Panther Prowls in the Shadow of Brooklands

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If it is true that the old skills and pride have disappeared from the motor industry as the old craftsmen have retired and mass production has taken over, then the malaise has strangely avoided Panther West Winds, perhaps influenced by the ghost of the Byfleet Banking, decaying 100 yards or so from this young firm’s recently-acquired factory in Canada Road, Byfleet, Weybridge, Surrey.

Most readers will be aware of the Panther J72 sports car, Jaguar-powered and inspired by the SS100 and the purists will no doubt wince at being reminded of it. The founder of Panther West Winds and the car’s creator, Bob Jankel, is mildly annoyed that this should be so, stressing that his intention was not to build a replica, but a contemporary highperformance sports car in its own right, craftsman built and gaining its character and its appeal from a 1930s body style. However, that is by the way, for Motor Sport tested and argued for the Panther in 1972; since then Panther West Winds has thrived and grown considerably, has spread its wings into fields other than the J72, and can offer multifarious restoration services for any type of car. Ideas and design are Bob Jankel’s particular forte, coupled with the ability to transform ideas into successful solid fact in a remarkably short space of time. The same applies to transforming other designers’ work into metal and the most complete range of facilities at Weybridge is enabling Panther to build prototype vehicles for other manufacturers in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost it would take them to build them themselves.

Jankel’s latest creation, and the reason for our invitation to the factory (which itself has an assortment of motoring history behind it, firstly used for assembling Morris side valve engines—I wonder if any readers can enlighten us about that—later becoming the headquarters of the Cooper Car Co. and finally BMW’s service centre before Panther leased it from BMW, who in turn lease it from the owner of the freehold, one Roy Salvadori) is an exquisitely made Ferraribased two-seater, named the Panther Ferrari FF, the supreme example of Jankel’s many talents and his firm’s scope. “Once again this is not a replica”, Janke] insists. “Yes, I had the Ferrari 125S in the back of my mind, but beyond that it is purely my own design along the lines of an early 1950s sports racing car.” It is likely to be somewhat faster than the 1½-litre 125S: powered by a 350 b.h.p. net, 4-litre Ferrari V12 engine, it weighs only 17.86 cwt., which on my calculations gives a startling power to weight ratio of 392 b.h.p. per ton and obviously shattering performance, though it had yet to be driven angrily, being destined for the Geneva Motor Show the day after my visit.

The running gear of this Italian-red machine is 330 GTC, purchased direct from Modena. Jankel has modified the all-independent suspension by fitting Girling Formula One coil spring/damper units with lower spring rates than would be used on a Fl car with the result that despite the short wheelbase the ride is less choppy than a Mini. The GTC’s all-round disc brakes are retained as is the five-speed gearbox in unit with the rear axle. A maximum speed of 160 m.p.h. and 0-60 time of 4.5 sec. are estimated. The 330 GTC chassis is strengthened by a space frame and a tubular body frame gives the outline for the hand-made louvred aluminium body, for Jankel never works with glassfibre.

If ever there was a rich man’s play car, this is it. The cost is estimated at E13,500, yet for that the purchaser doesn’t even get a hood, a reflection on the expensive parts of the world this machine is expected to find a home. He does, however, get triple wiper arms in case he should be caught in a sudden thunderstorm on the way home from the beach, though he will lack waterproof clothing for there is no luggage space at all. But this car is no folly: Jankel built it at the suggestion of Herr Willi Felber, owner of Haut Performance, the Ferrari distributor and Panther dealer in Lausanne, Switzerland. Initially it was to be a one-off, but before the Geneva Show, Jankel had received already six firm orders from Felber and in fact all the initial production run has now been sold in advance. Cynics said the Panther J72 wouldn’t sell either: well over 100 have been sold to 15 different countries and though the availability of parts will restrict the total production run of the FF, obviously it will represent similarly big business.

It is some measure of the regard in which the quality of Panther’s work is held that the short-wheelbase 330 GTC chassis are to be supplied by Ferrari from brand-new stocks held at Modena, an unheard of arrangement previously, and so far no objections have been raised to the use of the prancing horse badge on the nose, suggesting that the Commendatore does not consider that Jankel is taking his name in vain. A similar respect and precedent exists within Jaguar, who supply the 4.2-litre XJ6 engines and gearboxes for the 372 and regret that because of production demands they cannot supply V12 engines for the faster J72; instead Jankel buys the V12 engine parts through a dealer and assembles them himself. That these Jaguar-engined cars won the Silver Medal in the over £5,000 coachwork class at the 1973 London Motor Show, beaten by the Daimler Limousine, but in turn beating Rolls-Royce, must have quietly impressed British Leyland and gives adequate commendation to Panther and Jankel.

Jankel, son-in-law of bandleader Joe Loss, began his career in engineering at the Chelsea College of Aeronautical and Automobile Engineering, helped found SuperSpeed conversions at Ilford and was one of the top racing Anglia drivers in the early 1960s, finishing runner-up in the 1961 British Saloon Car Championship. He moved successfully into an entirely different career in women’s fashions, but kept up his hobby of building up special versions of production cars for his own use during long winter evenings in his garage at Walton-on-Thames, a hobby which eventually led him to acquire and rebuild a Brewster-bodied Rolls-Royce Phantom II, believed to be the only example in the cbuntry, during 1970/71. I can forgive myself in my ignorance for thinking that this Rolls, which Jankel still owns and is stored in his factory, had been customised, for it looks incredibly gaudy, complete with chromed tubular bumper-bars like the Panther 372, but Jankel proved to me with contemporary photographs that this was indeed how Brewster had produced the car in the USA. It would appear that practically the only departure from standard is the inclusion of rectangular lamps behind tinted glass in the huge headlamps which Jankel copied himself on a spinning lathe from the original design, a facility which the company uses for making the P100 replica headlamp shells for the 372. This same spinning service can be offered to vintage and veteran car restorers.

