Road Impressions - The Panther Lima

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A stylish and exhilarating, hand-built sports car on Vauxhall Magnum running gear

Panther’s Bob Jankel is frequently accused of building replica cars in the case of his De Ville and J72, a charge which he denies whilst admitting appropriate inspiration. No suggestion of plagiarism can be launched against him for his latest offering, however: the Panther Lima two-seater open sports car is a joyful mish-mash of so many things that were nice before the War and, in the perimeter shape, if not content, of its beautifully fabricated, anodised aluminium, chip-cutter radiator grille, of the Jaguar XK of the post-war era. Yet in chassis behaviour it is a match for most modern sports cars, achieved by using the complete suspension components from the good handling Vauxhall Magnum. This delightful, Vauxhall 2300-powered sports car is Jankel’s idea of a Panther for the … er, well, masses at £4,999 and upwards: at least it is within reach of a rather larger section of the motoring public than his Jaguar-based £15-£33,000 offerings.

Jankel’s original idea for the Lima was to use a Spitfire chassis and one of the Triumph engine range for the running gear. Leyland refused to co-operate, but a chance mention of the scheme to Vauxhall engineers, for whom Panther Westwinds Ltd. do a surprising amount of prototype work, brought a keen show of interest. The result was that Janke re-designed the car around Magnum components, which he buys direct from Luton. Into the bargain, Vauxhall gave permission for Vauxhall dealers to sell the Lima, Who will find no more difficulty servicing it than the family saloons they are used to.

This may be a cheaper Panther, but the finish is nonetheless exquisite, as it needs to be, for it is one of the most eye-catching cars on the road at any price and comes in for an extraordinary amount of close examination when parked anywhere. In fact we were almost embarrassed by the attention paid to the startling yellow and black road-test car: truly a car for those who like to be seen.

Not only did the test-car look like a wasp, it stung like one, thanks to £700 worth of DTV Sportsparts tuning equipment attached to its o.h.c. four-cylinder engine. Two twinchoke Dell’Orto carburetters, a big-valve cylinder head, the exhaust manifold fitted to the droop-snoot Firenza, a Group 11-type camshaft and Lumenition electronic ignition contrived to stretch the standard engine’s 108 b.h.p. DIN to about 160 b.h.p. So, though PAN 10 wasn’t so quick as the last Panther we drove with that number on, a V12 J72 carrying a stack of downdraught Webers, which contrived to split its water pump before we were able to test it properly, this particular Lima had shattering acceleration, with a 0-60 time of well under 7 sec., 0-100 in the low 20 sec. area and enough torque from the lusty engine to ensure that such performance was spread across the range.

The curvaceous bonnet, the long, flowing wings joined by traditional running-boards, the rounded tail which carries the vulnerable spare wheel, are all formed from very substantial gauge, flawless glassfibre. This remarkable bodywork is mounted upon a very cleverly adapted steel Vauxhall Magnum floor pan, upon which is welded a tubular and sheet steel superstructure. Leyland, in spite of their initial disinterest, do contribute the MG Midget steel doors, complete with wind-up windows, quarter-lights, handles and mechanism; a lack of availability thanks to a Leyland strike delayed Lima production for a couple of months.

The suspension units arrive ready assembled from Vauxhall, though Panther change the springs and dampers. At the front there is an unequal-length wishbone arrangement and at the rear a live axle located by four links and sitting on coil springs. All the standard pick-up points on the Magnum floor pan are used. The engine is moved back several inches relative to the floor pan for improved weight distribution, which necessitates shortening the propshaft and fitting an extension linkage to the gearchange. Limas can be had with four-speed manual or GM automatic gearboxes, or a few five-Speed ZF gearboxes are available for after-sale fitment.

As if to Jankel’s special order, the dull, damp summer gave way to hot, cloudless weather for exactly the duration of the test, making the Lima an ideal car for idyllic conditions. Forgive us then if our enthusiasm for the car had no opportunity to be tempered, maybe, by draughts and daintiness, for the clip-on hood, located by Lift-the-Dot fasteners, looks as if its performance might be as traditional as the styling, albeit without flapping side-screens. The hood sticks pull in half and furl, with the hood, in the boot. A tonneau cover, rather a necessary item, is a £49 extra.

Boot?. Yes, contrary to appearances there is a boot, of 6 cu. ft., entered inconveniently from behind the seats, which tip up to give access. A reasonableamount of soft, shallow baggage can he accommodated, given long arms to fish it out of the depths. Beneath this is a 10-gallon fuel tank, gauged by a Vauxhall instrument with an initially lazy needle which accelerates frighteningly below half full. Too much London traffic use, taking advantage of the Blydenstein-influenced acceleration, brought consumption down to below 18 m.p.g.,. improving to the low 20s in more favourable, fast conditions.

