The Horsepower Whisperer

Saleen Inc. in Troy has long delivered high-performance specialty vehicles for touring and racing enthusiasts, but more stringent environmental standards may jeopardize the company’s horsepower mettle.
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Photograph Courtesy of Saleen Inc.

With $3-plus gas and global warming hysteria running rampant in America, and new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) requirements set to ramp fleet average economy up to 35 mpg over the next dozen years, automakers are rushing to respond to an intense new round of environmental and fuel-economy consciousness. That response will inevitably result in showrooms full of smaller, lighter, and more fuel-efficient vehicles while signaling a slow, painful death for the sort of smooth, rumbly V-8-powered performance that most Americans have long loved.

So where does that leave specialty high-performance makers and modifiers such as Troy-based Saleen Inc., which has made a good living selling big-horsepower excitement to enthusiasts and collectors for 25 years? For now, new and current owners can buy all the adrenaline-pumping tire-burners they want. But over the long haul, Saleen’s management team will have to adapt to higher fuel prices, along with environmental and fuel economy concerns without sacrificing speed and performance.

“The word is flexibility,” says David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. “You have to be able to play whatever game comes down the road. I don’t think performance will ever be out of style, and as we saw with the biofuel Ferrari (at the recent North American International Auto Show), we can have fun and be green.”

As Saleen prepares for the challenges ahead, it’s busy streamlining its production and delivery schedules, while unveiling new products like the commemorative Silver Anniversary Sterling Edition Saleen S302E, an impressively enhanced Ford Mustang-based sports coupe that pairs well with the stunning Saleen S7 mid-engine supercar.

For horsepower hounds, the Sterling Edition Saleen offers a supercharged 5.0-liter SOHC V-8 with a six-speed manual transmission, specially engineered and tuned suspension and brakes, Pirelli P-Zero ultra-high-performance tires on 20-inch forged alloy wheels, a luxurious black leather interior with silver accent stitching, a genuine sterling-silver serialized dash plaque, and a wealth of finely crafted details. Only 25 Sterling Editions will be built.

The price: a heady $99,995, which includes two first-class, round-trip tickets to Detroit, limo transportation to and from the airport, first-class hotel accommodations, a deluxe dinner hosted by a Saleen executive, a tour of the Troy facility, a Saleen custom leather jacket, a custom car cover (embroidered with the car’s serial number), as well as a photo album of the car’s build and delivery. “Saleen is an experience, and the Sterling Edition is a highlight of that experience,” says Saleen general manager Marques McCammon.

Race driver and entrepreneur Steve Saleen completed his first Saleen Mustang — a V-8 Mustang GT with special aerodynamics, suspension, and interior enhancements — in 1984. Twenty years later, making good use of consistent racing successes as a major marketing element, he had sold more than 9,000 cars and had branched out from modified Mustangs to high-performance compacts, SUVs, pickups, and the built-from-scratch mid-engine Saleen S7 supercar, which soon became a winner at LeMans and most everywhere else it ran.

In 2003, Saleen completed an agreement with Ford to begin body assembly of the mid-engine Ford GT and other special vehicles in a refurbished, 180,000-square-foot facility in Troy that now doubles as the company’s headquarters. Saleen was chosen to build the car because of its long-standing reputation for quality. It also helped that Saleen vehicles and parts have always been designed and built to comply with the same strict government emissions and safety requirements that the major automakers have to meet.

In 2004, Saleen was acquired by Hancock Park Associates, a Los Angeles investment-banking firm. In May 2007, Steve Saleen announced his retirement from the executive team of the company he founded and ran for two dozen years. Last summer, Hancock Park acquired specialty supplier ASC Inc. (the late Heinz Prechter’s company in Southgate that went into Chapter 11 restructuring as part of the deal).

Today, Saleen boasts more than 200 authorized (Ford) dealers in the continental 48 states — at least one in every major metropolitan area — and has sold over 12,000 EPA-certified vehicles, more than any other specialty manufacturer. It employs nearly 200 people, McCammon says, most in Michigan, some still in California.

“We moved our manufacturing here for good business reasons,” McCammon says. “Real estate is less expensive, and there’s a very highly skilled available talent pool here.” The recent consolidation — some aftermarket and personalization activities remain in California — also allowed the company to focus on core challenges.

“Our order-to-delivery time was abysmal, to be honest, because we didn’t have good operational control of processes,” McCammon says. “We had customers who would order a car and receive it months and months later.” Now the goal is to deliver a product within 45 days, a task that’s been helped along by following the latest production techniques developed by Japanese manufacturers and copied by nearly everyone else. That includes buying only the parts needed to build in a given day, having only the number of parts on the line to complete a given shift, checking quality at multiple stations, and enabling people to drive quality inside their stations. “In the past,” McCammon says, “we operated more like a custom tuning shop. Now we’re more like an assembly plant.”

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