Panther Cars —

A small company with a big future

“I know what people say about the Kallista . . it looks like a donkey, with those big ears”, say Panther Cars’ chief executive Young C Kim, in a reference to the aluminium splayed-out wings. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what may be an ugly duckling to some is surely nostalgic and attractive to others. So much so that by July the Weybridge company had 265 orders on hand, and at a production rate of one car per day that works out at a year’s waiting list.

The company has enjoyed a remarkable turnround in the two years since Mr Kim, a South Korean industrialist, took control from the Receiver. Founded by Bob Janke!, Panther Cars Westwinds had prospered on the production of period replicas, notably the Bugatti inspired De Ville, and by putting luxury touches to Mercedes saloons for wealthy Arab customers. The Lima model, based on Vauxhall components, was a sales success but a financial disaster which drove the firm in to bankruptcy, though the Receiver was able to keep the doors open until Mr Kim came along.

Young C. Kim (the initial ‘C’ is important, because his four brothers are all named Young Kim as well!) is 44 years old, the second of five, and part of the family which controls Jindo Industries, whose diversified activities include fur processing, container manufacturing, coachbuilding, manufacturing York trailers under licence, and maintaining all the US military vehicles on Guam. With an annual turnover approaching US $125 million a year, there was clearly no limit to the potential diversification. Young C. Kim’s personal hobby is collecting interesting old cars, and it was while he was in England to attend a Sotheby’s auction that he heard about Panther Cars and went along to see the business for himself.

The steel chassis and aluminium bodies, which are pressed out then hand finished, are made in Korea in a small factory employing 38 men on a 48-hour week. The units are then shipped to England in containers, a dozen at a time, and although it costs £250 per chassis for shipment the units are still considerably cheaper than they could be made here. It is not only the price that matters, but the flexibility to make bodies and chassis in small numbers at an economic level.

Low cost is certainly a strong attraction of the Kallista, though people would not buy them just because they’re cheap. The Escort XR3 powered Kallista 1.6, at 95 bhp, costs £5,995 in Britain which is exceptionally good value — “about the same price today as the MGB was when it went out of production in 1979,” points out sales director Steve Hanlon. For another £1,000 the 2.8 litre version, using a carburated Ford V6 engine, offers substantially higher performance.

Mr Kim’s investment in Panther Cars is reputed to approach £1.5 million, a sum which would clearly be beyond the means of most British interests. Though outwardly similar to the Lima, the Kallista is substantially changed underneath, particularly in the suspension department; longer travel on the rear coil springs and altered damping means that the car has suspension, and does not lurch from bump to bump! The most significant alteration was to dispense with all the Vauxhall componentry and replace it with Ford, obtained through Ford’s Industrial Products Division. Apart from the power units themselves, the running gear includes Cortina Mk4 front suspension and brakes, a Sierra 4 or 5-speed gearbox for the 1.6 and a Granada 5-speed or auto box for the 2.8, shortened Capri prop-shafts, and Capri live axles. “Ford were exceptionally helpful, even allowing us to use their emission equipment free of charge”, says Mr Hanlon.

Interest began to build up when the Kallista was shown at the British motor show at the NEC last October, when 120 firm orders were taken, and has continued at a high level ever since. Panther do not now have any dealers, preferring to sell direct from the factory which helps to account for the low retail prices. They receive about ten enquiries each day, five or six of these being converted each week to orders, so that pressure on the production line continues to build up. Not content with that, Mr Hanlon has appointed a dealer in Dusseldorf and another in Paris, and is looking to make further appointments. A would-be distributer in America had to be disappointed, though, when he mentioned a guaranteed requirement of 3,000 can a year! One place the Kallista cannot be sold is Korea, due to a total ban on car imports. Mr Kim hopes that this ban will be wholly or partly lifted in 1985 as part of the run-up to the Olympic Games in 1988.

Having mentioned the essential changes on the Kallista, the most important outstanding item is the bodywork, which was in glass-fibre on the Lima. Aluminium is more pleasing aesthetically, and no heavier, though the reinforced doors are made of steel so as to meet European crash impact requirements, and the front air dam is made of glass-fibre simply for ease of manufacture.

At the moment Panther Cars employ 103 people, though only 15 of them are employed directly on assembly work in three teams of five. The company is recruiting now a further two teams, so that three lines will be in operation and there may even be a shift system by autumn. By this means the output should soon be doubled to 10 cars per week, “though we could sell 500 a year in the UK alone.”