With the hood off, this is an easy car to climb into by sports car standards. The seating position is high, the top of the shallow, aluminium-framed, flat screen low and the rear-view mirror attached to the screen (there are two additional door mirrors) hampered this writer’s vision round left-hand curves. The snug-fitting bonnet stretches into the far distance, for the occupants are shoved back towards the rear axle; this is not a hazard for navigation. Cibie halogen headlamps in separate pods flank the grill.

The facia strikes an unfortunate jarring note: a Magnum binnacle, comprehensively instrumented, sits in the middle and is angled towards the driver, but out of his convenient line of vision. A stack of Magnum warning lights looks like an afterthought ahead of the wheel and is matched on the passenger side by an ungainly pull-out ash-tray; a glove locker would have been much more convenient, for there is nowhere to secure valuables.

The floor area is nicely carpeted and the seats have a leather centre section, for which a different colour can be specified. In fact the test car’s comfortable bucket seats were prototypes, offering better lateral location than the current production ones. This test Panther vied with the Caterharn Seven for handbrake inaccessibility: positioned on the passenger floor in this ease! Jankel is working on a more convenient arrangement Inertia reel seat belts are rendered almost ineffective by their angle of operation and fight with the tonneau cover—some roof thought is needed there.

Vauxhall column switches are tucked away behind a splendid, thick-rimmed, 14-in, leather and alloy Motolita steering wheel. One switch affords two speeds for the tiny wiper blades and an electric screen wash; the other activates the winkers, horn, dip and flash. There is a pull-out light master switch on the column and a flick switch for the motor of the crude Smiths recirculatory heater.

No choke was required for cold starting a few pumps on the right-hand pedal ensured that the engine fired first time. Hot starting of this “hot” engine was less satisfactory several churns being necessary, embarrassini when ogling crowds are awaiting your departure. Beyond that point this big four-pot was sheer bliss, with barely a hiccup even if the throttle was floored from 1,200 r.p.m. a speed at which it would laze along in to though such treatment would not be adviseable regularly.

With a “whoomph” in the small of the back, a blaring bellow from the exhaust and Dell’Ortos, this exhilarating projectile whistled up to 40 in first, 60 in second, 90 in third and close on 120 in top, the last with less alacrity, for the aerodynamics of this Panther, with the optional spoiler, were akin to that brick building of notoriety. More staggering than standing-start acceleration, which was accompanied by shrieking wheelspin, was the magnificent performance available in third and top gears. Even with the wind howling round one’s ears (and back-draught was less than in many open cars), this athletic Lima was deceptive in the impression of speed it offered. You thought you were doing 70 m.p.h. or so, only to discover that 95 to 100 m.p.h. was dialled up on the Vauxhall speedometer.

The Vauxhall gearchange would gain no prizes for being the best available, but if anything the Panther linkage extension has improved it. The lever is a little bit redolent of a magic wand, but the synchromesh is effective and on the test car the ratios were reasonably well matched to the characteristics of the tuned engine. However, the cable-operated clutch was heavy and the throttle a trifle stiff, a little bit tiresome when, matched to the tuned engine in heavy traffic. The pedals and pedal box are Magnum and not ideally suited to a sports car footwell layout.

Performance is one thing —and certainly in the seventies, and not the thirties, style— but which age does its chassis behaviour live in? Not, fortunately, in the age which the whine at low speed in second gear would suggest, a noise which VSCC members would find familiar! On a dry, smooth, winding road, the handling was utterly exhilarating, with good steering response through the Vauxhall rack-and-pinion and a high degree of roadholding from the Michelin XZS tyres on the optional bolt-on Dunlop chrome wire wheels. In such conditions this Lima could be thrown around with abandon, using the power to overcome the inherent understeer and inspire some oversteer. It felt heavy and less nimble than the little Caterham Seven we tested a year or two ago but justified the reason for its existence—unadulterated fun.

In less perfect conditions the Lima showed up less satisfactorily, bucking around over bumpy roads and bottoming its rear suspension on humps, to the discomfort of the occupants, seated almost over the axle. Slow speed work around town was hampered a little by restricted elbow room, for cockpit width is restricted by the use of runningboards, and low-geared steering.

Another advantage of the Vauxhall components is that they include the Magnum’s servo-assisted brakes, with 10-in, front discs and 9-in, rear drums designed to stop a vehicle rather heavier than the Lima’s 17 cwt. Stopping power is consequently tremendous and the pedal good in feel and progression.

That the Lima has shortcomings cannot be denied, but people will accept shortcomings for the sake of fun. That the Lima is fun cannot be denied either and we were filled with admiration for the workmanship and the exhilaration the car offered. It is no more basic than the Morgan, while being more comfortable. It is also available for purchase without a two-year waiting list, yet is hand-built in Byfleet at the rate of only eight cars per week. The construction ensures longevity, mechanical parts are available at sensible cost from Vauxhall dealers. While not being so versatile as sports cars such as the Alfa Romeo 2000 Spider Veloce we reported on last month, it is not out of the question as everyday transport, certainly for the younger generation of drivers. For the well-heeled old it could be a summer-time tonic.—C.R.