The cars : Panther Solo development story

The Panther Solo was a short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful mid-engined, four-wheel-drive sports car designed to replace Lotus and TVR at the head of the UK sports car industry.

But the Cosworth-engined car was too late, too slow, too expensive and – arguably – too ugly to succeed.


Panther Solo: the end of the line

Panther Solo
Panther Solo 2 as first shown in 1987 was clearly influenced by Group C thinking

The original Panther Westwinds had long since been superseded as a business when the Solo was conceived, but this gloriously unconventional supercar was very much in the spirit of what original founder Robert Jankell had in mind for his company. By the time the Solo had been launched in 1989, the company was under Korean control, and had endured one bankruptcy and two major management restructures – even so, it was still one of the most advanced sports cars ever made, clothed in race car for the road bodywork. It was an example of what the British car industry did so well – promising design, lots of hype and commercial failure.

The Solo was the brainchild of Young Chull Kim, who had owned Panther since 1980. He wanted to move his company forwards from being the creator of 1930s pastiches to the producer of world-class, forward-looking mid-engined sports cars. In August 1983, he started gathering together a team that would realise his dream. The original Solo was the result and, for a while at least, it did look like it had the potential to be nothing less than the reinvention of the British sports car. 

Panther Solo 1: brilliant idea, imperfect timing

The Panther Solo's chassis with arrowhead bulkhead design was produced by Len Bailey
The Panther Solo’s chassis with arrowhead bulkhead design was produced by Len Bailey (Photo: CAR Magazine)

Like all good British sports cars conceived by the specialist automotive industry, many individuals had their fingerprints all over it. In terms of power, considering Panther wanted the Solo to cost less than £10,000 at launch in the mid-1980s, it needed an off-the-shelf engine. With the ongoing deal with Ford to supply 2.8-litre V6s for the Kallista, it was logical to extend the deal to include the 105bhp CVH engine used in the Ford Escort XR3i. It was designed for transverse installation, with a compact five-speeder bolted on the end. The rest of the Solo’s development would take a much less obvious direction.

The first really clever decision of the development programme was who would be responsible for the car’s mid-engined platform. The decision on who was responsible for the chassis engineering was down to Young C. Kim. It would be overseen by ex-Austin Apprentice and Race Car Engineer Len Bailey, who had honed his skills at Alan Mann Racing, working on cars such as the Ford GT40 and GT70. In latter years, he would also produce the Ford C100 Group C racer, the Theodore Formula 1 car, the Sauber-Mercedes Group C racer and the Fiesta Group 5 rally car. Securing his services for the Solo were a real coup for Kim. 

The design brief was a simple one – to produce an effective mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive road car which was capable of high handling limits combined with reasonable comfort and safety. It was also important that the Solo was capable of handling more power and larger engines, as it was going to form the basis of a range of sports cars, but also, Kim envisaged that more powerful versions would be needed to keep it competitive during its production run. According to Panther historian Bruce Powell, ‘Len actually suggested to Kim that he should consider a bigger engine, thereby increasing the size of the car’s potential market.’ This would prove an astute prediction of what was coming.

Styling the Panther Solo

Panther Solo interior design majored on decent ergonomics and driving position - not always a priority in some mid-engined cars
Panther Solo interior design sketch could have come out of the Ford studio. It majored on decent ergonomics and driving position – not always a priority in some mid-engined cars

The Solo was designed from the inside out, with its chassis and drivetrain conceived before its sleek styling. Initially, Kim had approached a number of Italian design houses, but their quotations were well beyond his budget (interesting, considering Reliant secured the services of Michelotti around this time for the Scimitar SS1). However, as Kim had originally wanted a British Designer, this would not be a problem – during the summer of 1983, he read about an Autocar design competition that was being run in association with the Royal College of Art. 

On the back of this, he called the RCA to see if they would let him have a couple of students to do the Solo bodywork. Luckily, that ‘phone call was taken by Ken Greenley, a tutor at the college alongside fellow Designer, John Hefferman. However, rather than using students, Greenley suggested that he had one or two ideas of his own that Kim might find interesting. A meeting was set up at Brooklands, and it was here that Kim laid out his vision for the Solo’s styling.

