The year is 1988. Five Marquette University dudes hop into a white 1988 Ford Mustang Saleen convertible to head to the hotspots of downtown Milwaukee, feathered hair and mullets flapping in the breeze. I鈥檓 one those dudes with one of the better mullets and I鈥檓 either wearing my black Scorpions 鈥淩ock Me Like a Hurricane鈥 T-shirt or my white Queensryche 鈥淥peration: Mindcrime鈥 T-shirt. I can鈥檛 say what the other guys are wearing, but there is almost certainly a polo shirt with a popped collar and plenty of stone-washed denim. The driver and owner of the car is from the McCaskey family that owns the Chicago Bears.

I never hung out with the young McCaskey again, but I knew the car was pretty special, though I wasn鈥檛 sure if the upgrades were just cosmetic. (Saleen made several suspension enhancements because the car had more engine than chassis, according to company founder Steve Saleen.) I wish my family could have bought a new special-edition Mustang for me while I was in college. Instead, I worked two jobs and drove a 1978 Pontiac Grand Prix that got stolen, found by the police a month later, and resurrected for the road with a hodge-podge of cheap parts, including a pressboard sunroof duct taped in place.

Now, 32 years later, it鈥檚 suddenly 1988 again and another white Saleen Mustang is the culprit. This time it鈥檚 me at the wheel and my tester is a 2019 Saleen S302 White Label painted Tire Smoke White Pearl. In honor of the college days this car conjures, I pair my phone and run some 1980s heavy metal through the sound system, namely Queensryche鈥檚 鈥淓mpire鈥 and Blue Oyster Cult鈥檚 little-known 鈥淚maginos.鈥 A fifth instrument sits in this time. It鈥檚 Ford鈥檚 5.0-liter V-8 made bassier with a Saleen Performance Exhaust.

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

Steve Saleen, a former Formula Atlantic racer, started his company in 1983 and began modifying Mustangs in 1984. Over the years, the company has seen good times and bad, including a bankruptcy and a rebirth. The high-point came when the company released a full-blown supercar called the S7 in 2000. Saleen followed up that accomplishment by doing much of the development and production work on the 2005-2006 Ford GT. The low point? Investors kicked Saleen out of his company in 2007, and management declared bankruptcy a year later. Saleen resurrected the company a few years after that, and now develops performance packages for the Mustang and F-150 and is creating another new sports car from whole cloth, this one called the S1.

The S302 White Label is the base version of the current crop of Saleen-modified Mustangs. It boasts a mild engine tune, a few exterior changes right out of the 鈥淢iami Vice鈥 playbook, and some performance upgrades. The Yellow Label goes further with a 740-hp supercharged version of the V-8, while the Black Label goes full bore with its own next-level high-performance parts and an 800-hp version of the supercharged V-8.

Exterior tweaks give the S302 White Label the look of a car from the days of Nagel prints, pastel suits with penny loafers, and stone-washed denim, at least when the car is painted white. They include a front fascia with a steeper rake from the hood forward, a wide rear wing, trim bits on the B-pillars and rear quarter windows that only add to the 鈥80s look, and 鈥302鈥 and 鈥淪aleen four valve鈥 markings on the front fenders. Inside, the company swaps in white-face gauges, a Saleen billet aluminum shift knob, a Saleen steering wheel, floor mats embroidered with the company name, Saleen-upholstered cloth seats, and a serialized plaque.

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

My White Label tester is a competitor for a well-optioned 2019 Mustang GT (2020 models are just hitting the market with the same upgrades). Saleen compares it to a GT with the Premium trim ($39,630), GT Performance Package ($3,995), Active Valve Performance Exhaust ($895), and MagneRide suspension ($1,695). That equipment comes to a total price of $47,300 while the White Label costs $47,195.