Panther Cars’ customers are not going to wait for years for a new car, unlike Morgan’s traditional clientele, so the search is on for suitable premises to expand. The 35,000 square foot factory area at Weybridge, just across the road from the Brooklands track, will be expanded by a further 8,000 sq ft.

New premises will certainly be needed by 1985 when a completely new sports car appears from Panther, “on modern lines, not traditional.” The 2+2 seat prototype will be shown at the NEC in October 1984, and will again make use of existing Ford components. “We will continue to make the Kallista alongside the new car,” says Mr Kim, “but we expect our new model to appeal to a different type of customer.” The chassis will probably be made in Korea, but it seems that the bodies may be made in Britain, so the company is due for a major expansion in the next 24 months.

While the Kallista production line was being reorganised (and 49 cars had been delivered when we went to Weybridge early in July) this side of the business was obviously losing a lot of money, the mainstay then being the Mercedes conversions. Panther’s own conversion is the Presidential, based on the 500 SEL, but other “customising” work includes the Daytona, Tornado and Typhoon conversions, some using German-sourced parts. Under the supervision of Andrew Mackenzie the coachbuilding side turns out about three conversions per week on average, specialising in plush interiors with leather, Wilton, walnut burr cappings, TV, stereo, electric glass partitions, cocktail cabinets and any other Arabian whim. Some conversions are on the Range Rover, one with a Chrysler 6.9-litre engine, another with a power-operated hood, and more with six-wheel configuration and 6 x 4 drive.

The piece de resistance which is now nearing completion is a massive Bugatti inspired de ville for the Sultan of Balangor. This is the biggest car ever made by Panther, with many inches added to the already inspiring proportions, and the equipment will include twin air conditioning systems as well as every other comfort imaginable. It is taking a year rebuild and is valued at £100,000 (“paid by instalments,” says Mr Hanlon firmly), though how the Jaguar 4.2-litre engine will cope with pulling this three-ton monster around in sub-tropical conditions is hard to imagine.

Sales of conversions are all by word of mouth, one Prince showing his acquisition to another, though an agent has just landed Panther with a further £2 million worth of business. By way of a change, Panther are now preparing a special conversion on a Jaguar saloon, which will make its appearance in the autumn. While we cannot say any more, its launch will be linked with a famous London store and a prestigious Sunday newspaper! It will be interesting to see if there is a demand in this country for an all-British luxury product.

Of the future, Mr Kim uses a charming eastern proverb: “Like a bridge, you should knock it before you cross it.” As he says: “We are very conscious of our size, and we do not want to expand too quickly. Our problem is not selling the cars, but delivering them.” Of the British workers, Mr Kim says that they work to very high standards. “They are craftsmen, perfectionists . . . almost too much. I have to remind them sometimes that we are not building a Rolls-Royce!”

There is, somehow, a sharp contrast between half the workforce which is making some of the cheapest sports cars available on the British market, and the other half which is turning out the most expensive conversions imaginable for people who have little regard for expense. Presumably these two distinct operations will be physically separated when the planned expansion takes place, though Mr Kim is naturally concerned that by moving to new premises the craftsmen employed by Panther will continue to be available. The handwork element might, perhaps, stay at Byfleet supplying a pukka production line somewhere else.

Kallista impressions

In the prevailing fine weather we could understand the public interest in the Kallista, though it wouldn’t altogether explain the interest generated through the winter. Hood down, and motoring along country roads around Guildford, we could appreciate the “back to nature” appeal of a cheap, well mannered sports car which, apart from the physical differences, reminded us very much of the “frogeye” Sprite when it first came out.

Sitting 18 inches ahead of the live axle the ride is definitely not boulevard, yet colleague AH’s enduring memory of the Lima’s bone-shaking properties can now be expunged. The longer spring travel and stiffer damping allows the wheels to follow the contours rather than leap across them, and the Kallista does in fact hold the road quite well.

The steering — Escort rack and pinion — feels very direct, the non-servo brakes rather unresponsive . . but good enough for the 1.6-litre car’s performance. To be honest the 1.6 did not feel particularly quick, struggling to an indicated top speed of around 90 mph though the claimed maximum is 105 mph. To be fair the demonstrator had only 1,500 miles on the odometer and was not properly run-in, but in a car weighing 870 kg (50 kg less than an Escort XR3) we had expected the Kallista to feel more eager than it did. The aerodynamics, or lack of them, certainly would affect the maximum speed, and we would expect the car to feel more lively with an engine that had covered a few thousand miles. Character and charm would sum up the appeal of the Kallista. The 2.8-litre version, which we will test shortly, should add the ingredient of performance which the 1.6 lacked, while an injection version is under development would be, should be quicker still. — Michael Cotton