Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Panther Solo

This is a story very close to my heart, having worked for Panther Cars and being trained as a car upholsterer while helping with development of the Solo 2.

The story begins a few years earlier though. Bob Jankel had started Panther Westwings after requests for some of his somewhat eccentric designs led to small scale production runs. Although the Panther 6 and J70 took the headlines, the most successful model by far was the Vauxhall based Lima 1930's style two-seater. This evolved into the Aluminium bodied Kallista, using more Ford components.

Around this time Korean industrialist Y. C. Kim bought the company and started work on a modern mid-engined  2-seater designed by Ken Greenwood who was head of vehicle design at The Royal College of Design.

With the Ford 1600 CVH engine mounted to a steel chassis and clothed in Greenley's beautiful body it looked set to be a popular alternative to the new Toyota MR2.

Both the press and public alike were enthusiastic, and it looked all set to be the beginning of a bright future for the company.

Yet at the last minute Y. C. Kim took a test drive in the rival Toyota MR2 and decided that little Panther with the Solo couldn't compete with the might of Toyota and it's excellent free revving sports car. Development of the Solo was halted.

Ken Greenley was asked to stretch the design into a bigger supercar. The theory being that the more expensive car would be more profitable per unit and secure the company's reputation alongside brands such as Lotus with it's Esprit.

Starting again at such a late stage would have expensive consequences. The press were impatient, wanting to have a date when production of the Solo would begin, So the company responded by taking a show car to let everyone see the new 2+2 layout to be powered by a longitudinally mid-mounted Cosworth turbo from the Ford Sierra.

This merely intensified pressure to bring the car to market and fatal mistakes were made as the costs mounted. Instead of simplifying the design from what was essentially a body buck on wheels the design of the bodywork evolved from this and an ever more complex multitude of panels morphed from the initial buck to the prototypes.

Exotic Kevlar was used for the main central tub atop a steel backbone floorpan to create an incredibly stiff structure. The running gear was further complicated by the decision to include four wheel drive from the Sierra Xr4x4 as well as the Cosworth engine, which was mounted to one side to accommodate the drivetrain.

Unfortunately for Panther the 4x4 system had not been mated to the turbocharged turbo engine by Ford and at great cost the small manufacturer was forced to develop the upgrade to allow the 4x4 system to cope.

Y. C. Kim sold a majority share in the company to Korean giant Ssangyong who were looking for a flagship brand to help build the image of their expanding car range.

The company moved to a new factory in Essex with only a handful of their previous production line employees making the move across from Surrey, so a whole new set of production workers needed training to produce the Kallista while a small team continued development of the Solo.

The press continued to push for a production date, management made promises, took deposits, before turning to the engineers and telling them to get on with it, rather than asking if it was possible first.

Ford, grateful for the development on their 4x4 system went on to use the system on the new Sierra Cosworth 4x4, while Panther struggled on with their complicated Supercar.

Eventually four prototypes were built, chassis number 3 was yellow, 4 red, 5 blue and 6 silver, if memory serves me right. Number 3 was the development hack which covered many miles, but word came back that the grip, ride and handling were exemplary. The work in wind tunnels resulted in an impressive 0.33 CD with positive downforce by now.

I remember being taken right up to the transporter in the red prototype upside down fitting an under dash carpet to the car after yet another 29 hour motor show shift. It was among the most rewarding times of my life though.

The red car, if I remember right was initially dogged by minor glitches, the swiveling headlights were one and other electrical maladies another time. The blue car fared a bit better and that is the car most of the written press drove, but Top Gear got the red car and Noel Edmonds was brought in to drive it taking exception to the offset driving position. He seemed less than impressed. The other press were a little kinder, although we at the factory knew these were little more than prototypes.

There was so much to like about the car, but just like the four cylinder Esprit comments were made about the even gruffer sounding Cosworth power plant not befitting a potential Ferrari rival. The 140mph top speed was not competitive either. The handling and ride were indeed praised but we all felt it needed another 12 months of development as well as a bigger engine.
(The middle pages from the Solo2 brochure)

The yellow prototype was modified back to 2 wheel drive, with a Rover V8 and everyone was raving about it who had driven the beasty. My only experiences were a couple of rides in the red prototype which will stay embedded in my memory to this day! I remember the incredible sense of solidity which is hard to explain unless you've experienced it.
(I still have a copy of this poster)

My part of the story ends here. I decided to leave Panther just as the first production cars were being put together. Only 12 Solos were built before the factory closed its doors. I would dearly love to drive one someday or better still own one by some miracle.

Ken Greenley was to go on to become head of design for Ssangyong, leading the team behind the Korando, Musso and other... classics. The importer once told me he tried to persuade them to import the cars using the Panther name. I'm relieved they didn't.

The Solo was reborn as an updated show car but disappeared among a lot of rhetoric from pundits about an overdue, under-developed car, non of whom could have an idea of the true story of that lost supercar.

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(All links on this blog are my own and safe to use. Photo's are lifted from the internet but can be removed if copyright is felt to be breached)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The First McLaren Road Car (and it's replicas)

Bruce McLaren wasn't just an incredible racing driver, but a great engineer in his own right and his name lives on in the McLaren race and road cars.

Many think the incredible McLaren F1 designed by Gordon Murray and built by the current regime was the first McLaren road car, but there was one way back that is incredibly beautiful and has inspired several magnificent replicas.

