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.
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.