Panoz Auto Developments – The Road Cars
Part 2 - Present and Immediate Future
The Panoz Auto
Developments plant at Hoschton, Georgia, is far from the scale one
might normally expect from a mainstream car plant - but then again
it doesn't produce mainstream cars.
the company has concentrated on the Esperante sports car in various
forms, all powered by the 4.6 litre Ford SVT V8 in normally aspirated
or, in the high end GTLM model, supercharged format.
50 workers are
employed at the plant, with a strong family strand running through
some of the specialist staff, and amongst the management too.
(above, with Lawrence Tomlinson) was hard at work in his office
when we arrived, his charming wife Melanie offering drinks and bonhomie
in a refreshingly uncorporate fashion, such that it was some minutes
before we realized that the lady offering to run back to the opposite
end of the plant to fetch some water was actually the spouse of
the company President. Truly a family business.
That's not to say that this isn't an entirely serious
manufacturing enterprise - it is, and with engineering standards
that put many more well established companies to shame.
The main assembly
area is a horseshoe-shaped complex with 'just-in-time’ parts
supplies arriving at the centre, as the cars make their way around
an extremely well ordered assembly process at the rate of around
125 per year (although the plant has the capability to build a completed
car from scratch in less than 10 weeks "if we had to”).
This plant was built specifically to manufacture
the Esperante, and Director of Sales & Marketing John A. Leverton
was clearly proud of the facility, leading our small party on a
very detailed tour.
up was a talk through a fully finished Esperante chassis.
"All bonded, no welds at all. The chassis comprises
aircraft grade aluminium rails linked by immensely strong bonded
joints. Each chassis component has a crush structure built in."
is the epitome of clever engineering, a deformable component which,
when heated to 1400 degrees, slides easily over the chassis rails
and is therefore simplicity itself to replace in exactly the same
way if damaged in an accident.
We would see the evidence later in the tour that
this safety critical part of the car's construction really works.
It's this level
of technology that provides an edge to the Panoz story: the company
holds a number of patents on their bonding processes and these have
been used by some very high profile customers indeed: the body panels
on the Aston Martin Vanquish for instance are bonded with products
featuring Panoz part numbers.
is clearly regarded as a primary concern here, perhaps learning
the lessons that other specialist sport car manufacturers have taken
so long to take on board.
"Each engineer has to build a complete car
every quarter to ensure they are well versed in doing the jobs they
are responsible for assessing and improving, and every employee
is assigned a colour and each component they fit is marked with
Each of those
components is torque tested at some point down the line and of course
the worker who first fitted the component can be readily identified.
The plant features
some clever machinery to ensure that the finished product lives
up to the premium price attached to an Esperante. One chassis jig
provides the capability to provide an all round 4 wheel alignment,
by simulating a fully built car in full compression. The machine
shows whether, and exactly where, there is any problem with chassis
alignment at a stage in production where the issue can be easily
dealt with rather than relying on (expensive) lessons learnt from
fully built cars.
Another jig puts the car under stress in order to
fit the carbon fibre inner skin: once formed and in place this provides
enormously stiff structure onto which the aluminium bodywork will
The jig also
provides a very clever sliding frame to ensure that each car's doors
are a perfect fit, even before the body panels are fitted to the
car. That part of the construction sequence comes next, the 'superformed'
aluminium panels, featuring uniform thickness throughout their curves,
are offered up to the bare structure.
The aluminium bodywork is mounted and remounted several times for
finishing. Every edge is hand radiused and an enormous amount of
care goes into ensuring that the shutlines are perfect, before the
panels are finally removed for painting.
All of Panoz's
paintwork is hand finished by brothers Keith and Ken Merritt (above):
at the time of our visit the pair were putting the finishing touches
to a superbly finished panel with carbon air intakes.
