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