Cat of a different Colour (Part Two)

Continuing the story of Panther Westwinds.

1976 Panther Lima. Image: autocar.co.uk

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.

1977 Panther Rio. Image: classicandsportscar.com

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.

1983 Panther Lima Mk2. Image: panthercarclub.com

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

29 thoughts on “Cat of a different Colour (Part Two)”

    1. A bit off topic, but are the tail lights on the Equus from another car? They remind me of something but I can’t put my finger on it.

  1. Good morning all. Ah yes, the Equus, another missed opportunity. Perhaps Panther should have built it for Vauxhall?


    Good guess on the taillights, David, but I don’t think it’s right. Those on the Equus have a distinctive chamfer at the bottom edge, aligning with the indents on the flanks of the car.

    1. Since it was a show car by Wayne Cherry, and not destined for production, they are probably one offs just for that car.

  2. Hi Daniel. The Panther Rio is the one that got away, as far as my awareness and knowledge of the Panther brand are concerned. I can’t comment on the Dolomite as a base car: even when my age was still a single-digit number, none of my friends’ parents or relatives owned one. I don’t know how it drove or rode. So, I’ll accept Jankel’s judgement of the basic car’s qualities. That said, it’s time for me to pick some nits.

    I’ll say it clearly: I don’t like the grille and the Granada headlights. The grille looks like a hastily grafted-on spare part from a Chinese knock-off of the Lincoln Continental Mk IV. As for the Granada headlights, they were ugly and a poor match on the original car and there’s no way in Heaven, Hell or Earth they can look right on anything else. Except, maybe, a nondescript, run-of-the-mill, quasi-brutalist, quasi-modernist 1970s apartment building’s corner in an unimportant neighborhood of Athens. Also, the front really needs an under-bumper valance.

    Let’s have a look at the rest of the car: much was done – perhaps a bit too much – to differentiate the Rio from its base car, and this, combined with its low-volume, coachbuilt nature, greatly contributed to its eye-watering price. Said price was extremely hard to justify: remember, car buyers are size queens and are more likely to accept a high price for a big car than for a smaller one, even if the former couldn’t hold a candle to the latter in terms of build quality, reliability, ride, handling, and mechanical refinement.

    The cramped rear quarters certainly did the car no favors, either: cars of this price are typically of Rolls-Royce proportions, allowing the owner to sit back and relax in the rear, while the chauffeur took care of the rest. No chance of that ever happening in the Rio, unless the owner (and, most of the time, rear seat passenger) was Nick Nack or Tyrion Lannister.

    So, there you have it: the Rio was a decently good idea. An upmarket, high-quality, luxurious, compact executive car. But here are some questions that no one seems to have asked before green-lighting this project:
    1. Can’t this role be better played by a more luxurious trim level of another brand’s car? Perhaps the Rover P6, or the Triumph 2000 Mk2?
    2. Who is the intended buyer?
    3. How much will it cost to make the car and sell at a reasonable profit?
    4. What’s the minimum car size the intended buyer is willing to pay for?
    5. What’s the typical use-case scenario for an executive car?

    1. Good morning Konstantinos. You’re right, the Rio was a dud. The styling doesn’t work for me because the 1970s-style sharp edges of the rework sit uncomfortably with the 1960s Triumph 1300 DLO. The 2000 might have made a better basis for the car, but the 2-litre six was probably still too thirsty for Jankel’s purposes.

      Incidentally, a couple of years ago I did my own update of the 2000 to bring it into the (late) 1970s:

      It does, however, have a reworked DLO, which almost certainly would have been beyond Panther’s capabilities and/or budget.

  3. “(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.”

    Lima also means Lime in Spanish.

    Callista (not Kallista) means Chiropodist. Kallista is a horrible name in Spanish.

    1. Good morning Spanish Reader. You’ve highlighted the dangers in translation in naming cars: even a synthesized word like ‘Kallista’ can cause problems. I note that it is now the name of a US company supplying kitchen and bathroom plumbing items.

