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Out of Irvine, a New Exotic Car for High Rollers

Autos: As he unveils his first all-original performance machine, Steve Saleen hopes to succeed where DeLorean failed.

August 19, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTEREY, Calif. — The number of California auto manufacturers will double this morning as performance-car tuner Steve Saleen--clearly focusing on the new high-tech and energy wealthy of the world--unveils an all-new "American super car" he says he will build and sell from his headquarters in Irvine.

The 550-horsepower, mid-engine Saleen S7 two-seater is aimed at the rarefied market now controlled by exotic auto manufacturers with names such as Aston Martin, Ferrari and Lamborghini and peopled by buyers who think nothing of spending $300,000 or more for a car most wouldn't dare take out on a Los Angeles freeway.

Saleen Inc. is licensed in California as a specialty vehicle builder, one of the few in the country. The only other auto factory in the state is New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., a joint venture of Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Corp. in Fremont, near San Francisco.

Industry analysts say Saleen and his 200-mph S7 have a good chance of succeeding where would-be exotic car builders such as John DeLorean failed.

"It's a golden era for that type of car," says Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Assn. and himself a performance-car enthusiast.

"Net household wealth in the U.S. more than doubled from the end of 1994 though the end of 1999," Taylor says. "Consumer confidence is very strong, and we are seeing renewed interest in exotic cars. As we are creating a whole crop of new millionaires from electronics and telecommunications, we have provided a market that will support specialty manufacturers like Saleen."

Buyers in the exotic-car market "are looking for rarity, for uniqueness," says Jim Hossack, vice president at AutoPacific Inc., an automotive market consultancy in Tustin. "They don't want to see another of what they are driving when they are out on Rodeo Drive."

Saleen, who plans to build no more than 100 S7s a year for just three or four years before closing out the model and moving on to a new car, can give buyers that rarity. He also offers them the comfort of dealing with a builder who has developed a positive reputation in the business, Hossack says.

A former race driver, Saleen began customizing Mustangs 17 years ago and ultimately developed a special breed of the Ford Motor Co. pony car, called the Saleen Mustang, that is an almost entirely rebuilt and re-engineered version of the original. All together, Saleen replaces more than 2,000 parts, from exterior trim and seats to the brakes and suspension and the major workings of the engine itself.

Saleen has sold more than 8,000 of the cars--priced from $30,000 to $60,000--to enthusiasts who include auto industry executives, actors, oil sheiks and prizefighters.

But building a Saleen Mustang, he says, is not the same as building his own car, one that is "100% Saleen."

The vehicle Saleen will show off at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey this morning is the first pre-production prototype: It works, but Saleen still must obtain federal and state emissions clearances and federal safety approvals before he can start producing retail models.

Saleen says his company will do all the engine work and the final assembly in Irvine. But he is looking to relocate from his present headquarters and five other buildings spread around Irvine and Huntington Beach into a single, larger facility in the Irvine Spectrum.

The S7 was designed by Saleen and his longtime styling consultant, Phil Frank. The car's low-slung, lightweight carbon-fiber body and aluminum-alloy chassis will be built to Saleen specifications by two top British performance-car firms, Ray Malich Ltd. and Composite Technologies.

For power, Saleen is using an older Ford Motor performance block, the all-aluminum 7-liter (427-cubic-inch) V-8, that he has substantially altered, and is mating it to a six-speed manual transaxle.

Citing his use of exotic beryllium alloy in the valve seats for heat conduction and titanium pistons for lightness and strength, Saleen calls the power train "old-fashioned American muscle improved with Space Age materials."

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