Firstly, the design should be unique, secondly, it had to be a ‘macho’ design (different times…) and, finally, this new Panther should be easier to get in and out of than a Lotus Esprit. It also needed to be easy to see out of, and practical in the cabin. Greenley said this would be achievable, a deal was struck, and within a year (16 October 1984), the first Solo 1, below, was rolled out to the press.

Panther Solo

Making a splash in Birmingham

As well as making the cover of CAR Magazine, the Panther Solo proved quite the hit, making a huge stir at the British Motor Show, held in Birmingham. As was usually the case with an early motor show reveal, expectations were high – especially as the Solo looked production ready. That impression was certainly helped by the show car’s bodywork, which had been constructed in aluminium by Panther’s own sheet metal workers.

However, the Solo 1 was quite some way from production reality. That this hand-built car, with Group C looks, was finished to such a high standard was down to the Panther workers’ skills in fashioning aluminium. There were design issues too – its race car genes meant that it came with very narrow footwells, limited development potential and inadequate cooling. It would also be hard to build it down to a cost, given its labour-intensive alloy body.

The final nail in this promising car’s coffin came from Japan. While holidaying in Guam in 1985, Kim got behind the wheel of the then-new Toyota MR2. The game was up even before he’d completed a full road test. There was no escaping it, this was a superb car, and built to a very appealing price that Panther had no hope of matching ($8900 in the USA). Almost immediately after, he telexed Brooklands ordering the team to stop all work on Solo 1 immediately. And that was that…

From the ashes, Solo 2 emerges

 

Almost three years later to the day, the Solo 2 was shown at the Frankfurt Motor Show. This was a very different proposition to before, and much more in keeping with the economic realities of running a small independent carmaker in the UK. This was low volume. ‘I had been [the] Designer on a car with a price tag of £10,000 and “pie in the sky” production target figures of something like 2000 cars per year,’ said Ken Greenley. This was never going to fly, no matter how much people wanted it to.

In order for the Solo to survive, a much more upmarket (and therefore profitable) Solo 2 needed to be created. After Kim had sketched out is ideas for the original targa-topped Solo in 1983, this time Ken Greenley was given a free hand. And what would be revealed at the 1987 Frankfurt Motor Show was a 204bhp, four-wheel-drive, mid-engined Group C lookalike. Although the original Panther Solo 1 had been evolved into the Solo 2, the two designs had practically nothing in common, bearing only a passing resemblance. This was a shame, because along the way, the Solo had lost its pleasing design purity in the pursuit of aerodynamic and cooling efficiency.

But this was the late-1980s, and it needed to be impressive. So, the Solo 2 was bigger, much more powerful, and fundamentally different in much of its engineering. It gained 4.0in in wheelbase to accommodate a pair of rear seats and a longitudinally-mounted turbocharged 2.0-litre 204bhp Ford Cosworth used in the Sierra RS. Not only that, but it now had a 34%/66% torque split four-wheel-drive system, using a Borg Warner T5 gearbox, Panther-designed central transfer system and Ferguson centre differential (predating the Sierra RS Cosworth 4×4 by three years).

All in all, this was an all-new chassis, even if the original concept was used as a starting point, and was quite some transformation. 

All-new body: any resemblance is purely coincidental

There were some residual traces of the Solo 1 if you knew where to look but, in effect, the Solo 2 represented a wholly new approach to materials, structure and aerodynamics. The new body was fashioned in an aluminium composite sandwich material, developed by the aerospace industry. It was formed from a composite sandwich of aluminium honeycomb between woven carbonfibre or fibreglass skins. The whole assembly was later bonded together by epoxy resin.

The centre section was an extremely strong, rigid and light monocoque, whereas the rest of the body was unstressed. 