The original McLaren M6a was a racing car built by Bruce McLaren and his Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Team to replace the teams M1B's in the American Can Am series. In 1967 this Chevrolet powered machine brought the team their first of several Can Am series championships.

When the M6a was replaced by the M8a for the 1968 season, McLaren and technical partner Trojan developed the M6B as a customer car for other teams in Can Am and other racing series.

The M6 name resurfaced again as the M6GT, a closed-cockpit racing prototype for the Le Mans 24 Hours and other endurance races.

However, the homologation process for the FIA's Group 4 regulations wasn't completed and McLaren and Trojan were left with a handful of prototypes on their hands.

Two cars were converted to road cars, and one of those became Bruce McLaren's own personal transport.

There the story could have ended and the car slip into the annals of history as a forgotten nearly car, but in 1973 brothers Brad and Tim LoVette founded Manta Cars with the Mirage, which looked a little like the M6,but by the late 70's they brought the Montage to Market, which was a stunning M6GT replica.

It even became a TV star being used in the action series Hardcastle and McCormick, which drilled it into my youthful memory as it did for many others.

About 1000 Mirage and Montage kits were sold by 1986 when the company folded, but by then UVA in the UK had become an agent before continuing to develop their own version.

A composite monocoque centre tub with steel subframes front and rear and power provided by the classic Rover small block V8. While not matching the power and performance of the original McLaren M6 it certainly made the right noises and didn't shame it's inspiration. Inside was more luxurious with leather being adopted by most of the few builders who completed one before UVA too went out of business.

These were probably the closest replica to the McLaren original however and are now sought after classics in their own right.

Yet again though this wasn't the end of the story. Tornado, a kit car manufacturer from the UK brought out their own M6 look-alike. At first it bore little more than a passing resemblance to the original M6GT, but evolved gradually to look closer to it's inspiration.

Under the beautifully moulded bodywork is a spaceframe chassis with double wishbone suspension front and rear.

I was lucky enough to be taken for a ride in one by Bas from The Kit Car Collection in The Netherlands. Again powered by a Rover V8 producing in the region of 200 bhp driving through a Renault transaxle, just like the Lotus Esprit!

If you'd like to come for a ride in this lovely car click on this link

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Friday, April 7, 2017

Going off the Rails

The VW Beetle, designed in the 1930's produced since 1946 and a cult car since the 1960's has been the basis of many trends and forms of motorsport.

You could argue Porsche started it all off with the 356, but the Americans really diversified the potential first with the beach buggy, imitated around the World including various designs here in the UK.

Initially they were found to be great for what they were designed for, hooning around on beaches and in sand dunes, but it became clear that the lighter bodies enhanced the Beetles already impressive ability off road and racing in the deserts suddenly became a thing.

As well as the buggies, modified Beeltes with wild fibreglass bodywork, exposed engines and often boasting wild rear wings competed and took their name from the Baja desert on the Mexican border where they made their name. Again versions of these Baja bugs came to Europe, with companies such as Albar in Switzerland, and UVA in the UK among others selling their versions.

Motorsport being what it is the limitations in weight and innovation moving boundaries, led to the invention in America of sand rails. Replacing the Beetle floorpan completely with a steel tube frame incorporation a roll cage as part of the cage around the driver and trick suspension these lightweight wonders proved as adept in gloopy mud as they were in the desert, and again made their way around the World.

In the UK Kingfisher Kustoms were the first to bring a sand rail to market with their Kommando, but UVA soon followed in 1984 with their own interpretation the Fugitive 2 amid accusations from Kingfisher Kustoms of it being a direct rip off of their design.

Regardless the Fugitive seemed to be the winner in the sales war and a new short dirt track racing format developed where they could fight it out for honours, incorporating huge yumps where these crazy machines could get seriously airborn.

The fugitive proved to be UVA's most successful product and the company explored new variations to increase the appeal. First came an extended four-seater, the Fugitive 4. It didn't find the same number of buyers as the 2 but certainly opened the door for the variation I love and covet most...

Alan Arnold of UVA had already started importing the Manta Mirage McLaren M6 replica from the United States. The McLaren was a road going version of their incredible Can Am racers, and must have been an influence on the new Fugitive variant.

Taking the extended Fugitive 4 frame and dispensing with the rear seats, UVA reversed the gearbox to make a mid mounted engine layout. The frame was certainly strong enough to take more power, so they dropped in a Rover V8 cooled by side mounted radiators from a VW Golf and fed by side straked intakes reminiscent of the Ferrari Testerossa.

The first version kept the cycle wings and pointy nose of the rest of the Fugitive range, but that soon made way for a fully enclosed front end fitting perfectly with the name it was given The UVA F33 Can-Am!

With lowered suspension, pop up headlights and all pretence at off-road ability clearly absent, this was a road or race track machine and wonderfully, fantastically wall poster breathtaking! This is surely what the best kit cars are all about and fills the brief of producing cars no mainstream manufacturer could even contemplate.

Performance figures were a claimed 150mph top speed and 0-60 in the 4 second bracket. It's impossible to verify, but the light weight and shape screamed speed and they must have been very rapid indeed!

Sales figures are unknown, but if anyone out there knows an owner get in touch, we would love to film a feature for The Alternative Car Show. Leave a message below and we'll set something up.

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(All photo's in this blog are lifted from the internet without any intention of harming copyright. If you own the rights to any pictures used and want them removed we will be happy to do so.)