1988 Panther Solo 2: Second Time's a Charm


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From the January 1988 issue of Car and Driver.

The British press has given its home­grown Panther Solo 2 a tremendous buildup. Car recently called it “the most important British sports car since the E­-type Jaguar.” Autocar, mixing its meta­phors deliriously in advance of the car’s debut at the Frankfurt Auto Show, said, “Solo won’t just steal Porsche’s limelight; it will grab it by the throat.” These testimonials, you should understand, were made before anyone had the opportunity to drive a finished Solo. Thus the second generation of Panther’s concept, with its turbocharged, 16-valve Cosworth en­gine, four-wheel drive, and race-car-style composite body construction, already has a monumental reputation to live up to.

We have driven as many miles as any­one in the only fully bodied Solo 2 proto­type and have not found it wanting; how­ever, the car we drove was far from ready for production. The Solo 2 has all the right ingredients, to be sure. But they alone are no threat to the likes of Jaguar, Porsche, and Ferrari. Fortunately, no one at Panther underestimates the job that remains to be done.

What started as a straightforward idea to build a modern, low-priced two-seater has become a complex story.

Young C. Kim—Korean-born, American-educated—bought Panther Westwinds out of receivership in 1980 and renamed it the Panther Car Company. He took one of the company’s existing products, the Pan­ther Lima, reengineered it, arranged for a supply of chassis and aluminum bodies from Jindo Industries, the family con­glomerate in South Korea, and put it back on the market as the Kallista. Although the car was well received, it soon became clear to Kim that the sale potential of such pastiche vintage cars was limited.

But there was, Kim believed, a gap in the market for a mid-engined sports coupe, built around a transverse power­train from a modern front-drive sedan. His inspiration came in part from a maga­zine article on a contest at London’s Royal College of Art. With a brief to design a sports car around a mid-mounted Ford Escort XR3 four-cylinder, the students had created designs that, in their bluff noses and far-forward driving positions, resembled Group C race cars. Kim called the college and talked to the students’ tu­tor, Ken Greenley, a freelance car design­er who had learned his trade at Vauxhall, the British GM subsidiary. The upshot was that Greenley and his partner, John Heffernan (ex-GM, ex-Audi), won the contract to style the Panther Solo.

Kim commissioned ubiquitous Len Bailey, of Ford GT40 fame, to design the chassis. The fuel-injected, 105-hp, 1.6-liter XR3i engine was chosen. The result, the first Solo, was shown, and acclaimed, at the 1984 British Motor Show.

Soon afterward, however, it became clear to Kim that he would not be able to meet his targets for the Solo. It would be not only slower than the conceptually sim­ilar Toyota MR2 but also more expensive. A move upmarket, to a car that would of­fer much higher performance and be based on more sophisticated technology, seemed to hold more promise.

Kim redirected Panther’s sights toward a Solo with four-wheel drive and the tur­bocharged, 16-valve, 2.0-liter four­-cylinder of the Ford Sierra RS Cosworth. Ever-enthusiastic Bob Lutz, then heading Ford of Europe, examined the Solo proto­type, listened to Kim’s plans, and prom­ised a supply of the Cosworth engine.

Doubling the Solo’s horsepower, shift­ing its engine orientation 90 degrees, and adding four-wheel drive required rather more than a detail redesign. In addition, Panther had decided, for marketing rea­sons, that a two-plus-two cabin was prefer­able. The team started afresh with a new, four-inch-longer chassis, drawn up by Raymar, a group of defected Ford of Eu­rope engineers who had worked on the Sierra RS Cosworth and the Sierra XR4x4. On the design side the Solo was Greenley’s baby. Ever practical, he began the car’s expansion program by cutting up the Solo l body buck—with a chain saw.

When the Solo 2 emerged, only hours before its promised debut at Frankfurt, the extent of the transformation was im­mediately apparent. Although the new car is somewhat similar to the first Solo in the shape of its nose and in its thrown­-forward stance, its body is completely dif­ferent. To some eyes, the difference is not for the better. Greenley says that some critics thought the first Solo looked too bland; in contrast, the new car has been designed to advertise its performance.

It certainly does that, and the rear end gives more than a clue to the involvement of race-car manufacturers. March, which provided the composite-materials tech­nology, also undertook the aerodynamic testing; it proposed the Formula 1–style rear wing, with a carefully shaped airfoil section and tucked-in end plates. March also developed the duct designs to feed air to the engine, the radiator, and the inter­cooler. Because each passage has separate inlet and outlet ports, the Solo 2, viewed from the back, is almost more holes than bodywork. The curves that surround the many ports are not all harmonious.

