Cat of a Different Colour (Part One)

Panther’s cars were always of high quality, if occasionally in questionable taste.

1972 Panther J72. Image: k500.com

As someone whose taste in houses and the objects that fill them resides firmly in the 18th and 19th Centuries, I’ve always had an ambivalent if not antipathetic attitude towards reproductions, which I tend to regard as antiques for people who don’t like old stuff. That said, I can fully appreciate the appeal of a motor vehicle with well executed retro styling concealing modern mechanical and electrical components(1). Such vehicles offer the best of both worlds: contemporary standards of reliability, efficiency and safety combined with the nostalgia for a simpler and more innocent time when motoring was a pleasure and not a crime against humanity.

Robert Jankel (1938 – 2005) was born in London into a family that owned a fashion business, Goldenfelds, so it was natural for him to join that business after he graduated from the Chelsea College of Science and Technology. In the Swinging Sixties, London was the epicentre and beating heart of the fashion scene and Jankel found some success as a clothes designer. That was not, however, where his heart really lay and he occupied his spare time restoring old cars, including an Austin 7, numerous Jaguars and a 1930s Rolls-Royce.

Robert Jankel. Image: jankel.com

Jankel had studied engineering at college and his passion for all things automotive remained undimmed, so in 1971 he sold his shareholding in the fashion business and established Panther(2) Westwinds at his home in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. The initial business plan was for the restoration of classic Rolls-Royce cars. The choice of location was a wise one as it was just five miles (8km) from the town of Byfleet, where engineers and craftsmen had been building racing cars and replicas for the nearby Brooklands racing circuit since it opened in 1907. With easy access to such a pool of automotive talent and expertise, it was simple for Jankel to outsource some of the more specialised aspects of the restoration work.

Jankel had another vision, however: to build traditional looking sports cars using bought-in modern engines and componentry. Panther’s first car was the J72, unveiled in February 1972. It was pretty much a straight copy of the 1936 SS100, a two-seat roadster built by S.S. Cars Limited, the company that would be renamed Jaguar in March 1945(3). Jankel was initially coy about his plans, describing the J72 as a one-off, a show car and personal toy, with no plans for it to go into production. Such was the level of interest generated by the J72 that the business opportunity quickly became clear.

The use of contemporary Jaguar 3.8 and 4.2-litre straight-six and (from 1974) 5.3-litre V12 engines in the J72 added a welcome element of authenticity to the car. Like most replicas, it was built on a bespoke tubular chassis, but what distinguished the J72 was the exemplary quality of its bodywork. Whereas some other replicas settled for glass-fibre, the J72 featured an expertly hand-beaten aluminium body fabricated by a firm called Shapecraft in nearby Leatherhead. The interior was trimmed in Connolly leather and featured a full complement of instruments on its authentic looking flat, double-humped burr-walnut trimmed dashboard, close to which was an almost vertical three-spoke steering wheel with perforated spokes and a polished wooden rim.

1972 Panther J72 Interior. Image: carandclassic.co.uk

The driving experience was pretty authentic too, with a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of just 6.4 seconds, but a top speed of only 110mph (177km/h), the latter limited by the car’s breeze-block aerodynamics. The apparently simple hood had no fewer than 49 fasteners, took twenty minutes to raise or lower and flapped around noisily at speed when raised. These issues notwithstanding, such was the demand for the J72 that Panther moved to larger premises, the 20,000 sq. ft. (1,858m2) former Cooper racing car factory on the Byfleet Trading Estate. By 1974, Panther was employing over fifty people, many of whom were previously his sub-contractors, including Shapecraft. The car’s steep price, from around £4,400(4) when an E-Type 2+2 Coupé cost around £3,100, proved to be no impediment to sales and 368 J72s found enthusiastic buyers over the car’s nine-year production life.

