and launching their newest fully developed sports car, the 2.5L turbocharged Inline 4, the Saleen S1. Making over 450 horsepower in a car that only weighs 2685 pounds, this car runs the zero to 60 in 3.5 seconds, with a quarter-mile time of 11.3 seconds.
Saleen completed its first year of The Saleen Cup, and they announced their GT4 entrant that will compete in the 2020 SRO GT World Challenge.
They are even making ten brand new S7’s that were sold for over one million dollars each, as a tribute run to the historic racer.
Steve got a chance to honor his racing heroes with tribute cars for the racers of the Mission Bell 250. They released the Saleen Heritage Collection which included cars that honored Parnelli Jones, Mark Donahue, Dan Gurney, Swede Savage, and George Folmer.
Saleen Automotive is rebuilding, and they are working hard at it. His new cars are still striking with innovative designs that are envious and will turn onlookers’ heads. Steve’s creations still feature eye-popping colors that they specially make, and they have become a center of California’s Inland Empire’s car culture, hosting a Cars and Coffee event every Saturday morning at their shop.
All of us should applaud their efforts, because every person, at some time in our lives, has fallen. What makes it matter, what makes a great story, is not how far the fall, but whether or not we had the courage to get back up. Steve Saleen showed that tenacity when he crawled out of that wrecked car and climbed back up that cliff. He is showing that same tenacity today, in the rebuilding of his company. As Saleen Automotive forges a new path ahead with their new cars and their new ventures, we should all cheer them on, for the story of Saleen, is really a story of us.