March’s wind-tunnel work resulted in a shape that provides downforce of 33 pounds at the front and 82 at the rear at the Solo’s projected 150-mph maximum speed. There has been some sacrifice of low drag for downforce, but the drag coef­ficient of the final car is still about 0.33.

The use of aerospace and race-car com­posite materials was not originally part of the plan. Having concluded that neither aluminum nor fiberglass was ideal, how­ever, Panther’s growing engineering team was attracted to racing construction tech­niques. Apart from the combination of low weight and strength that composites could provide, they promised accuracy in the fit of adjoining parts—something that specialist manufacturers always find diffi­cult to achieve. March chairman Robin Herd had long held an ambition to be­come more involved with road cars, and Comtec, his company’s composite­-materials subsidiary, had the expertise and the capacity that Panther needed.

The construction of the Solo combines the new materials with an old idea. A fabri­cated sheet-steel center section comprises the floorpan and the front and rear bulk­heads; a tubular space frame extends from the rear bulkhead to support the power­train. Nothing too unusual about that: in principle, the Jaguar E-type was built the same way. In the Panther, though, the roof section, the B-pillars, and the door frames are molded from a composite sandwich of epoxy resin, aluminum hon­eycomb, and glass cloth and bonded to the metal chassis; carbon fiber is used in the A-pillars. The finished structure is so strong that steel roll bars are unnecessary. Similar materials are used for the un­stressed body panels, including Kevlar in the wheel arches for protection from stones. Kevlar is also used for the U.S.­-mandated door beams.

To meet frontal-impact requirements with such a short nose, Comtec has adopt­ed an energy-management system that employs the same principle as the crush­able foot-box section of a Formula 1 car. The open ends of a horseshoe-shaped, honeycomb-filled box section lie on either side of the front luggage compartment and abut the cockpit bulkhead. The front bumper is attached to the curved end of the horseshoe.

This strong but lightweight construc­tion should enable the Solo to weigh less than 2400 pounds in production form. As this is written, no car has been completed to this final specification; the show car we drove had fiberglass bodywork.

The chassis development has been car­ried out on a rudimentary device known around the works as the “milk float.” Although the final car has been designed to Raymar’s layout, Raymar itself is no long­er involved; Panther now has a 30-strong engineering team of its own. It is on the strength of the milk float’s test numbers that performance estimates for the Solo have been based: the 150-mph maximum speed, 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, and a cornering limit of 0.92 g. Considering the Solo’s power-to-weight ratio, the speed claims are not unrealistic. The Cosworth engine comes with the Borg-Warner T5 five-speed gearbox of the Sierra RS, though the Solo’s overall gearing is slight­ly higher than the sedan’s.

Ford doesn’t yet offer a four-wheel­-drive Cosworth Sierra, and even if it did, installing its system in the Solo wouldn’t be as simple as turning the engine and the transmission around. The Panther’s four-wheel-drive system is a Ferguson Formula design, with several components from the Sierra XR4x4 and a new transfer case. For the sake of compactness, cockpit space, and weight distribution, Panther decided to mount the engine backward, its gear­box pointing toward the front of the car. The transfer box, therefore, takes the drive to the front directly from the epicy­clic gearset, while the drive to the rear is through a Morse chain—an arrangement opposite to the Sierra’s. To provide room for the rear differential without further lengthening the wheelbase, the engine and the gearbox have been angled eight degrees to one side. A set of helical gears in the transfer box accommodates the asymmetrical layout and reverses the di­rection of the backward engine’s rotation.

Like the front-engined Ford four-by-fours, the Solo has a torque split of 34 per­cent front, 66 rear. Sierra differentials are used at both ends. Viscous-coupling limited-slip devices are fitted to the center and rear differentials.

It is, to say the least, an unusual ar­rangement. Looking further, the engine appears to ride high, partly because, in ad­dition to being angled to the side, it’s tipped up three degrees in back. And Pan­ther engineers wanted to avoid routing water lines from front to rear, so the cool­ing department is located entirely behind the engine: the radiator, above it the intercooler, and twin fans behind. The stan­dard air-conditioning equipment will also be located in back.

The Solo’s suspension, in contrast, is conventional, with Escort-derived struts up front and a lateral link and a control arm at each rear wheel. There are no anti-­roll bars, and the Sierra steering doesn’t need and doesn’t have power assistance. The braking system, with discs all around, is equipped with an adaptation of the Scorpio’s electronic anti-lock system.

The wheels and tires—195/50VR-15 Goodyear Eagle NCTs—look weak for a car of high-performance aspirations. But Phil Gillott, who has been in charge of the Solo’s chassis development since Panther took it in house, is adamant that they are the optimal size. He reduced the rim width from seven to six inches in the inter­est of better steering feel, and he reasons that a car of the Solo’s weight with four­-wheel drive needs tires of the same size front and rear and that 195-section is quite wide enough.

