From the January 1988 issue of Car and Driver.
The British press has given its homegrown Panther Solo 2 a tremendous buildup. Car recently called it “the most important British sports car since the E-type Jaguar.” Autocar, mixing its metaphors deliriously in advance of the car’s debut at the Frankfurt Auto Show, said, “Solo won’t just steal Porsche’s limelight; it will grab it by the throat.” These testimonials, you should understand, were made before anyone had the opportunity to drive a finished Solo. Thus the second generation of Panther’s concept, with its turbocharged, 16-valve Cosworth engine, four-wheel drive, and race-car-style composite body construction, already has a monumental reputation to live up to.
We have driven as many miles as anyone in the only fully bodied Solo 2 prototype and have not found it wanting; however, the car we drove was far from ready for production. The Solo 2 has all the right ingredients, to be sure. But they alone are no threat to the likes of Jaguar, Porsche, and Ferrari. Fortunately, no one at Panther underestimates the job that remains to be done.
What started as a straightforward idea to build a modern, low-priced two-seater has become a complex story.
Young C. Kim—Korean-born, American-educated—bought Panther Westwinds out of receivership in 1980 and renamed it the Panther Car Company. He took one of the company’s existing products, the Panther Lima, reengineered it, arranged for a supply of chassis and aluminum bodies from Jindo Industries, the family conglomerate in South Korea, and put it back on the market as the Kallista. Although the car was well received, it soon became clear to Kim that the sale potential of such pastiche vintage cars was limited.
But there was, Kim believed, a gap in the market for a mid-engined sports coupe, built around a transverse powertrain from a modern front-drive sedan. His inspiration came in part from a magazine article on a contest at London’s Royal College of Art. With a brief to design a sports car around a mid-mounted Ford Escort XR3 four-cylinder, the students had created designs that, in their bluff noses and far-forward driving positions, resembled Group C race cars. Kim called the college and talked to the students’ tutor, Ken Greenley, a freelance car designer who had learned his trade at Vauxhall, the British GM subsidiary. The upshot was that Greenley and his partner, John Heffernan (ex-GM, ex-Audi), won the contract to style the Panther Solo.
Kim commissioned ubiquitous Len Bailey, of Ford GT40 fame, to design the chassis. The fuel-injected, 105-hp, 1.6-liter XR3i engine was chosen. The result, the first Solo, was shown, and acclaimed, at the 1984 British Motor Show.
Soon afterward, however, it became clear to Kim that he would not be able to meet his targets for the Solo. It would be not only slower than the conceptually similar Toyota MR2 but also more expensive. A move upmarket, to a car that would offer much higher performance and be based on more sophisticated technology, seemed to hold more promise.
Kim redirected Panther’s sights toward a Solo with four-wheel drive and the turbocharged, 16-valve, 2.0-liter four-cylinder of the Ford Sierra RS Cosworth. Ever-enthusiastic Bob Lutz, then heading Ford of Europe, examined the Solo prototype, listened to Kim’s plans, and promised a supply of the Cosworth engine.
Doubling the Solo’s horsepower, shifting its engine orientation 90 degrees, and adding four-wheel drive required rather more than a detail redesign. In addition, Panther had decided, for marketing reasons, that a two-plus-two cabin was preferable. The team started afresh with a new, four-inch-longer chassis, drawn up by Raymar, a group of defected Ford of Europe engineers who had worked on the Sierra RS Cosworth and the Sierra XR4x4. On the design side the Solo was Greenley’s baby. Ever practical, he began the car’s expansion program by cutting up the Solo l body buck—with a chain saw.
When the Solo 2 emerged, only hours before its promised debut at Frankfurt, the extent of the transformation was immediately apparent. Although the new car is somewhat similar to the first Solo in the shape of its nose and in its thrown-forward stance, its body is completely different. To some eyes, the difference is not for the better. Greenley says that some critics thought the first Solo looked too bland; in contrast, the new car has been designed to advertise its performance.
It certainly does that, and the rear end gives more than a clue to the involvement of race-car manufacturers. March, which provided the composite-materials technology, also undertook the aerodynamic testing; it proposed the Formula 1–style rear wing, with a carefully shaped airfoil section and tucked-in end plates. March also developed the duct designs to feed air to the engine, the radiator, and the intercooler. Because each passage has separate inlet and outlet ports, the Solo 2, viewed from the back, is almost more holes than bodywork. The curves that surround the many ports are not all harmonious.
