Formula: one; Saleen: sero. Photo courtesy Saleen
Formula: one; Saleen: sero. Photo courtesy Saleen

'We've Ridden Every Mile'

The new Saleen store at the Irvine Spectrum faces west. And so the opening of the Irvine-based exotic car maker's first-ever retail outlet—outside at 6:30 p.m. on a summer Friday—was not unlike a sauna, with waves of heat rolling off the rough stucco building, broiling more than 100 spectators, as Chamber of Commerce members and famous car guys said things you'd expect to hear in a city council meeting. Owner Steve Saleen's daughter, a platinum blonde who works for her father, waited with us in huge white shades and a white, thickly-woven suit—long pants and jacket with a high gorge. We hoped it was all made of ice crystals.

"It's great to be here," said Saleen, a modest man who appears not unlike a well-barbered version of Boyd Coddington. An ex-racer, he began his career in the automotive aftermarket 20 years ago, making Mustangs go faster. "It's an exciting day for us," he said, sharing the podium briefly with Irvine City Councilman Steve Choi—who pointed out the two men share the same first name—and with Bruce Meyer, possibly the Southland's best historic hot rod collector.

The evening was a benefit for the California Highway Patrol's 11-99 Foundation, which helps patrolmen and their families in need. Meyer talked about the foundation. The evening's only fireworks (they fizzled) came when Saleen said "Certainly, we wouldn't be here without the Irvine Company, and it seems like all we do is pay money to the Irvine Company." Then he retreated, adding something about " . . . we feel like we're part of the family."

The new Saleen store is supposed to be a speed shop (what car guys call places that sell go-fast parts). Its very inspiration was speed, Saleen said later. But opening ceremonies wore on for 20 minutes before they cracked the doors, and then there was no booze—possibly because it was a CHP benefit. This is what hot rodding has become. In the beginning, young man—in the 1930s—speed shops opened in spite of themselves, and Chambers of Commerce did not attend. There weren't as many speed limits and there was no reason to celebrate those who broke them. Police chases were misdemeanors at best, and the counterculture was still counter. Today, of course, it drives the culture—and while real speed shops still exist, Saleen's store is not among them. There's bamboo, for crissakes, and sofas, and blond wood. Speed shops had grease-stained oak counters, battered stools to sit on if you were lucky, and linoleum floors with divots tramped in them. There'd be a Pepsi machine in the corner—empty and unplugged: "Guy needs to fix it." Saleen served Diet Cokes and shots of oxygen from the . . . wait for it . . . oxygen bar. And while you can buy any Saleen part here—or even order up a entire candy-apple red Saleen S7 Twin Turbo for six figures—the cars are somewhat reduced to part of the decor. As are the parts; red-painted coil springs sit—one here, one there—as accents for the clothing. Clothing?

Saleen is bullish on clothing—especially on women's clothing; he estimates one-third of his clothing customers are women, a number that is growing. Aiming for the accessories market which marques like Porsche and Ferrari have made for themselves, he offers up sunglasses, padded cafe racer-style jackets with racing stripes, "mechanics" shirts with stripes and name patches that say "Saleen." For the sports car side of the exotic car set, there are polo shirts; for women, a row of delicately soft-washed pastel T-shirts with racing numbers and "Saleen" logos on the front.

"This is the first time you'll be able to purchase a vehicle in an environment like this," Saleen said. "The concept is actually a unique one." It's a boutique. And it's an accoutrement which Saleen, whose signature S is interestingly close to Porsche's strike-through typeface from the '80s, probably doesn't need. Not really.

He already builds around 6,000 street-legal cars a year—some of which will hit 200 mph, given enough room. They sell quietly to people who can afford them. To people who—borrowing the famous aphorism—either drive fast, might want to drive fast, or want people to think they drive fast. Similarly, for Steve Saleen, who was a success years ago, this is not a speed shop. It is a car boutique, built not because he is in the car business, or because he wants to go into that business—but to ensure that people know he is in the car business.

"We felt," Saleen told me, "that it was really time to invest in the brand. There are a lot of brands out there that are forced. We've ridden every mile."

Outside, as we waited in the heat, a man—40ish, successful—pulled up in a silver exotic and gave it to the valet—who under-revved the car getting into first gear and stalled. Saleen's company slogan is "Power in the hands of a few"—words that fly at the very heart of hot rodding, which began as a way for poor people to make cheap cars fly. Valets, clearly, are not among Saleen's chosen.


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