Panther J72 and Excalibur SS – driven

2015 / 2016 Drive-My

It ain’t done ’til it’s overdone. Panther vs. Excalibur. The cars that taste forgot? We sample two hedonistic replicars. Expensive and exuberant, the Panther J72 and Excalibur SS defined the  ‘replicar’ movement. Martin Buckley channels his inner playboy. Photography James Mann.

The ‘neo classics’ of the 1960s and ’70s have now stewed long enough in their juices to have a flavour all of their own, a very kitsch glamour that gives them an identity that you cannot dismiss as straightforward bad taste. Like it or not, these cars have their place and a particular fascination. The Excalibur SS, Brooks Stevens’ love letter to the Mercedes SSK, is already 50 years old; Robert Jankel’s Panther J72, inspired by the Jaguar SS100, is not far behind it. Both were hand-made attempts at building fun roadsters that recaptured the values of the 1930s but with the performance, reliability and luxury amenities that were expected of then-modern cars.

Panther J72 and Excalibur SS

There’s nothing subtle about either car, but they certainly don’t want for straight-line speed. Above: Excalibur’s extravagant SS-style exhausts; Panther’s wire wheels. From top: Excalibur’s Chevrolet V8 gives monstrous performance; 4.2-litre XK unit and Jaguar-sourced dials for J72; the Panther is marginally better resolved at the rear than the SS.


They were not aimed at the impecunious enthusiasts who doubtless abhorred them. Owning one involved none of the fuss or privations of a ‘real’ pre-war classic. They were created as expensive toys for those high-networth individuals who already owned a stable of exotica but had become jaded by the latest luxury models. Even 50 years ago, there were those who complained that modern cars were beginning to ‘all look the same’. To own an Excalibur SS or a Panther J72 was an open admission of total self-indulgence; exhibitionist dream cars rarely out of the centrefolds of various 1970s top-shelf gentleman’s magazines (usually with some hirsute lady fondling the handbrake lever) – the perfect complement to a fantasy lifestyle of pointless hedonism.

‘THERE IS NOTHING EFFORTLESS ABOUT DRIVING THE FRANKLY HILARIOUS EXCALIBUR’

Panther J72 and Excalibur SS

As the values of the original cars that inspired them boomed in an emerging classic movement, the Excalibur and Panther emerged as the leading protagonists among a whole rash of ‘replicars’. Suddenly, the fairly recent past of the automobile was a playground where there were no rules. Some of these revivalist models, such as the shortlived Cord 8/10 (an 8/10th-scale glassfibre- bodied replica based on a Corvair, of all things) were simply a copy of the originals. Others, such as Virgil Exner’s epic Duesenberg, Stutz and Bugatti projects were modern takes on a classic theme. Only the Chevrolet Monte Carlo-based Stutz survived to become the default pimpmobile of the 1970s.

The factory-sanctioned Alfa Romeo Gran Sport Quattroruote (built between 1965 and 1967 to the tune of 92 examples) was Europe’s contribution to the replicar scene, but its appeal was too subtle to make any headway in a niche market that the brash and brutish Excalibur was already defining for itself.

Brooks Stevens, one of the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century, first used the name on a small series of Allard-like sports cars that he raced in the early 1950s. He also owned an original Mercedes SS and had fantasised about building a ‘contemporary classic’ for 10 years. His Excalibur SS emerged from these two trains of thought, but also out of a commission from Sherwood Egbert of the failing Studebaker Corporation to create a trio of one-off crowd-pullers for the 1964 Chicago and New York shows. But when the cars – named Mademoiselle, Yachtsman and Town Car – pulled neither crowds nor column inches in Chicago, Stevens saw a chance to revisit his ideas for a ‘new old car’ in time for New York in April.

PANTHER J72

Firm ride – especially on surfaces such as this – gives the Panther a pre-war feel, but on smooth roads it handles neatly and responsively.


Supposedly styled on a napkin, the prototype was built in eight weeks by Stevens’ 21-year-old son David and two friends. Its original name – ‘Mercebaker’ – was a nod not only to the car that inspired it, but also to the fact that Studebaker was the distributor for Mercedes cars in North America. What the Germans thought of it is not known, but Studebaker bosses were horrified by Stevens’ proposal, so much so that three days before the opening of the show he was forced to rename the car Excalibur (the badges on the sides still read Studebaker SS) and show it separately as a private project of Brooks Stevens Design Associates.

His son William manned a stand, tucked out of the way near a hotdog stall on the second floor. Luckily, he found that not everyone shared Studebaker’s distaste. In fact, the Excalibur was one of the stars of the show and garnered enough orders – at $6000, it was about half the price of a real Mercedes SS at the time – to encourage Stevens to start production in his home town of Milwaukee. An advert in The Wall Street Journal produced 25 firm orders (with deposits) and the project was off to a flying start. Stevens secured the finance for the factory but left William and David to develop the project and run the business.