March’s wind-tunnel work resulted in a shape that provides downforce of 33 pounds at the front and 82 at the rear at the Solo’s projected 150-mph maximum speed. There has been some sacrifice of low drag for downforce, but the drag coefficient of the final car is still about 0.33.
The use of aerospace and race-car composite materials was not originally part of the plan. Having concluded that neither aluminum nor fiberglass was ideal, however, Panther’s growing engineering team was attracted to racing construction techniques. Apart from the combination of low weight and strength that composites could provide, they promised accuracy in the fit of adjoining parts—something that specialist manufacturers always find difficult to achieve. March chairman Robin Herd had long held an ambition to become more involved with road cars, and Comtec, his company’s composite-materials subsidiary, had the expertise and the capacity that Panther needed.
The construction of the Solo combines the new materials with an old idea. A fabricated sheet-steel center section comprises the floorpan and the front and rear bulkheads; a tubular space frame extends from the rear bulkhead to support the powertrain. Nothing too unusual about that: in principle, the Jaguar E-type was built the same way. In the Panther, though, the roof section, the B-pillars, and the door frames are molded from a composite sandwich of epoxy resin, aluminum honeycomb, and glass cloth and bonded to the metal chassis; carbon fiber is used in the A-pillars. The finished structure is so strong that steel roll bars are unnecessary. Similar materials are used for the unstressed body panels, including Kevlar in the wheel arches for protection from stones. Kevlar is also used for the U.S.-mandated door beams.
To meet frontal-impact requirements with such a short nose, Comtec has adopted an energy-management system that employs the same principle as the crushable foot-box section of a Formula 1 car. The open ends of a horseshoe-shaped, honeycomb-filled box section lie on either side of the front luggage compartment and abut the cockpit bulkhead. The front bumper is attached to the curved end of the horseshoe.
This strong but lightweight construction should enable the Solo to weigh less than 2400 pounds in production form. As this is written, no car has been completed to this final specification; the show car we drove had fiberglass bodywork.
The chassis development has been carried out on a rudimentary device known around the works as the “milk float.” Although the final car has been designed to Raymar’s layout, Raymar itself is no longer involved; Panther now has a 30-strong engineering team of its own. It is on the strength of the milk float’s test numbers that performance estimates for the Solo have been based: the 150-mph maximum speed, 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, and a cornering limit of 0.92 g. Considering the Solo’s power-to-weight ratio, the speed claims are not unrealistic. The Cosworth engine comes with the Borg-Warner T5 five-speed gearbox of the Sierra RS, though the Solo’s overall gearing is slightly higher than the sedan’s.
Ford doesn’t yet offer a four-wheel-drive Cosworth Sierra, and even if it did, installing its system in the Solo wouldn’t be as simple as turning the engine and the transmission around. The Panther’s four-wheel-drive system is a Ferguson Formula design, with several components from the Sierra XR4x4 and a new transfer case. For the sake of compactness, cockpit space, and weight distribution, Panther decided to mount the engine backward, its gearbox pointing toward the front of the car. The transfer box, therefore, takes the drive to the front directly from the epicyclic gearset, while the drive to the rear is through a Morse chain—an arrangement opposite to the Sierra’s. To provide room for the rear differential without further lengthening the wheelbase, the engine and the gearbox have been angled eight degrees to one side. A set of helical gears in the transfer box accommodates the asymmetrical layout and reverses the direction of the backward engine’s rotation.
Like the front-engined Ford four-by-fours, the Solo has a torque split of 34 percent front, 66 rear. Sierra differentials are used at both ends. Viscous-coupling limited-slip devices are fitted to the center and rear differentials.
It is, to say the least, an unusual arrangement. Looking further, the engine appears to ride high, partly because, in addition to being angled to the side, it’s tipped up three degrees in back. And Panther engineers wanted to avoid routing water lines from front to rear, so the cooling department is located entirely behind the engine: the radiator, above it the intercooler, and twin fans behind. The standard air-conditioning equipment will also be located in back.
The Solo’s suspension, in contrast, is conventional, with Escort-derived struts up front and a lateral link and a control arm at each rear wheel. There are no anti-roll bars, and the Sierra steering doesn’t need and doesn’t have power assistance. The braking system, with discs all around, is equipped with an adaptation of the Scorpio’s electronic anti-lock system.
The wheels and tires—195/50VR-15 Goodyear Eagle NCTs—look weak for a car of high-performance aspirations. But Phil Gillott, who has been in charge of the Solo’s chassis development since Panther took it in house, is adamant that they are the optimal size. He reduced the rim width from seven to six inches in the interest of better steering feel, and he reasons that a car of the Solo’s weight with four-wheel drive needs tires of the same size front and rear and that 195-section is quite wide enough.