      As for Lima translating to ‘lime’, that’s getting dangerously close to ‘lemon’ which is a term of abuse in the UK for a badly designed or unreliable car

    2. This can happen with abbreviations, too.
      In the Eighties Citroen named their basic equipment level ‘R’ with an additional letter denoting the engine, ‘RE’ = 1,400cc, ‘RS’ = 1,600 cc and ‘RD’ = diesel.
      The more comfortable level was called ‘TR’ with ‘TRS’ being the carburettor engine and ‘TRD’ the diesel. UK export cars were the only ones that were called ‘DTR’ to prevent them from a turd.
      Funniest surely is the French Toyota MR2 ’emmerdeur’…

  4. Panthers are like those diamond encrusted knick-knacks that “Rap Artistes” (Some oxymoron surely) waggle in the public’s face, or the solid gold Rolex’s with more gold on top that you see in the windows of the really expensive Geneva jewellers; even if the ordinary public could the vast majority wouldn’t. The taste gap is just too wide. This makes the Rio fascinating it’s almost… elegant! What is it doing in this company?

    I love the machinegun silencer style air holes in the sill covers and I like how it looks like a posh Hillman Hunter towards the tail. Problem is you could have brought several Humber Sceptres (A genuine posh Hillman Hunter) for the price of a Rio. It also dodges the slight Mr Pooter-ish air that dogs the VdP 1500, which is good but… still no.

    Part of it’s interest is that it gives a clue to one of the perennial questions that British classic car fans discuss; could a reskin have kept the Dolomite alive and what would it look like? Bland is the answer I’d give; stripped of the creases, folds and darts of it’s 1960’s tailoring it has very little charm. The Dolomite’s original designer Michelotti himself had a go and came up with a bleak Fiat 131esque thing that I think is on display somewhere.

    1. This one?

      Not desperately bleak, but some work needed; these Pathfinder-esque door handles wouldn’t have made it to production, the C-pillar vent is clumsy and the TR6 rear lights look butchered.

      Given the stasis at BL at the time, and more important projects like the TR7, SD1, SD2, ADO67 and ADO71 being behind programme and over budget, the reskinned Dolomite didn’t stand a chance. Perhaps it should have happened – at the time (c.1971) nobody expected the SD2 to be dropped, and the Dolomite continuing in production until 1980.

    2. I have seen this car up close at the British Motor Museum’s collections centre (highly recommended) and I was not put in mind of a great missed opportunity. However, it’s not bad, if not exactly peak-Michelotti. However, by comparison with its putative successor (the SD2 prototype), it stands up rather well, being at least coherent, which isn’t something one can say about the later proposal.

    3. That has the same issues as the Rio: the roof and DLO, even (clumsily) modified, don’t work with the lower body.

      Thanks for posting the images, Robertas.

  5. Robertas, that’s it! It is a bit more accomplished than I remember and the Fiat facelift vibe seems to be focused around the grill/ headlamp treatment. I prefer this to the Rio but I’m certain that this car would be very colour dependent, if it was the same colour as the Rio in the main article it’d be a stingy looking vehicle.

    Very odd doorhandles, it looks like they moved the existing item up and inwards to reduce the risk of snagging on hapless pedestrians. At least it would be easy to let yourself out of the car if the internal handles broke; unlike Intercity railway carriages you can at see the handle from the inside.
    I think the visual “Bleakness” comes from the small wheels, despite it being a small car the small wheels mean there is a lot of blank metal that needs some surface treatment.

    1. The Dolomite was to have been replaced by the green car next to it in the photo above. For some reason, they decided the SD2 should look like this.

    2. Good morning David. I’ve added a second photo of the Triumph SD2 to your comment because I think the car is worthy of consideration. I really cannot decide whether it is an incoherent mess, or quirkily interesting, in the manner of the Renault 16, for example, or something from Eastern Europe. Of course, it’s absolutely not the style that would have sold well, had it replaced the Dolomite. This proposal from Pininfarina, however, would have been spot-on:

      Incidentally, the SD2’s number plate is, according to DVLA records, now on a ‘Rover Princess’ although I suppose that might be a pseudonym.

