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Feature: Saleen Dreams

Ken Gross

In the courtyard of the elegant Bacara resort 15 miles north of Santa Barbara, three new Saleen S7s sit side by side. Snake-belly low, sleekly styled, with minimalist carbon fiber bodywork stretched tightly over tubular frames, they closely resemble the Le Mans racecars that inspired them. Nearby, a group of Lehman Brothers brokers awaits the start of their morning investment seminar. One of them jokes about how successful he would have to be in order to afford the $395,000 Saleen. It’s clear they would rather slip into the driver’s seat than sit in a conference room pondering the vagaries of the bond market. And even if they should pick up sufficient pointers in their seminar to achieve that level of success, they would discover that getting into the Saleen, in the literal sense, requires more than the ability to write a check.

Because the car sits just 41 inches off the ground, the act of climbing in demands the same type of gymnastic skill needed to board a classic 300SL Gullwing Mercedes-Benz: Place one hand on the roof, lift your right leg in over the wide door sill, shift your weight, raise your left leg over the sill, and drop down into the racing-inspired bucket seat, which is biased toward the center of the cabin, just like a racecar’s. So begins this morning’s test-drive of Steve Saleen’s American supercar, which, unveiled two years ago, represents the culmination of his 18-year career as a car builder.

Any questions about whether it was worth risking a pulled muscle or a wrenched back to enter the S7 are erased by a glance at the 240-mph speedometer, which serves as a reminder that this car is capable of over four-miles-per-minute velocities, provided you can find enough adequate open road to sample that speed.

 Start the Saleen, and you will be rewarded with a mechanical cacophony from the 550-hp, 7-liter V-8 located inches from your head. Despite the insulated engine compartment window, the driver’s compartment reverberates with the sounds of unbridled power to which you feel directly connected, as you would in the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang. The clutch pedal must be flattened to prevent grinding of the gears. Though first whines somewhat, you nevertheless sense at once the S7’s tremendous pull, like a Thoroughbred rearing before its morning gallop.

I trundle past the hotel’s portico and head south on Highway 101, ignoring the surrounding drivers (all of whom edge nearer for a better look), and focus on the task at hand. There are a lot of sensations to absorb. With just a gentle push on the accelerator, the S7 lunges forward. Its steering is video-game quick. You don’t steer this car as much as you dip a shoulder and squeeze right or left. Once you become accustomed to the paucity of motion required, you will revel in its precision.

Gear changes are direct. The linkage, by intent, is mechanical. “We didn’t want the imprecise feeling of a cable,” says Saleen development engineer Billy Tally. “We wanted drivers to feel directly connected—the way they are in a racing car.” There is so much torque that you will quickly realize that you’re better off in a higher gear, letting the big block’s boundless pulling power do its job. After all, there is need for high revs when you have 427 cubic inches and 520 ft lbs of torque at 4,000 rpm. This motor will rev higher than 6,000, but it’s at its best in midrange.

Driving the S7 on public roads is a challenge simply because the bright yellow missile screams, “Ticket me, officer!” Fortunately, for the purposes of my test-drive, the Saleen crew has staked out the sinuous two-lane Foxen Canyon Road, which loops and dips its way through the Santa Ynez mountains, beckoning me to test the car’s limits. I respond by nailing the throttle and am rewarded with a rocket-sled kick in the ass as the S7 shoots to 60 in what seems like an instant—just short of three seconds.

The ride is extremely firm, and the suspension shudders and creaks over the slightest tar strip, just as a racecar’s would. The S7’s grip is exceptional, even at low speeds. Steve Saleen, the car company’s founder and president, insists that the car’s aerodynamics are so effective (thanks to its wind tunnel–designed undertray and 64 scoops and vents for managing airflow) that you could actually drive upside down at 160 mph and the car wouldn’t lose its grip. I choose not to test that theory.

In the afternoon, with Steve Saleen himself riding shotgun, we wail down a snakelike series of roads to Jalama Beach, diving into corners, exiting with rushes, barely taxing the big Brembo discs. We’re taking turns at speeds we would not even consider in a lesser car. Saleen smiles. “There’s a big comfort zone here,” he says. “It’s a blast to drive, and you can set your own levels.” You can’t throw away this car unless you do something deliberately stupid. It’s remarkably user-friendly, with the same type of immediate feedback that you find with a racecar. Oh, and did I mention it’s very, very fast?

Detractors insist the S7 is simply a way for Saleen, who builds his cars in a state-of-the-art 150,000-square-foot production facility in Irvine, Calif., to ensure that he can field a competitive endurance racer. In fact, representatives from the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the official Le Mans organizers, were at the Bacara resort to observe and drive the S7. Saleen counters with the assertion that his intent has always been to provide drivers with a street-legal racecar, rather than adapt a racing car to the street by refining and softening it. (His 600-plus-hp S7R racing model, by the way, won four GTS championships in 2001—including the American and European Le Mans Series—captured 27 pole positions, and won 19 out of 32 races.) To that end, the S7 is definitely track-biased. Its unyielding suspension and occasionally bone-jarring ride, bare level amenities, loud exhausts, and high pedal pressure brakes are all part of that decision.

