Following the recent passing of company founder Don Panoz, I felt it was only right to give this brief little review of both the eponymous company he founded as well as its first product, the Panoz Roadster.
The Panoz Roadster was a limited production, two-seat roadster which was built between 1992 and 1999, though after 2015 production has restarted in limited numbers. The Roadster could be likened to America’s version of the AC Cobra, a lightweight sports car with retro styling fitted with an engine that could bend time!
To trace the roadster, you need to follow the history of the company that created it, Panoz Auto Development of Georgia in the United States. Panoz, from outside viewing, could be considered one of many American equivalents to TVR of the UK; a small company that builds limited numbers of extremely powerful sports cars for both the road and racetrack.
The Panoz Roadster was the company’s first development after its formation in 1989, and is a conglomerate of many individual parts from both the manufacturer and other motor manufacturers.
Firstly, the frame was the brainchild of designer Frank Costin. Costin had attempted to implement his design on a very obscure Irish sports car of the 1980’s known as the TMC Costin. Based on first appearances, you can see where the Panoz Roadster got many of its design attributes from, including the externally mounted front wheels, the styling of the body, and, of course, the frame.
Styling for the Roadster was penned by Freeman Thomas, a car stylist who has worked for the likes of Porsche, Volkswagen, Chrysler and Ford. Other cars he has put his name to include the Volkswagen New Beetle, the Audi TT, the Chrysler Pacifica, and a variety of concepts for Jeep and Dodge.
The Panoz Roadster is constructed from aluminium body panels which were provided by Superform, giving a mixture of durability and light weight, and making it the first American built aluminium intensive vehicle. All other major components were donated from the contemporary Ford Mustang SVT Cobra, including the running gear, the 5.0L V8 producing 305hp, and the transmission.
The car’s lightweight makes it both fast and nimble, with a top speed of 127mph and a 0-60 of 5.2 seconds. This made it much faster than the Mustang of the time period, which could only do 0-60 in 5.7 seconds, but was slower in terms of top speed.
The Panoz Roadster made its début in 1992, but sales weren’t particularly perky. In spite of its lightweight design and peppy performance, the car did have some rather crucial flaws that made it lacking in comparison to other motors of its class.
For starters, the car comes with neither a roof nor a tonneau cover, and fitting one proves troublesome for anyone who doesn’t want to be swamped every time it rains. Also, there was no automatic version of the car, with the only models available consisting of a 5-speed manual gearbox. In terms of other creature comforts, the car was certainly comparable to age old British sports cars of the past as it was incredibly spartan internally. For instance, there was no radio and no air conditioning, while the only heater in the car was used not to warm the passengers but instead the windscreen (as required by US road safety legislation).
By 1995, only 44 examples and 2 prototypes had been built, therefore Panoz decided to cease production of the Roadster. However, this was far from the end as background developments to improve the car continued.
These came to fruition in the form of the AIV Roadster, a later edition which featured a lighter frame and an updated drive-train from the 1996 Mustang SVT Cobra. The car was dubbed the Aluminium Intensive Vehicle (AIV) Roadster, and now consisted of 70% aluminium. Performance enhancements also gave the car the edge it deserved, with the new engine bringing the 0-60 down to 4.4 seconds and upping the top speed to 140mph.
Furthermore, because Panoz was a small startup business at the time, the first ten units were hand-built by teams of seven workers in the company’s tiny factory in Braselton, Georgia. This was later expanded to teams of ten as production gathered pace and the car’s popularity increased.
The car was again not a major success, but did sell more than the previous Panoz Roadster, with 176 examples being built before production ended in 1999, being replaced by the more popular Panoz Esperante.
The Panoz Roadster may not have been a success in its own right, but it was one of the earliest examples of a trend which would consume 90’s automotive design; the retro-era. With the rise of cars such as the Plymouth Prowler, the Chevrolet SSR and the oddly styled Ford Thunderbird of 2000, the Panoz Roadster was right at home among this strange array of machines.
In recent years, there has been something of an appreciation for the plucky underdog that was the Roadster, with Panoz restarting production in 2015 at a limited annual rate. The new Roadster is fitted with a supercharged version of the Mustang engine fitted to the AIV, producing between 470 and 570hp.
Overall, the Panoz Roadster is a very obscure little machine, but not a sports car that deserves to be overlooked. It’s not the cheapest car mind you, being a comparatively young and an extremely rare machine these cars have managed to largely keep their value, so expect prices between $20,000 and $50,000. Of course a car as good as the Roadster wasn’t sold here in the UK so you have to import it for the cost of shipping and whatever ridiculous taxes and taxes on taxes the EU feel they need to charge. Regardless, if you have the money and are in the market for just a simple, fun, agile little roadster that will get people looking, then I’d say look no further!
- Looks – 8/10 – I personally think its a very pretty car, but I can see why people may not consider it jaw-dropping
- Comfort – 1/10 – Basically just a glorified go-cart
- Practicality – 1/10 – With a tiny boot and no internal storage, try to keep baggage to a minimum
- Features – 1/10 – It doesn’t even have a roof!
- Reliability – 7/10 – Reviews of this car are scarce, but the Mustang engine can be quite reliable if properly maintained
- Efficiency – 4/10 – It’s lightweight nature makes it fairly efficient when you consider the massive Mustang engine under the bonnet, with an average mpg of between 19 and 21
- Quality – 7/10 – As a hand-built car quality is generally quite good, but there may be some cosmetic issues that result from age deterioration
- Speed – 8/10 – 4.4 second 0-60 times in a car like this will happily peel your face from your skull!
- Handling – 9/10 – Incredibly nimble, will swish through corners like they’re not even there
- Price – 2/10 – For what it is, prices are, I feel, unreasonably high; especially when you consider it doesn’t even come with a roof!
- Value – 8/10 – If you have one, sell it whenever you like because I don’t see prices going down any time soon
- Total – 56/110 – A car that is nothing but fun, though I would be hesitant to use it everyday. I’d say, check the weather religiously before you leave home because if Mother Nature turns sour then the cabin will become your own personal swimming pool!