New cars: Panther Solo 2

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Going solo

Young Chul Kim will have owned Panther Cars for ten years by the time the first Solo 2 goes on sale, and it is quite remarkable how much publicity has been generated by his company in the meantime based on low-volume production of the period-piece Kallista, and the show-car promise of Solo 1 and Solo 2.

The latter is still at least a year away, and a long decade of “hype” aided and abetted by some sections of the motoring press will be replaced by some realities. As yet Solo 2, which made its debut at the Frankfurt Show in September, lacks some vital elements, but the programme is undoubtedly speeding up and the first customer should drive away from the new, factory in Harlow, Essex, in April 1989 if all goes well.

A great deal of work needs to be completed before the first customer cars go down the line. Car number one, the show car, had been tested at Vauxhall’s Millbrook track without a body, timed at an almost unbelievable 150 mph. The first pre-production prototype was due for completion at the end of November, and nine more will have to be built for international certification. That involves front, side and rear crash-tests, angled impacts, seat-belt fixing tests, legality checks and, for some markets, emission certification .

In January Panther will start to move from Brooklands to 76,000 sq ft industrial premises in Harlow. The move should be completed by June, and six months later the first customer cars will go down the line.

After Frankfurt and the London Motorfair no fewer than 88 people had paid a £500 deposit, acts of faith which buoyed the morale of Kim and his enthusiastic staff.

The management team now has a solid look which was not always apparent before. Kim is firmly in control, as ever, but now has an impressive managing director in Mike Newman, a Ford-trained engineering graduate with useful experience on the management side as well. At his side are engineering manager Ian Simmons and sales manager Alan Collins.

And what decided Newman to leave the Perry Group, where he had been engineering director for seven years? “The challenge,” he laughed. “The opportunities here are simply enormous, and the future is very exciting.”

Much of the Solo’s mystique, and one can only call it that at present, lies in the stunning styling executed by Ken Greenley, who was virtually unknown outside the motor industry until that day in October 1984 when Solo 1 appeared in Birmingham.

Since then he and his partner, John Heffernan, have been involved with the Bentley 90 concept-car and are now designing the next generation Aston Martin, due late in 1988. Greenley says that while they work together they tend to specialise: “The Solo is more my design, the Aston Martin will be more John’s.”

Greenley finds it stimulating to work with a small, flexible company like Panther. “We really started again with Solo 2 about two years ago, and one of the nicest things about this project has been Panther’s co-operation. Usually it takes ages for a design to be approved, but Mr Kim looked at what I had to offer, said `fine’ and went ahead. It was a rush to build the car in time for Frankfurt, but it appeared within about 15 months and that must be some sort of record.”

March Engineering and its subsidiary company in materials, Comtec, have proved invaluable partners in producing the bodywork, which is composite sandwich of epoxy resin, aluminium honeycomb and woven, reinforced glass cloth. Carbon fibre is used extensively (the dashboard, for instance, is distinctively made of this material, which Kim insisted was so positive that it should not be trimmed) and Kevlar is used in the key areas where higher strength is needed, in body mountings, safety regions and wheel arches.

March and Panther are particularly proud of the Formula One-style crash-protection structures at the front of the chassis. “They’re about half the size of an attaché case,”, says Comtec’s David Reeves, “but they easily exceed all current and projected safety requirements.”

The ABS brake system is mounted at the front, along with the full-size spare wheel and mechanisms for the intriguing headlamp system. The quarter-century system of raising and lowering sportscar lamps must be dated by Greenley’s application, which rolls the pods through a longitudinal 17-deg arc and hardly affects the airflow.

When the lamps are tucked away, Solo 2’s drag coefficient is 0.33, tested and proven in March’s one-third scale model wind tunnel at Brackley. March aerodynamicist Tino Belli was involved in refining the shape with Greenley, and they reckon the figure could be no lower while achieving positive downforce, measured at 32.8 lb at the front and 82.1 lb at the rear at 150 mph.

The underside is perfectly smooth and Greenley says the grip is substantially greater when the normal 6in ground clearance is halved, “so it’s very promising as a track car too.” The prototype has achieved a lateral 0.92g on fairly skinny Goodyear Eagle tyres, which are 195/70 VR 15 on 6J alloy rims front and rear.

Solo 1 was engineered by former Ford GT40 designer Len Bailey with a steel platform chassis, and a Ford Escort XR3i engine (rated at 105 bhp) located transversely behind the cabin. It had a four-wheel drive system too, and Kim envisaged that it would go into production in 1985 priced at around £12,000.

