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.

Since 2000, 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.

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50 workers are employed at the plant, with a strong family strand running through some of the specialist staff, and amongst the management too.

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Danny Panoz (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”).

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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.

dailysportscar.comFirst 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."

This component 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.

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Quality control 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.

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"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 accordingly."

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 be mounted.

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.

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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.

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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.

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dailysportscar.comAt 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.

The 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".

There 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.

The changes to the front end will allow, it is hoped, an extra 18 mph on Mulsanne in the future.

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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.

dailysportscar.comIt 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.

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"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.
Graham Goodwin

 

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