Cat of a Different Colour (Part Three)

Concluding the story of Panther.

1987 Panther Solo 2. Image: carligious.com

There is little doubt that the model for which Panther is best if perhaps unfairly remembered today is the extraordinary and quite ridiculous Six. This monster of a car was developed in complete secrecy and unveiled at the London Earls Court Motorfair in October 1977 to an incredulous and astonished audience. The name refers to the number of road wheels it featured, four 13” steered wheels at the front and two 16” driven wheels at the rear. It was powered by a 500 cu.in. (8.2-litre) V8 engine from the Cadillac Eldorado, mounted over the rear wheels(1) and connected to a three-speed automatic transmission. The engine’s maximum power output had been boosted to a claimed but never proven 600bhp (447kW) by installing twin turbochargers.

The Six was supposedly inspired by the similarly configured 1976 Tyrrell P34 Formula 1 racing car. In Tyrrell’s case, the four small 10” front wheels were intended to minimise drag by tucking in completely behind the car’s width-restricted(2) front wing, while still having the same grip of two conventional larger and wider front wheels by virtue of their four contact patches with the road. None of these restrictions applied to Panther’s road car, so the rationale for the layout appeared flimsy if not non-existent(3).

The Six was nominally pitched against Italian supercars such as the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer, but Jankel also wanted it to be untempremental and easy to drive, hence the choice of a powerful but robust and well proven drivetrain. Likewise, the chassis was a relatively unsophisticated affair, built from heavy gauge square-section steel tubing. The rear suspension was from the (front of the) Eldorado, the front from the Vauxhall Magnum, doubled up, of course. Bizzarely for such a powerful car with a claimed top speed in excess of 200mph (323km/h), the Six was formatted as a two-seater convertible. It was still enormous, 192” (4,877mm) long, 80” (2,032mm) wide and just 48” (1,219mm) tall. Its claimed weight of 2,870lbs (1.3 Tonnes) made it much heavier than its Italian competitors.

1977 Panther Six. Image: topcarrating.com

In styling the Six, Jankel leant on his relationship with Vauxhall and enlisted the help of Wayne Cherry and Geoff Lawson. The resulting car was smoothly curvaceous and certainly impressive, but rather cartoonish at the same time, resembling a beached whale. At the car’s launch, Jankel insisted that it was not a gimmick to attract publicity but a serious proposal for a production car. Despite all the attention it generated, however, the detail engineering work to make the car properly roadworthy was never completed and only two prototypes were ever built.

Panther had seriously overstretched itself financially in attempting to move into the mainstream sports car market with the Lima, and the company fell into receivership in 1980. Its assets were bought by the South Korean Jindo Corporation, run by businessman and entrepreneur, Young Chull Kim. A new legal entity, the Panther Car Company, was formed, which re-employed 75 of the former 200-strong workforce. Small-scale production of the J72, De Ville and Lima restarted and work began on designing a replacement for the latter(4). The company also undertook lucrative work in building stretched and/or armoured versions of Mercedes-Benz and Range Rover models for Middle East clients.

In 1982, the Lima roadster was replaced by the Kallista, a deceptively similar looking but entirely different car, now featuring Ford rather than Vauxhall mechanicals. A steel chassis and aluminium body was built by Jindo in South Korea and exported to the UK for assembly. A 3½” (89mm) stretch in the wheelbase improved cockpit space and allowed easier entry and egress through wider doors(5). A curved, rather than flat, windscreen is an easy recognition point for the new model(6). The new body had bolt-on wings for easier and cheaper repair. Impressively, the build time for the Kallista was cut to 70 man-hours, compared with 160 for the Lima.

The front suspension was double wishbones and coil springs, taken from the Cortina Mk 4. At the rear, a Capri live axle was mated with a four-link layout with a Panhard rod. Brakes and rack and pinion steering were also sourced from the Cortina. Engines were either the 1.6-litre inline-four from the Escort XR3 producing 95bhp (71kW) or the 2.8-litre V6 from the Granada(7) producing 135bhp (101kW), mated to a Sierra four-speed or Granada five-speed gearbox.

1982 Panther Kallista. Image: pistonheads.com

The savings in labour costs, coupled with the good deal Panther negotiated on the Ford mechanicals, allowed the Kallista to be priced very competitively. The smaller engined variant cost from £5,850. The V6 cost £6,800 in manual form or £7,500 with the optional automatic transmission. Its most obvious competitor, the Morgan Plus Eight, cost almost £3,000 more.

Interest in the new car was such that Panther decided to increase production capacity to eight cars per week. This required additional manufacturing space, so a five-year lease was taken out on a 40,000 sq.ft. (3,716m2) factory premises on the nearby Brooklands Industrial Park.

Despite being a significantly better car than the Lima, the fashion for retro sports cars was waning and sales of the Kallista never met expectations. Its best year was 1984, when 401 were delivered to customers. Panther returned to the US market in 1985 but sales were hampered by a poor choice of engine, a carburettor-fed 2.3-litre unit from the Ford Mustang that produced only 88bhp (66kW). Over nine years, total sales of the Kallista were 1,686 units.

Panther underwent another change of ownership in February 1987, with 80% of its shares sold to the Ssangyong Group. Young C Kim initially remained as chairman and retained a 20% stake in the company. With faltering sales of the Kallista, Panther was also preparing for a radical change of direction and unveiled its Solo 2(8) prototype at the Frankfurt motor show in September of that year.

