Why is Panoz America’s Coolest Car Company?
Panoz Auto Development lies in the hills of Georgia, about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta. (For those that find serendipity in numbers, that’s about a mile for each of its employees.) But perhaps a better way to think of Panoz’s physical location is that it’s 750 miles from Detroit. (The attitudinal distance from the Motor City is even further.) The Panoz “bricks and mortar” consist of just a few industrial buildings that are more warehouse than factory.
The only major equipment investment is in two paint booths of the sort you’d find in a high-end body repair shop. In fact, the whole scene bears a greater resemblance to a job shop than an OEM. This is somewhat apropos, as its 10 years’ of life have seen Panoz build fewer than 300 cars. The company has just four engineers and the only production vehicle it has ever built—the A.I.V. Roadster—is being discontinued this year due to government regulations. The future hangs entirely on a new model, the 2000 Esperante, of which only two currently exist: a functional show prototype and a mule that’s still being tested and tweaked.
“So why should I be impressed?” you ask. (No doubt thinking of the millions—or billions—of dollars your company generated in sales last year and the massive buildings and expensive equipment that were used to generate it.) It’s simple: these guys get it. I have seen the enemy and the enemy is convention, reads a Panoz advertisement. The enemy is derivative. He is an endless repetition of apathy and mediocrity. And he better pray he never finds himself next to me at a stoplight. But this is not just advertising; it may as well be the mission statement of the company, a group of passionate, innovative car lovers who understand that product must always come first and the only thing that can be compromised is compromise itself.
History: The A.I.V. Roadster
The Roadster dates back to the late-1980s, when Panoz owner and founder Danny Panoz purchased a Frank Costin chassis design from a bankrupt Irish company. (Costin is best known for his work with Lotus, Maserati and Lister.) Panoz began producing the Roadster in 1989 and used the Costin chassis as the foundation of the Roadster.
In the beginning, the goal was to build just one Roadster per month. However, production eventually increased to about 50 per year, all of it done by hand. The quirky-looking car also evolved from a design standpoint, being reengineered for the 1997 model year to become what Panoz claims is the first aluminum-intensive vehicle (A.I.V.) produced by a U.S. carmaker. The A.I.V. Roadster has an extruded aluminum frame that’s assembled as a complete rolling chassis before it’s hung with superplastic formed aluminum body panels supplied by Superform USA (Riverside, CA).
The A.I.V. Roadster is a great example of the kind of “scavenger” engineering that Panoz employs to build its vehicles. The car carries a Ford Mustang Cobra engine and transmission, a rear axle and differential from the Lincoln Mark VIII, a third brake light from the Ford Taurus, tail lights from a Land Rover, side view mirrors from the Mazda Miata, and sun visors from the BMW Z3.
“I don’t see why millions of dollars have to be spent on engineering new parts and systems when there are proven pieces already available,” explains Danny Panoz. “We’ve shown that with a little ingenuity they can be used to make something completely different.” The company, therefore, focuses most of its engineering resources on suspension design and styling—things that matter most to its customers.
Present: The Esperante
The idea has been kicking around since 1994, yet this year will finally see the introduction of Panoz’s $80,000 supercar. The Esperante owes much of its development to the lessons learned in the past 10 years of building the Roadster. Similarities include the superplastic-formed aluminum body panels that get attached to a rolling chassis with an extruded aluminum frame and the Mustang Cobra engine. But the new car has a level of refinement and driveability that wasn’t required in the Roadster. Even more importantly, Esperante production plans call for building 200 cars this year (140 have already been sold) and up to 500 in subsequent years. This evolution of both product and production has upped the ante at Panoz, demanding a simpler design that’s easier to build. “We started from the beginning and designed what can be made most economically,” says John Leverett, Panoz director of engineering and R&D.
The Esperante is a showcase for the Panoz engineers’ expertise at ingenious packaging. This and better parts scavenging solved the most pressing concerns of simplifying the design, especially with regards to the frame (see sidebar, “Framed”). Continuing in the tradition of carrying a lot of Ford-sourced parts, the Esperante body is largely composed of Mustang pieces, including the windshield frame and glass, the firewall and IP supports and the floor pans.
One of the huge engineering nightmares at Panoz was the new onboard emissions recovery regulation, which has led to its decision to discontinue building the Roadster. (For those that aren’t familiar with this requirement, let’s just oversimplify it and say that gas tank and fuel filter can’t emit anything.) The problem was not that the Roadster has a leaky gas tank, but that Panoz didn’t want to spend the big cash to get the certification. This meant that the Esperante uses the entire Mustang fuel system—lock, stock and barrel. (Unfortunately, it won’t fit in the Roadster.)
This led to another interesting packaging issue, as the only place to put the gas tank was right about where the rear suspension should be. The solution was simple—just steal the inboard, laterally opposed pushrod-activated shock absorber design from the Panoz racing team’s GTR-1 car (see sidebar, “World of Panoz”). And wouldn’t you know, this even improves the driving dynamics of the car. As the saying goes, when you’re given lemons…
Future: The Supplier Partnership
Currently, Panoz is working with Visteon on a number of developments, from transmissions to electronics. One of the great hopes for the future at Panoz is to continue to work with more big automotive suppliers as a springboard for their technology. The theory here is that it can partner with suppliers that have concepts that haven’t been sold to a big OEM yet. Since Panoz engineers are geniuses at packaging and adapting parts into their vehicles, they can rapidly deploy new technologies, giving those suppliers a key jump into the market. Since Panoz production volumes are low, this could also serve as something of a pilot build for the components.
