Feature Story

BUSINESS: BUDGET RENTALS GO SPORTY

by Bob Hagin

September 13, 1996

In 1966, a friend of mine was a semi-professional racer who drove his private-entry Ford Mustang in as many Sports Car Club of America Trans Am races as he could afford. Sometimes he'd finish high enough to cover his expenses from his winnings, but more often his racing was a negative cash flow situation.

But the one thing that he didn't have to worry about was maintenance on the 289 cubic-inch High Performance Ford V8 that was under the hood. After blowing his engine a couple of times, he hit on an ingenious scheme: he'd rent a fresh engine for every race, and for only $15 a day. The only problem he faced was the fact that Hertz Rent A Car, the folks who rented him the engine, didn't know about it. As far as they knew, they simply rented him a Shelby Mustang GT 350H (the "H" stood for Hertz) on a Friday and got it back early the next week. They didn't know that while the car itself didn't get any rough service, the engine was subjected to the ultimate test of endurance and reliability.

The fact that Hertz got into the Rent-A-Racer business at all is a story in itself but after buying 936 of them and having them suffer dreadfully at the hands of "wanabe" racers, Hertz pulled the plug, closed down its exclusive 350H club and went back to renting Falcons, Fairlanes and Galaxies. Today, an original Mustang GT 350H has to be one of the most collectible Mustangs of them all.

This story and the history of the Hertz Shelby GT 350H Mustang was brought to mind recently when I received a joint press release from Team Rental Group and Saleen Performance Cars. Steve Saleen is an currently- competing racer who took a note from Carroll Shelby's biography and went into production of his own Saleen Mustangs in 1984. The press release proclaimed that Team Rental Group, the largest Budget Rent-a-Car franchise holder in the country, had entered into an agreement with Saleen to buy 30 Saleen S281 Mustangs to rent through several of its Budget Rent-A-Car offices in Southern California. I immediately thought of my friend and his Rent-An-Engine project.

Ron Norburt is a Team Rental Group vice-president in Southern California and when I called him to fill me in on some of the details about Budget renting out Saleen S281 Mustangs, I wasn't ready for his enthusiasm. "Part of the deal was that I got to keep one for myself," he told me, "and I take it out every Saturday to go for donuts and coffee." He was quick to point that he shuts his Mustang down when it hits 50 MPH. "I don't need any more tickets," he said.

Unfortunately for present-day drivers who compete in sports car events in Saleen's ready-to-race SR model (a 500-plus horsepower off-the-shelf race car), the Budget Saleen S281 Mustang isn't the same car. Although the rental unit has the same Saleen Racecraft suspension system that includes tighter spring rates, high shock absorber settings, thicker sway bars front and rear, 18-inch alloy wheels, low profile tires, and distinctive body panel additions, the powerplant is Ford's 4.6 liter single-cam, 16-valve V8 that puts out 215 horses. Racers who want to "rent" an engine for their cars won't be able to pick up an S281 from their local Budget office on Friday, use the engine over the weekend, and then turn the rented Saleen back in on Monday.

"We're renting this car to average people who want to make a lifestyle statement or to just drive in style," Norburt told me. "We don't want anybody to get in trouble with it."

Each of the cars is assigned its own number when it's delivered to Budget. The first car had the number 01B affixed to the valance under the left front headlight, the B denoting the fact that it's a Budget rental. So far, Saleen has delivered 30 cars to the Team Rental Group offices in Santa Ana, Calif. Which, of course brings up the question of the desirability of these Mustangs when they come off rental and are offered for sale to private buyers. A Saleen representative told me that the company feels that it will result in a series of collectible cars that will increase in value as time passes. If the original 936 Hertz Shelby GT 350H Mustangs are a criteria, those Budget Saleens can only increase in value as time goes by.

Maybe the other car rental outfits like Avis, National, Alamo and the rest will pick up the gauntlet that Budget has thrown down and offer rental Saleens too. From there it's only a short step to forming their own teams to compete in races around the country. The publicity would be great and would lead to the slogan "Win on Sunday, rent it out on Monday."

I'd include Hertz in that list of potential teams but I'm afraid its corporate memory is too long to forget the headaches of the GT 350H.

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