Rare Rides: The 1996 Saleen S-281 Mustang, Plastic Fantastic

Rare Rides has featured three of Saleen’s sporty creations in past: A one-off Thunderbird styling exercise, a hot hatchback, and the company’s full-on supercar. Today’s Rare Ride is probably more familiar than those other three, as it’s Saleen’s most basic take on the SN-95 Mustang.

For the 1994 model year, Mustang moved from its old Seventies Fox-body roots onto a new version of the Fox body, the so-called Fox-4. It was the first time the Mustang experienced more than a refresh in 15 years, and the swoopy and modern look of the SN-95 promised to bring Mustang and all its misaligned panels successfully through the Nineties.

Unlike prior Mustangs there was just one body style for the SN-95, a coupe presented with or without a roof. Notchbacks and liftbacks were a thing of the past, said Ford. However, keeping with Mustang tradition there were several different engines on offer. The smallest mill was the old Essex V6, available in 3.8- or 3.9-liter (2004 only) displacements. Every engine beyond those two had eight cylinders, and one of four displacements: 4.6, 4.9, or 5.4, or 5.8 liters. Within those displacements, there were three different versions of the 4.6 – two valves, four valves, and four valves with a supercharger. Several different transmissions were used: Automatics had four speeds, and manuals used five or six.

The fourth-gen Mustang was separated into its initial SN-95 and refreshed “New Edge” versions, the latter of which Ford coded SN-99. SN-95 was on offer from the 1994 through 1998 model years, and the New Edge styling carried the long-lived fourth-gen Mustang from 1999 through 2004.

Steve Saleen was in the Mustang modification business since 1984 and continued his efforts with the SN-95 for its first model year in 1994. There were two basic Saleen Mustangs on offer with two different code numbers: S-281 and S-351, the latter of which debuted first. The S-281 was the base model, a light warming of the Mustang GT. It added Saleen-designed front and rear bumpers, a body kit, Saleen badging and tape stripes, and some new wheels. Underneath was an upgraded suspension. Saleen used cubic inch displacement to label his Mustangs in this era, and the 281 represented the 220-horse 4.6-liter V8 under the hood. The other Saleen Mustang was the much more expensive S-351, which used a 5.8-liter V8 and implemented numerous performance changes. At the top was the R-Code S-351. That one ditched the rear seat, shed a lot of weight, and used a supercharged Saleen-provided V8 for 487 horsepower.

Despite its modest upgrades over a standard Mustang GT, the S-281 almost instantly became Saleen’s most popular product ever and earned the highest production figure of any Saleen car. Given the success of the S-281, Saleen went on to create several additional versions. A supercharger option birthed the S-281SC in 1999 and upped power to 350 horses. There was also a Saleen version of the Cobra (S-281C) an Extreme version with a supercharger  (S-281E), and a model, especially for veterans, called American Flag (S-281AF). Saleen created a three-valve model sans supercharger called Heritage (H-281 3V), which spawned the supercharged Heritage Dan Gurney (H-21DG). There was a Superleggera version that was stripped-out and kept modification to a minimum, the Racecraft 420-S. Finally, S-281 celebrated two different production anniversaries at Saleen, with a 15th Anniversary (SA-15) and 20th Anniversary (SA-20) special edition.

The S-281 lineup proved an enduring one at Saleen. It lasted through the exit of the SN-99 Mustang and persisted through 2009; a bit less than halfway through the fifth-gen Mustang’s run. By that time Saleen had branched out from its roots, as in 2005 the company became an OEM. It was no longer simply a modifier of Ford’s cars.

Today’s Rare Ride is a fine example of the most basic S-281 available, a coupe from the first year of production. 193 such coupes were produced in 1996, 113 in 1997, and 57 in 1998 before New Edge arrived. With 28,000 miles on the clock, today’s red Mustang asks $19,995 in Kentucky.

[Image: Saleen]

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