The Solo’s aerodynamics were interesting. ‘The shape Ken arrived at, with the help of March Engineering, generated positive downforce at both ends of the car, and wind tunnel tests indicated a 33lb front downforce and 82lb rear downforce at 150mph,’ said the original marketing material. The incorporation of positive downforce only mildly compromised the drag coefficient of 0.33 Cd, which was not especially low by late-1980s standards, but more than acceptable for a supercar with such overt cooling requirements.

The new Solo was a 150mph car, so yaw stability and downforce were far more important than a low Cd and a potential 170mph maximum speed, despite the marketing advantages that would have brought. Cooling demands really were taken seriously, with a decent supply of air needed to feed a much bigger radiator and intercooler. That’s why the rear of the Solo 2 was festooned with air ducts. There was also a huge motorsport-style rear spoiler on the rear deck, but this would be toned down later for the production version. 

As the Panther Solo 2 was to be sold in the USA, it was designed to meet all current and anticipated standards. The most innovative part of the safety package was in the nose, which was designed as an energy-absorbing front section, as seen in Formula 1. This crushable section was horse shoe-shaped and was designed to dissipate its energy progressively into the enormously strong centre section. This was all very innovative stuff.

And under the skin…

As well as passive safety the active avoidance of accidents in the first place was also prioritised. So it received ABS to accompany its four-wheel-drive system and a well-planned interior with heating and ventilation and decent ergonomics. The 1987 car received a carbonfibre dashboard to house its mainly Ford-derived controls, and it even had pre-wiring for a car phone set-up. Impressive… As for the blue dials, they were lovely to look at and a genuine innovation.

The Solo 2’s chassis was engineered from sheet steel sections welded together. Out went Len Bailey’s self-supporting chassis, to be replaced by a centre section supported by single vertical webs. The composite body would be bonded to this, which Panther claimed was lighter and just as rigid as before – and allowed for a wider aperture for driver to get in and out of. Certainly, the driver didn’t need to climb over massive sills any longer. So in essence, the chassis consisted of a monocoque centre section with a tubular spaceframe to house the drivetrain.

The suspension was now by double wishbones at the front (as opposed to Escort-sourced MacPherson struts in the Solo 1). No anti-roll bars were used as Panther felt that the combination of its lowness and high natural roll stiffness made one unnecessary. The decision to omit anti-roll bars had a positive effect on the overall ride comfort.

On to launch in 1989

Panther Solo development mule (picture: CAR magazine)
Panther Solo development mule (Photo: CAR Magazine)

Development continued after the triumphant launch in Germany and, once again, getting the car into production would prove to be a lengthy process. It was intended to be priced somewhere between a Lotus Esprit and Ferrari 328GTB, which was ambitious for several reasons – it was costly to build, and Panther was relatively unknown compared with some illustrious rivals, despite its hugely ambitious technical specifications.

The problems getting the Solo over the line weren’t all developmental. Yes, there were a number of technical redevelopments along the way, but there were also managerial issues – in summary, the original chassis needed to be modified several times by a number of parties, including the legendary Rod Mansfield. Moreover, much of the work was done in-house, especially the compliance engineering for all the markets it was to be sold in, which was time-consuming and costly.

Most of the early testing of Solo 2 took place using the original development mule which needed continual modification. As the process dragged on, the mule was looking more and more like a home-made special, despite its fully-developed drivetrain – but the most amusing modification was the fitment of concrete blocks to bring it up to the production car’s anticipated weight of 1090kg (2400lb). It was in this form that the final development driving was completed and this is where some issues started to manifest themselves.

Trouble at home

Pressure from customers and the media to get the Solo into production was mounting. On one hand, the company was in the throes of moving from its Brooklands base to Essex – following SsangYong’s purchase of a controlling interest in Panther in 1987 – which caused personnel issues. On the other, Panther’s management was cranking up the anticipated production volumes for the Solo. During this vital period, the unsettling move was costing the company continuity, and a number of key figures were lost along the way.

Panther’s expected production volumes look fanciful with the benefit of hindsight, but with all of the media interest in it, getting 100 into customers’ hands in 1988 and a further 600 in 1989 seemed perfectly achievable from the outside. However, those targets went out of the window as Panther found itself under considerable pressure not only to get the Solo into production, but also make it good enough to meet its promises. In the end, the conflict between the need to get the car into production as early as possible, and the need to develop it fully forced the company into making some very rash promises, the consequences of which it never recovered from.

