Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Panther Solo

This is a story very close to my heart, having worked for Panther Cars and being trained as a car upholsterer while helping with development of the Solo 2.

The story begins a few years earlier though. Bob Jankel had started Panther Westwings after requests for some of his somewhat eccentric designs led to small scale production runs. Although the Panther 6 and J70 took the headlines, the most successful model by far was the Vauxhall based Lima 1930's style two-seater. This evolved into the Aluminium bodied Kallista, using more Ford components.

Around this time Korean industrialist Y. C. Kim bought the company and started work on a modern mid-engined  2-seater designed by Ken Greenwood who was head of vehicle design at The Royal College of Design.

With the Ford 1600 CVH engine mounted to a steel chassis and clothed in Greenley's beautiful body it looked set to be a popular alternative to the new Toyota MR2.

Both the press and public alike were enthusiastic, and it looked all set to be the beginning of a bright future for the company.

Yet at the last minute Y. C. Kim took a test drive in the rival Toyota MR2 and decided that little Panther with the Solo couldn't compete with the might of Toyota and it's excellent free revving sports car. Development of the Solo was halted.

Ken Greenley was asked to stretch the design into a bigger supercar. The theory being that the more expensive car would be more profitable per unit and secure the company's reputation alongside brands such as Lotus with it's Esprit.

Starting again at such a late stage would have expensive consequences. The press were impatient, wanting to have a date when production of the Solo would begin, So the company responded by taking a show car to let everyone see the new 2+2 layout to be powered by a longitudinally mid-mounted Cosworth turbo from the Ford Sierra.

This merely intensified pressure to bring the car to market and fatal mistakes were made as the costs mounted. Instead of simplifying the design from what was essentially a body buck on wheels the design of the bodywork evolved from this and an ever more complex multitude of panels morphed from the initial buck to the prototypes.

Exotic Kevlar was used for the main central tub atop a steel backbone floorpan to create an incredibly stiff structure. The running gear was further complicated by the decision to include four wheel drive from the Sierra Xr4x4 as well as the Cosworth engine, which was mounted to one side to accommodate the drivetrain.

Unfortunately for Panther the 4x4 system had not been mated to the turbocharged turbo engine by Ford and at great cost the small manufacturer was forced to develop the upgrade to allow the 4x4 system to cope.

Y. C. Kim sold a majority share in the company to Korean giant Ssangyong who were looking for a flagship brand to help build the image of their expanding car range.

The company moved to a new factory in Essex with only a handful of their previous production line employees making the move across from Surrey, so a whole new set of production workers needed training to produce the Kallista while a small team continued development of the Solo.

The press continued to push for a production date, management made promises, took deposits, before turning to the engineers and telling them to get on with it, rather than asking if it was possible first.

Ford, grateful for the development on their 4x4 system went on to use the system on the new Sierra Cosworth 4x4, while Panther struggled on with their complicated Supercar.

Eventually four prototypes were built, chassis number 3 was yellow, 4 red, 5 blue and 6 silver, if memory serves me right. Number 3 was the development hack which covered many miles, but word came back that the grip, ride and handling were exemplary. The work in wind tunnels resulted in an impressive 0.33 CD with positive downforce by now.

I remember being taken right up to the transporter in the red prototype upside down fitting an under dash carpet to the car after yet another 29 hour motor show shift. It was among the most rewarding times of my life though.

The red car, if I remember right was initially dogged by minor glitches, the swiveling headlights were one and other electrical maladies another time. The blue car fared a bit better and that is the car most of the written press drove, but Top Gear got the red car and Noel Edmonds was brought in to drive it taking exception to the offset driving position. He seemed less than impressed. The other press were a little kinder, although we at the factory knew these were little more than prototypes.

There was so much to like about the car, but just like the four cylinder Esprit comments were made about the even gruffer sounding Cosworth power plant not befitting a potential Ferrari rival. The 140mph top speed was not competitive either. The handling and ride were indeed praised but we all felt it needed another 12 months of development as well as a bigger engine.
(The middle pages from the Solo2 brochure)

The yellow prototype was modified back to 2 wheel drive, with a Rover V8 and everyone was raving about it who had driven the beasty. My only experiences were a couple of rides in the red prototype which will stay embedded in my memory to this day! I remember the incredible sense of solidity which is hard to explain unless you've experienced it.
(I still have a copy of this poster)

My part of the story ends here. I decided to leave Panther just as the first production cars were being put together. Only 12 Solos were built before the factory closed its doors. I would dearly love to drive one someday or better still own one by some miracle.

Ken Greenley was to go on to become head of design for Ssangyong, leading the team behind the Korando, Musso and other... classics. The importer once told me he tried to persuade them to import the cars using the Panther name. I'm relieved they didn't.

The Solo was reborn as an updated show car but disappeared among a lot of rhetoric from pundits about an overdue, under-developed car, non of whom could have an idea of the true story of that lost supercar.

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1 comment:

  1. I have a solo and I love to drive the car when ever I can. You may like to know I have some pictures of the cars being made in the factory at Harlow https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150948447322589.533195.648012588&type=1&l=3dd8cd3451