The Panther Solo is a mid-engined sports car available as a two-seat coupé with the option of additional rear seats to make it a 2+2. The original design was for a simple mid-engined rear wheel drive car to replace the Kallista. It was to have relatively simple technology and use a Ford 1.6 CVH Engine (as fitted in the Ford Fiesta XR2). The car would have contemporary styling an aerodynamics fibreglass body to save weight with a Cd of 0.33. Before production a new design was created with a stretched wheelbase to accommodate 2+2 seating, a composite upper body, permanent four wheel drive and a Ford Sierra Cosworth RS 1,993 cc engine with twice the horsepower of the original. It was mated to the Borg-Warner T-5 (same as in the RS) which drove a Ferguson four-wheel drive system modified to use XR4x4 components including both differentials.
It had a composite construction with the lower body being a space frame made primarily of steel and the upper body made from aluminium honeycomb sandwiched between multiple sheets of glass fibre bonded with aerospace epoxy adhesive and then glued to each other. Suspension used Escort struts in front while the disc brakes were fitted with Scorpio derived ABS. One of the development cars had a twin turbo set-up due to the known turbo lag issues with the theory that two smaller turbos would eliminate the lag of one larger turbo.
12 Solos in total were built, and 3 are currently registered for the road, the rest as far as I am aware are all in storage and off the road
And for those that want to read the full story of the car, please see below… The Photo below is of Bob Clare and his concours (Better than new) Solo 2, shown here with the later more attractive rear spoiler, and the unique roll over front headlights
“The Brave New World of Sports Cars”
(An extract with kind permission of Autocar magazine)
Rummaging through a file of old press cuttings recently, I came across a handful of rave features about the Panther Solo.
Remember the Solo? The Brave New World of Sports Cars.
It looked stunning, bristled with innovations in its composite structure, brought race-bred aerodynamics to the road and promised incredible dynamic abilities. In 1987, this magazine (Autocar) wasn’t the only one to rate it Britain’s most exciting sports car since the E-type.
But Panther bit off more than it could chew, lavishing its car with a level of technology that, in retrospect, a specialist manufacturer couldn’t hope to turn to profit. Each of the 12 Solos eventually completed cost substantially more than their list price to build.
There were two Solos, first a single prototype ‘Solo 1’ conceived in 1982 and then there was ‘the real thing’- the £39,850 production version – the ‘Solo 2’ delivered in 1990.
Panther had the dream of building a futuristic sports car with lots of flair in its design. Royal College of Art tutor Ken Greenley answered the call and ended up as the lynchpin of a project he recalls with a mixture of fondness and gloom.
Solo 1 progressed smoothly. Len Bailey (of Ford GT40 fame) designed a neat tubular chassis and Greenley produced a crisp shape with a distinctive, far-forward cabin. Simplicity was the theme. The layout had the XR3i engine mated to an unaltered Escort driveline. A body in pressed aluminium was to be Solo 1’s main novelty.
Normal development problems were being ironed out by late 1984 when the Panther Car Company owner Y. C. Kim, telexed Panther’s Brooklands HQ with an order to stop work. On holiday he’d driven a Toyota MR2 and knew his new car couldn’t compete on quality or price. Lotus’s boss Mike Kimberley oddly enough, had just come to the same conclusion and canned his original rear-drive Elan proposal.
Kim decided the only way forward was ‘up market’. The new direction came when Ford, impressed by Solo 1’s professionalism, offered exclusive use of a four cylinder engine developed by Cosworth, and later destined for the Sierra. This engine could be coupled to four-wheel drive but Panther virtually had to invent its own system because Ford had yet to begin transmission development.
Solo 2 was to make its mark as the world’s first mid-engined 4-wheel-drive car.
Rod Mansfield (of Special Vehicle Operations), was setting up Raymar, to handle projects for Ford and they coupled the Cosworth engine to a gearbox of its own design and cleverly positioned the engine asymmetrically at the back. This redesign progressed smoothly and racing car builder March Engineering, who were looking for applications for its composite expertise, persuaded Panther to let their subsidiary, Comtec, evolve the Solo 2 further. From being quite simple, it was now to become the most structurally sophisticated road car in the world.
