Panoz Esperante Spyder GT Prototype featured in Jay Leno’s Garage

In this review Jay Leno takes us on in depth review of 2015 Panoz Esperante Spyder GT Prototype.

Jay Leno:  Welcome to another episode of Jay Leno’s Garage.  This is a very rare automobile, in fact it’s the only there is.  This is a prototype of the 2015 Panoz Esperante Spyder.  Fascinating history of this car – everyday someone is building a super car, “Oh we’re gonna build this, we’re gonna build that.”  They rarely come to fruition.  They’ll pass government tests; there’s always some reason it don’t happen.  But I seem to know an awful lot about these things that don’t happen.  Then there are other people on the other side like Dan Panoz, who they’re building cars for years.  Extremely successful entrepreneur, businessman, no talk just action.

Who is Don Panoz?

You know we all know Carroll Shelby, we all know Lee Lacocca.  Don is one of these quiet guys. Well he’s built over six or seven hundred cars already.   They’re street cars, they’re legal, they’re on the road in the United States and this is his latest. Fascinating gentleman, let’s meet him. Don come on in, how are ya?

Don Panoz: Fine Jay.

Jay:  Congratulations on your success sir?

Don:  Thank you.

Jay:  I think it’s really great, I’ve been following you for years.  And as I’ve said, you’re one of those guys – I saw the product before I ever heard of it, which is impressive to me.  You didn’t put it out there until it was done.  Most people run out there with their idea and get it all over the place and don’t get the financing.  But you actually have been building cars since what 1990 I guess?

Don:  Yes.

Jay:  Okay.

Don:  My son started in 1990, they had the first Roadster then the Esperante.  Then the guys came up with the Spyder.

Jay:  Right.

Don:  And getting we’re getting back into the market, we were out for a few years.  And it’s the guys that get all the credit.  My son will tell you, until 97 I was not a car guy.

Jay:  Right okay.

Don:  No I wasn’t.

Jay:  Well that’s okay, but your name is on it.

Don: Yes and that’s a family name.

Jay:  You and your son, that’s what’s impressive. Well you’re a business man and an entrepreneur as well.

Don:  Right.

Jay:  I know you started in the pharmaceutical industry and this is all done with your money correct? You guys pretty much finance the whole deal.

Don:  Yeah.

Jay:  I mean I think that’s incredible, because it’s almost impossible to build a car in America today.  I mean it’s just so many restrictions and the fact that you build these cars in America and they’re 100% American cars aren’t they?

Don: They are exactly, drivetrains everything.

About company

Jay:  Now you have a choice of drivetrains choosing the automobiles, correct?

Don:  Right and the Spyder is a unique car. It’s 25 to be made, our 25th anniversary.  You can pick the horsepower from 450 to 800.

Jay:  I’ll take the 800.

Don:  Okay.  You can pick all the gears you want.  You can have push button, you can have automatic, you can have manual.  You can have a ride that’s stiff.  You can have a racing ride or you can have a soft ride.  You pick it and then you can sit down and spend a month, if it’s your wife with you, picking out the colors and the interior and all that.

Jay:  Very cool.

Don:  And getting through the arguments and deciding what you really want.

Jay:  I mean how hard is it for one individual?  And it’s really not all just money, all the head aches as well.  All the government restrictions, all the government tests, it’s overwhelming isn’t it?

Don:  Yes.

Jay:  Did you realize just how much was involved or did you just kind of decided to go in it? “Well let’s do it and see as we go along.”

Don:  Well my son helped me along the way.  Took me by the hand and said, “This is what we gotta do.” And when I started hearing about all the tests they had to do, I just couldn’t believe.  But they did and we did all the test through the years.  We stopped making cars in 2006 and now we’re starting to make them again and now we’ve gone by through.  But we do all the crash test, all the mileage, all the emissions, all that. And Panoz cars are really approved cars.

Jay:  Now you came out of the pharmaceutical industry, which tests are harder?  Pharmaceutical industry or the mobile industry?

Don:  Well the pharmaceutical industry went through a lot of tests, the amount times that people bleed a little bit.

Jay:  Right.

Don:  The pharmaceutical industry is a little tougher.

Jay: Okay yeah.  All right let’s talk about what we have here. This is the new Spyder, obviously it’s a full-on Spyder.

Don:  That’s right.

Jay:  Okay, would you have one of those snap on roof things?

Don:  Snap on, that’s right. In case you get caught.