However, 1985 was an eventful year. Production did not start, Bailey quit the project and was replaced by resident engineer John Canvin, and then the Toyota MR2 came upon the scene and virtually killed Solo 1 stone dead . The Japanese product was just too close in performance style and appeal, and was perhaps 25% less expensive too.

“I think Young was extremely courageous to admit that the market was too tough”, says Newman, who was then taking an active interest in Panther. “He saw that changes would have to be made, and although finance was undoubtedly tight he initiated a complete redesign which would take Solo 2 a long way upmarket.”

The decision involved making Solo 2 larger, much more powerful and considerably more expensive, moving it into the “supercar” class where pricing is of secondary importance. Canvin, who is no longer with the company, extended the wheelbase by 3.7in to 99.6in and the width by 2in to 70in; the front and rear body sections were elongated so that the length went up from 155.7in to 171in.

Despite the greater use of lightweight materials the weight rose from a rather optimistic 850kg to an estimated 1100kg (2425 lb); to put the first figure into perspective, Ford was unable to weigh the RS200 rally car, with 4WD, below 1000kg. The chassis was completely redesigned, now consisting of a mixture of tubular and sheet steel for the centre section, and outriggers for the engine and suspensions; the engine, as we know, is the 204 bhp Ford Sierra Cosworth turbo 2-litre unit, though provision is made for installing a V6, probably Ford’s, for emission controlled markets.

The power-unit is angled 8° from the longitudinal axis, so that the Borg-Warner T5 manual transmission can sit alongside, transferring torque directly to the rear wheels and via a transfer box, and Ferguson system viscous couplings, to the front.

Part of the transformation has included “plus two” seating, though space in the rear is extremely limited. It is good enough for toddlers though, and paraphernalia, and would enable an achieving couple to keep their sportscar when children enter their lives.

The cockpit is larger, and more comfortable than Solo 1’s, but it has the “glove-fit” feel once enjoyed by Lotus Elan owners. The front wheel-arch appears to take up half the pedal box area, yet the pedals seem to be in the right place for large-size shoes.

The Momo steering wheel is leather-bound and near arm’s length, and the driver is faced with instruments having black figures on silver backgrounds, the largest being the 7000 rpm tachometer in the centre, flanked by the speedometer and minor gauges for oil pressure, water temperature, battery condition and boost pressure.

It would be appropriate to present driving impressions, but unfortunately Solo 2 lacked important components such as pistons, connecting rods and gear linkage. Some journals have presented impressions based on the merest acquaintance … Solo 1 was pushed past a camera in 1984, and that made a big story!

Solo 2 was driven by a lucky few at 30 mph before despatch to Frankfurt. It could not go any faster because the body was not attached to the chassis, so proper appraisal will have to wait until sometime in 1988. I did drive Solo 1 last year and found it crude and uncomfortable — but what should I have expected from an engineering prototype?

We can conclude that the Panther Solo project has received rather more than its fair share of publicity in the past three years, considering the lack of independent driving experience. Until now some people have remained sceptical, but the realistic and speeded-up development of Solo 2 in the past 18 months, in the capable hands of an enthusiastic team, gives the project more credence. It is now safe to say that a pocket-size supercar is in the making, and that it may deserve a few of the superlatives already attached to it.

When Comtec has completed the first 30 body sets, production will switch to Panther’s control at Harlow, and in 1989 production will build up gradually to a maximum of 600 units per year. The predicted price is in the region of £28,000 tax-paid, a little above the price of the Lotus Esprit Turbo and the Porsche 944S.

The Kallista will continue in production at a rate of 300 units per year, and the latest news is that Solo 1 may, after all, be put into production at a later date. The projected price is “£15,000 to £18,000”, deliberately a wide and vague bracket since it is not even decided which power-unit to use, though it will not have four-wheel drive nor, presumably, any exotic materials in the construction.

Young Chul Kim’s real money-spinner, in the long run, should be the development and European production of Ssanyong’s Dong-A Korando off-road vehicle, which Kim immediately renamed Stampede.

The current projection is for Panther to produce 2000 Stampedes a year for European markets, while Dong-A will run higher volumes for other world markets. Panther will select a suitable engine and develop the entire vehicle, and Kim certainly hopes in future to sell engineering services to the Far East.

After a decade of marking time, Panther looks set at last to become a serious manufacturer of leisure vehicles and sports cars. If the Harlow factory reaches a production level of 4000 per annum in the early 1990s, Mr Kim’s company will, indeed, be a force to be reckoned with. MLC