For a great deal less than an S7, you can own a Ferrari 575 Maranello or an Aston Martin V-12 Vanquish. Both offer drop-dead looks, four more cylinders than the S7, and advanced electronics—not to mention decades-long racing pedigrees. Both cars are also capable of obscene over-the-road velocities, and they boast tenacious grip and all the aural stimulation you could want. All of which begs the question, why would anyone buy the S7—or, for that matter, why would anyone plan to sell as many as 400 over the next four years as Saleen does?

First, no other street-legal car provides the same level of thrills. Nor do any of them make as impressive a visual statement. Second, the true auto cognoscenti understand and will appreciate the Saleen’s uncompromising nature. This is a car that really shouldn’t be turned loose on the street. It’s too low, too fragile, and much too fast. But snuggled in its cockpit, you can take comfort in the fact that you’re up to the task of driving it. “It’s American,” says Saleen. “It’s aggressive. It’s got a racing heritage. It’s a racing car for the street, the ultimate fantasy.”

Saleen Inc., 949.597.4900, www.saleen.com

Steve Saleen Makes His Marque
From Henry Ford to Ettore Bugatti to John DeLorean, car company founders have long sought a lasting memorial in the form of an automobile badge. Although the wrecking yards of history are littered with once-great nameplates that failed—names such as Duesenberg, Cord, Tucker, and most recently, Oldsmobile—this fact hasn’t deterred determined men from continuing the quest. The latest is Steve Saleen, who is pursuing automotive immortality in the rarefied atmosphere of top-of-the-line, high-performance supercars, the nearly exclusive province of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, and McLaren.

Saleen proudly debuted his Saleen S7, a 200-plus-mph, 550-hp, mid-engined road-going supercar in August 2000 at the Monterey Historic Automobile Races. Surrounded by members of the automotive press and dozens of curious vintage racers, Saleen confidently stated that he expected to sell from 300 to 400 of the sleek, carbon fiber–bodied, $395,000 S7s over a four-year period. “It’s always been my dream to build a supercar,” Saleen declared, “and here it is at last.”

Some might call it a pipe dream, given the difficulty involved in competing with established marques at the top of the automotive tree. However, Saleen, who is a car racer as well as a car builder, does possess relevant, valuable experience. His company has produced 8,000 vehicles over the last 18 years and currently builds semicustom, high-performance models, including the normally aspirated and supercharged S281, which is based on the Mustang. Through an alliance with Ford, this car and some modified SUV models are distributed by select Ford dealers. Of course, none of Saleen’s other models is priced as high as the S7.

Like Saleen, nearly every carmaker whose name is on his car’s badging has wanted to build the best. Often that has meant the most expensive car of its kind, and its price has led to its failure. Bugatti created his lordly and impractical Type 41 Royale, and he lost money on each of the six. The Bucciali brothers’ front-drive TAV12 was the hit of the 1932 Paris Auto Show, but the car itself was an abject failure. Only a handful were completed before the company succumbed. More recently there was the Cizeta Moroder V16, and Carroll Shelby’s Series 1 is still struggling to meet its production goals. Saleen, however, does have sufficient financing and a good track record, figuratively and literally. And with the S7, he has an intriguing design, including a lightweight steel space frame and honeycomb composite carbon fiber body panels designed by noted British race fabricator Ray Mallock, wind tunnel–tested (at the University of Glasgow) aerodynamics, all-aluminum double wishbone suspension in all corners, and enormous Brembo six-piston vented alloy brakes and forged alloy wheels. Its specially developed inlet system is an eight-runner magnesium intake manifold that draws from a clever, rooftop-mounted intake and provides as much as three pounds of boost. Stainless steel valves with titanium retainers are found in CNC-milled aluminum heads. There’s a uniquely compact front-mounted engine accessory drive system, a high vacuum dry sump, and a stainless steel exhaust system.

Mallock’s company builds the chassis and suspension in the United Kingdom and ships the parts to Saleen in California, where the engine and transmission are installed and the completed car is road-tested.

The S7 resembles a Lamborghini Diablo. Its design is not as fluid as that of Ferrari’s F50, but it packs nearly all the performance of a McLaren F1 (which uses a modified BMW 4-cam V-12) for less than half the McLaren’s $1 million price. Asymmetrical seating, 64 vents and louvers that are all functional, barely four inches of ground clearance, and a tiny, 2-cubic-foot trunk reveal the S7 as a thinly disguised racecar that happens to be street legal.

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