Future vehicle plans at Panoz are nothing more than ideas at this point, but the thought of building a more affordable lightweight sports car has been kicked around. And speaking of affordable lightweight sports cars, the Panoz engineering staff is very enamored of theLotus Elise, which, coincidentally, bears a great deal of similarity in design and manufacture to the Panoz vehicles. (But notice that I didn’t mention “future vehicle plans” and “Lotus Elise” in the same sentence. Whoops, I guess I just did.)
World of Panoz
World of Panoz
Atlanta’s hometown corporate hero Coca-Cola gets a lot of run for sponsoring 10 NASCAR drivers. But this is small potatoes compared to the Panoz racing empire. Panoz Motor Sports boss Don Panoz (Danny’s father) not only owns and sponsors the racing team, but he owns the entire American Le Mans Series. Other holdings include Road Atlanta, the 2.54-mile, 12-turn road course located just a few miles from the Auto Development factory (production cars are road-tested at the track), and Sebring International Raceway in Florida. Down the road from Road Atlanta is the Panoz-owned Chateau Elan Winery and Resort, while a similar resort is under construction at Sebring. Both tracks also house a Panoz Racing School. Ironically enough, Panoz also owns a beverage company: Elan Natural Waters. And while Don may not have a grimacing Intimidator hawking his water, he will have the legendary Mario Andretti behind the wheel of his car at this year’s Le Mans 24 Hour Race. Kind of makes the Coke seem flat, doesn’t it?
What is Superplastic Forming? While superplastic forming is widely used in the aerospace arena, Panoz claims to be the only automotive company that’s using the process. Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is to say that it’s almost identical to thermoforming plastic. A sheet of aluminum alloy is heated to just under its melting point and then formed in one of two methods. (1) Bubble forming uses a combination of tool movement and air pressure to stretch the sheet into the desired form and is necessary for deeper draws. (2) Cavity forming uses air pressure alone. In both methods, the tooling and aluminum sheet are kept hot.
A stack of superplastic-formed aluminum hoods for the Roadster.
What is Superplastic Forming?
While superplastic forming is widely used in the aerospace arena, Panoz claims to be the only automotive company that’s using the process. Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is to say that it’s almost identical to thermoforming plastic. A sheet of aluminum alloy is heated to just under its melting point and then formed in one of two methods. (1) Bubble forming uses a combination of tool movement and air pressure to stretch the sheet into the desired form and is necessary for deeper draws. (2) Cavity forming uses air pressure alone. In both methods, the tooling and aluminum sheet are kept hot.
The Panoz panels are formed using open-faced aluminum tooling. To save money on the tooling, the Roadster panels are all formed on just three tools, one of which is used only for the hood. This means that the individual pieces (fenders, nose cone, trunk, etc.) must be trimmed out of the large formed parts. Currently, Panoz is doing this by hand with die grinders. This inherently inefficient process will be supplanted with a farmed-out 5-axis laser trimming operation for the higher-volume Esperante model.
John Leverett is Panoz’s Director of Engineering and R&D. He was completely responsible for the design and engineering of the Esperante—not just one system, but the entire car. While many of the components in the vehicle are adapted from other designs or scavenged outright from other cars, the engineering demands were still monstrous, especially considering that Panoz doesn’t have hundreds of specialized engineers or high-end CAE systems. Instead, Leverett and the three other Panoz engineers used their "racer’s instincts" (most everyone at Panoz has a background in some form of motor sports) and some low-end, off-the-shelf software to do the job.
But Leverett attributes the real secret to his success to one simple fact: he’s just 31 years old with absolutely zero experience working for a mass-production OEM or a tiered supplier. In other words, he doesn’t know that what his team set out to do "can’t be done." Leverett cut his teeth in his college’s Formula SAE program, which allowed him to develop the multiplicity of skills and knowledge he uses at Panoz. The program also taught him what could be called "cleverness," or how to solve problems simply and efficiently. Not coincidentally, five of the six other engineers that have worked for Panoz since the company began are also Formula SAE grads.
One example of Leverett’s cleverness is in the front suspension of the Esperante. The car uses the cast knuckle from the Mustang, despite the fact that the ‘Stang has a MacPherson strut setup and the Esperante uses a double-wishbone, coil-over design. The secret is a machined adapter that fits the boltholes for the strut, but provides the precise mounting location for the upper control arm.
Another clever bit of engineering involves the shift mechanism on the Esperante. The linkage is stock Mustang Cobra, but as anyone who’s ever driven a Cobra can confirm, the shift quality of this design would feel bad in a truck, let alone a sports car. Panoz designed a simple extension to the linkage that gives the Esperante shifter the kind of "notchy" feel desirable in a sports car. The solution kills two birds with one stone, since the shifter needed to be moved back a few inches from the stock Ford location anyway.