On the road, at least at the moderate speeds that the show car allowed, Gillott’s theory held up. Though unassisted, the steering felt nicely weighted and accurate, without feeding back bumps and ridges in the pavement. An illicit attack at some tight corners showed characteristics very like the Ford four-by-four sedans’, with a willingness to oversteer under power; the Solo felt just right for a sports car.

We learned some other things in this first encounter. The Solo 2 rode surpris­ingly comfortably. The integrity of the structure was impressive, too, even though the panels were made of fiberglass and didn’t fit perfectly. There seemed to be no creaks or rattles from the suspen­sion, though there was plenty of noise from other sources: the harsh note of the Cosworth, the whoosh of the turbo, and, most of all, the heterodyning of the spur gears in the prototype transfer box.

Even when that last problem is solved, it seems unlikely that the Solo 2 will be a qui­et car. The rear window and the engine cover are one big composite structure, and the surrounding seal is the only upper barrier between the cockpit and the power unit. The engineers also have heat­-transfer problems to solve.

Assuming that the Solo won’t literally be too hot to handle, the driver and passenger should find its cockpit a pleas­ant place to be. The driving position is fine, and there is a racing-car feel in the layout of the controls and the curved cen­ter console. The visibility through the steeply raked and multicurved windshield is good, and neither the front nor the rear pillars are too obtrusive; the view in any direction is better than most cars of this type offer. Although the Solo 2 supposed­ly has more room around the pedals than the Solo 1, the footwells are still narrow; there is nowhere to rest the left foot.

The interior design scheme, in keeping with the Solo’s body construction, is high­-tech both in looks and in materials. In­stead of panels of polished wood, the dash and the door panels have the shiny surface and black weave of carbon fiber. The seats are Recaros, re-covered in gray leather. Incidentally, you can forget the rear seats for carrying real people; the space is handy for luggage, though, as there is pre­cious little room for that elsewhere.

Specially produced Stewart-Warner in­struments with pale-blue faces are a nice touch. They are clustered, Formula 1 style, around a large tachometer, with the relatively tiny speedometer relegated to the bottom right, where it’s partly ob­scured by the Scorpio column switches. Most of the interior equipment—central door locking, electric window and mir­rors, etc.—is also from Ford. The tubular­-spoked Momo steering wheel and the massive, turned-alloy gearshift knob will be revised for the production cars.

The Solo is now going through the long routine of certification. To start with, it will be available in Britain only, but it has been designed with all markets in mind. When it arrives in the U.S., probably no sooner than 1990, it may well have a dif­ferent engine—perhaps a 2.9-liter Ford V-6 depending on whether Ford gains EPA approval for the Cosworth. The U.K. price will be around $46,000. Panther plans to build 100 cars in 1988 and hopes to begin delivery in July. Production is due to rise to 600 in 1989.

There is still much to be sorted out. March will supply the composite panels for the first cars, but Panther expects to take over their production, in a new facili­ty to be built in Essex. That means leaving the historic surroundings of the old Brooklands racetrack, where the Kallista is currently made.

Such a move is probably essential, for as the Solo project has changed and become more ambitious, so has Panther. A major­ity shareholding has been acquired by an­other Korean industrial group, Ssangyong. Young Kim retains twenty-percent ownership and remains chairman and chief executive, but his horizons are now set beyond the Solo. The production of a different kind of four-wheel-driver, the Stampede, reworked from a utility four-­by-four made by Ssangyong’s Dong-A Motor Company in Korea, is likely to in­crease Panther’s total output to 5000 vehi­cles a year. The Stampede is also scheduled for the U.S.

Young Kim needed the connection with an existing car manufacturer to get a foot in the door of the expanding Korean in­dustry. Panther has much to offer the Ko­reans, Kim says, pointing to the engineer­ing team that is now striving to develop the Solo to be worthy of Britain’s super-en­thusiastic welcome.

Arrow pointing downArrow pointing down



1988 Panther Solo 2
Vehicle Type: mid-engine, all-wheel-drive, 2+2-passenger, 2-door coupe


turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 24-valve inline-4, iron block and aluminum head, port fuel injection

Displacement: 122 in3, 1993 cm3

Power: 201 hp @ 6000 rpm

Torque: 204 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm 

5-speed manual


Wheelbase: 99.6 in

Length: 171.0 in

Width: 70.1 in
Height: 46.5 in
Curb Weight (C/D est): 2450 lb


60 mph: 5.7 sec

Top Speed (est): 150 mph 

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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