A year after he left Saleen Inc, does the brand still have credibility?
A little over a year ago, Steve Saleen left the company that he founded to seek greener pastures. The talk was that he had been forced out by the investor group Hancock Park, who had come to own Saleen Inc. The official announcement said he was simply “retiring”. Regardless of what you believe Steve had come to a point where he was no longer part of the legacy that he himself had built. Steve continues today with his new company SMS Limited. There he is working hard to start anew building the kind of cars that made him famous, perhaps even a Mustang again.
Though Saleen Inc. had struggled off and on for a decade prior to Steve‘s departure, the company has seemingly flailed and fallen flat on its face since then. A number of watered down products have been hastily introduced that are a departure from what most feel Steve would have built, and have been met in the market with little excitement. Some very awkward press conferences have been given by new employees of the company, who seem to be overly defensive and apologetic about the brand. The company closed the Saleen Store in Irvine, shut down the Irvine factory and moved the whole company to Troy, MI. Then came the news that Saleen Inc and ASC Inc were being folded together into one company earlier this year.
The two were supposed to create a new powerhouse manufacturer of top-end niche products. Instead this week some hastily compiled online fire-sale auctions were announced at the eleventh hour to liquidate Saleen Inc. parts, cars, factory and office equipment at both the Troy and Irvine facilities. Granted we are in tough times, but selling off everything including the desks, computers, and conference tables is not what a growing and prospering company that is poised to pounce on the market does. It has all the signs of a liquidation closeout, but the company says it is simply “restructuring”.
The larger question has to be asked however. Does the enthusiast car buyer still consider a Saleen Mustang post Steve Saleen, a REAL Saleen? The tuner car realm, the realm of hard core enthusiasts who have no problem spending $50,000, $60,000 or more on a Ford Mustang that has been up-fitted tends to be pretty fickle. Brand loyalty and personal affiliation is a core part of that purchase. The personality that represents and defines the soul of brand is a key element.
Carroll Shelby has been an icon of the Mustang world for over 40 years. His very existence and personal touch, his appearances at events and connection to enthusiasts is a huge part of the Shelby brand’s appeal. One has to admit that if he had been an irrelevant suit somewhere in a glass office building, the Shelby brand would not be where it is today. If he didn’t have a hand and a vision reflected in his brand, people would not pay the bucks for it. He is the God-Father of the cars, he is why they sell.
The same has to be said of Steve Saleen relative to his cars. There is rarely a Saleen owner who does not know who Steve is, who does not know what he looks like. Most Saleen owners have even met him at a show or event at least once. The respect that he has among his owners and enthusiasts is a key part of what the brand means to them. The connection they feel to both the founder and creator of the product in their garage is a component its value.
So the question then becomes can a brand like Saleen Inc still be credible on the enthusiast stage without Steve at the helm? Can they still win the hearts and pocketbooks of true blue Saleen enthusiasts? Some enthusiasts we have talked to say no. The mood at car shows and events around the country is that the company has been taken over by people who have no connection to what Steve’s vision for the cars was. They no longer feel that familial relationship with the creator of the cars that made them special in the first place.
What they do see in the modern day Saleen Inc as a hollow shell of a company now drifting aimless. Saleen Inc seems to be doing anything and everything to make money, shirking its identity and heritage in the process. News of them working on all sorts of projects other than tuner Mustangs such as their latest foray to build amphibious cars for instance is telling of a brand that has long lost its rudder. The company maintains face and continues to say everything is fine, things are popping, and just wait and see what we have coming next. Despite selling off everything in the buildings in both Irvine and Troy including telephones and fax machines, representatives claim it is just a “restructuring”.
Meanwhile, Steve himself works hard in his new office in southern California at SMS Limited, hoping to continue doing what he loves. He hopes to make a connection again with enthusiasts that will put cars in garages with his name and his vision behind them. A new concept SMS Mustang has been shown recently and he hopes to once again be putting “power in the hands of a few.”