Masterwork In Progress
After 15 Years Of Automaking, Dan Panoz Thinks His Esperante Is Finally Close To Right
By PETE LYONS/AUTOWEEK
One Of Innumerable Paint colors is Sugar Daddy Blue. Every car is ceremoniously autographed by its builders, and one of them bestows a name—always a female name, such as Adriana—which is then engraved front and center in the engine bay. The single most popular accessory is a cigarette lighter knob that reads EJECT.
But don’t let the peripheral frivolity tempt you to presume that Dan Panoz is making his Esperante sports cars just for fun. Oh, it’s fun for him, but the man is stone serious about this, his life’s work, and he is a work-a-maniac. By his account, he still hasn’t taken a vacation since starting Panoz Automotive Development (PAD) in 1989.
And note the third word in the company name. Panoz isn’t making cars so much as creating a new way of making cars. He holds several patents for innovative, low-labor-cost manufacturing processes on his modular, bonded chassis with its Superformed aluminum body and its Ford SVT engine.
With a staff of only 35, including his Ireland-born wife Melanie, and a modest, resolutely low-overhead factory in the tiny rural community of Hoschton, Georgia, Panoz is turning out a hand-built, all-American, $89,000 luxury sports car that challenges the likes of Jaguar and Porsche on performance and style. Reviews tend to be raves. Customers tend to come back—some own two, three, even four Panoz automobiles.
So why don’t you see Esperantes on the road?
Panoz is working on that. Though the model debuted at New York in April 2000, and orders came in immediately, fulfilling those orders lagged while details got revised. Further delays were caused by outside suppliers. Parts of the dealer network under-performed. And last year’s economy chilled many probable sales. Cars did get made and delivered, but at a rate far short of the factory’s capacity. As of April 2004, the world population of Esperante street cars had not reached 200.
But Panoz believes his business is on the cam at last. He says demand has picked up strongly this year. Recently Ford delivered a long-awaited supply of supercharged 390-hp engines, so the little U-shaped line is busily turning out its first production run of the GTLM model, a high-performance, $121,000-plus version Panoz calls "our new flagship." To promote it, Panoz has built a new, third-generation GT racer to take on Porsche and Ferrari in the American Le Mans Series and other series.
He also has built up a management team to handle dealer relations, service and warranty issues, marketing and PR
, "so we get to go back and concentrate on more products, doing what we do."
A product guy, Panoz still develops his dream car, using its inherent modularity to make running changes without breaks in production. Last year he started mounting his aluminum bodywork on a substructure of carbon fiber, a more rigid, precise replacement for the epoxy used originally. Beginning with the GTLM, he phased in a new rear suspension and associated chassis module. Simply bolted into place behind the cockpit, this deletes the original, modified Ford Mustang Cobra IRS in favor of an in-house design that, he says, improves geometry, increases rear-impact resistance, and cuts weight.
Next change comes in the cockpit module. Right now, PAD spot-welds about 40 separate Mustang steel stampings into its own FBA (Firewall/Bulkhead/A-pillar) structure, which then attaches to the Esperante’s extruded-aluminum chassis rails. But the Mustang is changing for ’05, so Panoz is taking the opportunity to design a new, proprietary FBA that includes a stressed transmission tunnel Panoz calls a "backbone," all from carbon composites. Anticipated benefits are a boost in stiffness, a weight savings of 80 pounds, and a sense that the Esperante becomes more purely a Panoz piece.
"I’m using more expensive material with carbon," the builder argues, "but I’m losing a ton of labor in processes and assemblage, and I’m handing the buyer a better product."
Future changes will keep up with Ford developments, including an upcoming three-valve version of the four-cam engine. Panoz notes his chassis will accept the bulkier 5.4-liter engine when it becomes available. "And if Ford ever puts the V10 into production, I can easily adapt my engine-bay module for it."
Even as he continues to refine the Esperante, Panoz is planning another, all-new model called Abruzzi, for the region of Italy from where his grandfather came. Launch is far from imminent and details are still closely held, but Panoz—who is styling the car himself—will admit he means to "recall the great GT cars of the ’50s and ’60s." Also, he says, "It may not necessarily be Ford-based."
He is being secretive about the Abruzzi because he now feels he announced the Esperante too soon. "I realize it was good to get press early... but by God, they hold your feet to the fire. There was a very good response to the car, and it was a very good time in the market, and then you’ve got dealers going, ‘Come on, how long does it take to redevelop the lower A-arm? Like, a week?’ And that hurt us a little bit.
"The other thing we realized is, we’re not Chrysler, for example. They can show a prototype, and even if it’s not perfect, really in some cases rough as a cob, they go, ‘Yeah, but we’re Chrysler, so we’ll have that right by production.’ People don’t buy that from me. Because we’re small, people are a little skeptical.
