After years (literally) of searching for the elusive Saleen Explorer XP8, I finally found one for sale and was able to purchase it for a fair price. With only about 120-150 ever built, it has not been easy to find one…and when one finally did pop up, I knew it would need some work to restore it back to its former glory.
Very few people know these cars even exist given the low production volume, and those who purchased the cars new generally used them as daily drivers and tow rigs, so very few have been well preserved despite the low production volume…so the survivors are few and far between, with too many examples in the unofficial Saleen XP8 registry being totaled, rusted out, or otherwise beyond repair.
I was excited that this particular truck, Saleen XP8 98-027, was owned by an enthusiast who really cared about the car. He had two other Explorers from this same era – one built for offroad, and one fairly stock – so he knew the platform very well. He had owned for 8+ years and was very attached to it, but it had been sitting outside in the Southern California sun and was starting to show its age from not being used very often in the last few years so he reluctantly decided to part ways. The tires were rotted out so he had to be trailered down to me to complete the sale.
Upon arriving to me I immediately did an inventory of the car to figure out what needed fixed. Mechanically the car was in good condition and had been properly maintained – I took it to a mechanic and there were a few odds and ends that needed sorted (fluid flush, new brakes, new tires), but nothing urgent.
The cosmetic condition was another story with years of sun damage and hard water spots eating away the paint…so my first stop was to my good friends at Elite Finish to get her back up to par. They had worked magic on my Audi R8 so I was excited to see what they could do on this Explorer, but this would be a much bigger challenge given both the size of the vehicle and the poor condition it was starting from (versus the R8 that had a much better baseline to start from).
Kevin and the team at Elite Finish tore into this car over the span of about 2 months and absolutely knocked it out the park! There were a number of really tricky parts to this restoration that were particularly impressive that they could pull off including:
Wheel Refinishing – the wheels are made out of magnesium and therefore can be very difficult to work with and refinish. They’re also incredibly rare and difficult to replace, so they had to be handled with extreme care. Elite Finish worked in tandem with a body shop to sand out all curb rash and imperfections then paint them Oxford White to match the exterior and then mount new Bridgestone tires. Next they ceramic coated them using a special blend and multiple layers of coatings so that it will be easy to keep the white wheels clean. Over 15 hours went into the wheels alone, and they look incredible!
Tint & Glass – the car must have been parked near a lawn sprinkler and the glass was difficult to see through. The tint had bubbled up in a few places and the glass looked terrible. Elite Finish retinted the entire car which looked great, and then went a six-stage process to restore the glass which included an initial cleaning, clay bar, razor blade removal of deposits, cutting with 3D Eraser, second cutting round using CarPro ultracut, then a final finishing polish using CarPro essence. The end result is so dramatic it’s hard to believe it was the same car! They also wrapped the B pillars in black vinyl to match the tint since the pillar was so faded that it could not be restored, giving it a super slick look!
Paint Correction – Elite Finish was able to restore the paint on every single panel except the front & rear bumpers and grille, which were missing huge chunks of paint and therefore not save-able. They worked with a body shop to have the bumpers repainted to an exact match, then polished everything to perfection and ceramic coated it. On panels that weren’t repainted, they also applied touch-up paint to chips and made the car look 20 years newer, literally. I’m blown away at how good the paint looks and was fairly convinced when I dropped it off that the car would need entirely repainted or wrapped in order to look as good as it does now.
Graphics – the Saleen graphics were beyond faded, so they were able to remove the old graphics, restore the paint underneath, then install new graphics in the exact same spot. I decided to switch the graphics from grey to black to give the car a little more contrast, and was able to source the OEM Saleen files to have the graphics reproduced by Golden State Stripes for this project.
Ceramic Coating – finally once everything was done, Elite Finish applied their special sauce which is a multi-step ceramic coating where they layer a few different coatings to ensure maximum durability and shine. I’m a huge fan of ceramic coatings and have done several DIY installations, but based on my experience with the R8 there is a massive difference between the DIY coatings and a professionally installed coating using professional grade products. In the last year I’ve only washed my R8 once with water, the coating is so good that a spray detailer (I use Elite Finish’s WashMist) is all that is needed to wipe any dust/dirt away very easily. It’s unreal!
The wait was all worth it, and the car debuted at the San Diego Cars & Coffee next to a Bronco and TJ Hunt’s twin turbo’d Huracan, which also happened to be my first time seeing it with all of the work done. That experience was unreal, seeing my high school dream car fully restored and front and center at a car show with 800+ cars in attendance and will be a memory I cherish forever.
I can’t thank the entire Elite Finish team enough…it was an unusual project and I’m sure in worse shape than 99% of the cars they work on (which are generally exotics & luxury cars) and they really stepped up and showed they can work their magic on any car, from any starting point.
If you have any detailing, PPF, tint, or restoration needs in the San Diego area, I highly recommend them – and this is not a paid/sponsored post, I paid a normal rate like everyone else and it was worth every penny (and then some) to make an automotive dream come true.
While I can’t say for 100% sure, I’m pretty confident that my Saleen Explorer is now the nicest XP8 left in existence from a cosmetic perspective. It will remain garage kept and only driven on weekends, so I expect that to continue to be the case if not continue to improve as I continue to work on small details to make it even more period correct and fully restored (e.g. I found a set of the Saleen pedals that mine was missing and will be installing soon).
A special thanks to: Kevin Nielsen at Elite Finish (managing the restoration), Big White Ford Explorer & wheelsxp8 (advising on Saleen parts/history/accuracy), Brittany Renee Photography for the amazing pictures, and of course my wife for putting up with me obsessing over restoring a 25 year old Ford SUV.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the restoration (interior & mechanical) as well as a post going into the history and specs of the Saleen XP8 in general, but many folks have been asking on Instagram and IRL about how the Saleen is coming along so here you go!