Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 5
Young C Kim
The Panther Solo should have had a longer life. It was good, and the design that went into the car made it a Ferrari 308 but at less than half the Ferrari price. Futuristic looking with very clean uncluttered styling, the mid-engined two-seater coupe, similar in proportions to Lancia's Montecarlo, originally went on sale in 1986. If you have read some of the other articles on the make here at Unique Cars and Parts
, you would know that Panther were a small-volume specialist carmaker - however by the time the Solo hit the market the company was owned by Korean entrepreneur Young C Kim.
In the middle of 1983
Kim decided his company - which produced the Kallista, a rather crude, traditional two-seat roadster, as well as a variety of customised sedans - needed a new and exciting car to take Panther
into the future. From planning meetings with Kim's engineering manager, John Canvin, plus freelancing body/interior designers John Heffernan and Ken Greenley and chassis designer Len Bailey, emerged the idea of the Solo, an ultra-modern, compact and economical coupe with a target starting price of £10,000 (about A$15,000 at 1986 conversion rates).
Len Bailey was an utterly brilliant designer, who can take credit for the Ford GT40 and C100 chassis among others. It is said that he originally pushed for a bigger, high-performance, high-cost supercar but was overruled on grounds of development cost and speed of production, this last point being of crucial importance to Panther. Better a reality than a dream. Perhaps not as advanced as Len wanted, but the Solo managed to reach prototype form in about 18 months. The initial aim was to build a pilot run of about 30 cars in the first year of production, and then expand to full production of between 1500 to 2000 cars per year - and that was twice the Kallista's rate for 1986
Borrowing From The Ford Escort
Like the Lancia Montecarlo
, the Solo derived its powertrain from Ford's 1.6-litre 78 kW Escort
XR3i engine - mounted transversely behind the cabin. Particularly striking about the Solo's layout was the way Len Bailey sited the cockpit so far forward in the chassis, mimicking Group C racing practice with which he was so well versed. This arrangement provided a usefully large space for luggage behind the seats, a practical benefit not normally found in cars of this type. Of course, cab-forward design would become a catch cry of the 1990s - which shows just how far ahead Len Bailey's designs were.
A Brilliant Chassis
Bailey's chassis looked surprisingly simple. It was made entirely of sheet steel, folded and tack welded. The biggest part was a front bulkhead which looked like a giant blunt arrowhead and which connected along the side box sections to another, lower bulkhead at the rear of the cabin area, just ahead of the power unit. Twin outriggers ran backward from that to a neat, honeycombed bulkhead which fitted behind the engine. Like the engine much of the rest of the Solo mechanicals came from the Escort, or other Fords. "Of course, if you take an Escort as your mechanical basis you've got to better it in every way," said John Canvin in a 1985 interview. "Your car has to be better aerodynamically, which should bring benefits in fuel efficiency and top speed, its weight has to be controlled, it needs to offer better performance and its styling appeal needs to be more immediate. Those were our aims."
The all-independent suspension
used fabricated twin wishbones (originally Cortina
components) in front and Escort
parts at the rear. A Sierra manual rack and pinion system took care of the steering
(via an Escort collapsible column) and the all-disc brakes were Ford sourced, too. A key aspect of the Solo was the strength and integrity of Bailey's chassis design; Panther claimed it could handle up to 300 kW. Turbocharged
and four-wheel drive versions were under consideration during the design phase. As for the Solo's skin Panther made certain panels in aluminium (they already had extensive experience with the alloy on the Kallista), but much of the body below the beltline was manufactured from glassfibre. The tailgate, for which rigidity was needed, was made from pressed steel.
The Panther Solo bare chassis in the factory, with others lined up behind. Note the "arrow" bulkhead and transverse Ford engine.
Heffernan and Greenley's Wraparound Rear Window
From its inception in 1983
the Solo project proceeded remarkably quickly. Early wind-tunnel tests at the end of that year produced a low 0.30 Cd and proved the effectiveness of Heffernan and Greenley's wraparound rear window. This feature went a long way toward establishing the Solo's styling individuality. The heavily raked front windscreen, short nose and careful front and rear detailing contributed to the car's undoubted presence.
The Solo's cabin was largely the work of John Heffernan. He readily admitted that the dash and equipment was a collection of other manufacturers' parts. Again, quoting a 1985 interview, John said the "...Panther is too small a company to produce its own, It wouldn't be economic. "Nevertheless, efforts were made to give the interior its own character. The Ford steering wheel had a Panther-badged boss; the MG Metro instrument pack featured new graphics, and similar attention to the Solo's identity was evident elsewhere.
"The driver has a little more space than the passenger," Heffernan said, "which gives us the opportunity of a wraparound facia. We've tried to give the Solo a lot of storage space and to make the car convenient to use." Outside, the Solo's distinctiveness was enhanced by a new wheel design, 14 in diameter and shod with Michelin TDX 195/60 tyres. The first time the public got to see the Panther Solo was at the 1984 Birmingham motor show. It received a brilliant reception.
Ken Greenley and the Solo 2
Young C Kim decided to amend the Solo after taking a vacation in Guam where he saw one of the early MR2"s. A new styling design for the Solo was created by Ken Greenley (of the London RCA vehicle styling school) with a slightly larger 2+2 layout with a composite upper body, permanent four wheel drive and the engine being mid mounted from a Ford Sierra Cosworth. This would be called the "Solo 2". The body engineering designers were Martin Freestone (composites), Keith Hunter (underbody & structure), William "Bill" Davies (details) and Mert Wreford.
The Solo 2 used the Ford Sierra RS 1993 cc (121.6 cu in) engine with twice the horsepower of the Solo 1. It was mated to the Borg-Warner T-5 (same as in the RS), which drove a Ferguson four-wheel drive system modified by Panther to use XR4x4 components, including both differentials. The company decided also to stretch the wheelbase to accommodate 2+2 seating, which was partly done by ex-Ford Europe engineers who had worked on the Sierra Cosworth and XR4x4. March did the aerodynamics, producing a Cd of 0.33, as well as producing the composite construction, encouraged by March chairman Robin Herd. One of the development cars had a twin turbo setup due to the know turbo lag issues. The theory was that two smaller turbos would eliminate the lag of one larger turbo.
A troublesome area was with the 4 wheel drive transfer box. This was a custom made part, the internals were chain driven and the chains had a habit of self destructing when abused. The lower body of the Solo 2 was a space frame made primarily of steel with the upper body being made from aluminium honeycomb sandwiched between multiple sheets of impregnated glass fibre bonded with epoxy . The upper body was to be glued using an aerospace adhesive to the lower chassis. No rollbar was needed. Suspension used Escort struts in front, while the disc brakes were fitted with Scorpio-derived ABS.
It is not known exactly how many vehicles were built (however it was between 12 and 25), as sometimes Panther would change the chassis number of prototype cars. All but three Solos were sold to the public, two were destroyed, and one is still owned by the then owner of Panther. One vehicle was written off by a motoring journalist who walked away unhurt from the wreckage. As of 2011, eight examples survive in the UK, but all are listed as SORN (Statutory Off Road Notification, to legally notify the government that the vehicle will not be driven on public roads), with the last licenced example registered until 2010.