Only that first car had a Studebaker engine. Stevens did a deal with GM to secure a supply of small-block 327 Corvette powerplants to replace the blown Lark/Avanti unit, as much a political move to keep his principal distributor Jerry Allen happy (he was the Chevrolet concessionaire for New York) as an acknowledgement that supplies from Studebaker were likely to dry up.

He mounted it a full 29in further back in the chassis to get the classic proportions, with the driver and their companion sitting where the rear passengers had been in the original Studebaker Lark. Under the sketchy body, with its fold-flat ’screen, cutaway doors and faux P100 headlamps (hiding 1960s sealed-beam units), the Excalibur had disc front brakes and independent front suspension with the geometry and spring/ damper rates suitably modified. Weighing in at 2100lb, the alloy-bodied prototype had a powerto- weight ratio that its German inspiration had never dreamed of. Acceleration was in the Cobra class, with 0-60mph in less than 6 secs.

Tony Curtis was an early Excalibur owner and our featured car was once his. The cycle wings and exhaust pipes finishing just ahead of the rear wheels identify it as one of the sought-after early roadsters. The machine-turned finish on the dash – populated by instruments from a Studebaker Hawk GT – and the big steering wheel look surprisingly effective, as does the heroic view down the bonnet through the cross-in-acircle hood mascot that looks like some kind of occult symbol. Manual Excaliburs with the highcompression 350bhp engine were good for an alleged 155mph. With 300bhp, our automatic might do 130mph, which would be enough.

Better to savour the prodigious acceleration. Level the awkwardly angled throttle pedal and you will leave yards of rubber at every traffic light. Gentler treatment just flicks the Excalibur up the road in a blur of effortless V8 thrust, the single gearchange in the two-speed Powerglide transmission being difficult to detect.

2015 EXCALIBUR SS test-drive

Clockwise, from main: smaller ’screen helps SS profile; simple dash is in contrast to J72’s twincowl layout; Panther’s details can be awkward; Excalibur name came from Stevens’ early racers.


There is nothing else very effortless about driving the frankly hilarious Excalibur. Your senses are accosted by rushing wind and the throaty rumbles from the exhaust that exits just under your left elbow. It leaps from bump to bump on anything less than a billiard-table surface, jarring your bones and wobbling excess flab as you grapple with the undistinguished steering, which manages to combine heft with imprecision. At 2½ turns lock-to-lock, it is high geared enough, but doesn’t feel it. For once, power assistance might have been preferable.

The turning circle is in the supertanker league and, while we are on the subject of boring practicalities, there is no real boot and a laughable range. Owner David Williams, who by delicious irony works in renewable energy project development, is doubtful that the thirsty Excalibur will make it between service- station top-ups on the motorway.

But does that really matter in a car that so readily puts a smile on your face and makes every journey an adventure? You can launch out of a roundabout at any angle you desire, elbows flapping as much for heroic effect as anything else (if anybody can see them amid plumes of acrid tyre smoke, that is) yet doing as little as 25mph.

Pedestrians hear the Excalibur first. Then, as it rumbles into view, they think they know what they have seen, the chromed wires, rich plum paint and pert tail being sufficient to fool 90% of the public. When you finally tell them what it is, a few of the older spectators might even remember that Tommy Steele, of Little White Bull and Half a Sixpence fame, was the first person to have an Excalibur new in the UK, a red right-handdrive example registered SHM 2F.

That car was an S1 Roadster, too, but with the full running boards that were the first hint of the bloat that would ruin the fragile charm of the Excalibur. A veil is best drawn over later variants, except to say that they got uglier, tackier and slower throughout the 1970s and into the ’80s. The final versions looked more like one of those unfortunate Transit-based wedding cars than a trinket for 1960s jetsetters. 

The Panther J72 never suffered these indignities. With 368 built between 1972 and 1981, it is a much rarer car than the Excalibur. The various trimming and panelbeating crafts employed in its construction help to give it a more authentic pre-war feel, too. After selling off his textile business in 1971, Robert Jankel established Panther Westwinds at Brooklands, Surrey in 1972.

He employed a sort of workers’ collective of mainly ex-Rolls-Royce craftsmen to build his cars, of which the J72 – launched at Earls Court in 1972 – was the first. Jankel restored old cars as a hobby and, alongside vintage specialist Andrew McKenzie, had built the first J72 in his garage at home. In Byfleet, his workforce formed five separate companies within the Panther group that were free to do outside contracts. There was even a restoration division.

