DETROIT – Niche vehicle-maker Saleen Inc. is open to building specialty cars for auto makers in addition to Ford Motor Co., says company founder and former race-car driver Steve Saleen.

“I never rule anything out,” he tells Ward’s in a wide-ranging interview. “It has to make business sense and fit in with our philosophy and appropriate branding, but we’re looking at other opportunities and only time will tell.”

Steve Saleen has been customizing Ford products since 1984, when the racing great founded Saleen Autosport. The latest Saleen-branded Fords are the Parnelli Jones Limited Edition Mustang and upcoming Saleen Sport Truck lineup.

Steve Saleen says his decision to consider doing business with other auto makers has nothing to do with the ongoing woes at Ford, which currently is in the midst of a massive North American restructuring as it continues to bleed red ink.

“Ford is not causing us problems, but its problems are something we’re watching closely,” he says. “There are a little over 200 Saleen/Ford dealerships, and things have slowed down at the dealerships in general.

“The volume they’ve done in years past is not there, and when you have that you have to say it has some affect on everybody.”

Meanwhile, Steve Saleen has taken on a new role at his company, having handed over day-to-day operations to Brian Walsh on Sept. 1. The move allows him to concentrate more on the company’s product design and development activities, as well as its branding strategies and promotional efforts.

The change in leadership would have occurred earlier, Steve Saleen admits, but it took awhile to find someone he trusted to head up his company. “I think it’s more of an evolution,” he says. “I’ve finally found someone who could run day-to-day operations.

“I’m still doing everything I was doing, and I continue to guide the company in an overall direction.”

Working out of his two facilities located in Irvine, CA, and Troy, MI, Steve Saleen is leveraging the growing popularity of low-volume models, whose production often is farmed out to specialty shops such as Saleen or ASC Inc.

The idea of niche vehicles is nothing new to him. In fact, he says his company was in the forefront of the trend.

“I recognized (the niche market) 25 years ago,” he says. “It’s just now becoming more acceptable. Any runs up to 10,000-15,000 (units), we can do very cost effectively. And we have the ability to bring unique types of autos to (common) platforms.”

His most recent foray into OEM niche products was the Ford GT supercar, which his company both built and painted. The project has been deemed a success by Ford, going from concept to production in less than 16 months, a remarkable feat for any vehicle project, let alone a 550-hp supercar.

Steve Saleen says his company’s involvement with the Ford GT project went smoothly, with approximately 4,000 units built between 2004 and 2006. No future collaborations with Ford are in the works at the moment, Saleen says, although he is open to the possibility.

In addition to his work building Saleen versions of Ford products and his Saleen-branded S7 supercar, Steve Saleen is enjoying the success of his recently opened retail store in Irvine.

The store sells a variety of Saleen-branded products, including cars and trucks, apparel and jewelry. It also offers access to advanced driving simulators and a cafe.

Business has been so brisk, Steve Saleen is considering opening another location. “If we keep up at this rate, there will definitely be a second,” he says.

bpope@wardsauto.com