Panther’s next model was the 1974 FF, a two-seat roadster inspired by the post-war open-top Ferrari racers and fitted with a genuine Ferrari 4.0-litre V12 engine. This cost an eye-watering £13,500, almost double the 1974 price of the J72, so sales were limited to just seven examples. Also in 1974, Panther built a one-off sports car, the Lazer, at the request of the company’s Canadian importer. The Lazer featured a Jaguar drivetrain and three-abreast seating in a highly fashionable wedge-shaped body. The car was a gift for the importer’s wife, but she disliked and promptly returned it. The Lazer was then sold to the Crown Prince of Iran and now resides in that country’s national automobile museum.

Panther’s next offering was the much more commercially significant (if aesthetically questionable) De Ville. This was a four-door(5) luxury saloon inspired by the 1927 Bugatti Royale and featured a near-replica of Bugatti’s famous horseshoe-shaped grille. Drivetrain and suspension were again sourced from contemporary Jaguar models.

1978 Panther De Ville. Image: topcarrating.com

Car Magazine journalist Edward Francis reported on his experience with a prototype De Ville in the January 1975 edition of the magazine. Getting in required Francis to step over a wide chrome-plated running board, lest he scuff it with his shoes, and squeeze through a narrow gap between the seat cushion and A-pillar. The interior felt smaller and (especially) narrower than he might have expected from its external appearance, a consequence of those wide running boards. Once inside, Francis admired the “tasteful luxury” of the Wilton carpeting, Connolly hide and walnut. He described the interior as “a beautifully furnished, opulently padded, headily fragrant turret”.

Driving the De Ville was “ease itself” with its Jaguar V12 engine being “discreet and smooth with the same murmuring quality when cruising [or] when the throttle is opened”. 60mph (97km/h) was reached in 9.0 seconds and, despite the bluff appearance, wind noise was “no greater at 70mph than at 17”. Most intrusive was the “thrum of tyre rubber, which was by far the loudest sound”.

1979 Panther De Ville interior. Image: bonhams.comp

The size of the De Ville meant that it “takes some learning to drive with confidence on winding country roads”. In particular, its extreme length of 204” (5,182mm) “tends to exaggerate severe bends”. The steering had “a few degrees of rice pudding before regaining its feel” when cornering hard and there was “a readiness for the front tyres to wail”.

The front footwells were narrow, with no room for a footrest to the left of the brake pedal, and interior space fell short of the limousine norm, but these were minor criticisms, and the overall build quality was deemed superb. It was certainly not a car for the shy and retiring. Francis cautioned that drivers of the De Ville should prepare themselves for an “odd mixture of awe and resentment” from observers.

The De Ville was priced from £21,965 and attracted celebrity customers such as Sir Elton John and Oliver Reed. Around sixty examples, eleven of which were two-door convertibles, were built over an eleven-year production run.

The story of Panther Westwinds will continue in Part Two.

(1) Are Morgan cars reproductions? Possibly, but at least the company is only raiding its own back-catalogue, which it is fully entitled to do.

(2) An appropriate name for a company that would find its initial inspiration in Jaguar’s back-catalogue.

(3) The former SS name had an unfortunate association with the Schutzstaffel, Adolf Hitler’s personal protection squadron of ultra-loyal troops that were primarily responsible for many of the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the Second World War.

(4) This had risen to £7,729 by 1975, thanks to high demand and rampant inflation in the UK.

(5) Using those ubiquitous doors from the ADO17 BMC 1800 Landcrab…

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

23 thoughts on “Cat of a Different Colour (Part One)”

  1. Ah, Panther. Perhaps the most serious of the “neo-classic” car makers. You know, I once had a red die-cast Excalibur, I think in 1:43 scale. Later on, when the Top Trumps cards were translated to Greek and became a major thing among my schoolmates, I was also introduced to contraptions like Panther’s offerings. I could never exactly understand the De Ville, to be honest. The grille seemed too wide in comparison to the Bugatti original. The doors seemed pilfered from some late ’60s thing (turned out to be the Austin Maxi), and the rear seemed like an afterthought. Despite its opulence, it looked somewhat awkward. Nothing, however, came close to the eyesore known as the Neorion Chicago…

    1. Good morning Konstantinos. Yikes! You’re not kidding about the Neorion Chicago:

      That might be worthy of further investigation.