One of the development cars used by the Engineering Department should have used for a 40,000-mile endurance test was resprayed, given a new identity, and the test cancelled. There were niggling problems along the way, too, such as panel warping and paint issues. But time exerted its pressure and the company rushed to get the Solo into production.

Production hoves into view

Panther Solo 2

By now, production was set for the end of 1989 with the launch at that year’s London Motorfair, and Panther planned to increase the exclusivity of the first 100 Solo 2s by selling each with an individually numbered plaque. Then, from 1991 on, production would ramp up on the back of what it would sell as the Solo Series Two. By this point, it had been two years since the first customer had placed an order at Frankfurt and the company had received a total of 125 orders following its launch in London.

Deposits taken ranged from £1500 to £11,000 and Panther had also taken deposits of £5000 each on a further 26 Solos, making a grand total of 151 cars earmarked for customers. This was looking good despite the protracted development of the car. So what went wrong?

What the papers said…

Panther Solo 2 (picture: CAR magazine)

Despite all the pre-launch hype, as well as early access to the motoring press, the reality of the Solo 2 failed to live up the early promise. It was launched in London as planned and priced at £39,950, but somehow it didn’t make the impact Panther had hoped for. Perhaps we’d seen it all too many times before.

In a CAR Magazine twin test against the Lotus Esprit SE to coincide with its launch, the Solo 2 was soundly beaten. Gavin Green said, ‘the Solo has some truly world-beating features: the ingenious swivelling headlamps, the instruments and, most importantly, the body construction, which is notably more rigid than any other sports car. Sadly, its styling and build quality are not as good as its rivals and its engine lacks pedigree and power.’

He concluded, ‘The Solo loses to the Esprit because, as yet, it is nowhere near as well rounded, nothing like as complete. It’s brilliant in patches, mediocre in other areas, it is a car that cries out for more development. It needs another year, probably two before it can be a serious challenger in the £40,000 league. The potential, the enthusiasm is there. But the one thing the Solo has run out of is time. We’ve waited long enough.’

More recently, when writing for Goodwood Road and Racing, Andrew Frankel recalled that ‘[the Solo] was expensive, it lacked a prestigious brand name, it wasn’t exactly a looker, those I drove were inexactly constructed to say the least and the engine, the 204bhp 2.0-litre motor out of a Sierra RS Cosworth, sounded like a bag of bolts being poured into a blender. Did I mention that with so little power it was rather slow too?

‘In fact all it really had going for it was its chassis, and boy what a chassis it was. This was a mid-engined car with four-wheel drive, making it unique at the time and pretty bloody rare even now. Its body didn’t merely reduce lift, it actually produced downforce. Maybe there were others that managed as much, but none that I’d heard of. Best of all, Panther had resisted the urge to equip it with road roller tyres, so you could slide it about too.’

The inevitable… Panther calls time

By 1990, Panther was in trouble. Demand for the Kallista had been fallen off a cliff for rather strange reasons and, despite assurances throughout the year from senior management to the remaining staff, the axe then fell on the Solo later that year. The reasons for this have never been fully explained by the company, but all but 13 Solo customers had cancelled their orders by the middle of 1990, probably because of the continuing delays in delivery, its lack of competitiveness and widespread tales in the press about poor build quality.

Of the outstanding 13 Solos whose customers had kept the faith, all were built over the period mid-1990 to early 1991, but this was not quite the end. By the middle of 1991, two special projects were started by Panther Engineering – one saw a turbocharged 3.9-litre Rover V8 installed into one of the earlier test and development Solo chassis. This project, for obvious reasons, was very confidential at the time, and came to nothing. The second project involved fitting a twin-turbo engine to the ex-1989 show car (Chassis No. 008), to become another testbed, Again, nothing came of this interesting development.

