Long Term COAL: 1989 Saleen Mustang – 25 Years Together And Still Going Strong

Saleen fq

(A while back I asked for submissions from CC readers who have owned their cars for 25 years or longer. AmazonRay responded, with this story of his 25 year relationship with his Saleen Mustang. Now that’s just flirting around for Ray, as he’s owned the Volvo 122 “Amazon” under the tarp behind it for over 4o years (that story here). If any of you have had cars for over 25 years and would like to share your experience, send it to us here at curbsideclassic(at)gmail.com.  – PN)

What does it mean to own a Saleen?

Well, I’ve owned mine for 25 years now. So maybe I’ll be able to come up with an adequate answer to that question by the end of this essay.

Saleen engine

I bought my 1989 Saleen Mustang, serial number 89-13, in December of 1988. It has the 302 cu. in. (4.9 L) V8,  225 HP, and the five-speed transmission. It cost me $25K out the door  (the equivalent of $48K today) My father had passed away in April of that same year, and my share of his estate was burning a hole in my wallet. I had been driving my twenty-year old Volvo 122 for the past 15 years, (see my story “Forty years with an Amazon” here at CC,) and I knew I was ready for a new car.

 This car was my first new car purchase. There was a Saleen dealer 20 miles away from my house, and after taking a few test drives and thinking about it for a whole week I headed back to the dealer and handed them a check. A stock 1989 Mustang LX, which is what my car is based on, cost $15K in 1989. So all of the Saleen modifications cost an extra $10K. If I had wanted to I could have bought a stock LX Mustang and taken it directly to the Saleen factory in Orange Country. They would have modified my stock car with their parts for that same $10K, and taken about a week to do it.

Saleen lrq

On the subject of modifications, here is a short rundown of what was done to my car to make it a Saleen. The mods were just in four areas, with the power train left totally stock. The brake system was modified, as was the suspension and the interior, and there were some modifications to the bodywork. The brakes are from a 1988 Lincoln Continental Mk VII (the stock Mustang brake system was totally inadequate). That included five lug wheels instead of four, bigger disc brakes in the front, and discs in the back instead of drums.

Substantially larger tires and wheels were also installed.  The chassis was lowered, new shocks and springs were put on all four corners, and two chassis braces were put on the front end. One brace is under the hood, which connects the shock towers, and the other one is under the car just at the engine/transmission mating point. The interior mods consisted of new Flo-Fit front seats, a new back seat, a Kenwood AM/FM cassette player, better speakers (6), a Hurst shifter, and a Momo steering wheel.

On the outside of the car a large wing was added to the trunk lid, (the wing is probably the most recognizable sign that the car is a Saleen Mustang), a rear valance, side skirts, and a front air dam. Plus the three color decals on the lower sides. I think the front air dam really helps with the looks of the car. A stock Mustang of this era really looks like it has an overbite. All of these modifications and updates make the car much more safer, and much more fun to drive.

The car currently has 115K miles on it. Over the 25 years I have owned it I have used it as my daily driver for probably a total of 8 years. I kept the Volvo running, and when I was married the wife had a Miata and an MPV minivan. (Yes, the two of us had four cars.) After our divorce seven years ago, I bought the MPV from her and I have been using at as my daily driver for most of the time since then. (The MPV has 310K miles on it now. If it wasn’t such a boring car I would write a story about it too. And yes, now that I am single I have three cars.) I get an average of 18 miles to the gallon (of premium) with the Saleen, a few less around town.

Saleen side door

I have done all of the maintenance on the car since it was new. The only major repair so far was when I put a clutch in at 40K miles. The old clutch was not worn out, but for some crazy reason I felt the need to install a Ford racing clutch. The new clutch has been great, but it is really stiff, and the clutch pedal takes a lot of effort to depress. But I am used to it by now.  The clutch actuation is achieved by cable.

Two months ago I was under the car changing the engine oil when I noticed a small puddle of clear oil under the right front shock absorber. Upon further investigation I found that the shock was leaking and thus due for replacement. “Change one shock, change them all” is the rule so I got four new Bilstein shocks. And since I was going to be changing the shocks I decided that the time had come to purchase some suspension upgrades.

Saleen engine f

The stock car has no capability to adjust the front end camber, only  the caster. So I got some Maximum Motorsports caster/camber plates, something I should have done a long time ago. I have read that the lower real axle control arms are a weak point in the rear solid axle suspension so I bought a couple of new lower control arms from Maximum Motorsports too. After spending a few days installing all of my new parts, I went to my local alignment shop for an alignment. The mechanic told me that the good news was that my calibrated eyeball guesstimate on installing the caster/ camber plates was right on and the caster and camber was right on.

The bad news was that my tie rods and tie rod ends were worn out, and that there was no point in trying to set the toe-in. So it was off to the parts store and back to my garage to install even more new parts. All of this only cost me $1,400, and these repairs have been the most expensive so far that I have had to do on the car. All the new parts came together and the car handles better now, and it feels much more solid and predictable.

To celebrate—and evaluate—my getting the car back on the road, I decided to drive on down to Los Angeles to visit some family and friends last month. It’s a 900 miles trip  from here in Corvallis. OR to LA, and I always do it non-stop, except for gas stops and rest stops. The trip takes me 14 hours each way. My brother has a cat, and I am allergic to cats, so I bought a large foam pad that I put in the back. I fold down the rear seat, and slide the front seats as far forward as they will go, and I sleep in the back of the car. There is not a lot of room in the back but there’s enough. After a week I headed back home.

The car has a 15.4 gallon gas tank, probably the biggest drawback I can think of on the car. At 18 miles to the gallon my maximum range is 277 miles, not all that far. The rear axle ratio is 3:55, so when I’m going 80 mph the engine is at 3000 rpm. Maybe someday I will have an extra $3K lying around and I will buy a brand new six-speed transmission. It would be fun to have another gear to play with, and to get more MPG, and thereby increase my range.

Saleen fr use

The fastest I have ever driven the car was 125 mph. That was one dark night on the outskirts of Las Vegas. This was some 21 years ago. Things happen really quickly at that speed so I didn’t keep going that fast for very long, but it was good fun while it lasted.

After owing the same car for 25 years, it has become like an old friend. The surprises are few and far between. Because it is a Ford, the parts are easy to get and very affordable. I sometimes think what it would be like to to own a newer car, but my number one requirement with a car is that I need to be able to fix it myself. I am afraid that eliminates most every car made for the past 15 years.

When it was new, the car had the Saleen name in big white letters on the top of the windshield. Well, I am on my third windshield now. In the winter Oregon doesn’t use any salt on the road, they use lots of small pea sized gravel to aid in traction. The road department seems to take their time cleaning up that gravel when the snow melts, so we get a lot of stone chips in our hoods and a lot of cracked windshields. Besides, I thought the large letters were a bit garish and overdone so I never replaced them.

Saleen side

I am very happy that I bought the Saleen, and that I have kept it. It’s different enough from most all of the other cars on the road, but not so different that it’s a ticket magnet. Sometimes I will just stop and look at the car; it still looks really good to me. I sometimes pause and think about my late father, and how it was his money that allowed me to buy the car. And I also think about my two kids, and all the places we went in it, and a feeling of gratitude comes over me. Gratitude and appreciation. And I’m looking forward to owning it for another 25 years.