Stephen Mark Saleen founded his specialty vehicle manufacturing company in 1983. Born in April of 1949, Saleen is a native of Inglewood, California. A graduate of the University of Southern California, with a degree in business, it is said Saleen’s interest in automobile arose from his father’s purchase of Porsche sports car.
As a member of the Porsche Owner’s Club, Saleen engaged in club racing, where his talents eventually landed him a career as a professional racing driver. At the age of 31 Saleen found himself third in Formula Atlantic rankings at the end of the 1980 season. The legendary Grand Prix pilot Jacques Villeneuve finished first in Formula Atlantic that year.
A few years later, while campaigning a Ford Mustang in the Sports Car Club of America’s 1983 Trans Am series, Saleen got the idea to develop a niche market high-end custom turnkey extreme performance Mustang model for driving enthusiasts. To accomplish this, Saleen founded Saleen Autosport.
That first Saleen Mustang featured a special aerodynamic, suspension, and handling package; as well as a completely redesigned interior. The production run consisted of three cars—one white hatchback, a “Copper Glow” hatchback, and a black hatchback. Proving his car was competitive against the world's top sports cars, Saleen went on to drive a race-prepared version of it to a win at the 1986 24-hour race in Mosport, Canada.
Later that year, he renamed the company Saleen Performance, Incorporated.
In addition to modifying cars for the street, Saleen operated a remarkably successful racing team. In 1987, the Saleen team took the SCCA Escort Endurance Championship titles for driver, team, manufacturer and tire. The following year, the Saleen Team finished first through third at the 24 Hours of Mosport, also marking the organization’s third consecutive victory there. The event also marked Ford’s first 1-2-3 win since the GT40s did so at LeMans in 1966.
Meanwhile, the volume of street cars the company produced steadily escalated. To keep up with demand, Saleen contracted with Cars & Concepts of St. Louis, Missouri to produce his road cars. Things rolled along quite smoothly, until the economic recession of the early 1990’s erased a lot of the disposable income previously available to purchase toys like the Saleen Mustangs.
By the 1992 model year production was down to 12 units. Cars & Concepts had already found itself in financial trouble in 1991, and was forced to shut down the manufacturing operation. Production was moved back to Saleen Performance when Cars & Concepts closed its doors. Ironically, this was the same year Saleen introduced the Saleen Mustang S351, the car that would eventually become the fastest production car sold when its output was raised to 495 horsepower in 1996.
Saleen teamed up with actor Team Allen to promote his cars in 1993. That, plus fresh financial backing from Hidden Creek Industries, as well as a new body style for the Mustang helped get sales back on track. One year later, the most impressive lineup of Saleen cars up to that point was fielded. These included the aforementioned Saleen S351 and the 480-horsepower Saleen SR.
Further, Saleen and Allen joined forces with Bob Bondurant that year to form the Saleen/Allen RRR Speedlab race team, for which Allen and Saleen also drove. For racing purposes, Saleen/Allen RRR Speedlab developed a track car from the ground up around a 7.0-liter V8 engine. Several years later, an evolution of this powerplant would eventually find its way into the Saleen S7 road going supercar.
The 1997 entry of the Saleen/Allen RRR Speedlab Mustang at the 24 Hours of LeMans marked the first time Ford’s pony car had run in the French race since Carroll Shelby’s Mustang did so in 1967. Speaking of Carroll Shelby, Saleen had been inducted into the Mustang Hall of Fame alongside Shelby in 1996. That same year, the Saleen/Allen RRR Speedlab team won the SCCA Manufacturer’s Championship—marking Saleen’s third SCCA Championship.
Observing the burgeoning growth of the SUV market, and recognizing the potential demand for a high performance model, Saleen released the 1998 Saleen Explorer XP8 Performance Utility Vehicle in 1998.
Based on the 1997 Explorer XLT, the XP8 was lowered about two inches. Its springs, shocks, and road wheels were upgraded to more performance oriented components, and a set of super-sticky Pirelli radial tires was fitted. Two engine options were available, a 222 horsepower, normally aspirated 5.0-liter V8 producing 298 ft-lbs of torque and a 286-horsepower supercharged version of the same engine capable of generating 333 ft-lbs of torque. The our-speed automatic transmission was paired with either two-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
Debuting August 19, 2000 at the Monterey Historic Races—held during the week of the annual Pebble beach Concours d’ Elegance—the Saleen S7 supercar marked Steve Saleen’s emergence as an original equipment manufacturer. The first ground-up road going Saleen automobile, the 2000 Saleen S7 was a completely original design. The body of the S7 was made of carbon fiber, while the space frame chassis was comprised of both aluminum and lightweight high strength steel. Curb weight was 2,750 pounds.
The first version of the car produced 550 horsepower and was produced until 2004. Acceleration from zero to 60 was quoted at 3.3 seconds. For 2005, the Saleen S7 returned, this time with a twin turbocharged V8 engine capable of 750 horsepower, 700 ft-lbs of torque, and propelling the car to a top speed of some 248 miles per hour. Zero to 60 for the S7 Twin Turbo was quoted at 2.8 seconds. For 2006, because you know, uh, enough never really is enough; the S7 Competition model was released with 1000 horsepower.
Also around 2004, the management structure of the company changed away from a race-team style hierarchy to something more closely resembling a traditional automotive manufacturer. In retrospect, this was a sign of problems brewing. A Saleen retail store opened in July of 2006, only to close in December of 2007. Earlier that year, Saleen announced his “retirement” from the company, although speculation suggests he was pushed out because of management issues.
In 2008, the California operation was sharply cut back and management of the company moved to Troy, Michigan. Later that year, the physical assets of both operating centers were sold at auction. Meanwhile, Saleen had founded SMS Supercars, which proceeded to do for the Camaro and Challenger what Saleen had previously been doing with Mustangs. In 2009, when his original company was sold, Saleen sued to regain control of the rights to his name and the Saleen brand.
As of July 2013, Saleen offers cars based on Camaro, Mustang, and Challenger—in addition to aftermarket parts and apparel.