Jay:  In case you get caught out in the rain. Yeah it’s a beautiful car.  Tell me about the design and who designs the car?  How much input do you have as to what you – I mean there’s certain things that you feel you have to have on all your cars?

Don:  Sports cars never had big boots or luggage space. And I think they need luggage space and enough room to carry two sets of golf gloves, because two people can drive it.  But outside of that my son did all the design work. I am certainly not a designer, I can’t draw tic-toc-toe on the paper.  I have trouble but Danny and the engineers and these people he put together, they do all the design work and engineering. And they’ve just done a fabulous job and John Leverett is the final engineer on this car.

Jay: Where are you guys based out of?

Don:  Braselton, Georgia.

Jay:  Braselton, Georgia, okay. So the cars are built in Georgia?

Don:  They’re built right there.

Jay:  Oh okay.

Panoz in sports

Don:  Our motorsports group provides drivetrains and engines and redoing the engines and stuff. And we build all the race cars we build there.  We build Indycars, cart cars, it’s all built right there in Braselton.

Jay:  Let’s talk about those, because you had a lot of success in racing.  Tell us about Le Mans.

Don:  Well we managed to beat the factory Porsches and Ferraris.

Jay:  Yeah.

Don:  With an English privateer team and a gentleman driver.  And the same year we won Sebring was Sebastian Bourdais and David Brabham. So not only as the privateer team, I just think they did a fabulous job.  They were able to beat the factory teams.

Jay: Yeah.

Don:  With a gentleman driver they were seven seconds slower.  But yet they set a record for most distance travelled at Le Mans and 24 Hours for a GT Car.

Jay:  Wow that’s pretty impressive.  Well let’s meet John the designer here. Welcome John.

John Leverett:  Nice to meet you.

Jay:  So how much input does the boss has?  Is he over your shoulder all the time or what?

Interior, Exterior and Engine

John:  So the color scheme – Don has always been very particular about the colors.  He likes to pick out the names for the colors in particular as well.

Jay:  What is the name of this color?

Don:  Kiss me quick red.

Jay:  Kiss me quick red, okay.

Jay:  There you go, there you go. That might be a little tricky ordering it at the deal or what.  But that’s certainly red; there you go.  Very nicely done, now all the drivetrain, it’s sort of like boutique manufacturing in that you take the best of what’s out there and you build a car.

John:  We try to be very smart and selective in what we use.  And the things that make the car unique to us, we’ve got to get our hands on.

Jay:  Right.

John:  But the things that make the car practical to own, practical to service, cost effective to own like the powertrains.   I mean you can get 560 horsepower out of the LSA powertrain that we also offer for the car.  It’s a 100,000 miles service engine.

Jay: Right. So you always go with American drivetrains on all your cars?

John:  Yes.

Jay:  You’ve been doing that since 1990. Okay so you’re gonna have the choice of General Motors or Ford powertrain?

John:  Right.

Jay:  Transmission is what Tremec or what kind?

John: The Tremec magnum six-speed is the standard, but you can get also a paddle shifted six-speed automatic as well.

Jay:  Okay.

John:  The cars are all about personalization.  So at the end of the day the customer can pick just about anything for the car.  We will even give them a drawing of the interior, you pick what you want.  Leather, what you want suede.  What color would you want your stitching, do you want piping.  You get to really spec out everything.

Jay:  And what brakes are we using here?

John:  Brembo has been our preference for a couple years, so we’ve got a couple of different Brembo packages available.  And a lot of good partners from Michelin for tyres.

Jay:  Okay.

John:  Just like in motorsports, they were kind of the premiere brand.  So it works awesome on the race track and on the road car.

Jay:  Now it looks like you have two filler caps here, is that correct?

John:  We do.  That’s kind of also in homage to the LMP Roadster-S that I talked about earlier which just like the race cars, you have the fillers right there in the speedster humps.

Jay:  Right.  Now what sort of drivetrain does this one have?

John:  This one’s got a 5 liter Coyote Ford.

Jay:  That’s a Ford?

John:  Yes.

Jay:  Okay.

John:  And it’s pumping up about 478 horsepower.

Jay:  Wow so this car is emission legal in the United States?

John:  It’s emissions legal; it’s been crash tested.

Jay: Okay, can we open the hood?

John:  Sure let me come around.

Jay:  Okay there you go.

John:  Yup.  It’s a beautiful engine actually.

Jay:  Yup, yup very nice.

