Continuing the story of Panther Westwinds.
Panther’s next offering would represent quite a departure from its large and expensive J72 roadster and De Ville limousine models. The 1973 Middle-East Oil Crisis saw an unprecedented spike in fuel prices and ignited a demand for luxury cars that were small and relatively economical(1). Robert Jankel identified the Triumph Dolomite as a suitable basis for such a car. The Dolomite was a well-regarded conventionally engineered three-box saloon which was already quite tastefully furnished, but Jankel believed he could push a redesigned version much further upmarket.
Unfortunately, the only way Jankel could secure the Dolomites he needed for conversion was to buy brand-new fully road-legal cars from Triumph and strip them down completely. This would have serious consequences for the sale price of the finished cars.
The Dolomite’s inner structure remained largely unchanged, but crisp new outer body panels in aluminium, with an extended nose and tail, gave the car a much more contemporary look. It was 4½” (114mm) longer overall than the Dolomite. Large rectangular headlamps with outboard indicators came from the Mk1 Ford Consul / Granada, while tail lights were sourced from the Triumph TR6 roadster. The front grille mimicked the shape of the famous Rolls-Royce Parthenon item, but Jankel was careful not to provoke a patent infringement lawsuit from Crewe, so kept the surround in body-colour rather than chrome.
Inside was Panther’s usual mix of tastefully applied Wilton carpeting, Connolly hide and walnut. Panther asserted that the car was finished ‘to Rolls-Royce standards’. It was called the Rio and came in two versions, a standard model with the Dolomite’s 1,850cc 91bhp (68kW) engine and an Especial with the 2.0-litre 16-valve 127bhp (95kW) engine from the Dolomite Sprint.
The Rio was launched in September 1975. There was again no doubt about the quality of the execution, but the interior was rather cramped, thanks to those deeply upholstered seats, and the price was eye-watering: the Rio Especial cost £9,445, almost three times the price of the mechanically identical (and nicely trimmed) Dolomite Sprint at £3,283. Even at that price, air-conditioning was a £400 option, as was a was an electric sunroof for an extra £327.
Even the 5.3-litre Jaguar XJ12 cost less than the Rio. The XJ12 was, comparatively, a bargain at £7,496 and the £1,949 saved would pay for a lot of petrol for the thirsty V12, even at a post-Oil Crisis price of 73 pence a gallon (16 pence a litre). Hence, the Rio sold slowly and only 18(2) found buyers over two years in production.
Having discovered (and comprehensively exceeded) the limits of the market’s willingness to pay for superlative quality in a smaller car, Panther’s next offering would be built in a more pragmatic and cost-conscious manner. The new model would be a traditionally styled two-seat roadster using Vauxhall mechanicals, including the company’s 2,279cc slant-four engine. The hand-beaten aluminium bodywork of previous models was replaced with a glass-fibre shell.
Jankel initially approached British Leyland to see if the company would be willing to supply the Triumph Spitfire chassis(3) on which he could build his new roadster. After five months’ deliberation, Leyland turned down his proposal. Jankel was, allegedly, somewhat relieved because he had reservations about taking Panther downmarket, but his dealers were clamouring for an additional volume (relatively speaking) model, so he approached Vauxhall. A deal was signed within three weeks that included sales through certain selected(4) UK Vauxhall dealerships.
The deal looked advantageous to both parties. For Panther, a formal relationship with a supportive mainstream manufacturer hugely simplified parts sourcing. In the longer term, access to GM’s worldwide sales and servicing network would give the still small company huge potential for expansion. For Vauxhall, the company’s rather dowdy range of cars needed enlivening with something attractive to generate showroom traffic, and Panther’s proposed roadster fitted the bill perfectly.
The design progressed quickly. The new car, named Lima(5), was based on the Viva / Magnum HC floorpan(6), bulkheads, inner panels and running gear. The engine and gearbox were repositioned 8” (200mm) rearward compared with the donor car, which gave the Lima an almost perfect 50:50 weight distribution.
Jankel had to search further afield than his Sussex homeland to source the bodyshell. This was manufactured by Industrial Marine Fibreglass, which was based in Newton Abbot, Devon. Unlike the J72 or De Ville, the Lima’s styling was not inspired by any single car but was intended to capture the essence of 1930’s roadsters with its long V-shaped bonnet and flowing wings and running boards. As with the De Ville, Panther turned to British Leyland for the Lima’s doors, this time from the MG Midget. The egg-crate front grille was a (probably unintended) tribute to the recently launched Vauxhall VX1800/2300, a stop-gap successor to the Victor FE.
Car Magazine journalist Edward Francis drove the new Lima and reported his findings in the November 1976 issue of the magazine. Francis initially found the bent-arms driving position and proximity of the door rather awkward, but quickly acclimatised to these traditional roadster characteristics.
Stability at speeds up to 100mph (161km/h) was “absolute” with no hint of any tendency to wander. 0 to 60mph (97km/h) was achieved in 8.8 seconds but acceleration thereafter was blunted by aerodynamic drag. Brakes and roadholding were both rated “excellent”, at least in the dry. The light Lima seemed “to impose no strain whatsoever” on the engine and made the most of its linear power delivery.
The ride was described as excellent with a “compromise between firmness and comfort which belongs in the late 70s and which many modern saloons would be the better for”. Ruts were “competently absorbed with a muffled thud and steering shiver”. Handling was also very secure and controllable, with “the passage into and out of understeer…achieved either on steering or throttle”.
Overall, the Lima was rated as a great achievement for a small company like Panther. There was talk of establishing overseas manufacturing facilities in the US, Japan and continental Europe, ownership of which would be split equally between Panther and a local investor. The company’s US importer, Bruce Kallenberg, forecast minimum annual sales of 3,000 if the price could be held at US $12,000.
Sadly, these hopes proved to be wildly optimistic. The Lima sold well enough, with a total of 897 cars produced between 1976 and 1982, when it was replaced by the Kallista, a similar looking but entirely new car, based on Ford mechanicals.
The story of Panther will conclude in Part Three.
(1) BL’s Allegro-based Vanden Plas 1500, introduced in 1974, should have been perfect in this role, but was undone by its awkward styling and the Allegro’s poor reputation.
(2) It was initially believed that 38 were produced, but this was because Panther did not use consecutive chassis numbers, but skipped every second number.
(3) Based on the 1959 Triumph Herald, the Spitfire was a rarity by the mid-1970s in still having a separate chassis, so seemed to be an ideal basis for Jankel’s project.
(4) Thirty were initially selected but another one hundred were placed on a waiting list.
(5) Lima is the capital city of Peru but, of more relevance, it was a snappy and easily pronounced two-syllable word that had not been registered elsewhere as a name for a car. The relationship to Rio, as in Rio de Janeiro, was coincidental.
(6) An updated Mk2 version of the Lima would instead feature a bespoke chassis, the Vauxhall floorpan proving too lacking in torsional rigidity for decent handling.