The cars we loved.
Between 1896 and 1930 there were over 1,800 car builders in America. Today that number has dwindled down to the big two (or three )and a handful of big transplants. While there are no longer hundreds of small companies making cars in places like Dayton or St. Louis, around 30 smaller shops are still churning out cars in shops across the country.
One of these companies is a relative newcomer. Nestled in the hills of Northern Georgia in what’s more commonly known as NASCAR alley, Panoz Auto Development (PAD) represents racing technology for the street. As one of the few independent non NASCAR related automotive ventures in the South, the Braselton based company has been in existence since 1989, the same year movie star Kim Basinger bought the whole town for $20 million. While Panoz was never part of the deal, it’s cars have quietly become status symbols for the Hollywood elite who take driving seriously like Patrick Dempsey. And for good reason. The company’s founder Daniel Panoz, himself an accomplished race car driver and tuner sold his first Panoz roadster in 1989. Since then the company has made various race cars and a few production models, getting good press but never making more than an occasional appearance on the road.
The whole ideal behind Panoz was to build cars like the famed small coachbuilders of Europe in the 60’s and 70’s. Like in the early days of the European supercar movement, Panoz’s cars would be based on the mechanicals of reliable American manufacturers like Ford. The dependence on Ford running gear has the added benefit of owners gaining access to Fords vast dealer network for service. Panoz’s small dealer network in North America includes locations in Canada as well as Mexico.
Currently all of Panoz’s models are some variation of the Esperante. The fancy Italian sounding name means hope or spirit and obscures the fact that the Esperante has Mustang running gear under its sleek skin. The design seems firmly rooted in the 90’s with lines that recall a Miata from the rear and a Viper elsewhere. The shape is classic if not familiar with a long hood and short deck. Esparentes come in five trims in coupe or roadster forms from base to customized JRD models. The base and GT models are powered by a 305 hp four cam 4.6L V8. While a 420 hp supercharged version of the engine comes straight from the Cobra SVT and is available for the GT-LM model.
In staying true to its racing heritage, Panoz also sells racing models of the Esperante (GTS) equipped with a 5.8-liter 445 hp V8. While not as powerful, the base cars still have plenty of kick for a car smaller than a Mustang, but larger than a Miata. At just over 3,000lb. the Esprante has a favorable power to weight ratio that helps it keep 0 to 60 times below 5 seconds. Light weight (and a double wishbone suspension) also assists in its ability to hold the road with 0.96g’s of lateral grip. The Esperante competes with cars like the Aston Martin DB7 Vantage and Ferrari 575. While those cars that may cost more than the Esperante, they do not offer any more performance – that is unless you consider brand cachet a factor.
While performance is a given from a company that races as much as it sells, the Esperante can be an all-out luxury GT in GT-LM guise. The interiors have the expected soft touch leather and wood trim, but in an unconventional move, the gauge cluster is centered in the dashboard like a some economy cars from Toyota and Saturn. This is perhaps the only thing about the Esprante that makes it questionable in the styling department. The exterior takes no chances and with Ford mechanicals, no worries there either.
The buying experience mimics that of many European makes. Customers can come down to Georgia, stay in the fancy Chateau Elan, tour the factory and pick up their car. While in Georgia, there’s always the option of signing up for Panoz’s famous racing school where students drive specially prepped Esperantes for track duty. Of the many small boutique car makers out there, Panoz strives to make a hassle free exotics that can be driven everyday like a Mustang. Thanks to Ford backing, it’s all possible without the stigma of seeing yourself on the road.