America's Forgotten Sports Car: The Panoz Roadster/AIV

Let's talk about the Caterham 7.  When the dealership took over production rights to the original minimalist Lotus sports car in 1973, I doubt they knew how many people would still be making copies and derivatives of it today.  Heck, I doubt they knew they'd still be making it today.  Wikipedia lists a few brands that make Lotus/Cateram 7 clones, copies, and spin-offs.  Here's their (surely incomplete) listing: Almac, Alpha Sports, Aries Motorsports, Barnard, Birkin, Boes, Brunton, BWE, Chevron, Chinkara, Cobra, Dala7, Daytona, Dax Rush, Diardi, Donkervoort, Elfin, Esther, Fraser Clubman, Gillett, Gregory, HKT, Irmscher 7, Leitch Super Sprint, Locust, Luego, Mac #1, Martin, Mitsuoka, MNRacing, MK, Nota, Pegasus 7, PRB, Quantum, RaceTech, Raw, Robin Hood(!), Shawspeed, Superformance (S1 Roadster), Sylva, Tiger, Tornado, Vindicator, WCM Ultralite, and YKC.  That's the list of brands that have popped out a 7 clone at some point.  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Colin Chapman is surely blushing in his grave.

Curiously not listed in that category is Panoz.  Before Panoz made the horrendous-looking Abruzzi Spirit of Le Mans, before they achieved racing success, before the Miata-on-steroids Esperante, there was the Panoz Roadster and Panoz AIV.  The vehicles that started the Panoz brand in the US - and if you squint, you see basically an American re-interpretation of the classic Lotus 7 shape.

It all started back in 1988.  Daniel Panoz set out to create a uniquely American maker of hand-built custom sports cars that were unique, ferocious, and also reasonably affordable and easy to service.  The financial backing initially came from Daniel's father, Don Panoz, who had an altogether different legacy.  Most of his money originally came from the success of the Nicotine Patch, a stop-smoking aid that Don was involved with the development of while working at a pharmaceutical company in Ireland.  While living in Ireland with the family, son Daniel fed his motorsport addiction and dreamed of creating a lightweight track special.  Through his time at tracks across the continent, he ran into a strange-looking sports car.  Called the TMC Costin, it was another one of those Lotus 7 competitors that the TMC company built from the early to mid 80's.  The chassis itself was designed by the famous Frank Costin (the "Cos" in "Cosworth?"  That's Frank Costin.  The "Cos" in "Marcos?"  Also Frank Costin.  The Lotus 11?  Frank Costin.  You get the picture) and the car was assembled in a shed in Ireland.  When the company went bankrupt in 1988, Daniel bought the production rights to the TMC Costin, presumably for a song.

He had a simple vision: a lightweight, strong, powerful 2-seat roadster built using reliable, easy-to-service components, that would appeal to true hardcore driving enthusiast.  No man is an island, and Daniel had plenty of help with the design of the original Panoz Roadster.  The original Costin had been designed for a Ford 4-cylinder engine, like every other Lotus/Caterham 7 out there.  But Danny had a real engine in mind: the Ford 302 fuel-injected Windsor V8, used in the Mustang GT and other Fox-body derivatives.  Dirt-cheap, anvil-simple, and hammer-tough, the 302 produced plenty of power and lots of torque.  Perfect for an American 7- it had to have some balls.  When he bought up the remains of TMC's tooling he also got the help of Mick Murphy, a lead chassis engineer for TMC.  Together, they re-engineered the chassis to adopt the wider, shorter, heavier, and far more powerful 302.  It's worth noting that Costin himself didn't think much at first of the Panoz; calling it a typically American bastardization of his design.  Go figure.

When they discovered there was no earthly way the TMC body was going to fit over the new frame - and that's damn good news, because the TMC Costin had a serious case of the uglies (pictured above, yikes) - Panoz hired a then little-known designer by the name of Freeman Thomas to sketch a new body for the Roadster.  By the way, that's the same Freeman Thomas that lists the New Beetle and Gen 1 Audi TT under his list of accomplishments.  The result was something of a 7-on-steroids: much more curvy and organic looking and full-fat, but still with the tiny nose cone, cycle front fenders, and huge tubbed rear fenders.  The stance was mean, muscular, and serious - this thing looked ready to eat the lunch of any 4-cylinder 7 clone out there.  The exact inspiration of the Roadster is hard to pin down because there are so many traits that remind of other cars.  The cycle fenders are pure 7.  The rear haunches scream 427 Cobra, the overall hunkered-and-wide stance has a bit of Allard J2X mixed with Morgan Plus 8, and perhaps a bit of the alien from Predator just to scare 'Vette's and Prowlers.