The original Panther succeeded the Rolls as Jankel’s hobby, though this time the designing was included too. It was intended as a one-off for his own use, but a motor dealer who saw it ordered a replica, and Jankel, encouraged, loaned it to The Autocar for road test early in 1972, the exciting reaction from which persuaded him that a market existed for the car.

He left the fashion industry to put the Panther into production, was joined later by an accountant from the fashion firm, David Franks, his only co-director and financial director of Panther (Franks rallies a Spike Anderson-prepared Datsun 240Z in which he finished seventh overall in last year’s Sherry Rally), and the two of them began Panther as a cottage industry in a 1,000 sq. ft. garage in Weybridge. Initially all manufacture was sub-contracted out to local firms, the two doing nothing more than final assembly, even the engines being fitted elsewhere until the end of 1972. Exhibits at the London Motor Show in 1972 and the Geneva Show in 1973 brought the orders rolling in and no longer could the firm exist with a maximum space for four cars and a production of one car per week, so the move to the new factory was made last October.

Jankel and Franks realised that if they were to expand significantly and safely they must be able to rely on the sub-contracted work being completed as and when they wanted it, not when the sub-contractor found time to do it, so they embarked on a policy of taking-over the sub-contracting firms (though some chassis and bodywork continues to be sub-contracted elsewhere). So the bodywork firm, Shapecraft of Leatherhead, became Panther Shapecraft, Turpin and Hurley became Panther Screencraft and the skilled trimming is carried out by Panther Trimcraft. Indeed, only one of the firms used by Panther when still a cottage industry was not taken over and that because its quality was not considered sufficiently satisfactory. The partners see the activities of these firms as a stability measure, regarding it unwise to tie all their future to the Panther car: each company in the group continues to work as a sub-contractor to Panther West Winds building Panther cars; each is totally profit-earning in its own right and subcontracts work from outside firms and private customers too. Another novel idea is that each company has its own managing director working on the shop floor, remote from any financial involvement and responsible only for the day-to-day practical running of the company. The system seems to be working admirably.

All these facilities enable them to carry out fully comprehensive rebuilds to vintage (or any period, come to that) cars. Among commissioned projects carried out already have been the building of a replica body for a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and they have done, and can offer again, a replica touring body for a Hispano-Suiza. A rich American collector has ordered a replica Brewster drophead body to be built on a Silver Cloud I chassis for his everyday use. Rolls-Royces are indeed a speciality: Panther have a workshop elsewhere specialising in their complete mechanical rebuilds, from where they are brought to the main factory for the rebuilding of the body frames, re-wiring, trimming, painting and the manufacture •of any part which is missing—Jankel believes that no part is irreplaceable and further believes that his factory is the only place in the country where such a comprehensive service can be offered and accomplished in a very short time.

Exemplifying the amount of outside work carried out by firms within the group, one company does nothing else except make brass window frames; apart from that beautifully constructed windscreen arrangement for the J72, they produce frames for Wood and Pickett, Gilbern, have a five-year contract with Rolls-Royce to produce all the window frames for the coachbuilt Phantom VI and produce prototype frames for Aston MartinLagonda. And if readers are looking for a firm to carry out first class paintwork, Panther claim to produce possibly the finest quality in the country, finer even than Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin. It is paintwork which on the Panther J72 itself is fit for a king: of the cars under construction at the time, one was for the Sultan of Brunei and the other for the son of King Feisal.

David Franks says of Bob Jankel, “He is a genius who seems to be able to create and develop one-off cars cheaply and incredibly quickly. He’s the only perfectionist I know who, while maintaining his standards, can build things quickly by the easiest and simplest method.” Thus it was that the Panther Ferrari FF took a mere nine weeks from the flickering of an idea to completion and despatch to the Geneva Show. It is an ability which Janke’ hopes to extend upon, offering a prototype service which he believes has never been available in this country before: from design to production under one roof in a matter of weeks. He claims that Panther have the capabilities to make the first car off a real production car, not a rough prototype, so that in so doing, all the jigs and so on can be made for immediate production of the replicas, as with the Ferrari.

His immediate plans are to build a new generation of all-independent suspension chassis based on the Jaguar XJ series, of which his first version, the Lazer, four seats wide, a sort of futuristic, Jaguar-engined beach-buggy, “a real car for the young and gay in the South of France”, is taking shape already. Next will come a four-seater GT car on the same chassis, but beyond that Jankel has some quite revolutionary ideas along limousine lines, notably the Royale, a 1930s style saloon on a new chassis with an adjustable wheelbase to take different bodies, sophisticated, quiet and fast with six or twelve cylinders and full of every modern convenience and luxury. He foresees, too, a more modern design on the same chassis aimed at mid-way between the Silver Cloud and the Silver Shadow to be acceptable to the public as a new, production car rather than a gimmick and with this series will come a distinctive grille as a symbol of Panther West Winds. These ideas will become fact sooner than one might expect, for these are Bob Jankel’s ideas, a man who doesn’t know the meaning of pipe-dreams. Firstly another idea is to be put into practice: a Weberised, 350 b.h.p. Jaguar XJ12, with a manual gearbox, two-speed axle (no overdrive will stand the torque), special coachwork, trim and wheels.

As a perfectionist, Jankel is obsessed with craftsmanship and unlike most of the industry he is not prepared to sit back and let such talent disappear. A few older craftsmen are employed at Panther and with their help he is trying to re-enact the skills of the old craftsmen with the youngsters to create a new generation of skills. His success is shown in that he has been able to appoint a 21-year-old production manager. “Nobody else has all these old-timers’ skills under one roof and there must be a tremendous market available.”—C.R.

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