    2. A prototype commissioned by one of Greece’s oligarchs. He had already the aborted electric Neorion- Enfield microcar project under his belt, and he wanted to tell other Greeks that he’d give Greece glory by making something that’d outdo Range Rover and Rolls-Royce. You can’t make this shit up.

    3. This thing surely looks no worse than the Excalibur that was parked in front of our city Hall a couple of weeks ago.

  2. Didn’t the first J72 even have a front beam axle, later replaced by Vauxhall Magnum independent suspension?

    1. In similar vein, I have a vague (possibly imagined) recollection that early Panther J72s used the unusually large (10″?) circular headlamps from contemporary Foden trucks before switching to standard 7″ units with an insert to fill the housings. Here are the headlamps in their original application:

  3. Good afternoon, everyone. I think I’ve only seen a J72 once or twice, but never a Deville, even though I’ve seen it in pictures many times. It’s not my cup of tea, but at least there way better build than many of the other companies who tried something similar.

    Konstantinos: Interesting that you mention Excalibur. I think I’ve seen more Excaliburs than Panthers. I too had an Excalibur model car, probably the same as yours. It might have been a birthday gift or something.

  4. Very interesting nook of the automotive landscape, but not my cup of tea – as opposed to mixing metaphors. It’s admirable in itself though, especially given the quality of the product. Unfortunately I don’t think the J72 quite measures up to the SS Jaguar, but that’s also to do with the emotion that accompanies a true classic.

    I must be getting old, I’d never thought I’d see the day where you’d have to explain the SS was a bad thing – not a dig at you, Daniel, I think you’re right to explain it, just an observation. Only natural after almost eighty years, frankly.

    Panther does deserve credit for making the most interestingly unexpected use of the Landcrab’s doors! Are those the most repurposed passenger doors in automotive history?

    1. Hi Tom. I have no idea as to the spread of ages amongst DTW’s readership, but I think it’s safe to assume that, at 61, I am well above the median, hence my habit of explaining things that might be obvious to me, but not necessarily to our younger readership. Had it not been for the Schutzstaffel, the iconic Jaguar name might not exist.

      As to the landcrab’s doors, isn’t it ironic that, although they were blamed for that car’s awkward proportions, they were widely used elsewhere?

    2. I’ll not comment on my expectations of the median age of DTW readership 🙂. I remember that in the ‘eighties and even ‘nineties, ‘the War’ and stories about it were still easily understood things in a way that they aren’t anymore.

      That blame for the Landcrab’s doors is quite well-founded, I think: most cars equiped with it were somewhat ungainly. I’ll not say the De Ville is the best-looking application, but…

      Something like the Kimberley works reasonably well, I think:

    3. This picture reminds me of an issue of T&CC from the Eighties where they had one of those wonderful Russell Brockbank cartoons showing an SS 100 with a bonnet seemingly half a mile long and two very small seats behind it.

      Maybe the younger generation needs something like Fawlty Towers…
      As early as the Seventies Kawasaki had no problems naming their four stroke engined bikes with the prefix KZ – two stokes were KH. Only for the German market were these renamed to Z only. Mitsubishi wanted to name a particularly hot version of the Lancer rally special Mitsubishi Zero. It took their American importer a lot of effort to convince them to make it a Lancer Evo. On the other hand our friends form the other side of the pond in person of Computer Associates (at that time they were the lout of the software industry) ran a marketing campaign with expensive double full sided newspaper ads shouting that when the going gets tough their Ingres database gets going , boasting that their rocket launch control system used in the raid on Iraq was based on Ingres. As their foray came close to being the most unpopular thing in Germany this deservedly backfired truly badly on them.