It's at this stage too that the roof mechanisms
are fitted to the vast majority of Esperantes (a tiny minority are
now ordered as hard top coupés). All of the company's convertible
mechanisms are now built in-house, replacing a unit which used to
be supplied by the same company building the mechanisms for Ferrari:
"Not reliable enough". The Panoz mechanism is adjustable
over the full life of the car and is subjected to eight high pressure
water tests before delivery to the customer: "No leaks, guaranteed."
At this stage also the car is run for 35 minutes
to check all mechanical and electrical systems: "This shows
up any areas where final mechanical finishing is required and allows
us to test all the major componentry."
Whilst the bodywork
is away for painting, the in-house upholsterers are hard at work.
One family does all of the Panoz leatherwork. Father and son Tony
and Art Domingues and their nephews produce stunning results from
the trimming of the Recaro seats (frames supplied direct from the
factory): Aston Martin is apparently the only other car company
that supplies Recaros as standard in the USA, through to all of
the trim on doors and dash too. The Domingues family also installs
all of their work and complete all the convertible tops too, as
well as operating a restoration service for customer cars.
At the very
end of the production line, glinting in the sunshine pouring in
through the exit doors, was the new 2006 GTLM, which was due to
be unveiled the following day to the US motoring media, complete
with a new look front end.
first car is unusually a coupe, fitted with a 6 speed Tremec box,
Panoz Pewter paintwork, carbon fibre roof (with new larger rear
window) and an 8 point safety cage.
The car also
features a full DVD player installation, with a beautifully integrated
screen in the passenger sun visor, the system pre-loaded with a
DVD showing off the "Panoz Experience".
was an opportunity on the new car too to look closely at the longer
rear fender, the inclusion of which allows the installation of the
rear wing on the race car.
changes to the front end will allow, it is hoped, an extra 18 mph
on Mulsanne in the future.
All cars, not
just the brand new 2006 model, are delivered with no less than 100
miles - three teams of two testers covering a 100 point pre-delivery
check. Everything is checked from fit and finish through performance,
economy and the braking system: impressive performance is on tap
here, the system designed for a car at least 600lbs heavier.
In the finishing shop we find another unique aspect
of the Panoz brand - "All the cars have names," reveals
Leverton, opening the hood to reveal a beautifully engraved name
plate alongside other plates, with etched signatures of everyone
who has worked on the finished car under the hood.
"Anna is the one I have in the UK," says
Lawrence Tomlinson, thoroughly enjoying his second tour of the plant.
was also in this shop that Leverton told the tale of the crash test
performed on the Esperante. The car passed the front impact test,
at 30 mph, with flying colours. Whilst at the test centre Subaru,
scheduled to be next up, cancelled a test on one of its cars and
the time was offered to Panoz instead. The rear and side impact
tests were passed too, with the same car as had succeeded in the
frontal test, despite the
fact that the tests are usually conducted on three separate chassis.
If there was
any doubt about the crashworthiness of the car, there were two other
tales to relate. Leverton's son (also John), Panoz's Director of
Engineering, had suffered an horrendous accident when his Esperante
had a massive impact, ending up being dragged underneath an 18 wheel
truck for almost a mile.
Both the driver and his wife walked away unscathed,
and the car stood up remarkably well too: it was soon back in the
factory to be converted to a show car with full 'Spyder' bodywork.
Another customer car was ‘driven’ off
a 100ft cliff onto its nose: written off by the driver's insurers,
the factory restored it as a brand new car for $35,000.
So the engineering
pays off when it counts and, judging from the spirited test drive
that Tomlinson gave the 2006 car, with Danny Panoz in the passenger
seat, the performance pays back on the investment too, the Team
LNT boss putting a smile on the Panoz President's face with a spirited
power, handbrake turn, back into the company car park.
"Danny's a perfectionist and driving that car
it really shows," said Tomlinson. We'll find out for ourselves
next week when we take an Esperante up one of the world's greatest
driver's roads, Route One, the Pacific Coast Highway, to Laguna
Seca for the final round of the 2005 American Le Mans Series.