Thank Frankel it’s Friday: Remembering the Panther Solo

22nd March 2019
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

One of the things I enjoy most about this column is that every so often it makes me think back to a car I drove many years ago and have scarcely thought of since. Now, to be fair, most of the time the reason these cars have fled my mind is that they didn’t really merit being there in the first place and whatever residual footprint remains is now so faint as to be barely visible at all. Were I, for instance, to dedicate the rest of this space to my memories of the original Suzuki Baleno, I’d be able to tell you that the windscreen wipers of the car I drove came on all by themselves during hard cornering to the left. Or was it to the right? Dunno and in either case, it would make for a pretty short column. But the Panther Solo? Well...


The curious thing about the Solo is that I ever forgot about it in the first place. When it was new almost 30 years ago the automotive press was briefly obsessed with it, none more so than at Autocar magazine where I worked at the time. I think we proclaimed it as the automotive equivalent of the second coming. But it turned out instead to be a meteor, blazing all to briefly through our skies before crashing to earth and obliterating itself. All that was left not just of the Solo, but the Panther Car Company that had produced some reasonably credible Morgan alternatives was a smoking crater. And the memories.

I found mine in the neurological equivalent of down the back of the sofa. This is not a car I ever considered at length again. Indeed, the one and only time I can recall thinking of the Solo since was when, rather bizarrely, I spotted a green one outside a hotel in Cape Town. Given that only around 20 were sold, the chances of me seeing one anywhere, let alone that many thousands of miles from home and for it to be, of all things, green, must have been many millions to one against. And the only reason it’s come back to me now is because yesterday someone tweeted a picture of that preposterous six wheeled Lady Penelope company car wannabe called the Panther Six. I’d forgotten about that too, and look forward to doing so again.


But the Solo was something else. Of course the problems that caused its downfall were obvious from the start. It 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 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.

I remember best a day at Castle Combe with a load of other good and fast cars from some pretty established and illustrious companies. And as a thing to drive, the Solo beat them hollow. It rode Combe’s notorious bumps – far worse then than they are today – with imperious aplomb and its steering was a good as any car’s I’d driven, despite the presence of those driveshafts. Most surprising of all, it drifted beautifully, like an old front-engined racer, not a four-wheel-drive mid-engined road car without much power.


So now I wonder whether I would like to drive one again. Would it bring those long-lost memories into sharper focus still, or would the exercise serve only to exhume other less edifying recollections best left in the past? I don’t know, but as I rate the chances of it happening at approximately zero, it’s not a decision I’m going to have to make. But I will try to remember it from now on. The Panther Solo may not have been good enough to make it in the marketplace, but it was more than good and interesting enough to earn a permanent position in the memory.

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