But that still wasn’t the end of the Solo. Parent company SsangYong displayed a 3.2-litre six-cylinder powered version of the car (below), said to develop 220bhp, which it called the Solo 3, at the 1995 Seoul Motor Show. Strictly a showcase for what the company could do, its appearance sparked rumours in the press that the Solo could be coming back, especially as SsangYong had (unsuccessfully) relaunched the Kallista from its South Korean base. Sadly, nothing came of that venture, and nor would the Solo return. It remained a wholly UK-built failure…

Ssangyong Solo 3 concept car, as shown at the 1995 Seoul motor show
SsangYong Solo 3 concept car, as shown at the 1995 Seoul Motor Show

Conclusion: big ambitions, never realised

The Panther Solo in both forms was a highly innovative and promising sports car that was never going to stack up financially. The original 1.6-litre car looked fantastic and would have outhandled all of its rivals, but wouldn’t have stood a chance against the emerging generation of super hot hatchbacks that so dominated the late-1980s’ performance car scene. As much as we would have wanted it to succeed, the odds were too firmly stacked against it.

The same was the case for the Solo 2, which even though it was a much more expensive and motor sport-derived car, wasn’t fast or good-looking enough to see off a Lotus Esprit, let alone some of its more exotic six- and eight-cylinder rivals. It suffered from project drift and ended up shuffling into a sector of the market the company wasn’t ready for, despite producing some amazingly expensive cars is the 1970s and ’80s. Basically, the Solo was never going to make money for Panther, and it was woefully underdeveloped.

However, despite all that, it was an interesting concept, and proved the validity of four-wheel drive for mid-engined road cars. The tragedy is that it took down its company when it inevitably failed. When looked at again, the Solo 2 serves to remind us all just how delightful the original one was – and wouldn’t it have been good if Young C. Kim had stuck to his guns…

Panther Solo interior, featuring those lovely blue dials
Panther Solo interior, featuring those lovely blue dials (Photo: CCA Auctions)
Keith Adams

7 Comments

  1. I remember seeing this growing up in the eighties and thing how ugly it was and that against a Lotus it just didn’t stack up. If the original design had stayed and the engine been something more punchy, it might have had a small chance.

  2. The Solo 1 would have been a lovely car, but no way could a tiny manufacturer compete in such a sector for “affordable” sports cars with such a radical and expensive to develop and build concept, it was a flawed idea from the start.

  3. The 204 hp 2-litre Cosworth engined Panther Solo 2 was easily capable of 250+ hp, that said would have to agree it is difficult to see how Panther could have competed with either the Solo 1 or Solo 2 even if both showed some promise.

    Question the wisdom of a production Panther Solo 1 making use of the 105 hp 1.6 Ford CVH engine, sure it can be tuned to 115 hp or even be turbocharged to put out 132+ hp yet it really needed something like an early Ford Zetec/Zeta, Mazda B (as in Aussie Ford Capri) or the Isuzu-sourced Lotus Elan engines. Surely there were more suitable options available to power Solo 1?

    Would it be correct to say the SsangYong Panther Solo 3 was equipped with the 220 hp 3199cc inline-6 Mercedes-Benz M104 engine?

    Is it also known specifically what twin-turbo engine was fitted to the ex-1989 show car (chassis no. 008) as a test bed for the second project?

  4. Another Ford engine that could have potentially worked in the Panther Solo 2 would have to be the 220 hp 3.0-3.2 Ford SHO V6 developed with Yamaha, which was derived from the US market Ford Vulcan V6 engine.

    Doubt it would have helped the Panther Solo 2 that much compared to the existing Sierra Cosworth engine, especially compared to the significantly more attractive mid-engined Ford GN34 prototype that was to utilize the same SHO V6 engine and was reputedly capable of being stretched to around 3.6-litres and putting out 280+ hp.

  5. I’m surprised these small independents didn’t just offer their services to one of the majors as a kind of skunk works. Instead of having to sell the car themselves that become a subcontractor. Reliant in particular could have built a series of specials / halo cars for ARG or Ford.

    • The Ford RS200 had it’s bodyshells built by Reliant so you are on the right track.

      It would have been nice to have had something based in it to compliment the SS100.

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