The converters : Panther Rio

Bob Jankel of Panther had the great idea of building a luxury car based on the Triumph Dolomite…

Was the Panther Rio the first premium-priced small car, or just an expensive folly?

Panther Westwinds had been set-up by fashion designer Bob Jankel to produce expensive and bespoke cars for the customer who wanted something entirely different. His previous products included the (Jaguar-esque) J72 and (Ferrari-esque) FF, which were both very fast – because they were based on Jaguar underpinnings – and very expensive.

This was obviously a lucrative market to be in when times were good but, following the First Oil Crisis of 1973, demand for such profligate cars began to melt away like snow in spring. Ever one to produce an answer to a question no-one had asked, Jankel began working on a car that would appeal to the Rolls-Royce owner looking to trade down to something more economical.

The thinking behind the Rio was simple: to build a luxury British car for those who didn’t want to resort to purchasing anything so vulgar as a Mercedes-Benz – but they could do so while losing nothing in terms of luxury or build quality.

A triumph of opportunism

Casting around for suitable donor cars, Jankel hit upon the idea of building a car based on the Triumph Dolomite, which thanks to its combination of advanced engines and upright driving position, would offer a unique blend of modern and traditional.

Panther Rio (1)

The Panther Rio was the result and was launched in September 1975. According to the original press release, ‘The Rio combines characteristics combined in no other single car – the very highest level of luxury, appointments and smooth quietness with superb handling, a 115mph maximum speed, and 0-60mph acceleration in 8.7 seconds.

‘It also boasts the opulence of Connolly leather, deep pile carpeting and burr walnut in the finest limousine traditions with the fuel economy and manoeuvrability of a compact family saloon. Panther coachbuilt quality and safety engineering with total functionalism. Hand-crafted exclusivity without ostentation.’ Indeed…

Available in two forms

The Rio was offered in two forms, the 1850cc version was the “base” model and the 2-Litre 16-valve version (Dolomite Sprint) called the Rio Especial.

Panther was certainly upbeat about the car’s chances and talked in terms of a pre-order of 100 cars from H.R.Owen. This would have been a sweet deal, which would have seen the Rio offered for sale among some very exclusive machinery indeed.

However, the 100-car deal never materialised and the Rio sold in dribs and drabs, which would be expected for a car that, no matter how luxurious and exclusive it was, remained little more materially than a restyled Triumph Dolomite.

Priced to fail

The cost of buying one was also eye-watering: in February 1976, £9445 was the price for the Rio Especial, which was quite simply over the top – in comparison, a Dolomite Sprint cost £3283 and the Jaguar XJ5.3 cost £7496.

What Car? drove the car – an ex-H.R.Owen demonstrator, no less – in 1980 and remarked that the craftsmaship was very evident when you looked at the interior of the car. The only downside was that the new thicker, fatter seats resulted in a more cramped interior than the car it was based on…

The result was inevitable – Panther sold just 38 Rios and learnt its lesson: the company’s next small saloon, launched in 1980 for a more realistic £7500, was a plushly retrimmed and turbocharged Vauxhall Chevette HS, which dispensed with the Rio’s bespoke aluminium bodywork in favour of a mild bodykit. Other than that, Jankel focused on what he knew best: retro-styled sports cars, such as the Vauxhall-based Lima, and upmarket exotica, such as the Panther Six.

Keith Adams


  1. Interesting car, but as stated above, if a Dolomite Sprint could be bought at almost a third of the price and an XJ cheaper too, then the Rio was certainly priced too high.

  2. Perhaps Panther should have looked into pricing it right as well as considered making use of uprated 2.3-2.6 SD1-Six and Rover V8 powered models above the existing Rio, along with a possible 2-door variant.

    • not sure you could fit the rover sixes under the bonnet, but the V8 would fit. That’s been suggested often enough although I don’t know if anyone has actually done it.

