After forming the upscale carmaker Panoz Auto Development, Don Panoz and his son Dan formed Panoz Motor Sports in 1996 and tapped famed constructor Adrian Reynard to develop two prototype-class coupes for the 1997 LeMans 24 Hours. Neither car finished, but a prototype Panoz GTR-1 did complete the 1998 event, placing seventh overall. A similar car won the team prize in '98's U.S. Road Racing Championship.
Meanwhile, Don purchased Road Atlanta, set up the Panoz Racing School for drivers, and helped instigate two new racing series, the Petit LeMans and the American LeMans Series (ALMS). An open-top Panoz LMP 1 Roadster S won both the Team and Manufacturers titles in the '99 ALMS, beating entries from BMW and Audi.
These racers were a thrilling preview of a new roadgoing sports car. Named Esperante -- meaning "hope" or "spirit" -- it was publicly unveiled at the April 2000 New York Auto Show, but didn't enter production until that August, delaying deliveries until 2001.
A luxurious two-seat convertible, Esperante was sized close to Panoz' earlier model, dubbed Roadster, and used a similar suspension but featured an all-new spaceframe conceived by Leverett and fellow engineer William McClendon. The design comprised five extruded-aluminum modules that bolted and bonded together instead of being welded or riveted. Panoz claimed extraordinary strength for this chassis while hinting that its modular nature would make additional models easy to realize.
The base price was $79,950, including 24-hour roadside assistance and a 3/36 warranty. Unlike the Roadsters, Esperante was fully equipped, boasting dual dashboard airbags, antilock brakes (again big discs all-around), electronic traction control, power steering, power driver seat, power windows/locks/mirrors, cruise control, and a "semi-rigid" manual top with a folding-fabric rear section and a hard liftoff panel above the seats.
Under the hood was the latest Mustang Cobra V-8 with 320 bhp, but hand-assembled by SVT especially for Panoz. A five-speed manual was the only transmission, as in the Roadster.
Initial reviews were positive. Road & Track termed Esperante "the gentleman's LeMans racer." Though no magazine was able to do a full road test right away, factory performance numbers seemed entirely credible: 0-60 mph in 5.1 seconds, 0-100 in 12.6, the standing quarter-mile in 13.7 seconds at 103.5 mph.
But Dan later admitted to launching the car before it was ready. "I realize it was good to get press early…but by God, they hold your feet to the fire," he told journalist Pete Lyons for an August 2004 AutoWeek update. "There was very good response to the car, and it was a very good time in the market…[But because] we're small, people are a little skeptical."
Despite a major plant expansion, Esperante production was slow to get rolling, commencing with a mere 65 cars built in calendar 2001. But the right way was still the only way, and Dan would carefully evolve the Esperante to ever-higher standards of workmanship, technical sophistication, and performance. Volume soon moved higher, too, reaching 100 units in 2002.