Saleen starts with the GT Premium and raids its own parts bin for the equipment to meet or beat Ford鈥檚 various packages. Ford鈥檚 GT Performance Package includes staggered 19-inch wheels and tires with summer performance tires, Brembo six-piston front brakes, a strut tower brace and a K brace, heavy duty front springs, a larger radiator, a larger rear sway bar, and a lower ratio for the Torsen limited-slip rear differential. Saleen substitutes its own strut tower brace, 20-inch five-spoke wheels, a Saleen Performance Exhaust, and Saleen Signature Series brakes. The brakes have high-performance pads all around, 13.9-inch rotors up front with four-piston calipers and 13.0-inch rotors out back with single floating calipers. General G-Max RS summer tires provide the connection to the road, and Saleen鈥檚 specially tuned Racecraft dampers fill in for the much-admired magnetic dampers. Further chassis tuning includes unique bushings and springs, an upsized sway bar, and a different wheel/tire offset to create a wider stance.

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

Chicago winter means I don鈥檛 get to test the S302鈥檚 handling, but the wider stance likely gives the car more lateral grip than the comparable Mustang. Mustangs with the GT Performance Package ride on Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, while the General tires on this car aren鈥檛 used by any OEM. However, Saleen says he works with General to develop the tires, they are highly rated on Tirerack.com, and in Saleen鈥檚 own testing, the S302 White Label can handle 1 G of lateral acceleration on a skidpad.

On pockmarked Chicago streets, the tires work with the Saleen Racecraft dampers to provide a surprisingly supple ride. Saleen tells me the goal was to create a car that performs better while retaining a smooth ride on the road. Consider the comfort side of that equation confirmed. The Saleen brakes have performance pads, but they aren鈥檛 as large as the GT PP1 front brakes, which are 15 inches in diameter with six-piston calipers. The Saleen brakes work great on the road, with a firm and progressive pedal, but I can鈥檛 confirm their capability during performance driving.

The look may evoke the 1980s, but the performance is modern. The vast majority of that performance comes from Ford. An ECU flash, a new air cleaner and intake, premium fuel, and the Saleen exhaust add 15 horsepower to Ford鈥檚 5.0-liter V-8, which brings the total to 475. To retain the factory warranty, Saleen doesn鈥檛 swap out the radiator, so the car may be more prone to overheating during a track day.

The V-8 rips and barks and launches the car hard. Saleen says the S302 hits 60 mph in just 4.1 seconds, which compares to 4.4 seconds for the Mustang GT with the Performance package. I can鈥檛 confirm that time in these 30-degree temperatures and there鈥檚 no telling if both times were measured using the same techniques. However, throttle tip-in responds a tad quicker from a stop, so I鈥檇 guess the S302 is about a tenth quicker to 60. I can certainly tell that a deeper engine note, which may be too loud for some, rides along as a constant companion.聽

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

2019 Saleen S302 White Label

Inside, the seats feel the same as the GT鈥檚 base buckets, and that鈥檚 a good thing because they are comfortable, supportive, and roomier than the optional Recaros. The white-face gauges look good and shine blue at night. Saleen鈥檚 gear shift feels no better than Ford鈥檚鈥攖he action isn鈥檛 changed鈥攁nd it slots positively from gear to gear.

The mullet is gone now, as is most of my hair. Some of those college dudes have college-age kids of their own, though I鈥檝e fallen out of touch with most of them. McCaskey is almost certainly still enjoying his family鈥檚 money, but for a few short days I鈥檓 the guy with the Saleen Mustang this time around

The Saleen Mustang acquits itself well as a competitor for a Mustang GT with the Performance Package. Some of the exterior upgrades aren鈥檛 up to Ford鈥檚 production quality and while the General tires are an odd choice, Saleen鈥檚 numbers show small gains in performance. Most importantly, however, it looks special and that could make it more valuable to Mustang enthusiasts when it鈥檚 time to sell. For me, I appreciate the memories it kindles of rock 鈥檔 roll T鈥檚, feathered hair, and carefree weekends.