    4. Being of different nationality, I had to look up Russel Brockbank. Lovely cartoons with lovingly detailed cars, evidently he wanted to draw cars more than cartoons, but cartoons brought in more money. Here are two websites with some of his works:

      https://www.chrisbeetles.com/artists/brockbank-russell-1913-1979.html

      http://motoringart.info/motoring-artist-listings/motoring-artist-information.asp?ArtistName=Brockbank%20Russell%20Partridge

      I rather liked this one (image taken from the second website):

      The clarity of his car drawings reminds me of Hergé (image: tintin.com):

  5. I liked the J72 because it looked like an SS100, and I liked the De Ville because it made Landcrab doors look cool, but some of their other efforts were questionable. The roadster with four front steered wheels was a bit OTT, and the re-styled uber-luxury Triumph Dolomite was a bit dear…
    Never realized Jankel did frocks though.

  6. There’s a Kallista, or possibly a Lima, that I drive past fairly often. I’m not sure which it is, because it’s generally parked in the sort of location where one needs one’s concentration for the road! I’m sure Daniel will be coming to those models soon…

    1. I certainly will, Michael. There are two more instalments to come. Stay tuned!

  7. Quoting Mervyn, “The roadster with four front steered wheels was a bit OTT…”

    That would be the Panther Six. It was powered by a Cadillac 500cid V-8 engine fitted with the Ak Millar twin-turbocharger set-up. Think on that for a moment- 8.2 litres turbocharged… Torque for Africa!

    Here is what I know of it. When I last spoke with Robert Jankel he reported that the rights to the Six had been sold to a well funded company which intended to take the car back to limited production. The mighty Cadillac 500 was no longer available from GM and so they were considering the ubiquitous small block Chevrolet 350 or possibly the big block Chevrolet, both of which were available from GM Performance straight off the shelf. Several well developed turbocharger set-ups could be sourced from the after-market, even back then. So, resurrection was a possibility. Then the trail goes cold.

    I reckon the Six would be worth an article all of its own. How about it Daniel? Can you find out more about the Six? Its story is shrouded in unknowns (like what it was like to drive- how did it handle, how many were actually built, where are they all now, who has the drawings presently, how was the front geometry set up- Ackerman or what………?).

    1. Hi J T. Fear not, the Six is covered in Part Three of this series. At the risk of scooping my own piece, I’m afraid there was rather less to the Six than met the eye: a bit of Ackerman effect tyre scrub was the least of its problems.

  8. The J72 reminded me of the SS100 replicas built by Suffolk Sportscars, which kicked the bucket after Jaguar Land Rover threatened them with legal action over “copyright infringement”: https://www.eadt.co.uk/news/business/suffolk-sportscar-manufacturer-goes-into-liquidation-2696068

    The mind boggles. The replica didn’t have Jaguar badges, didn’t try to pass off as a genuine Jaguar SS100, and the original car was utterly irrelevant anyway – so, JLR couldn’t possibly claim they’d lose sales to Suffolk. Yet another example of copyright and trademark jihadism…

    1. Yup. Hubris and greed and incompetence in equal measure. Don’t worry. It’ll be over with soon enough.

      When was the last time anyone you know purchased a Jaguar car new off the forecourt at list? Notice anything?

  9. Hi Daniel

    I shall look forward to your article. An intriguing car it was and it would be good to know more of it and the story behind it.

    Did you know of the Corvin? That was another supercar with six wheels. It seems to have disappeared. I never got to drive one or find out what they were like. Do you have any leads? Could be another interesting article….. (yes, please!).

    Why remove your picture from the header of your articles and posts? Forget the politics of the moment (which are a whole lot different from what people commonly think). Besides your picture made a connection with you for your readers. It gave a representation of personality and a link to the identity of you, the author. Put you back please. It is better.

    1. Hi J T. Thanks for the suggestion regarding the Corvin. I’ll take a look and see if I can find out enough to make a worthwhile piece.

      Regarding the replacement of my photo with an image of the Ukranian flag, I do not regard it as a political statement, but rather as a reminder of the terrible plight of those people suffering from extreme and totally unwarranted violence, simply for insisting on their right to self-determination. We are flying a Ukranian outside our house to the same end:

      If the war grinds on, the danger is that we become, if not indifferent to their plight, then just wearily resigned to it, and the news media moves on, just as happened with Syria. I look forward to the day when I can reinstate my photo, hopefully with peace restored in a still independent and democratic Ukraine.

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