By on November 9, 2021

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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27 Comments on “Rare Rides: The 1996 Saleen S-281 Mustang, Plastic Fantastic...”

  • avatar

    This car, in white or yellow (body colored wheels are a must because rad), is my dream car. One of the only things I’d consider ditching my Marauder for.

    • 0 avatar
      Tele Vision

      Not too long ago I chatted to a Marauder owner in our local Safeway parking lot. I’d parked my ancient CTS-V next to his car – on purpose, just so I could check it out. He was in his mid-Sixties and had exactly zero interest in selling it. Damn his eyes! I’d have bought it there and then.

      • 0 avatar

        I love mine. Got it almost sight unseen this past July from another military guy that was leaving the island for WEEEELLLL south of what the market value is. It’s a little needy (paint mostly) but I’m slowly checking things off the list to do. Came to me with 123k miles, running and driving, clean title, brand new shocks on all four corners, brand new Falken tires, brand new plugs and Accel coils (admittedly a bad choice but I’ll swap them with Motorcraft), extra replacement wheel bearings, and extra front shocks (they’re hard to come by apparently?) for under $3k.

        Still contending with an ABS/TCS system that’s totally unresponsive, and have to *actually* fix the air condition rather than the temp repair I made to get it working.

        • 0 avatar
          Tele Vision

          That’s quite a list, certainly, but no worse than I or many other buyers of older but desirable cars have taped to the workbench wall. Nice buy and great that you’re restoring it back to stock. I’m doing the same with my ’07 V: I’ve done front shocks; all rotors and pads; starter motor; water pump; radiator ( soon to be twice ); belts; plugs and wires ( a nightmare on a 6.0L V8 in an engine bay designed for a 3.6L V6 ); purge valve solenoid; skip-shift delete; all fluids many times; and several sets of tires. I bought it seven years ago for CDN$15,000 and it now has 250,000 Kms on it. Still pulls like a train, too.

        • 0 avatar

          Your ABS/TC problem is most likely the control module on top of the pump. The problem is that the one with TC is unique to the Marauder as it is programed for the tire stagger. You can use one from CV/GM one but then you need to switch to a square tire set up. Square is good though since the bean counters nixed the 4.10 gears that were there because of the 29″ rear tires. 27″ tires do help get the car off the line quicker.

          • 0 avatar

            @scoutdude: Good info, I should check the part number on it but the car has a rebuilt module on it from a pretty reputable source (module repair pros . com). I have the old original module and I might just spend the $100 and send it to them to see if they can fix that one. IDK, that’s a worry for closer to annual safety inspection time.

  • avatar

    Also, I’m excited for the RR on the Saleen XP8 (and it’s incredibly rare accidental XP6 brother).

  • avatar

    Explain how Saleen could have offered an “S-281” in 1994 when the 1994 and 1995 Mustangs still had the pushrod 4.9L (302 cu. in.) V8. I thought the 4.6L (281 cu. in) OHC V8 wasn’t introduced until MY 1996?

    • 0 avatar

      Good point. The choices for 1994 were the S-351, SR, and V-6 Sport. And 1995 had the S-351 and SR. The S-281 was new for 1996, alongside the S-351 and SR.

      So the article headline checks out, but the body text is incorrect.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      The all new 94 SN-95 Mustang had the old standby 302 ci. V8. The 4.6L Modular came later for 95 models and was introduced in 94 as a replacement for the 302 in the Panther based cars and MN-12 Thunderbird and Cougar.

      I always wondered why Saleen didn’t replace the straight axle and install the independent rear suspension that was standard in the Mustang Cobra.

      • 0 avatar

        IRS isn’t a significant advantage especially at the track. The Laguna Seca would embarrass similar layout and power to weight IRS production cars at Laguna Seca since it’s such a technical track and quick elevation changes combined with hard cornering.
        Think how fat tires are getting and the advantage of keeping the rears flat on the pavement when throwing the car around.

      • 0 avatar

        The Panthers started getting the 4.6 in 1991 for the TC and 1992 for the CV and GM

  • avatar


  • avatar
    Rick T.

    “SN-95 Mustang”

    In today’s unfortunately environment, I expected a car with a mask on it.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    I’m a bit tired of the currrent retro body style, and likely it will be the last. But I’m huge fan of the New Edge styling. I still peruse web listings for a candidate to do a Cobra R body kit,wheels.

  • avatar

    That seems damn reasonable in a world where $1,500 cars are $6995. In a decent climate you could DD it, only major issue I’d be worried about it having to do a main seal due to age.

  • avatar

    Why would Toyota buy Tesla? It’s been a money loser. Tesla thanks their lucky stars for EV credits. And generally, EVs are mostly money losers with the current technology.

    Why don’t you compare Toyota’s profits from 2010 until now with Teslas?

    One company is an extremely profitable one (Toyota). The other isn’t (Tesla).

    • 0 avatar

      “Why would Toyota buy Tesla? It’s been a money loser. ”
      It’s usually a better buy when it’s losing money. When a company is profitable, it’s a lot more expensive.

      “Tesla thanks their lucky stars for EV credits. And generally, EVs are mostly money losers with the current technology.”

      Tesla has been building 3 huge new factories and acquiring battery technology. That doesn’t happen for free. It cost money to establish a company. You don’t become profitable overnight in auto manufacturing.

      EVs are profitable with current technology. Especially with LiFePO4 batteries which are about 20% to 30% cheaper than NMC. The problem is that some manufacturers are using older technology.

      “One company is an extremely profitable one (Toyota). The other isn’t (Tesla).”

      On a per/vehicle basis, that might not be the case with the new factories and the new processes along with the 4680 cells.

  • avatar

    Looks great, but this is the base model, with the 4.6, so by today’s standards, it’s not very fast at all – in fact, it’s about as fast to 60 as a Miata…or an Elantra N-line. A current Mustang with the 2.3 turbo would walk it easily.

    Unfortunately, performance-wise, this car’s writing a lot of checks that it can’t cash. This may explain the reasonable price and recent $5000 price drop. The truly desirable Saleens are the ones with Moar Engine.

    • 0 avatar

      Not exactly. The typical current minivan will embarrass late ’60s “muscle” around a track, drag strip, what ever. And please don’t bring up cup holders ’cause OMG.
      Today’s cars have a tremendous advantage thanks to gearing and other tech that squeezes more performance out of heavier cars without sacrificing MPG/emissions, although older cars are easily brought up to “speed” without the dash lighting up like a Christmas tree and it calling the Feds on you.

      The ultimate Saleens are the four eyed Foxes as far as normal base models go.

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