A true "family affair," Panoz Auto Development Company was founded in late 1988 by sports-car and racing enthusiast Daniel Panoz with backing from his billionaire father Donald.
The elder Panoz (pronounced "PAY-nose") made a vast fortune from two pharmaceutical companies based in Ireland, where Dan was born in 1962. One of those companies developed the enormously lucrative transdermal patch familiar to many ex-cigarette smokers.
After training as a designer and engineer for the aircraft and aerospace industries, 26-year-old Dan Panoz applied for a job with Frank Costin's Ireland-based Thompson Motor Company, only to find it was going out of business.
But Thompson had developed an innovative chassis that Dan saw as a way to realize his dream of building a high-performance low-production sports car in the mold of Caroll Shelby's hallowed Cobra. To keep it affordable and practical, he decided to use off-the-shelf Ford components that could be easily serviced most anywhere.
While setting up a small factory near the family's U.S. estate outside Atlanta, Georgia, he worked with engineer John M. Leverett to develop a two-seater based on the Thompson chassis, though the eventual Panoz Roadster was entirely new.
The car included classic cycle-fender styling on a steel frame with a pushrod 5.0-liter Mustang V-8, five-speed manual transmission, solid rear axle, 16-inch wheels, and a 98.5-inch wheelbase. Sixty of these were built in 1990-96, and all were sold at a suggested price of $43,495, including canvas top and side curtains.
In late 1996, Dan invited Car and Driver to test an improved Roadster dubbed A.I.V. -- "Aluminum Intensive Vehicle." The term referred to a stout new "twin tier" spaceframe chassis made of extruded aluminum. There were many other changes, including a six-inch longer wheelbase, independent rear suspension (with unequal-length A-arms and coil-over shocks as in front), 18-inch wheels, fatter tires, and a big hood air scoop for clearing a taller engine, the 4.6-liter twincam V-8 from the latest Mustang SVT Cobra.
Car and Driver clocked 0-60 mph in a swift 4.8 seconds and a standing quarter-mile of 13.6 seconds at 101 mph. "It's like driving a Lotus 7 but with fewer rattles, twice the room, and twice the thrust," enthused tester John Phillips.
Despite its elemental nature, the A.I.V. was beautifully crafted. Each took 350 man-hours to build, a big reason why the price eventually reached $63,000. Even so, it came with a three-year/36,000-mile warranty, generous by "exoticar" standards. The factory would even send out a technician to work with a local body shop on a car unlucky enough to be crunched. Such personal customer service remains a PAD specialty.
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The Panoz Esperante
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.
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The Panoz GTS and Panoz GTLM
While creating Panoz Auto Development's flagship Esperante, company founder Dan Panoz and his team somehow found time to cook up a "spec racer" version. This car, the Esperante GTS, was an affordable turnkey competitor for Sports Car Club of America and National Auto Sport Association events, not to mention the recently established Panoz Racing Series.
Features included a specific body composed of 15 "thermoformed" alloy panels, plus a 430-bhp Ford Motorsports 5.8-liter racing V-8, an eight-point integrated roll cage, high-speed aerodynamic enhancements, and a race-ready weight of just 2700 pounds. Cars like this competed with distinction all over the land and won Panoz the 2002 B.F. Goodrich Trans-Am Manufacturers Championship.
Still available through the small Panoz dealer network (some 50 outlets in major metro areas), the GTS has seen between 50 and 60 copies as of early 2006. The figure is some 200 for another racy early days variation. This is the GTR-A ("Road Atlanta"), a "trainer" for students at the family racing school. It was only to be expected from a company with a Ferrari-like devotion to raceworthy street cars engineered with track-tested technology.
That ethic produced a new Esperante announced in early 2003: the limited-edition, high-performance GTLM -- "LM" for LeMans. By this time, the "classic" Esperante was also available as a "carbon-roof" coupe -- basically the convertible with its folding roof and mechanism exchanged for a lightweight bonded-and-fastened carbon-fiber canopy.
The GTLM also offered this choice, but arrived with its own long-nose/long-tail styling shaped to enhance high-speed stability. That was in order, because the engine was a supercharged 4.6-liter iron-block V-8, basically the latest twincam, 48-valve SVT Mustang Cobra unit tuned for an advertised 420 bhp (versus 390), though the dynamometer showed quite a bit more. There was only one transmission this time, the stout Tremec T56 six-speed manual.
Taking advantage of Esperante's inherent design "modularity," the GTLM introduced an improved rear-suspension assembly. This comprised a new subframe developed with Panoz partner Multimatic, Inc., and featuring lighter, tubular-steel lower control arms bolted to aluminum uprights; new "motorsport-oriented" suspension geometry; and damping by double-isolated coil-over spring/shock units, similar to those up front.
Panoz claimed this setup cut unsprung weight for better handling and also reduced noise, vibration, and harshness, this despite an upgrade from 17- to 18-inch alloy wheels (on P255/45ZR tires).
Weighing less than 3400 pounds, the GTLM performed impressively: 4.2 seconds 0-60 mph, 12.8 seconds at 109.4 mph in the standing quarter-mile, no less than 180 mph all out, and 0.98g on the skidpad (versus 0.92). All this plus EPA-rated fuel economy of 17 mpg city/25 highway and the same plush furnishings as the "unblown" version.
The LM was also treated to more heavily bolstered seats and purposeful aluminum-billet cockpit trim. Cars like this don't come cheaply. The price tag: some $121,000, reasonable for such an exclusive high-speed gran tourismo.
Panoz unveiled the Esperante GT in early 2004. This was basically the GTLM convertible or coupe with the base-model powerteams and an in-between initial price of just over $96,000 to start. Performance was in between too, the factory claiming 4.9 seconds 0-60, 13.4 at 107.3 mph in the quarter-mile, 155 mph tops, and 0.96g lateral acceleration. Production, meantime, had been inching upward, reaching 110 retail units in calendar 2003, then 135 each in '04 and '05. That might seem low, even for a "exotic" marque, but every Esperante is hand-built by a dedicated workforce of about three dozen employees. The main news for 2005 was extending the GT/GTLM rear suspension to the standard Esperante, though Panoz also expanded color, trim, and sound-system choices. Also added that year were Recaro's new "Style Top Line" seats -- optional for base models and standard otherwise. Prices crept up, partly due to rising materials costs but also because of constant improvements, such as a revised rear-end structure making extensive use of carbon composites.
Meanwhile, the redesigned 2005 Ford Mustang allowed Dan to redesign his car's firewall/bulkhead/A-pillar structure, again relying on carbon composites to make it lighter yet stronger in concert with a new, integral "backbone" transmission tunnel. "I'm using more expensive material," he told AutoWeek in 2004, "but I'm losing a ton of labor in processes and assemblage, and I'm handing the buyer a better product."
Dan also had to contemplate an eventual change of engines, as the SVT V-8s were out of production by 2005, though he had stockpiled enough to get him through for a while. Meantime, he managed to roll out a racing GTLM, which scored its first major win in early 2006 with a class victory in the Mobil-1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.
Last but not least, Panoz has already started thinking about his next car. As Lyons reported in 2004, it's to be called Abruzzi, after the region in Italy that was home to Dan's grandfather. Dan will say nothing more about it and has announced no introduction date.
The Panoz saga is still unfolding, but it bears the hallmarks of a long-running story filled with more high adventure on the track and more high performance for the street.