At a time when Mustang enthusiasts needed a reason to believe in the breed, along came racer Steve Saleen. The Saleen Book author Brad Bowling tells us the Saleen Mustang story began with an accident that nearly claimed Steve's life in the early '70s. Blaming it on "too much horsepower and too little driving experience," he became committed to racing safety. His passion for performance and commitment to safety led to a new generation of factory-fast Mustangs in the '80s.
It's no mystery how Steve Saleen feels about high-performance Mustangs. His personal collection has included Shelbys and other vintage Mustangs. His racing career began with a '65 Shelby GT350. When he wasn't racing, he earned his living driving and evaluating high-performance cars. He was contin-ually challenged to find hidden power through aerodynamics due to the limitations of what could be done with an SCCA/Trans-Am race car.
Steve's time in the trenches led to a look at what could be done with the then-new Fox-body Mustang. He began studying the car when Ford reintroduced the '82 GT. During Ford's development of the '84 Mustang SVO, he again saw the car's potential.
Steve applied everything he learned about power, chassis tuning, and aerodynamics to conceive the first Saleen Mustang in 1984. He stiffened the chassis, understanding that alignment and chassis settings don't mean anything if the platform is going to flex.
Steve applied what he knew about aerodynamics to the Mustang's body with special ground effects, a front air dam, headlamp covers, and a rear spoiler. The car not only handled better, it also looked terrific.
Because Steve was presented with the challenge of making a profit while remaining within federal vehicle emission standards, there wasn't much he could do underhood. The Mustang GT's 5.0L high-output engine had to remain as delivered by Ford.
Steve got the green light from Ford to build his Mustang supercar, but only three '84s made it out the door. That year is viewed as a test-market year for Saleen. It was easier to sell them in 1985, thanks to roller-tappet technology, true dual exhausts, and a better suspension system.
That takes us to Mark Meyers of Tucson, Arizona, who owns 1 of 140 '85 Saleen Mustangs, number 85-0088. When Mark's father-in-law, Russell Radcliffe, found this car in 1998, it needed a full-scale restoration. As Mark says, "We worked to bring back the shine as well as keep the Saleen look. Because the car would be driven daily, we also brought the performance into the 21st century."
Underhood is a warmed-up 5.0L roller-tappet V-8 splined into a Tremec World-Class T5 transmission and 3.08:1 gears, making the car great for brute acceleration while taming interstate highways at modest cruise rpm. Handling comes from 15-inch Hayashi wheels wrapped in Yokohama V-rated skins. Saleen's own RaceCraft suspension makes the most of those Yokohama contact patches.
Inside, the attention to origi-nality is extraordinary. It's 22 years later and we still love Ford's red piping around charcoal fabric sporting side bolsters. These seats were introduced for '85 and became a standard for the industry. Saleen also applied graphics to the dashboard and instruments, making these cars decidedly different from garden-variety Mustang GTs and LXs.
Mark will tell you how much fun this car is to drive at the 22-year mark. Although it's a classic, it isn't old by any means. The 5.0L engine's throttle response is as crisp as it was two decades ago-plus, it doesn't have to spin high to get torque.
The '85 Saleen Mustang led us to a new generation of fun Mustangs, thanks to Steve Saleen's out-of-the-box thinking and belief in the Fox-body Mustang's potential for greatness.