1990 Panther Solo 2. Image: drive-my.com

The Solo 2 was a contemporary looking mid-engined 2+2 sports car with a 2.0-litre engine from the Ford Sierra RS Cosworth and a 4WD drivetrain using components from the Sierra XR4x4. The body styling was by Ken Greenley and the Solo’s innovative composite construction comprised a steel lower spaceframe and aluminium honeycomb upper structure to which was bonded GRP inner and outer skins. The Cd was measured at 0.33. One unique aspect of the design were cowls that rotated on a longitudinal axis to reveal or conceal the headlamps.

Front suspension used MacPherson struts. At the rear was an arrangement of unequal double wishbones and coil springs. The Solo 2 used ABS brakes from the Granada 4×4 and unassisted rack and pinion steering from the Sierra.

Car Magazine pictured the Solo on the cover of its October 1987 issue and heralded it as “the most important British sports car since the E-type Jaguar”. In an extensive sixteen-page feature(9), the magazine lauded the innovative design and engineering that had been incorporated into the new car.

Sadly, the magazine’s unalloyed optimism and enthusiasm for the Solo 2 would come to nothing. Panther was simply overwhelmed by the difficulties in making such a complex car fit for series production and sale. Somewhere between 12 and 25 Solos were built before production of both it and the Kallista ceased in the Autumn of 1990 and Panther’s UK operations were closed down. Ssangyong attempted to revive production of the Kallista in modified form in South Korea, but the project was not a success and only 78 cars were built.

Robert Jankel bought back the rights to the Panther name in 2001 and was working on a new car, to be produced in the US, when he sadly passed away in 2005. The eclectic range of cars Panther produced over three decades certainly left a unique mark on the automotive landscape and Jankel deserves to be remembered fondly for his contribution.

 

(1) The Eldorado was front-wheel-drive, so it was quite straightforward to mount it instead over a driven rear axle. The only drawback was that the engine and transmission’s centre of gravity was quite high and sat behind the rear axle line.

(2) Contemporary F1 regulations dictated a maximum front wing width of 1.5 metres.

(3) Moreover, the P34 only achieved a single win, at the 1976 Swedish Grand Prix, and the design was scrapped after an uncompetitive season in 1977.

(4) Vauxhall was in the midst of a wholesale integration of its business with Opel and had lost interest in the Lima venture.

(5) The Lima had used doors from the MG Midget.

(6) The Kallista instead used the windscreen from the MG Midget.

(7) Carburettor-fed rather than fuel injected, on cost grounds.

(8) The earlier Solo 1 prototype was a smaller and much simpler mid-engined two-seater with a Ford 1.6-litre engine from the Fiesta XR2 and glass-fibre bodywork. The arrival of the Toyota MR2 in 1984 had scuppered its prospects, so it was abandoned.

(9) Which was so uncritical as to read suspiciously like a paid-for advertorial.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

11 thoughts on “Cat of a Different Colour (Part Three)”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. Thanks for the series about Panther. I think I’ve only seen a Panther once, a Kallista in Germany. When launched I remember being quite impressed by the Solo 2. The headlights were the main attraction for me, but Opel did something similar with the GT earlier.

    I am not sure if it’s true, but I’ve heard it said the Solo 2 came with only one option: the ashtray. The Korean owner was a chainsmoker and he didn’t want any of his customers to develop the same habit. I wonder what Archie Vicar would write about that.

  2. It is interesting to compare the Panther Solo 2 with Ford’s own stillborn SHO V6-powered GN34 project (with later plans to fit AWD and a DOHC Modular V8), cannot really say how the Solo could have been improved to increase its prospects (possibly a drift back to a more viable 2-seater like the Solo 1) or if Panther would have been better served pursuing another project for the upcoming decade.

    Seem to recall an official (?) tuning package for the Sierra Cosworth engine used by the Solo that increased output to 250 hp, yet the Solo in its current form would have probably benefited to some degree from a similar spec 6-cylinder as the SHO V6 instead of a turbocharged 4-cylinder.

    1. It’s a development mule for the Solo. Doesn’t look that much worse than the final product

    2. Not disputing the Solo was in need of visual improvement, just that it seems styling alone would have not been enough to save it when another areas of the car obviously needed more work (the Solo’s late-80s launch was also at an inopportune time).
      https://www.below-the-radar.com/panther-solo-2/

      Other engine options said to have been considered were a (possibly turbocharged) 3.9 Rover V8, a twin-turbo engine that may or may not have been a development of the Cosworth YB and in the 1995 Panther Solo III by SsangYong a 220 hp 3.2 Mercedes-Benz M104.

  3. Regarding the CAR Magazine feature about the Solo 2 in the October 1987 issue “which was so uncritical as to read suspiciously like a paid-for advertorial”: a couple of years later, in the November 1989 issue, Gavin Green, then CAR Magazine editor, starts his “Agenda” with “CAR has been closely involved with the Panther Solo. Too closely perhaps”. Keep reading and he says “Steve Cropley (CAR editor in mid ´80s) and I became more involved with the Solo than with the development of any new car”.
    Gavin also explains that after the Solo 1 was killed, he and Cropley were visiting Panther´s headquarter to see how the Solo 2 project was going and driving prototypes, so they were still involved in Panther. That enthusiasm and personal commitment can justify their lack of objetivity.
    But when he compares the Solo 2 with the Esprit Turbo SE, after criticizing the build quality, performance and price, his conclusion about the Solo 2 wasn´t so glowing.

    1. Hi b234r. Very interesting. Thanks for drawing our attention to the admission.

    2. awhen the Solo was bad in comparison with a Lotus then it was truly awful…

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