The specification Comtec devised with Panther’s engineering team, led by Phil Gillot, was fantastic. The centre section was an aluminium honeycomb sandwiched between two epoxy resin skins, themselves reinforced with longfibre glasscloth. At points of high stress, the fibres were unidirectional and carbon fibre was used for the upper door frames. All bodywork was made of strengthened Kevlar/carbon composite.
Together with four-wheel drive, this tub’s torsional stiffness was the key to Solo’s dynamic brilliance. When Autocar magazine first drove a pre-production Solo in 1989, David Vivian rated it the best handling car he’d ever driven. It was also exceptionally safe. An early Solo 2, chassis 009, rolled at l00mph on the A1, but the occupants escaped injury because the passenger cell remained intact, even though the front and rear sub-frames were torn off.
Greenley’s design for Solo’s exterior and interior changed considerably with the evolution to a composite four-wheel-drive design. He introduced so much taper to the nose that Solo 1’s pop-up headlamps had to be discarded. Smart lateral thinking resulted in novel corner-mounted units which spin instead.
With March’s involvement, aerodynamics received so much attention that Solo 2 ended up generating positive down force both front and rear throughout the speed range – a claimed ‘world first’ for a production car. “I look back on the aerodynamics as one of Solo’s most significant achievements,” remembers Greenley. “The shape gave us a great start because its Cd was initially incredibly low, something like 0.23. By the time we had good down force all round, the figure went back over 0.30, but we only realised how good that was when we tried competitive cars in MIRA’s wind tunnel.”
“We hired a Ferrari 328, Porsche 944 Turbo and Lotus Esprit. All of them had some form of uplift, and raising their headlamps had disastrous effects compared with the minimal interference from Solo’s rotating headlamps. The Solo’s wing at the back came straight from a March Indycar, and the end plates added to efficiency. The racing input made us search for absolute solutions. Careful work with dedicated ducting at the rear, whether to chill the turbo or cool the intercooler, also played a part”.
The difficulties of developing a car with so much new technology meant Solo 2 went through a long gestation and Panther revealing the car far too early. The first prototype had only just turned a wheel when the redesign was launched at Frankfurt in 1987. Two years might have been a fair guess of the time it would take to reach production. Yet Panther, talking at this stage of building 600 Solos a year, promised much earlier delivery dates to several hundred customers on its waiting list. Confidence ebbed as delays set in and people cancelled their orders in droves. Apart from stop-start development, Solo’s progress to production was handicapped by Panther’s move, in February 1988, from Brooklands to Harlow, a totally inadequate new factory for building a high-tech car. Most employees chose NOT to relocate so a wealth of expertise was lost, just when Solo most needed continuity in its development.
As time slipped by, the Solo production plan was reduced to 100 cars and the price rose from £28,000 in 1987 to nearly £40,000 in 1990. It made even 100 cars seem a pipedream. In the end only 12 had been built when Panther decided to cut its losses.
Ken Greenley also cites the difficulties of using advanced composites and he is undoubtedly right, for the intervening years have seen only one other car, the McLaren Fl road car, surpass Solo’s use of composites.
“We were convinced at the start that the sports car of the future needed to contain all appropriate technology in its mechanicals and materials” he said. “Formula 1 had turbos and composite monocoques and four-wheel drive was the way forward for performance cars.
There was another big factor in Solo’s downfall – you can aim for the best standards in chassis, aerodynamics and materials technology, but we ended up with a car offering similar performance to the Sierra Cosworth but costing nearly twice as much.
“It’s a crying shame. A British designed and built sports car that had more talent and innovation in its passenger cell than most of its exotic rivals can muster has gone to the wall. And why? Because its creators strived, against absurd odds, to produce a thing of excellence”
“And in its handling, it didn’t just excel: it rewrote the rules. I’ve been taken round corners by the Solo in a manner that makes other sports cars seem slow-witted and inept. What other car could make a Porsche Carrera 4 look clumsy? It combines the grip of a Lamborghini Countach with the steering sensitivity of a Ferrari 348.”
Copyright Autocar & Motor. First publish in Panther Car Club Magazine Issue 77 April 1995
Many thanks to Bob Clare for providing this information
R.S. (Bob) Clare
Events Co-ordinator, The Panther Car Club Ltd