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It’s always a question of perspective. Ernie Salazar was always a car guy, and always favored muscle. As young teenager, he lusted after a ’72 Ford Mustang Mach 1 that a mechanic down the street owned. When he turned 16, he struck a deal with the mechanic who owned it. He worked, running parts and changing oil at the mechanic’s shop, in exchange for the Mach 1.

Car Stories – Ernie Salazar

Eventually it was his. He fixed it up and owned it for four years, before letting it go. Around the same time, he started working in automotive electronics installing audio systems and spent much of his day under a dashboard.

After a few years, he realized that he needed a better plan because he didn’t want twenty years to pass and still be stuck working under a car’s dash.

His plan involved car accessories and management but, somehow, Salazar wound up building Hummer H2-based limousines for the Chinese market. It was going well until General Motors, cancelled the H2. Sure some of the underpinnings were based on other GM vehicles (the front on GM’s 2500-series trucks, the rear based on 1500-series trucks), but the middle of the truck was entirely new and hence limos couldn’t be based on other GM vehicles (at least not with the same effect). Furthermore, there was the burly, military-looking exterior.

Not willing to concede his Chinese niche, Salazar’s solution was to design and build his own trucks. Or “tanks” as he calls them.

His company is called US Specialty Vehicles, and they build trucks branded “Rhino.” They are based on Ford F-450 Super Duty trucks and easily fulfill his distributor’s request to build something equally tough as the H2 and perhaps even more muscular and imposing. Salazar built one to test response at the Beijing Auto Show.

The company, which could build eight to ten limos per month, received 40 orders at the show. Those orders were followed by more orders after the show.

In spite of their appearance however, the Rhinos aren’t armored as their clientele just want the military look. To date, USSV has been building the Rhino GX for about four years. And although demand for these cars is high enough to warrant shifting production to China, Salazar would rather keep manufacturing here and their customers actually prefer that production remain in the U.S. due to the quality difference.

This is because USSV buy the vehicles from Ford as a bare chassis with a regular cab, two-door with a bench seat, four-wheel drive, and duallies. Then, they cut the back of the truck off, take the roof off, and build a body onto the truck, made of 20-gauge steel with fiberglass fenders and hood. A luxury interior is then installed and they remove the rear leaf-spring suspension and use a hydraulic one instead. It’s much more comfortable. But most of the body is hand-fabricated and a typical build lasts from 60-90 days. And that’s why building these in the US is so important to Salazar and his clients.

They aren’t sitting still though. Salazar is developing a new, smaller truck called the Rhino XT, which is based on the Jeep Wrangler four-door. It’s expected to debut in October and will most likely make it to SEMA. But if you can’t attend SEMA, don’t worry, you’ll get to see it flexing its truck muscles in The Fast and the Furious 8 next April. It may not be a traditional Muscle Car, but we’d bet that it’s faster and more intimidating than Salazar’s Mach 1.

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Podcast Interview by A.J. Gordon / Article Written by Yoav Gilad