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SPECIAL REPORT: DREAM MACHINES

Reinventing the Wheel

Dan Panoz: No Degree Required

October 29, 1998|JOHN O'DELL

It's hard to become a car designer without a college degree, but that's what Dan Panoz decided he wanted to do as he approached the end of his 20s. Unable to find a company that would hire him and provide on-the-job training, he did the next best thing: He started his own business, Panoz Auto Development Co., in Hoschton, Ga., a few miles down the highway from Atlanta.

He designed the car he thought the country should have.

He found state-of-the-art manufacturers to fabricate the body and frame.

Scraped together start-up funds from friends and family.

Bought and modified a slew of Ford parts to make it work.

And then he built it.

The Panoz AIV--for "aluminum intensive vehicle"--is a modern interpretation of the classic open roadster. Sleek, low, bicycle-fendered, two-seated and sporty as all get out. It's also powerful, with a 4.6-liter, 305-horsepower Ford V-8 pushing its 2,559 pounds from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds.

Panoz, now 36, started designing the $60,000 cars in 1989 and built his first production model in 1991. He's sold 200 of them to date.

He took an unconventional approach to making his dream happen but left little to chance when it came time to make it pay for itself.

"After all," he says in his soft Georgia drawl, "if all you do is build one, you've got nothing else left. But if you can build 'em and sell 'em, you'll have money coming in to allow you to do the next one."

Panoz's successes inspired his father, pharmaceutical magnate Don Panoz, to pursue his love of racing: Two years ago the 63-year-old entrepreneur started Panoz Motor Sports and developed the 600-horsepower Visteon Panoz GTR-1 to run in the Professional Sports Car racing series.

While the family's race cars can be, like all of that breed, temperamental beasts, the roadster was designed to be extremely user-friendly.

It uses Ford components for its wiring, rear suspension and brakes as well as the powertrain, which makes it easy for customers to get their vehicles serviced, Panoz says. The cars are sold through a network of Panoz dealers, 19 of them so far, most sharing space with Ford dealerships.

"I can't really say what drove me to do this, except a love for machinery and for the achievements of those, like Cobra and Lotus, who'd done it before," he says.

"I just know that I wanted to design and build a car that combined reliability, value and performance, and I believe I've done it."

Now, he says, it is time for an addition to the Panoz line--the Esperante, an aluminum-bodied sports coupe that should be ready for retail in about two years. The design is still being worked on, but one company insider says early versions owe a lot to Britain's Aston Martin.

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