“It’s really there for sentimental reasons,” says Steve Saleen, referring to the only part his $395,000, 200+ mph S7 supercar shares with the Ford Mustang – a lower window channel buried deep in the featherweight carbon fiber door. It’s a nice gesture, considering Saleen’s exclusive high-performance versions of Ford’s pony car have made him a household name among Ford loyalists and a demigod at Ford club rallies. This year, it will sell 800 to 900 Saleen Mustangs through select Ford dealerships, in varying states of chassis tuning, horsepower and appearance.
As we circle a solidly triangulated space frame of gusseted 4130 chromemoly tubes with aluminum honeycomb panels at the Saleen factory, it’s obvious this isn’t a Mustang. Later, with Steve aboard a shotgun in our fully assembled S7, we harness the 550bhp and the car blasts like a round out of a chamber at a very different speed than Mustang’s 165mph. On this inevitably deserted stretch of road, the suspension compresses powerfully and the steering tightens up, as the car generates its 2,870 pounds. curb weight in downforce here…and it’s chomping at the bit for more acceleration. I have no reason to doubt the 200 mph claim. The sound is also very intoxicating, with 7.0 liters of dry-sump aluminum V-8 going from a coarse growl to a maniacal screech with each flight towards the redline at 6500 rpm. This thing moves flat and feels locked in a triple digit slot.
This story originally appeared in the June 2003 issue of Road & Track.
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Later we attack a favorite tree-lined canyon road, throttling in the huge 3rd gear thrust from turn to turn. It’s remarkable how much the front aerodynamics improve cornering and how a car that seemed so wide at first can be guided so smoothly into its lane. We fly at ridiculous speeds, and the mammoth Pirelli P Zeros barely screamed in protest.
Definitely, in the space of several hours, I think I have used all my share of pleasure (and my good karma with the police) for the year! Steve smiles too – and rightly so. He succeeded where many others failed, building a limitless American supercar that was crash tested, OBD-II certified and emissions legal in all 50 states. It’s also a true street racer, designed without compromise around its sizable downforce package, which makes the Lamborghini Murcielago positively classy by comparison. This is purely intentional, as the entire Saleen crew prides itself on the chassis’ proximity to the S7 race car, the track-proven alter-ego that won 19 of 32 races in 2001, including a win at the Factory GTS Corvettes in 12 Hours of Sebring.
As the factory tour continues, it begins to become apparent why the S7 costs so much. Billy Tally, Saleen’s enthusiastic vice president of engineering, holds a front suspension upright that’s been CNC machined from a solid billet of aluminum, its sleek latticework of openings designed to admit air cooling to the brakes. It is one of hundreds of similar machined parts that are hand assembled, welded and mounted on site. Only the impeccably crafted carbon fiber body is done off-site, though it’s painted in Saleen’s booth. Saleen admits the English Midlands is the epicenter of this work: “The weaving pattern is more beautiful, lighter and stronger.”
We move on to final engine assembly, where Steve clears up the misconception that the 7.0-liter V8 is Ford-based. The Aluminum Block is a Saleen-exclusive lightweight casting that has small-block external dimensions with big-block capability. “I borrowed from Ford boring centers so I didn’t have to reinvent head gaskets and other mounts,” says Steve. Tally points with obvious pride at an S7 cylinder head and sticks a finger into the gaping ports, the beryllium exhaust valve seats. “It has the best thermal conductivity of almost any metal on the planet,” he says, adding that with ultra-precise computer machining of the ports and combustion chambers, most heads are within 0.5 % of each other on the flow bench.
Coming out of the workshop and back into the S7 (chassis #17), we get a chance to sample the conveniences, as there are power windows and door locks, fabulous-smelling Connolly leather, highly efficient heating and air conditioning systems, and a white and silver-dial instrument cluster inspired by Steve’s own Breitling wristwatch. There are small luggage compartments front and rear, which show off the carbon fiber weave beautifully and are designed to accommodate the set of three fitted luggage included with the car.
The luggage is not the only ones to be installed… the driver too. Leather-wrapped fixed-shell seats are not longitudinally adjustable; instead, the stock AP pedal group can be manually bolted into any of eight positions. Leather-covered seat cushions can be added or removed depending on rider circumference and preference, and the small-diameter wheel is tilt-adjustable. As part of the purchase price, Saleen flies the buyer and spouse first class from anywhere in the United States, lodges them at the local Ritz-Carlton for two days, takes them to visit Saleen stores in Irvine, in California, and adapts them to the car. Finally, Steve takes them on what he calls an “acclimatization campaign”.
This is necessary. For several reasons.
First, there is a certain technique which requires a certain flexibility to get into the car. The doors tilt forward on a diagonal hinge line, like a Porsche 962, and if you try to put a single leg into the floor and hoist yourself into the driver’s seat offset to the center, you’ll do the split like Mary Lou Retton. No, it is best to put both feet on and lower yourself with your hands on the threshold and seat. Once set up, the footbox is quite narrow, with close spacing of the hard-working pedals. (Remember that downforce I mentioned earlier? Much of it up front comes from channels hogging the space between the toebox and the road wheels; out back there’s a generously sized diffuser.) At 6-foot-2, I had surprisingly good head, leg, and elbow room, but my size 12 Pumas would catch the edge of the brake when going on the throttle. A swap to narrower Adidas shoes solved this problem, but there was no solution for the flywheel blocking the useful part of the tachometer, from 1500 to 6500 rpm. Saleen says a larger steering wheel is being considered.
The clutch, a small-diameter 2-disc number, is a beast. Pedal effort is considerable, and the window of engagement is narrow and temperamental. I claim personal responsibility for frying it during the photo shoot, on multiple runs that required 3-point turns and little time for friction plate cooling. It takes the better part of a day in the car to get what feels like a smooth start, without killing the engine or going off the line with a flurry of revs.
There are some unusual noises… the hiss of the power steering when it’s off-center, and the sound of brake pads slapping next to Brembo calipers, which only gets really annoying on the expansion joints of highway. The steering is not happy on rain grooves, but feels better with speed and familiarity. Gearbox? The 6-speed linkage, sourced from a Texas company that Saleen prefers to keep confidential, is solid and direct enough, but reverse requires a Herculean pull to your right thigh. The exterior mirrors primarily offer a view of the rear fenders, but a full-size LCD screen that pops out of the center console’s audio system provides a wide-angle view to the rear via a small camera.
No one said owning an exotic car would be easy. But with familiarity, the S7 is livable, enjoyable and only offers slightly muted race car feelings like no other. Scroll through our data panel and you’ll find that the S7 is the fastest 60mph production car we’ve ever tested; at 3.3 seconds it even beats the all-powerful McLaren FI by a tenth, although Gordon Murray’s machine retains our official quarter-mile honors (11.6 seconds at 125.0 mph, compared to 11.8 of the S7 at 119.9). Thanks to our high-speed slalom, it’s one of two production cars on record to exceed 70 mph, remarkable considering its 78.3 inches. width in a test that favors narrower cars. And on the asphalt spinner of the skidpad, it almost hits a full g-0.99 to be exact. Unassisted brake stopping distances are pretty good, as expected, with huge full-floating rotors and a total caliper piston count of 16, but the lack of anti-lock prevents stops from being shorter. .
As with most Exotics, this kind of performance is best enjoyed on a racetrack, and the S7 is more than qualified to be a break-in day darling for the lucky buyer who can shell out $395,000. He or she has to be prepared to put up with some annoyance, answer lots of questions, have people pointing fingers, and if need be, go very, very fast. After all, it’s as close as you can get to hurtling down the straight from Mulsanne to Le Mans without an FIA licence.