  6. What’s interesting about the Rio to me is that it sort of previewed the new Rolls-Royce look that would come in a few years. The Granada lights and RR inspired grille combo to my eyes looks quite similar to the Silver Spirit front end. Which, of course, looks much better than the Rio.

  7. The Rio puts me in mind of the Rapport Ritz and Monteverdi Sierra, where the same principle was applied. On further research, I find that each was produced in almost the same number as the Panther.

    1. Never heard of the Ritz before, looks quite interesting. The Monteverdi imo looks much more tasteful than both the Ritz and the Rio.

    2. “Interesting” is certainly one adjective that could applied to the Rapport Ritz, a Honda Accord with rather weirdly extended front and rear ends:

      The Monteverdi Sierra is a much more coherent, but larger and much more expensive, I would guess without looking into it:

  8. Like the Rolls Royce-esque looks of the Panther Rio, whether the Triumph Dolomite was a suitable basis over say an equivalent Vauxhall / Opel (e.g. Viva HC, Kadett C saloon, Ascona A, Ascona B, etc) is another question. One could say that as the Rio shared the same engine options as the regular Dolomite without any upgrades (unlike on the Vauxhall powered Lima Turbo conversion) or options to have a engine installed (e.g. Stag or Rover V8), the Panther Rio was simply not as a special as it could have been.

    Despite the rather tasteless styling cues, there is something to the retro-styled Lima and Kallista that is appealing.

    Side vents and other details notwithstanding, the Equus would appear to be the culmination of the Droop Snoot styling theme which would have not looked out of place in the 1980s.

    1. Bob

      You are right. It needed a better engine, something “more”. I reckon a US V-8 would have done the trick. If that was deemed to be too much, then a US V-6 could have sufficed.

      Equus would have been an excellent choice to have produced in some volume. Shame about that lost opportunity.

    2. J T

      Would not go as far as to say the Panther Rio needed a US-sourced V6/V8, unless we are talking specifically about the Rover V8. Even Panther opted to stick with engines that did not stray too far from the outside company’s parts bin for its models (e.g. Lima with Vauxhall sourced engines, Kallista with Ford sourced engines, etc).

      From a quick glance at what has been installed into the engine bays of the Toledo and Dolomite over the past few decades, it ranges from related Saab Turbo 4-cylinder (that appeared in the Saab 99 not long after the Rio was discontinued) and Rover V8 engines with one or a few owners even managing to fit a Stag V8 engine IIRC. Unfortunately in-house production V6 options at BL were pretty much nonexistent until infamous KV6.

      Either of those available aforementioned options for the Panther Rio would have increased the output to more than 145+ hp for the range-topper, with a Saab-inspired Turbocharged 2-litre potentially being a cross between a BMW 2002 Turbo and a downsized foreshadowing of the 1982 Bentley Mulsanne Turbo.

      https://www.rrsilverspirit.com/models/1982MulsanneTurbo.htm

  9. This morning I was reading Graham Robson’s compact volume on the Silver Spirit and Mulsanne, and one event in that car’s development was particularly pertinent to discussions above.

    In 1978, two years from production, the world was in the midst of an energy crisis and economic downturn. The US Big Three were introducing downsized, lightened cars, although still huge by rest of the world standards. At one board meeting R-R management discussed halting the ‘SZ’ development, and starting again with a smaller and lighter car.

    The iconoclastic proposal was short-lived. The resounding view of the design team was that the level of comfort and opulence expected by Rolls-Royce customers could not be achieved with anything smaller and lighter than the Shadow or the SZ. The marginally smaller Mercedes-Benz W116 and Cadillac Seville were held up as examples.

    Comfort and opulence are harder to define than just space, ride quality and noise suppression. There are matters like feelings of security and isolation, adequate but unobtrusive power, and presence – what your car says about you.

    Opulently appointed European compact saloons can do no more than emulate the visual impression. The Monteverdi Sierra was a far better effort as Chrysler’s Aspen / Volare platform was close in size to the Seville’s, itself derived from the contemporary Chevrolet Nova. As for the Rio and Ritz, the buying public saw through the ruse.

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