By on July 8, 2010

In the previous edition of the Big Buff Book Cover-Up series, we looked at the Cumberford Martinique, a BMW & Citroen based retro roadster designed by a small startup that never got beyond prototypes or demonstrators.

The last of the three-part series shows (for starts) that you don’t have to be a small startup for your concept to stall at the prototype stage.

You can be a small British luxury marque with a storied but financially checkered past. Aston Martin has been around for 97 years, since Lionel Martin raced specials up Aston Hill. After the company went into receivership in the 1970s, Peter Sprague and George Minden came to control the company. They updated the A-M lineup with the V8 Vantage and Volante and then let William Towns design the radical Lagonda sedan. Towns was not without talent, but the guy certainly liked trapezoids and his use of flat planes makes Giugiaro’s wedges look positively curvy. The current line of Aston Martins are among the most beautiful cars being made today.  They are sensual designs that caress the eye. Nobody ever said that the Lagonda was beautiful, and it would only be sensual to an S&M freak who gets off on the cold, clinical thing.

Aston Martin’s management also had Towns design the Bulldog, a high profile (but low to the ground) mid-engine gull winged (is there a pattern here?) supercar with twin turbochargers added to the 5.3L A-M V8, said to produce 600-700 HP.

Though Towns’ designs aren’t everyone’s cup of Earl Grey (I think the Bulldog is actually kind of attractive while the Lagonda is a bit too extreme for my taste), to my eyes they capture a certain zeitgeist of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Can’t you just see someone laying out some lines of cocaine on the hood of a Lagonda? It’s not a surprise that a front 3/4 beauty shot of the Bulldog was on the cover of the July 1980 Road & Track. In addition to the car’s angular and planar styling, it featured a “state of the art” digital display (that apparently worked as poorly as its analog in the Lagonda), and hidden headlamps. Most mid-engine supercar cover concepts have hidden headlamps, so you have to be clever to make yours stand out from the crowd, like with the Bertone Alfa Romeo Navajo’s lights that pop out sideways. The Bulldog’s novel hidden headlamps feature a large panel on the car’s hood that drops down to reveal five large headlamps. Whatever the Bulldog’s Cd (for the unwashed, that’s drag coefficient, not a disk) was with the headlights hidden, I’m sure that drag went up considerably when the lights went on.

The exact nature of the Bulldog project is unresolved. The one Bulldog that was built is a fully functional car, test driven to 191mph. Some accounts say that a manufacturing run of 25 was planned. Others say that the car was made to order for an oil-rich Sheik who backed out of the deal. Paul Frere’s R&T article says that it was a one-off development exercise that the new owners felt was a worthy demonstration of Aston Martin’s ability to build sports cars as well as advertising the firm’s prototyping skills for outside customers. The Bulldog is built around a backbone of steel tubing down the center of the car with hoops and braces to create a roll cage.

The backbone design allowed Towns to build what would normally be the sills or rocker panels into the gull wing doors. When you step out of the car you step right down on the road. Four piston calipers activated the ventilated disc brakes and the custom wheels were designed to help with brake cooling, needed because of the car’s two ton weight. Gull winged cars present unique structural challenges, because of the size of the opening. The needed stiffening adds pounds. In Frere’s test drive on a track, the Bulldog showed that it indeed needed development, understeering and the engine running out of breath before the redline, but he felt the car had promise. With the normal development a production car gets, he thought that AM would be able to reduce weight as it optimized components.

Frere did quote AM managing director Alan Curtis as saying that the company was willing to make another one or two, should someone show enough interest and money. Someone eventually showed Aston Martin enough money and after they were done using it as a test mule they parted with the one and only Bulldog for £130,000. According to Wikipedia and other sources, California car dealer Paul Tanner currently owns the car, whose original silver and grey exterior has been repainted light metallic green.

We finally come to my personal favorite, the Panther Six, on the cover of the January 1978 Road & Track, what is surely one of the most outrageous cars ever. Founded in 1972 by Richard Jankel, in Surrey, UK, Panther made mostly retromobiles, of a kind with the Cumberford Martinique. Only in Jankels case, he actually managed to start a car company. Their first product was the J72, a Jaguar SS100 replicar using XJ12 components and a luxury interior. The J72 was a hit by British specialist manufacturer standards, selling about 500 over the course of a decade.

Panther went on to make small numbers of the FF, a cycle fendered Ferrari inspired roadster based on Ferrari 330 GTC parts, the massive Bugatti inspired DeVille, and the Rio, a Triumph Dolomite built to Rolls Royce levels of fit and trim costing 3X the price of a stock Dolomite, before finding larger sales figures again with the more modestly priced Panther Lima in 1976. The Lima had a 1950s style roadster body that’s been compared to Morgans and Allards, and was built on Vauxhall components. Almost 900 Limas were built between 1976 and 1982. Sir Jack Brabham was a fan, and owned a 1979 Lima. Some Limas even made it to the US and other export markets.

