Charley Kidwell already had a Mustang that he really liked. It was a 1989 GT that he and his wife Carol had picked up and turned into their hobby vehicle, happily cruising around the streets of their Van Buran Township, Mich., home.
“When I first started getting into the hobby I was gonna buy a Camaro and it was my wife who said, ‘Why don’t look at Mustangs?’ So that’s what we did and we wound up with the GT. It had a sunroof and was a rare color — that Dove Gray that they put on the Lincolns. It had a red stripe and was a really nice-looking car.
“But when I got the Saleen,” he says without a touch of regret, “that one had to go.”
That’s because Kidwell had never found a Mustang quite like his ’88 Saleen, before or since. It’s been 22 years of bliss for the Kidwells and their glorious red Mustang, and Charley still hasn’t come across a car that does more to get his blood pumping.
“Every time I look at it and go out in garage, it gets me going,” he says.
“I never get tired of driving it, never get tired looking at it. It’s just been a really cool car.”
Charley can look back now and applaud his restraint. He almost bought the first Saleen he checked out and says he might have lived to regret it. Instead, he waited a bit and came across the right car at the right time. “I had found an ’85 Saleen for sale in a parking lot [nearby],” he recalled. “It didn’t have the correct wheels, didn’t have the correct air dam. It had all these things on it that weren’t right, but it handled and drove like nothing I’d ever been behind the wheel of. But I said to myself, ‘I can’t fix all this. I can’t bring it back.’ But that car kind of got me wanting to buy one of these cars and wanting to keep looking.”
Kidwell says he was on vacation in Tennessee not long after that first Saleen shopping experience and got better vibes the second time around. “I knew of a place called Thompson’s World of Wheels” and they had two of them — a red one and a white one,” he remembers. “The white one, the gears ground a little bit and made some noise. The red one, it was love at first sight. This particular car was pretty much totally original when I got it. The first owner had put about 9,000 miles on it. He traded it in — I got the paperwork that they saved — and then a man bought in a joint purchase and the car was supposed to go to his grandson. Well, he had the car for a while and then decided that it was too much car for the grandson, and then he sold it to World of Wheels. That’s when I got it. It had about 19,000 miles on it when I got it. It felt pretty new. It’s got 64,000 on it now, so it does get driven and shown a lot!”
STEVE SALEEN’S BABY
Ford turbocharged the four-cylinder Mustang off and on, but high costs, low power when compared to the cheaper V-8 and reliability issues killed that program. It was the re-introduction of the 5.0-liter HO V-8 in the 1982 Mustang GT that put Ford back on the muscle car highway.
Steve Saleen, a business school graduate with a background in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Formula Atlantic and Trans-Am racing, was thrilled by Ford’s first assault on the early ’80s horsepower war. Saleen had owned ’65 and ’66 Shelby GT-350s and a ’67 GT fastback with a 390-cid V-8. He was aware of how Carroll Shelby had turned garden-variety Mustangs into world-class performance cars.
To meet federal laws, Saleen established a formula he applied, at least initially, to all of his Hi-Po Mustangs: Rather than make engine modifications that required expensive and extensive testing for emissions, fuel consumption and warranty standards, Saleen left the engines stock and enhanced performance through suspension, brake, chassis and aerodynamic improvements.
In 1984, Saleen Autosport produced three 175-hp Mustang hatchbacks with Saleen’s own Racecraft suspension components including specific-rate front and rear springs, Bilstein pressurized struts and shocks, a front G-load brace and urethane swaybar bushings. He lowered the car and improved the Mustang’s handling to near racetrack levels. Those first three cars wore 215/60-15 Goodyear Eagle GTs wrapped around 15x7-inch Hayashi “basketweave” wheels. A custom front air dam, sides skirts, clear covers for the recessed headlights and a rather showy spoiler created a smoother aerodynamic package. The interior featured a Saleen gauge package, a Wolf Racing four-spoke steering wheel and an Escort radar detector.
The standard equipment list included a Saleen windshield graphic, deck lid emblem and serial-number plaque, a Ford Motorsport rear window graphic, tri-color racing stripes on the rocker panels, side window louvers, a chrome air cleaner with Saleen graphic, a 170-mph speedometer, a Cal Custom Hawk leather-covered shift knob, an Escort radar detector and a Cal Custom Hawk security system. The only option was a Sanyo AM/FM stereo cassette player with speakers. Because the first three cars were essentially prototypes, the tri-color stripes were hand-painted on two of the cars and not used on the third. In 1985 and afterward, tape was used.
For $14,300 ($4,526 more than a standard Mustang GT), the Saleen was quite reasonable when parked next to a comparably equipped Camaro Z-28 ($14,086), Pontiac Trans-Am ($15,100) or Toyota Supra ($16,853). Even the SVO Mustang was more expensive at $15,585.
Ford restyled and re-engineered its Mustang for 1987. With a 225-hp V-8 under the slightly more aerodynamic hood, the LX and GT moved up a step on the high-performance ladder.
In addition to benefiting from the factory improvements, Saleen Autosport cars had a few improvements of their own. A big plus was the addition of four-wheel disc brakes and stronger five-lug rotors originally for the SVO Mustang. This labor-intensive change required the addition of a heavy-duty master cylinder. When tested, the new brakes stopped the car from 60 mph in 5 feet less and exhibited far less fade under extreme conditions.
Alloy American Racing “basket weave” wheels, measuring 16 x 7 inches (front) and 16 x 8 inches (rear), were wrapped by 225/50VR-16 General XP-2000 high-performance tires. Saleen’s Racecraft suspension system included specific-rate front and rear coil springs, Koni shocks all around, special strut mounting bearings, urethane sway bar pivot bushing and high-performance alignment specs. The chassis was tightened by a triangulated strut tower brace and a bar that ran under the engine’s oil pan effectively making a strong box out of the front subframe.
