The 1980s and ’90s were the era of mini-trucking, during which enthusiasts would modify vehicles from the newly-emerging small pickup truck segment in an assortment of ways. Some had big stereo systems, some had hydraulic suspensions, some featured wild paint jobs, and others combined all three elements, but each was cool in its unique way. Adding a dash of horsepower to the style equation, GM took a shot at the market in the early ’90s with its GMC Syclone and Typhoon models. These models rolled a unique turbocharged, all-wheel-drive powertrain into ground-effect body cladding. Although they were pricey at the time, they were faster than most vehicles on the street, all while looking like the mini-truck’s meaner, leaner big brother.
Mini-trucking eventually expanded to include a variety of small sport utility vehicles, including the Chevy Blazer and Ford Explorer. Following in GM’s footsteps, Saleen also decided to join the action by creating a modified version of the Ford Explorer. Similar to the GMC siblings, these Saleen models were produced in limited numbers, which ultimately heightened their desirability among collectors and enthusiasts alike.
Hailing from Rhode Island, Roger Fortune has been a dedicated Saleen fan for many years and is also the proprietor of Fox Nutz Stangz, a shop specializing in building and modifying Mustangs. Throughout his automotive journey, he has owned numerous Saleen vehicles. Currently, Roger and his wife Danielle possess three distinctive Saleen models in their collection: a 1996 Budget rental Saleen Mustang, a 2007 Saleen S331 F-150, and the 1996 Saleen XP8 featured here. Among these, the 1996 Saleen XP8 stands out as the rarest of the three, being a non-production model from 1996.
“I got involved with the Saleen club, and they were monitoring the emergence of rare vehicles,” Fortune explains when discussing how he discovered the rare SUV. “One of the members expressed interest in selling it. I had conversations with him over about two years, and eventually, he called me with the asking price. Interestingly, the previous owner stayed up the night before we arrived to pick us up at the airport and installed new main bearings.”
The 320,000-mile 5.0-liter engine had developed a knocking issue, prompting the bearing swap. Additionally, during the drive back from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to Rhode Island, Fortune noticed that the transmission wasn’t shifting smoothly. Consequently, he opted to have the entire drivetrain rebuilt once he became the owner of the XP8.
Saleen Family’s Personal Explorer
“It’s a 1996, and Sean Saleen’s personal vehicle,” Fortune tells us. “Steve Saleen rode in the passenger seat to many race tracks throughout the ’90s. It’s the only 1996. There are three prototypes: one two-wheel-drive, two ’97s that are all-wheel-drive and both supercharged. The first production year was 1998.”
Fortune’s Saleen XP8 is powered by Ford’s 5.0-liter V8, which became a new option for the Explorer starting in 1996. The engine was fitted from the factory with GT-40 cylinder heads and a heavily revised intake manifold, delivering 210 horsepower and 280 ft-lb of torque. The small-block Ford engine was only available in two-wheel drive for ’96, with all-wheel drive becoming an option a year later in 1997.
Prototype Easter Eggs
Because it is a prototype and a 1996 model Ford Explorer, Fortune’s XP8 has a number of features that are unique to both its prototype status and its Ford production year. For example, ’96-model Explorers have a hood latch inside the grill, but Ford moved it to in between the grill and the hood on later models, so the grille is different than that of production XP8s.The back hatch is also quite a bit different due to Ford design changes.
The license plate is bent into the rear bumper cover, and the ’98s have them mounted on the hatch,” Fortune explains. “Mine is the only one with the carbon fiber pillars. I found a magazine article about the Explorer from 1998, and it had the carbon-fiber pieces. They had covered them at some point.” A plausible reason for this was that Saleen didn’t want customers to see that and think it might be an option for the 1998 production models, which it wasn’t. One other difference that is unique to Fortune’s ride is the rear spoiler, which has a slightly different angle to it due to the hatch being shaped differently for the 1996 models versus later ones.
While we’re looking at the exterior of the Saleen XP8, it’s readily apparent that the Explorer was given the Saleen ground effect overhaul with new front and rear bumpers, and side skirts that keep with the Phil Frank-penned Saleen design language of the ’90s. Where wild body kits were rampant across the automotive spectrum in the ’80s and ’90s, Saleen’s products were far more subtle in appearance and more artistically and professionally designed than what you would normally find from aftermarket companies of the day.
Making A Statement In 1996
The XP8 was equipped with magnesium 18×9-inch wheels — essentially the front wheels from select Saleen Mustangs — that are wrapped in P255/55/18 tires. The wheel design has endured for years now and has always been a favorite among Mustang and Ford enthusiasts. While later model XP8s did have a rare Alcon brake upgrade option, Fortune’s XP8 utilizes the stock Ford braking system with Powerstop calipers and upgraded, cross-drilled disc brake rotors for improved looks and performance.
The ground effects help give the XP8 a lower-to-the-ground, more aerodynamic appearance, but it’s the Saleen Racecraft suspension that mechanically lowers the Explorer about 2 inches with upgraded coil springs up front and leaf springs in the back. Saleen vehicles were always about handling prowess, and the company’s Explorers were no exception.
Just as the exterior side mirror caps and D-pillars have been given the carbon-fiber upgrade, the interior is also part of the package, with the gauge cluster and radio bezel being trimmed out in the lightweight, racy material, as well. The remaining interior components are as-delivered from Ford, and Fortune was able to just detail the original interior to get it looking good again, whereas the exterior needed a bit more work.
Refreshing The Freshness
These days, this Saleen XP8 doesn’t look like it has traveled 320,000 miles during its lifetime, and that’s largely due in part to a re-paint in Ford’s Electric Currant red hue. All new decals were put on the SUV to complete the Saleen look and to maintain its heritage. Interestingly enough, Fortune didn’t wait for the restoration to begin showing the XP8, as he attended the Fords at Carlisle show several times with it. For the last two years, though, it has been featured inside the buildings at Carlisle as part of the Ford History and Saleen groups.
With so much interest in Saleens, it should not be surprising to know that both Fortune and his wife, Danielle, are members of the Saleen club, with Fortune being the New England regional director and Danielle the Rhode Island representative for the Saleen Club of America.
“I’ve had quite a few Saleen Mustangs,” Fortune says. “I’ve sold probably six Saleens and one SN95. We had three Saleen Ford Focuses recently. I grab them when they pop up and then sell them to people looking to fix them up. I don’t really make money on them.
Never Enough Saleens
With the 1996 Saleen XP8 refreshed and ready for another 320,000 miles, Fortune can now turn his attention to their other two Saleen-modified Explorers. One is a 1998 Saleen XP6, which is one of the few 4.0-liter six-cylinder models that Saleen produced. The other is a 1998 XP8 that is packing the Powerdyne-supercharged 5.0-liter V8.