Steve Saleen is a speed merchant.
Until now his primary business has been to supply Ford dealers with something they couldn't get from the factory - a high-performance car that's capable of going toe to toe with sports cars such as the Chevrolet Cor- vette. This year Saleen Inc. expects to sell more than 1,000 copies of the S281, a modified version of the Ford Mustang, at an average price of about $41,000.
Now Saleen, with the financial backing of partner Tony Johnson of Hidden Creek Industries, has set his sights on producing a limited-volume, high-performance supercar - the Saleen S7.
The step puts Saleen in company with another noted automotive industry figure, former Chrysler Corp. executive Robert Lutz and his plan to produce a powerful touring car under the auspices of Cunningham Motor Co.
But while Saleen and Lutz have much the same dream - to build a small number of unique, high-priced vehicles - their business plans are different.
Lutz, president of battery supplier Exide Corp., envisions a virtual car company where engineering, manufacturing and assembly would be outsourced to a major supplier such as a Visteon or Delphi. The Lutz-Cunningham group aims to have a driveable prototype by mid-2001.
The fruits of his project, however, likely would not compete directly against the Saleen S7. The Cunningham car would be a 2+2 grand touring car with a 550-hp V-12 engine. Capable of speeds of more than 200 mph, that vehicle would cost more than $200,000. Saleen and his boutique firm plan to launch a performance-oriented supercar engineered, sourced and assembled almost completely under the auspices of the Saleen organization.
That greater oversight on the Saleen project is necessary to ensure high-speed performance and a car that leaves the production line ready for the racetrack, said Saleen, founder and president of Saleen Inc., a company that made its name tuning high-performance Ford Mustangs.
The Saleen S7 - a 555-hp supercar with a price tag of $385,000 - is set to begin shipping to customers next June.
Already, nine people have made $100,000 deposits. Saleen still has to get the vehicle through government certification; at least two of the supercars will be crash-tested in the process.
Saleen plans to build 100 of the cars a year for the next four years, though the program's break-even point will come with the sale of 80 to 100 vehicles, Saleen said.
The S7 project has the backing of Johnson, head of Hidden Creek Industries, a $6.5 billion enterprise with interests in major automotive suppliers, including:
Dura Automotive Systems Inc., a maker of controls such as gear shifts with sales to North American automakers of $1.25 billion last year, ranking it No. 35 on the Automotive News list of top 150 suppliers.
Tower Automotive Inc., a maker of suspension components and truck frames with sales to North American automakers of $2.04 billion last year, ranking it No. 19 on the top 150 list.
Those companies have little involvement in the S7 project, though Saleen certainly uses such suppliers for its custom vehicles.
Saleen COO Don Cuzzocrea said: 'We manufacture either all of our own parts ourselves or they're custom built for us by well-known Tier 1 suppliers. But anything we get is a proprietary design.'
The S7's 7.0-liter V-8 engine is based on a Ford-cast all-aluminum engine block re-engineered by Saleen. British racing house Ray Mallock Ltd. assisted with the design and build of the space-frame chassis and packaging of the suspension system. Saleen also procured brakes from Italian maker Brembo and numerous high-tech pieces from companies in the Midlands area of England. Dura Automotive is supplying Saleen-specified foot pedals. Though a few commodity mechanisms - pieces such as levers and latches - are on the S7, virtually every part involved in driving the car or visible to the driver was designed and/or produced by Saleen, the company's president said.
Saleen officials intend to position the S7 against pricier vehicles. Among them: the McLaren F1, the Porsche GT1 and the Jaguar 220, all of which retail for more than $1 million.