"How I prefer to do the Abruzzi is, do it carefully, don’t get pressured into a premature launch, make sure it’s right and then say, ‘There it is.’ People go, ‘Wow, that’s great, when can I get one?’ And the answer is ‘tomorrow’ as opposed to ‘three years.’"
It has been four years since AutoWeek drove an Esperante mule known as Pepe (June 19, 2000). Pepe was indeed "rough as a cob," but his daughters have grown up beautifully. They dress in three body styles now (convertible, coupe and GTLM coupe with extended nose and tail), and there are a variety of powertrain combinations available, including an automatic. Most tempestuous of them will be the supercharged GTLM, which we haven’t yet driven, but even the more demure ones are feisty.
Ford’s 320-hp, quad-cam V8 as hand-built by SVT is one of the industry’s most appealing motors, and Panoz is the only place in the States to get it in a conventional sports car. It produces plenty of power-sliding punch (with traction control off), and straight-line acceleration is stirring. All those camshafts that make this a bulky engine also make it reach for revs with bright eagerness. There is no pushrod buzz, just a sweet whir of oiled machinery and a fine, brassy blare from the exhaust. The meaty Tremec five-speed gearbox complements the engine well, but even better is a six-speed that can be installed on an aftermarket basis.
Esperante convertible, LM coupe and GTLM racer pose for a family portrait. In the four years since we drove a prototype, much has been improved, and production is finally up to speed. Ford SVT builds the V8, packed with 320 hp. (Photos by Richard Dole)
Though the Esperante is about as large and heavy as a C5 Corvette, and its wheelbase is slightly longer, it feels smaller and somehow more European on the road. Part of that may be due to Panoz’s refusal to fit tires wider than 10 inches, to prevent tramlining. Indeed, it would be a shame to spoil the Esperante’s excellent steering feel and the chassis’ general sense of good manners. As with Pepe the prototype, the convertible’s cowl barely quivers over imperfect pavement. Bumpy corners taken very hard may step the tail out, but not much, and the GTLM rear suspension (tried in prototype form) seems even more stable. The GTLM geometry also produces noticeably less squat on acceleration, and reduces rear-end lift under braking.
During normal driving, the rather wide turning circle is an occasional annoyance. The center-mounted gauge cluster—inherited from the tight cockpit of the cycle-fendered Panoz Roadster, now out of production—may strike some as an awkward affectation. The mirror adjuster is hard to reach below the door armrest. Erecting and stowing the convertible top can be a fussy process, and both it and the coupe roof have large, over-the-shoulder blind spots. Exhaust tone, especially in the coupe, is intrusive enough to require raised voices for conversation. None of these quibbles spoils the driving experience.
From all indications, the purchase experience can be just as luxurious. Panoz is a hospitable automaker, welcoming buyers one on one, letting them watch as their cars are made, inviting their input on custom touches that can personalize a car like a bespoke suit. Every Esperante comes with a photo book documenting each stage of its construction.
Beyond such special treatment, Panoz is well placed to offer his clients such lavish extras as a racing-school course and a stay at a posh resort, both courtesy of his father, Don Panoz, and both minutes away from the factory. It all adds up to an auto-buying experience like few others in America.
Be careful. You may catch yourself picking a color.
Panoz Esperante GTLM Racer
“We can’t afford to do this,” Dan Panoz remarks, “but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do. Now that’s brand-building.”
Panoz is talking about his new race version Esperante, the GTLM, same as the top-end street model. They are at heart the same car. But ACO/ALMS rules for the GT class permit numerous departures from stock, and Panoz has seized on every one of them.
Compared to last year’s car, which was seldom seen and not impressive, Panoz claims the ’04 GTLM is 200 pounds lighter, has a stiffer roll cage, and enjoys a better suspension geometry and aerodynamics. Punched out to 5.0 liters, the four-cam engine makes about 490 hp, up from 420. It drives through a Hewland six-speed sequential transmission with traction and launch control.
Much of the weight was saved by remaking the bodywork in carbon fiber instead of the street car’s aluminum.
The GTLM is 9.6 inches longer than other Esperantes, with front and rear bumper extensions, which meets frontal impact requirements in Canada and muffler restrictions in England, the two countries in which Panoz chose to homologate the street car, another ACO requirement. “But it doesn’t hurt my race car, either. I want all the body I can get.”
GTLM street cars are also distinguished by a pair of aerodynamic rocker panels, which on the racing version work with a flat undertray and side-opening exhausts permitted in GT.
After missing its planned debut at Sebring, the new GTLM racer qualified second in the GT class at Mid-Ohio, and held second in the race when it collided with a backmarker. At Lime Rock setup problems hurt its qualifying performance, while a broken halfshaft sidelined it from the race. At Infineon the Esperante was running mid-pack in GT until two collisions and two punctures dropped it to ninth in class, 17th overall