Here’s where the story takes an unusual turn. Apparently not content with building retro roadsters, both luxurious and more humble, Jankel decided to go into the supercar market with the Panther Six, which had an open top, but was anything but a retro roadster. Inspired by Derek Gardner’s Tyrrell P34 Formula One racer, the six wheeled Panther Six is seen here gracing the cover of the January 1978 Road & Track. On the cover is the obligatory beauty shot of the Six, along with an inset photo of engine bay, replete with a twin turbocharged 500 cubic inch Cadillac Eldorado FWD drivetrain mounted amidships (naturally, it’s on the cover), racing fuel cells, fire suppressors, and two spare tires, one for each of the Six’ wheel sizes.

Doug Nye wrote the feature article, based on an interview with Jankel, apparently fond of saying “you just won’t believe this, but…” Jankel wanted the Six to not only compete with Porsche and Ferrari’s best, he wanted to leapfrog them with 200mph speed.

That was not enough. He reasoned that since congestion and regulations were making it more and more difficult to actually use the available performance many exclusive cars offered, that many of those cars were sold to people who wanted to make a statement about and attract attention to themselves. At a British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, the P34 drove by and he instantly knew how to leapfrog technologically, and in a most visible manner that would appeal to people who buy expensive cars for show.

Panther’s experience with sourcing Vauxhall bits opened Jankel’s eyes to the options in GM’s parts bin and if you’re going to go big, go big. For the Six, he went with GM’s biggest powerplant. Of course the fact that it was the larger of only two GM engines at that time with a FWD transaxle suitable for mid-engine layouts made that choice more obvious. Rear suspension also used the Caddy FWD components, with coilover shocks replacing the GM torsion bars. Front suspension used Vauxhall wishbones from the Lima, times 2, with a linkage to steer both sets of wheels from a single rack & pinion. Though arrived at independently, Panther ended up using a steering geometry similar to the Tyrell and six-wheel trucks. Braking swept area with six discs was described as “massive”.  One braking option with two front axles is to set the braking bias so that the front set of tires will lock up before the second. In the wet, that squeegees the water away, and allows the second set to get traction. The two Garret turbos boosted the engine’s output to 600 HP, so that any extra traction was welcomed.

I happen to like the Panther Six’ clean and crisp styling. I think it’s an elegant design that integrates the small front wheels well into the slab side and sloping hood line of the fender. Perhaps understatement is needed, with the car’s six wheels. Jankel claimed that the styling was tuned in a wind tunnel to be stable at 200mph+, with an air dam and smooth undertray, and said that with the available power and the car’s drag coefficient, it had a theoretical top speed of 243 mph. To achieve that, the Six has a ridiculously high final drive ratio of 1.8:1. With 600 HP moving 2,870 lbs, even with such long gearing, Jankel claimed 0-100 times in the 7 to 8 second range. Neither Nye nor Jankel discussed how much your hair would get mussed at 200mph. Lighting, based on popup units on the fenders, and spots behind the egg crate grille, was described as “adequate” (but just only, in a classic Brit understatement) for racing at LeMans.

Jankel and Panther thought that they had just what exotic, luxury and supercar customers wanted. The Six was supplied with both a convertible soft top and a detachable hardtop roof. It was kitted luxuriously, with digital displays apparently forced on Panther by a market impressed with the Tokyo-by-night Aston Martin Lagonda IP. The Six was sturdy with a tube frame welded up from 2″ 14-gauge square tubing, stressed skins, and a bolt on bogey carrying the front suspensions and steering. With six springs carrying the load, the Six could be tuned for a soft ride, while still cornering well because of all that mechanical grip. Front tires were 205/40 13s and backs were 265/50 16s. Total contact patch is about 52 inches wide. That’s a lot of mechanical grip.

No anticipated production figures were mentioned, though Panther clearly planned to produce them. An American importer was lined up and a price of about $75,000 was bandied about. By comparison, a 1980 Ferrari 308 had a MSRP of about $40,000. Of course the 308 did not have 600 horsepower, not to mention six wheels.

Since Panther was so obviously a small scale manufacturer, R&T did not predict sales figures. However it was designed to comply with then current safety regulations and it turns out that the Six actually went into production, though in the most limited sense. A second Panther Six was made for a customer in the Middle East. Both cars still exist, one white and one black, and the one in the UK is occasionally driven and displayed.

