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THE CUTTING EDGE: FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY

Going From Zero to Sixty Without Leaving Cyberspace

Autos: Irvine-based designers of the Saleen S7 super-car take an all-digital approach to conception through prototype.

August 21, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The world's newest automobile--a thunderous blending of high-tech materials, computer-assisted design and engineering, and old-fashioned horsepower--will be built in Southern California by a firm whose heart may be planted firmly in the world of high-performance motoring but whose head is exploring the wonders of cyberspace.

The car, unveiled Saturday at Monterey's famed Laguna Seca Raceway, is the Saleen S7. Its originator is former race driver and longtime car builder Steve Saleen, whose Saleen Mustang--a thoroughly redesigned and re-engineered version of Ford Motor Co.'s pony car--has been a staple of the performance car world for 14 years.

Now, after selling more than 8,000 of his Mustangs and several hundred hyper-tuned Saleen Explorers, the onetime Indy car driver has succumbed to a drive even stronger than the need for speed: the desire to design and build a car from the ground up.

The resulting mid-engine super-car, which Irvine-based Saleen Inc. maintains is the rival of the best that legendary car makers such as Ferrari and Lamborghini are producing, is a $300,000-plus two-seater capable of topping 200 mph on roads posted for no more than 75 and, Saleen hopes, of making the hearts of 100 or more wealthy enthusiasts and collectors swell with desire each year.

It features a carbon-fiber body and aluminum frame reinforced with honeycomb aluminum panels, and tips the scales at a mere 2,600 pounds. The bantamweight car, which stands only 41 inches high but is 88 inches wide and 15.5 feet long, is outfitted with a 7.0-liter V-8 engine based on an all-aluminum 427-cubic-inch Ford block heavily modified by Saleen. It pumps out 550 horsepower and 520 foot-pounds of torque, the pulling power that is the real measure of a car's muscle.

All that, enveloped in a svelte body and outfitted with all the modern conveniences--leather seats, air conditioning, CD player, air bags, adjustable control pedals (in fact, the seats are fixed in place and the driver moves the pedals to maximize his or her fit in the car)--should capture the interest of exotic performance car fans all over the globe, industry insiders say.

"Saleen's got a good reputation for building performance cars, Ford's got a good reputation for performance engines, the stock market is high and consumer confidence is too, so if you were going to bring out a brand-new vehicle like this, now's the best time in the last decade to do it," says Jim Hossack, vice president of AutoPacific Inc. automotive market consultants in Tustin.

The S7 also has captured the interest of engineers and product planners at Ford--a company with which Saleen has a long association. It isn't so much the car, though, that captivates the world's second-largest auto maker. It's the computerized development process.

Ford is not a partner in the program--Saleen gets his backing from private capital and funds generated by his successful Saleen Mustang line.

But the company supplies the S7's engine block and has been watching with "great interest" how the Saleen team has used computer technology to design and engineer the car and all its components, says John Coletti, chief engineer of Ford's Special Vehicles Team. From the day Saleen's design consultant handed him the first sketch of what was to become the S7 until the day the first and still only prototype rumbled to life in the Saleen Inc. garage in an Irvine Spectrum industrial building, a mere eight months had passed.

Compared with the development cycle of the typical mass-production car, that is blazing speed--and in automotive development, as in most enterprises these days, time gained equals money saved.

The mainstream auto industry is working toward the day when it can eliminate the time- and money-consuming process of building model after model, prototype after prototype, to test aerodynamics, engineering, fit and finish and safety. Saleen did just that.

"It is exactly the right way to do it, the modern way of developing a car," says Gerhard Steinle, former director of Mercedes-Benz's North American advanced research and design center and now president of Prisma Design International in Tustin.

"If they did all that on the [cathode ray] tube, from first sketch to finished prototype, that's great, it really proves that this is where the industry is heading."

Phil Frank, Saleen's designer since the two met at an automotive performance and appearance industry trade show in 1993, says it all, indeed, was done on the tube. A designer for athletic shoe giant Nike Inc. in Portland, Ore., by day, Frank retires to his home office after putting his daughters to bed at night and becomes an automotive stylist.

Frank's initial drawings were based on a merger of Saleen's ideas Frank's own design for an exotic touring car, done in the late 1980s when he was an industrial design student at San Jose State.

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