      Supposedly there were fastback/coupe versions of the dolomite body shell considered. A mild tweak like that might have been better than a full re-skin.

      • Apparently it is possible at least for the 2-2.5-litre Triumph Inline-6 if one believes the Triumph Dolomite Club (with one such swap being done) and was even considered at one point until it was dropped in favor of the 16v Sprint, due to both the weight and fitment of an effective cooling pack being tricky.

        Not sure though how much larger and heavier the 2.3-2.6-litre SD1-Six is compared to the 2-2.5-litre Triumph Inline-6, yet it would be interesting seeing a de-restricted 150+ hp 2.6 SD1-Six powered Dolomite-based Panther Rio.

  3. Theres one of these, the Especial, on Fleabay at the moment. Very rought and still overpriced by the look of it.

  4. In terms of styling it would have been interesting to see a sportier updated version of the Panther Rio featuring a more Bentley-esque (instead of Rolls-Royce) look, the front-end featuring Bentley Mulsanne inspired quad-headlights and the rear-end (plus rear-headlights) being inspired by either the Bentley Mulsanne or the Monteverdi Tiara.

    • I think it needed a lower spoiler valance, similar to something like a 2.8i mk2 Granada.

      It just looks very “chinless”

    • Big, pricey cars always seem to need twin headlights (or massive banks of LEDs!) and somehow look wrong without them. The Morris and Wolseley ‘wedges’ had that slightly racy aggressive look that the (quartz iodine) single headlight Austins lacked.
      The Jaguar XJ-S had beautiful Cibie QI headlights but the North American version’s quadruple units (as driven by John Steed in later series of the Avengers) looked so much more businesslike. The original S-type had rather sad eyes compared to the XJ6 that followed.
      I’ve always preferred the majestic four beam flash of the headlights (almost unheard of nowadays!) It must be down to my childhood obsession with Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons!

  5. Wow, the top of the range one was 25% more than an XJ12, did they seriously think people would pay so much more for an ordinary looking saloon over the classic V12 Jag, a car not exactly short of wood and leather!

  6. Panther made a lot of models with a very limited appeal, at least the Lima managed to sell into 3 figures.

  7. My local Vauxhall dealer( SMT) used to sell Panther Limas, and they always attracted plenty of attention, even if sales were very small. As a ten year old, though, this was the car you seriously wanted over the Chevette stood next to it.

    • The Lima had the 2.3 litre engine from the Victor & possibly some other Vauxhall parts, so it makes sense for a Vauxhall dealer to sell them.

      • It used the 2.3 slant four from the Victor and a Viva floorpan. Its replacement, the Kallista, switched to Ford V6s, which were more powerful and easier to obtain by 1982.

  8. An “economical” car costing more than a V12 Jag? which part of economical hasn’t been grasped at Jankel/Panther? Again, £7500 for a Chevette, £4 more than the aforementionned Jag is just a laugh, really. Which planet did they live on? They found 30 odd mugs, did they pay the full asking price? Good looking cars, steering wheel isn’t great/original?

  9. I always thought the Rio looked like a bloated version of the Mk3 Humber Sceptre – a car which, in the late 70s, I thought was understated and classy.

  10. Any chance of a feature on the Lima, which was the Panther everyone wanted and due to its Vauxhall underpinnings, was sold and serviced at Vauxhall dealers? For just under £ 5000 in 1977, you could own a car that combined the looks of a 1930s roadster with the performance of a modern sports car. 120 mph was very respectable for those days, considering the fastest MG reached 105 mph, and the Panther’s Vauxhall slant 4 could be tuned to go even faster. Far more fun than the Rio and not as hard on your wallet as a J72, as even with performance enhancements, a tonneau top if you wanted a more practical car and a radio, you could still get a Lima for the same price as a 2 litre executive car.

  11. 38 was the serial number of the last Rio made, but Panther skipped odd numbers so the final figure was actually 18 (one somehow disappeared before final production), of which only 5 are thought to exist today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.