On the road, at least at the moderate speeds that the show car allowed, Gillott’s theory held up. Though unassisted, the steering felt nicely weighted and accurate, without feeding back bumps and ridges in the pavement. An illicit attack at some tight corners showed characteristics very like the Ford four-by-four sedans’, with a willingness to oversteer under power; the Solo felt just right for a sports car.
We learned some other things in this first encounter. The Solo 2 rode surprisingly comfortably. The integrity of the structure was impressive, too, even though the panels were made of fiberglass and didn’t fit perfectly. There seemed to be no creaks or rattles from the suspension, though there was plenty of noise from other sources: the harsh note of the Cosworth, the whoosh of the turbo, and, most of all, the heterodyning of the spur gears in the prototype transfer box.
Even when that last problem is solved, it seems unlikely that the Solo 2 will be a quiet car. The rear window and the engine cover are one big composite structure, and the surrounding seal is the only upper barrier between the cockpit and the power unit. The engineers also have heat-transfer problems to solve.
Assuming that the Solo won’t literally be too hot to handle, the driver and passenger should find its cockpit a pleasant place to be. The driving position is fine, and there is a racing-car feel in the layout of the controls and the curved center console. The visibility through the steeply raked and multicurved windshield is good, and neither the front nor the rear pillars are too obtrusive; the view in any direction is better than most cars of this type offer. Although the Solo 2 supposedly has more room around the pedals than the Solo 1, the footwells are still narrow; there is nowhere to rest the left foot.
The interior design scheme, in keeping with the Solo’s body construction, is high-tech both in looks and in materials. Instead of panels of polished wood, the dash and the door panels have the shiny surface and black weave of carbon fiber. The seats are Recaros, re-covered in gray leather. Incidentally, you can forget the rear seats for carrying real people; the space is handy for luggage, though, as there is precious little room for that elsewhere.
Specially produced Stewart-Warner instruments with pale-blue faces are a nice touch. They are clustered, Formula 1 style, around a large tachometer, with the relatively tiny speedometer relegated to the bottom right, where it’s partly obscured by the Scorpio column switches. Most of the interior equipment—central door locking, electric window and mirrors, etc.—is also from Ford. The tubular-spoked Momo steering wheel and the massive, turned-alloy gearshift knob will be revised for the production cars.
The Solo is now going through the long routine of certification. To start with, it will be available in Britain only, but it has been designed with all markets in mind. When it arrives in the U.S., probably no sooner than 1990, it may well have a different engine—perhaps a 2.9-liter Ford V-6 depending on whether Ford gains EPA approval for the Cosworth. The U.K. price will be around $46,000. Panther plans to build 100 cars in 1988 and hopes to begin delivery in July. Production is due to rise to 600 in 1989.
There is still much to be sorted out. March will supply the composite panels for the first cars, but Panther expects to take over their production, in a new facility to be built in Essex. That means leaving the historic surroundings of the old Brooklands racetrack, where the Kallista is currently made.
Such a move is probably essential, for as the Solo project has changed and become more ambitious, so has Panther. A majority shareholding has been acquired by another Korean industrial group, Ssangyong. Young Kim retains twenty-percent ownership and remains chairman and chief executive, but his horizons are now set beyond the Solo. The production of a different kind of four-wheel-driver, the Stampede, reworked from a utility four-by-four made by Ssangyong’s Dong-A Motor Company in Korea, is likely to increase Panther’s total output to 5000 vehicles a year. The Stampede is also scheduled for the U.S.
Young Kim needed the connection with an existing car manufacturer to get a foot in the door of the expanding Korean industry. Panther has much to offer the Koreans, Kim says, pointing to the engineering team that is now striving to develop the Solo to be worthy of Britain’s super-enthusiastic welcome.
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1988 Panther Solo 2
Vehicle Type: mid-engine, all-wheel-drive, 2+2-passenger, 2-door coupe
ESTIMATED BASE PRICE
turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 24-valve inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, port fuel injection
Displacement: 122 in3, 1993 cm3
Power: 201 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 204 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
Wheelbase: 99.6 in
Length: 171.0 in
Width: 70.1 in
Height: 46.5 in
Curb Weight (C/D est): 2450 lb
MANUFACTURER’S PERFORMANCE RATINGS
60 mph: 5.7 sec
Top Speed (est): 150 mph