The greatest boost to the Saleen’s acceleration was the introduction in 1987 of the 3.55:1 rear axle ratio as an option. It was available to replace the standard Saleen 3.08:1 gearing and provided a substantial improvement in 0-to-60 mph and quarter-mile times.
The 1988 Saleen Mustangs were essentially carryover models from the previous year. They had minimal changes. Monroe shock absorbers replaced the Koni units after Monroes helped Saleen racecars turn faster lap times. Pioneer got the nod to replace Kenwood as the official stereo supplier to Saleen Autosport. The Escort radar detector was dropped from the standard equipment list.
Saleen’s Racecraft suspension system included specific-rate front and rear coil springs, Monroe shock absorbers, special strut mounting bearings, urethane sway bar pivot bushing and high-performance chassis alignment specs. Other standard equipment included 225/50VR-16 General XP-2000V tires, Monroe quad shock absorbers, a Saleen aerodynamic kit, a 170-mph speedometer, a leather-covered gearshift knob, a Hurst quick-ratio shifter, articulated FloFit sport seats, a three-spoke Momo steering wheel and a Saleen jacket. The standard stereo was comprised of a Pioneer KEH 6050 AM/FM system with a cassette tape player, a Pioneer BP 880 graphic equalizer and six speakers.
The only option listed by the factory was a 3.55:1 rear axle, although customers could make special requests such as for automatic transmission, a sun roof and certain aftermarket performance enhancements. Running changes through the production year were minimal.
Participating Ford dealers ordered cars for Saleen conversions with the following specs: Mustang LX hatchback, coupe or convertible, 5.0-liter V-8, five-speed manual transmission, 3.08:1 limited-slip axle, 225/60VR-15 tires, radio delete, Custom Equipment Group and rear window defogger. Cruise control was not offered because it interfered with the addition of a custom steering wheel.
With enthusiasm and name recognition building for Saleen’s modified Mustangs, 708 of them were sold in 1988, including 137 convertibles and 25 coupes.
FAST AND FABULOUS 5.0
Kidwell hasn’t ever gone racing in his ’88 Saleen, but it doesn’t sound like it would take much to talk him into it. “Mine has the stock 5-liter engine and it’s very quick, he says. “It’ll do 0 to 60 in about 6.5 seconds. It’s got a new distributor and my friend came over and played with the timing … It’s probably putting out another 10 to 12 hp. You know, it’s quite quick, but that’s not the fun. The fun is the race suspension. That’s what really makes it fun to drive. You feel like you’re on rails. Going around a corner it doesn’t have any body lean. It’s got five-lug wheels, and the four-wheel disc brakes, which you couldn’t get unless you bought the Saleen package. If you wanted to go racing, really the only thing you to had to do was put a number on the side, unless you wanted to change the tires, and they were good track tires to start with.”
Kidwell thinks his Saleen may have actually been on the race track before it ever sat in anybody’s driveway. There was apparently a NASCAR race in Nashville, and a red Saleen wound up pacing the race. “I can’t confirm anything, but I talked to a salesman who worked in Nashville at Two Rivers Ford, where the car was sold. He said that one year that had a Two Rivers 200, and he said this car paced the race. I could never find out if that’s true, but that’s the story I got.”
The hot red Mustang had one other brush with greatness a while back when it was selected to appear in a special class of sports cars in the Keeneland Concours, in Lexington, Ky. “I rented a U-Haul trailer and trailered the car to the show,” Kidwell laughs. “I’m in there with all these expensive cars and fancy trailers, and there’s me with my U-Haul! …It was a little disappointing, because [the judges] had no idea what they were looking at. They didn’t know anything about Saleens.
“But I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. It was a great experience.”
The Kidswells’ Saleen was one of six that were painted red in 1988 and trimmed with gold graphics and fitted with gray Saleen FloFit Sport Seats. Not only is the Saleen still running and looking fantastic at 64,000 miles, it’s been exceptionally durable as well. Other than general maintenance, Charley says he’s barely touched the car. “It did not have the correct antenna on it. Saleen put fiberglass antennas on them and they are pretty rare, but I was able to find one,” he says. “But otherwise it’s just been little maintenance things. I have been trying to find an original set of floor mats… And the jackets that came with them are collectible. I wanted to find a jacket, and I have two of them now.”
Charley and Carol have been regulars at the annual Woodward Dream Cruise, and while the Saleen looks great in his driveway and soaking up adulation at shows, it’s on the pavement where it still shines brightest. “The driving experience is really a lot of fun,” Charley says. “You feel the road, every little bit of it. You go over a hair on the road, you feel it. It’s not like a luxury car, where you go around corners and kind of float. It feels like a racing car! [laughs]. It’s a blast. It really is a blast to drive.”
He jokes that he has toyed with the idea of getting his wife a similar car, so the pair could have his and hers Saleens, but Carol is too attached to her ’94 Lincoln Mark VIII. “She says ‘If we got another car, all it would be is another Saleen for you,’ and she’s probably right!”
One thing is for certain, the couple isn’t going to be trading this Mustang in for another one. An addition is always a possibility, but a Saleen subtraction is out of the question.
“It’s funny, my wife and I were talking about this not long ago; When I look at what my life was like before I got it, I have a whole new circle of friends,” Charley concludes. “One of my best friends now is a Mustang guy and we’ve been friends since the time I bought it … If I’d have gotten the Camaro I wanted to get, none of that would have happened. I never would have met any of those people. It changed a lot of things, so that car is not going to leave my garage … I expect to probably die with it.”
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