Panoz AIV Roadster

The American Sports Car Company Prototype featured yesterday reminded me of what we should all start considering the current-day "American Sports Car Company": Panoz.

Back in November, I wrote about the TMC Costin—an Irish-built Caterham Seven-type vehicle that was engineered to provide both significantly better aerodynamics and roadholding. As the economics of building sports cars soured in the mid-to-late '80s, just 39 were built before an American by the name of Don Panoz ('Pay-nose', if you're wondering) bought the chassis for his own sports car project.

It's said that little, if any, of the original Costin design survived the transition to American muscle car, but the tiny Costin provided a template of sorts for the team to work with when shoehorning in the largely 'Fox body' Mustang running gear. Yes, the first Panoz Roadsters had the five-oh.

In the rarified world of car collecting, you can either work, beg, borrow, or steal yourself into a Ferrari and then spend tens of thousands of dollars maintaining it long enough to earn a profit. You can luck into finding your Porsche 912 now, suddenly, worth six digits. You can go all Indiana Jones and keep a pre-war relic, like a Duesenberg, Cord, or Auburn going.

Or you can just buy something you like, enjoy it, and hope to sell it for what it's worth a few years later.

I personally feel as though the AIV Roadster, the first major revision to the car, will go down in history as one of those cars we all noticed was relatively affordable…and then we remember it again, decades later, once someone pays big money for one.  

Panoz doesn't do things half-assed, so when designing the Roadster, it hired Freeman Thomas to do the styling. You may recognize his work in such hits as the Volkswagen New Beetle, (first) Audi TT, Audi A4, a number of Chrysler concepts—and even on the Chrysler 300C, which he helped style alongside Ralph Gilles. His retro/not retro lines were formed in aluminum.

Forty-six first-series Roadsters were built, and most of them were built to an owner's specifications. There was little they could option, however: the car featured creature comforts totalling:

  1. Seats
  2. Doors
  3. Windshield
  4. Windshield defroster
  5. Carpet

There is no top, and no tonneau cover. Basically: drive it, but make sure you won't be caught in the rain. 

Anyway, in 1996, the car was replaced by an all-new car that looked pretty much the same as the old one, with three important differences: it had more power, a stiffer chassis, and was significantly lighter. The original Roadster was no slouch, with a 1,179 kg (2,600 lb) weight and around 250 horsepower, but the new, "Aluminum Intensive Vehicle" (AIV) construction put weight at just 1,170 kg (2,570 lb).

With the new Mustang released around that time, the car received a new engine: the 4.6-litre V8, with more than 300 horsepower. This has, in later years, been upgraded to a newer, breathed-on unit with 430 horsepower…as standard. The optional supercharged motor is rated for a wild 560 horsepower. For even more butt-clenching thrust, Panoz quotes a 750 horsepower option online…

And people are scared of the Viper!

Air conditioning was featured on the AIV at launch, and a soft tonneau cover was added as well. The cars are still upgradable at the Panoz factory, just like Shelby American and others used to do. That said, there's only so much Panoz can do: it remains a simple roadster to its core, with a cramped interior, tiny trunk, and switchgear largely from the '90s Ford parts bin—I bet most of us could set the radio presets in less than a minute.

As we watch sports car companies come and go—Spyker, TVR, Wiesmann, Gumpert, and others—it's important to note that others, including Panoz, have found a formula that works. It may not be setting record Nürburgring lap times or messing around with lifestyle marketing, but the company has a loyal following and years of success following the purchase of that little TMC Costin chassis. 

If you can buy one now, chances are you'll enjoy it and get your money back when it comes time to sell it. The AIV Roadster may not seem all that 'weird' compared with many of the vehicles I write about, but think about it: successful boutique sports car manufacturers are few and far between. Isn't that a little bit strange?