Panther, though, no longer exists. It’s not clear whether it was due to the Six project or due to rapid growth with the success of the Lima, but in 1980 Jankel lost control of the company and it went through bankruptcy. It was bought by a Korean businessman, Young Kim, who kept it afloat for 10 years, when it was then liquidated and the assets were sold to SsangYong. Jankel returned his attention to his coachbuilding company and he made a very successful career out of limousine and armored car conversions, being Rolls-Royce’s limousine builder of choice. In 1992 he built the Jankel Tempest, another luxury supercar, this time based on Corvette components and a 6.7 liter 535 bhp supercharged V8, capable of 200mph, and certified by the Guinness book of records for the best 0-60 time up to 1992, 3.89 seconds. Richard Jankel died in 2005, but his masterpiece lives on forever. Well, as long as nobody rips the cover off the magazine.

Car magazines aren’t going to stop putting wild concept cars on their covers. I can’t tell you what they’ll look like, though they will definitely catch your eye. I can’t tell you what will power them, gasoline, electricity or hydrogen, though I’m pretty sure that the motors/batteries/fuel cells will be laid out in a manner that can be described as “mid-engine”. I can’t tell you whether the lighting units will use Halogen, Xenon, or high zoot LEDs, but they’ll mostly likely be hidden when not in use. Chances are, that no matter how well developed the car appears to be, it most likely won’t go on public sale, and if it does ever go on sale, it will sell in such small numbers that most folks will never see one in person outside of a car show or museum.

On second thought, there’s been some trends in the other direction. Companies like Aston Martin will show something outrageously expensive and ultra high performance like the One 77, and if there’s enough interest in the car to do a short run of 20 or 50 cars profitably, they start taking deposits. In the case of startups like Fisker and Tesla, there’s the additional step of first attracting enough venture capitalists to be able to build a show car and prototype, and then they start taking orders. They seem to skip the step about building or buying a factory to build the cars. That’s an interesting business model.

At least Preston Tucker had a factory.  His cars got on magazine covers too. Never a man to give up, after his acquittal on securities charges, Tucker licked his wounds, found some Brazilian investors, and by 1955 he was hyping the Carioca sports car. Car Life put it on the cover with the caption “Preston Tucker’s Secret New Car”.

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13 Comments on “Magazine Memories: The Big Buff Book Cover-Up, Part 3...”

  • avatar

    So it looks like William Towns’ designs were the source of inspiration for today’s Acura design team.

  • avatar
    healthy skeptic

    That Aston Martin looks like I could shave with it.

  • avatar

    The Panther looks like it should be amphibious.

  • avatar

    Another difference between Elon Musk and Preston Tucker: Tucker actually was a car guy. He had considerable experienc designing and building race cars. He also had experience in manufacturing mechanical products. When he started his company he hired some of the brightest designers and engineers around and gave them plenty of latitude.

    Today’s start-ups seem to think they can eschew such trivialities and blaze a new path for creating a manufacturing empire. Time will tell whether they are creating a new paradigm, but I suspect their new business model will prove unsuccessful.

  • avatar

    The “magazine memories” series has recently provoked one of my own and it’s been bugging me as I can’t recall its name or find anything about it. It was a large “mini” van that had an elevated and/or central cockpit and a more executive limo-like passenger compartment. It was speculated to have a V12 or something ridiculous. Would have been in either R&T or Motor Trend between 89-93/94. Any ideas?

    • 0 avatar
      Charles T

      The Lamborghini/Bertone Genesis comes to mind:
      When Chrysler bought Lamborghini, of course the logical approach was to mate a minivan body and a 3-speed automatic to a Lamborghini V-12.

    • 0 avatar

      Nailed it. That was a cool concept. There was another Chrysler van concept fromt he same era that was interesting. It was a “Voyager” concept. Basically, you had an enormous minivan body with elevated seating, and a small engine powering the rear wheels. When you didn’t need to haul so many people, the drivers compartment would detach, with it’s own FWD powertrain, and you’d have a Geo Metro size runabout.

    • 0 avatar

      Are you thinking about the Plymouth Voyager 3??

    • 0 avatar

      The minivan with the detachable commuter car is a wild concept. I wonder if was inspired by the Star Trek TNG Enterprise with a detachable saucer section.

  • avatar

    I feel like I should stay a subscriber to magazines like C&D just for the crazy speculative covers.

    • 0 avatar

      Didn’t Aston Martin also have a race car during this period called the Nimrod? I’m serious.

    • 0 avatar

      Bomber Pete: Yes and no. I thought so too, but a quick visit to my friend Google tells us that Nimrod Racing Automobiles — see also here — was actually an independent (and sadly short-lived) operation, though supported by Aston Martin in exchange for the PR value. See for instance the front mask of the cars in the pictures, how it apes the traditional A-M grille.

      Now, what I’d like to know about Nimrod is this: How did the name of name of a biblical king and “great hunter” come to mean “dork” in colloquial (American) English?

  • avatar

    Hmm… Is that humongous windscreen on the Six actually the rear window / hatch of a Porsche 924/944/968?

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