Robert Jankel

Showman car designer responsible for the outrageous Panther Six
Click to follow

Cars with six wheels are uncommon. The most famous is the pink Rolls-Royce owned by Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward in the 1960s television puppet show Thunderbirds; there was a similarly configured, but unsuccessful, 1970s Tyrrell Formula 1 car. Robert Jankel went one better than these fantasy machines - he created the 1977 Panther Six actually to be driven on the road. The outrageous two-seater roadster was the showstopper of London's 1977 Motorfair, flashed across global television screens because it was said to do 200mph.

Robert Jankel, car designer and engineer: born London 1 January 1938; married 1962 Jennifer Loss (three sons, one daughter); died Weybridge, Surrey 25 May 2005.

Cars with six wheels are uncommon. The most famous is the pink Rolls-Royce owned by Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward in the 1960s television puppet show Thunderbirds; there was a similarly configured, but unsuccessful, 1970s Tyrrell Formula 1 car. Robert Jankel went one better than these fantasy machines - he created the 1977 Panther Six actually to be driven on the road. The outrageous two-seater roadster was the showstopper of London's 1977 Motorfair, flashed across global television screens because it was said to do 200mph.

Only two Panther Sixes were made; Pirelli's inability to deliver its unique low-profile tyres for the four front wheels was among the reasons why full production never began. But it propelled Panther to worldwide attention.

Robert Jankel built his first car in 1954, a home-made affair based on a wrecked Austin Seven. His father, Alexander, a haberdashery manufacturer in the East End of London, had to road-test it, because his car-mad son was only 16. A year later, he was one of the first pupils at St Paul's School to drive in for lessons - certainly the first ever to arrive in a car of his own design.

Apart from sport, rowing in particular, the academic ethos of St Paul's was at odds with Jankel's restless temperament. He departed to study Engineering at Chelsea College, and then began a precarious stint as a car salesman, where his father was usually his most loyal repeat customer. Eventually, he agreed to join Goldenfelds, the family firm, where he became sales manager and also designed children's ranges, but his weekends were all about amateur motor racing and he was a partner in an Essex-based car-tuning business. In 1962 he married Jennifer Loss, daughter of the bandleader Joe Loss, whom he had known since his schooldays.

In 1970, he restored a vintage Rolls-Royce for a family holiday to Spain, and the result was so magnificent that he sold it there to a bullfighter for £10,000. Requests for similar renovated cars soon led to a flourishing sideline, and in 1971 he quit the clothing industry to establish his own car company. He named it Panther Westwinds, the first word a good-humoured dig at Jaguar, the second the name of his house in Weybridge, Surrey, where the firm was based in the garage.

The company's first car was the J72. It was one of the world's first "replicars", capturing the rakish lines of a typical 1930s sports car but powered by reliable modern engines. Jankel opened a small factory nearby in Byfleet and recruited experienced craftsmen to build the cars. Orders poured in after the J72 was featured in the men's magazine Mayfair and Panther was soon building a car every week.

Jankel's showmanship was evident in numerous subsequent models, especially the sumptuous 1975 Deville with its V12 Jaguar engine. It cost £22,000 (double the price of a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow), and appeared in two movies: The Golden Lady (1979), a James Bond spoof starring Christina World, and 101 Dalmatians (1996), as transport for Cruella De Vil, played by Glenn Close. The 1976 Lima sports car was then Panther's most successful venture before the company hit bankruptcy in 1979 and was sold to a South Korean fur trader.

However, Jankel was soon back in business producing "stretched" versions of expensive cars like Mercedes-Benz and Range Rover under the Le Marquis banner. The quality of the work was so exacting that a six-door conversion of the Rolls-Royce Silver Spur was marketed by Rolls itself. Eventually, the Jankel Group spread to include three automotive companies: a design consultancy, a military vehicles division and a coach-building business. Jankel became experts in armour-plating, leading to a deal with the Jordanian government to build ballistics-proof Aegis vehicles, and another to make armoured Toyotas for the United Nations.

"Our secret is we've never told anyone who we've sold our cars to," said Jankel in 2001, the year he discovered he had pancreatic cancer:

Also, we don't manufacture - we have joint-venture partners for that - although we have 45 design engineers working at our base in Weybridge. Mercedes-Benz do their own limousines,

I know, but we can offer a much more bespoke interior that will really fit a client's personal needs.

Robert and Jennifer Jankel were founder members almost 40 years ago of the North West Surrey Synagogue, and were also among Britain's most successful deer farmers, after the few animals bought to keep the grass down on their 15-acre Surrey estate turned into a 600-strong herd.

Having bought the Panther name back from Korean ownership in 2001, Jankel was finalising a new sports car design when he died. Described by his son Andrew as an "unfinished symphony", it is intended for production in the United States.

Giles Chapman

Comments