The chassis was a stainless steel space frame covered by a Superformed-Aluminum body.  Front suspension was traditional unequal-length A-arms, the rear suspension a Ford 8.8" solid axle.  Dimensionally, the original Roadster was a short, squat wheels-to-the-corners affair: about as wide as a C4 Corvette on a 1.5" longer wheelbase, it was still about 3.5" shorter overall than a 1st-generation Miata.  Total weight was around 2200lbs with production aluminum body panels and the 302 V8, which was mated to a Tremec T5 manual.  You'd think it would be a total drag rat, but the Roadster garnered most of it's praise in the corners - the Roadster was designed to be a neutral, easy-to-handle car with progressive, approachable limits.  It's just that, with so little weight, such good suspension, and so much rubber, those limits were very high.  As in, north of 0.9g's lateral acceleration on early-90's tire technology.  Heck, the Roadster didn't even have anti-roll bars.

The cool thing was, the 302 fuel-injected V8 was totally off-the-shelf Ford parts.  It was identical to what you'd get in an '88-'94 Mustang LX 5.0/GT, down to the oil pan, spark plug wires, fuel filter, etc.  So a Panoz was not an expensive car to maintain.  It wasn't even particularly expensive: $44,000 and change was still less than  Corvette convertible when it came out in 1992, and it was darn quick, easily catching sub-5 second 0-60 times.

Still, it was a pretty traditional formula.  Steel tube-frame chassis, pushrod V8, live axle, Tremec T5, we get it.  It was a seriously cool car.  But Panoz had bigger things in store for the Roadster.  And when the Roadster AIV dropped in 1997, the world began to take the little shed popping out sports cars near Atlanta more seriously.

The AIV sported a chassis made from aluminum, with steel subframes.  The new aluminum chassis was co-developed with engineers from Alcan and Alumax.  To make the cabin more easily inhabited by, uhh, humans, the wheelbase was stretched 6" over the original Roadster.  With the stretch it was still about the same overall length as a Miata, so it hadn't gotten huge.  But mechanical changes were everywhere.  First and foremost, to meet EPA OBD-II regulations, the 302 Windsor was ditched in favor of the then-new all-aluminum 4.6L quad-cam 32v Mustang Cobra modular engine, which made more power, was lighter, and was OBD-II compliant.  The 8.8" rear axle was swapped for the independent rear suspension from a 90's Thunderbird (the Cobra didn't get IRS until 2001, remember), the transmission was the new Tremec T45, and the car got bigger brakes and wheels all around.  Oh, and a gigantic hood scoop to clear the considerably taller engine.  This, along with the Saab Sonnett II, was one of those cars that benefited mechanically from a new engine but suffered aesthetically.  The big cancerous tumor on the hood hid a high-winding 305bhp V8, though, so perhaps all was forgiven.

Let's be clear about something, though.  The AIV was a hand-built car by an eccentric dude in a shed (actually, a former DOT salt-storage building) in Atlanta.  But it shared a lot of parts with the Mustang Cobra.  As in, the entire engine and transmission.  The 13" vented twin-piston front brakes and 10" vented single-piston rear brakes.  The instrument cluster, A/C system, heating core and system, power steering rack, wiring harness, ECU, and numerous other small parts came straight from the Cobra.  This sounds pedestrian, but get real: they were great parts (no one's arguing the 4.6 32v Cobra motor is anything but awesome, right?) that saved Panoz a lot of money from having to development themselves, and as a result an AIV can be serviced at... yup, your local Ford/SVT dealer.