The aluminium body of the J72 rested upon a box-section chassis with a tubular front beam axle running Ford Transit uprights – with Rosejointed steering links – and Jaguar brakes. At the rear, the Salisbury differential was located on parallel radius arms and a Panhard rod. Most of them were Jaguar XK-powered, 3.8 litres at first but 4.2 from 1973. Even with the later ribbed camshaft covers, the XK engine has a 1930s feel to its tall architecture. It looks right beneath the Panther’s centre-hinged bonnet, complete with side bulge to accommodate the air cleaners for the twin SU carburettors. With its huge handspun fake P100 headlamps and squat grille, the Panther – here a 1970s 4.2 owned by Chris Thompson – is a more conventionally pretty car than the Excalibur. Only the ugly proprietary indicator units hanging off the bumpers jar.

In the early days of the J72, Jaguar was difficult about supplying Panther with parts, and Jankel had to buy engines and gearboxes where he could. The situation relaxed considerably with the departure of ‘Lofty’ England from Browns Lane, to the point where there was even the option of a 5.3-litre V12 model. A special six-Weber version was one of the fastest-accelerating cars that Motor tested in the 1970s, but the shape tended to limit the top speed no matter which lump was fitted. In any case, this 115mph 4.2, good for 0-60mph in 6.7 secs, is hardly slow.

The truth is that the manual Panther has lots of solid punch without the drama of the explosively quick automatic Excalibur. It has a near-100mph third gear or will cruise at 70mph at 2500rpm in the massively high overdrive top. You sit comfortably in adjustable leather seats behind the walnut fascia, peppered with Jaguar XJ-type dials and switchgear. Wrap up well and you can tour far and fast in this car. High speeds mean gale-force winds to restyle your hairdo, but the J72 feels safe and comfortable at three figures in a way that the Excalibur never does. It will even, allegedly, return 20mpg.

 It makes quality vintage-type noises as you accelerate through the beefy full-synchromesh Jaguar gearbox. The firm ride plus the trembles and fight in the otherwise pleasingly accurate steering are similarly pre-war in character, but overall the handling is responsive and neat on smooth roads. As in the Excalibur, bumpy surfaces slow you down but at least the J72 has the excuse of a beam front axle. Controllable oversteer combined with a gratifying lack of roll leave you with a picture of a surprisingly sorted car.

If the Excalibur’s zeitgeist is mid-1960s Playboy, the Panther is Penthouse circa 1975. In fact, if a J72 didn’t feature in a topless road test by Mary Millington then I would be very surprised and disappointed. In a Britain of galloping inflation, strikes and power cuts, the £5000 J72 was a pin-up dream car, nostalgic like the Excalibur for what seemed like simpler times. Among the miserable rusting saloons and public suicide of our motor industry, it was a rare sparkle of flamboyance and high quality.

Jankel cleverly scuppered the complaints of those who sneered at his pastiche creations by making certain the J72 was beautifully built. It has always had an air of credibility about it that has eluded others of its ilk. Perhaps the Excalibur has yet to cross that divide, but when you encounter an early car such as ‘ours’, you understand its appeal. The chromed exhaust headers (sourced from the original German supplier to Mercedes), massive snout and stub tail add up to a raffish machine that is anything but subtle yet strangely compelling. Think of James Coburn briefly driving one in the James Bond spoof In like Flint and you can almost see how an Excalibur could be cool. Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen certainly thought so. I do too, but don’t tell anybody.


Thanks to Val Bridges of the Panther Car Club: www. panthercarclub. com

TECH DATA
Car

Excalibur SS

Panther J72
Sold 1964-1970 1972-1981
Number built 359 (S1) 368
Construction steel chassis, aluminium body 
Engine cast-iron, pushrod 5358cc V8, Carter carburettor iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 4235cc straight-six, twin SU carburettors
Max power 300bhp @ 5000rpm

190bhp @ 5000rpm

Max torque 360lb ft @ 3200rpm 235Ib ft @ 2000rpm
Transmission two-speed auto, RWD four-speed manual, O/D
Drive RWD
Suspension:
front independent, wishbones and coil springs  beam axle 
rear live axle, coil springs; telescopic dampers f/r Salisbury live axle, trailing arms; Panhard rod, coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
Steering recirculating ball 
Brakes

discs/drums, with servo

discs, with servo
Wheels    
Length

14ft 6in (4419mm)

13ft 4in (4064mm)
Width 5ft 6in (1676mm) 5ft 5 ½ in (1663mm)
Height    
Wheelbase 9ft (2743mm) 9ft 1in (2768mm) 
Weight 2550Ib (1156kg)  2899lb (1315kg)
0-62mph  6 seconds 6.7 secsonds
Top speed 130mph 114mph
Mpg 15 15
Price new (1964) £6000 £5285
Value now  £50,000 £25,000

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