With largely aluminum construction (Panoz said the car was 70% aluminum, which is why it was called the Aluminum Intensive Vehicle), fully independent suspension, big brakes and tires, a modern powerful V8 engine, and a newly redesigned comfortable (relative term) interior, the AIV Roadster was more of a real car, as well as more of a fast car.  Although it had the aerodynamics of a barn door, the AIV was seriously quick.  In Motor Trend's May 1998 issue, the magazine pitted the new AIV against 7 performance car competitors of varying price tags - the BMW M Roadster and then-new C5 Corvette Z51 at the low end, and the Viper GTS, (996) 911 Carrera, Lotus Esprit V8 Twin-Turbo, Aston Martin DB7, and Ferrari F355 F1 at the high end.  The test results proved what everyone already knew: the AIV was not a top-speed car, hitting VMax at only 134mph, slower than everyone else.  Still, it was faster than the M Roadster and the $130,000 supercharged DB7 around the road course, it had the best braking distances (110 feet from 60mph... with no ABS!), it beat the DB7 and Corvette on the slalom course, and it posted a 4.6 second 0-60 time - a half-second behind the brutal 450 horsepower Viper and hurricane-on-wheels Esprit V8, but tying with the horrendously expensive F355 and beating the C5 Corvette by 0.2 seconds.

Production of the Roadster and AIV Roadster was extremely limited over it's lifetime.  Panoz only screwed together a total of 44 Roadster's with the 302 and live axle for public sale.  The AIV was equally rare, with 49 in 1997, 72 in 1998, and 55 in 1999 including 10 "2000" 10th Anniversary Edition cars.  These were all painted Titanium, and had extras like polished Penske shocks and valve covers, blue leather interior, and special wheels.  Four of those anniversary cars were sold with Superchargers(!) from the factory, and some other 1999 models had aftermarket superchargers installed pre-sale by the dealerships they came through.  Considering a factory 4.6 32v Supercharged Cobra puts out 390 horsepower, one of these rare supercharged AIV's has got to be an insane vehicle to pilot!

With a total of 220 Roadsters sold to the public between 1992 and 1999, a Roadster/AIV is not something you're bound to see on a daily.  Which brings me to why I'm writing this article.  Like some sort of ghost, maybe 2-3 times a year I see a silver AIV drive down my sleepy neighborhood street in Raleigh, NC.  I've never been quick enough to take a picture, or hop in the car with any hope of catching up to him.  But when I do, expect pictures!  Seeing such a rare beast in passing in the wild is quite an event, to be sure.

So, how do you get your hands on one?  The only Roadster/AIV's I've found for sale are listed on the Roadster Registry.  A 1996 AIV prototype (presumably unable to be titled for road use) with 3,400 miles is listed for $35,000.  A yellow 1998 with black leather and 2500 miles is listed for $44,900, and a yellow/black 1999 with only 77(!) miles is listed at $54,900 in Illinois.  And finally, there's a 1999 Anniversary Edition (one of four with the supercharger!) in Titanium, for sale in NJ for a heady $65,000.  AutoTrader doesn't even list Panoz under brands when you're searching for a car.  That small.

Panoz moved on to the much more conventional Esperante roadster in 2000, and hasn't produced another AIV-style vehicle since.  Which is a shame, because we've waited ten years for Panoz to turn out a new car, and they give us one that looks like a beached whale.  (Sorry, Danny - not a fan of the Abruzzi.)  However, let's get one thing straight: while the AIV was produced concurrently with the tres cool Plymouth Prowler, only one of them is a real sports car, and the other's a real poser.

While the AIV is stuffed full of DOHC 32v V8 and 5-speed manual, the Prowler had a 3.5L SOHC 24v V6 and a 4-speed "AutoStick" automatic.  The AIV had 18" wheels front and back, staggered to 9" in the rear from 8" in the front, and it was designed to actually handle.  The Prowler had 17" front wheels and 20" rear wheels, which only makes sense for ride and handling if your primary concern was looking cool pulling into Char-Grill.  And that was primarily what the Prowler was good for: pedal to the metal, the Mopar "hot" rod took a good 2 extra seconds to sixty, clocking 6.5 to the AIV's 4.5.  The quarter mile was equally ugly, with the Prowler hitting the lights 1.6 seconds later and 9mph slower than the AIV.  While they're both exotic-looking cycle-fendered hot-rods with aluminum chassis, Mopar's attempt couldn't hold a candle to the real deal.  Plus, the AIV had a trunk!

The Panoz Roadster was a rare success story in an industry that's mostly filled with tales of optimistic starts and awful, bankrupt failures.  The vision and ingenuity of one guy has grown into a successful boutique brand that's still around 20 years later, after many other boutique makers have come and gone.  Let's raise our internet glasses to Danny Panoz (that's pronounce Pay-Nose, by the way) for having the cajones to follow his big ideas up with big results.  The AIV may be largely forgotten now, but give it another 10 years and these cars will be changing hands for big sums of money.


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