John:  It’s amazing how this technology has just come along in the last couple of years.  As you’re well aware, all the horsepower that you want even with all the stricter emissions regulations and all that other stuff.

Jay:  Carbon fiber is in here as well?

John:  Correct.

Jay:  Okay.

John:  Super-formed aluminum for the body which is actually done Riverside California.

Jay:  Oh okay.

Jay:  You know I think it’s fascinating that with so many car companies going out of business, Pontiac and every year we lose another few.  But there are people coming in, you got Tesla, you got McLaren, you’ve got yourself although you’ve guys been around the longest than any of those, since 1990.

John:  It’s definitely not easy.

Jay:  Are there dealer networks in each state, or do you order directly from the factory?  How does it work?

John:  In the past we had dealer networks, but at this point we’re doing our sales factory direct.

Jay: Okay.

John:  Because again it’s the personalization process.  You come, we’ve got a beautiful Chateau that Don has built that you can stay at.

Jay:  Right.

John:  And we’ve got two beautiful race tracks right around the corner. You get to come and pick out everything, see how the car is built and just go through.  There are so many options that you can actually do.  It’s not something that you can put on an order sheet.

Jay:  Right.  Well it’s uniquely American car, that’s what’s kind of fun. Maybe we can shut this again.

John:  Sure.

Jay:  And you said all aluminum, very nicely done.

John:  Super-formed aluminum, very unique.  The aerospace based process, we were the first ones to implement it on vehicles in the US auto industry.

Jay:  Esperante, tell me the origin of that name.  What does it mean?

John:  That is something that Don would be better to speak on.  Don has always been responsible for naming the cars.

Jay:  Hey Don, get back in here!

Don:  Here I am Jay.

Jay:  Where does Esperante come from?

Don:  I had a dream one night.

Jay:  Okay.

Don:  I was dreaming and as you know I’m Italian.

Jay:  Right.

Don:  So I kept hearing this like esper and ante, esperante and hope.  There is a language Esperanza.

Jay:  Right.

Don:  But I just woke in the middle of the night and said, “That’s the name of the car, Esperante.”

Jay:  So that’s what it is. I’m glad my dreams didn’t get to be named after cars because they wouldn’t be allowed to be on the road.  But I like Esperante that sounds good.

Don:  Yeah it’s a great name.

Don:  Danny’s car we had at the LA car show, sugar daddy blue.

Jay:  Sugar daddy blue.

Don:  The color made the guy stopped, jumped out and said, “I want that.”

Jay:  Oh that’s funny.

Don:  But I had a great name for the nicotine patch which was called exodus.

Jay:  Oh okay.

Don:  They let my people go.

Company specialization

Jay:  Oh yeah that’s right, he invented the nicotine patch.  Now you know how you can finance building one these cars, it’s terrific. Well thank you for getting all those people to quit smoking, all right very good.  All right what is the coefficient drag on this car?  Do you know?

John:  But don’t have an official number for this car.

Jay:  So you’re going to be build 25 of these and this will be the only model cars you guys are building?

John:  Sort of but there’s also a GT version of the Spyder which we’re going to show here soon and it’s got the fender flares, the wide-body work from the GT-2 race car.

Jay:  Okay.

John:  The next one is actually going to have that GM powertrain.  It’s going to have a carbon fiber diffuser, even more carbon fiber if you can believe that on a car.

Jay:  So you guys are a sports car company?

John:  Definitely.

Jay:  Because you know I see sports car companies like Porsche, they’re selling SUV’s because this what you have.  Hey Don come out here a second!

John:  Gonna make any SUV’s?

Don:  No.

Jay:  Strictly sports cars?

Don:  Strictly sports cars.

Jay:  There you go right there. No SUV’s, no luxury cruise, no cross-overs just hard sports cars.

Don:  Right.

Jay:  Well that’s great, that’s terrific.  And I like the fact that you guys really don’t advertise.  Do you advertise much?

Don:  We have a website, they’re all handmade.

Jay:  Right because I always hear about your vehicles through word of mouth.  Either watching motorsports, “Oh there’s one of those again.”  But I never see an ad in the newspaper or anything.  So I think it’s kind of fun that those who are in the know, know and those who don’t know obviously don’t need to know.  But the fact that you sell it based on the quality and performance of the vehicle as opposed to some smart advertising campaigns.  Very very good.  Can we take this thing for a ride?

Don:  Absolutely and you’re the driver.

Control panel and torpedo

Jay:  Okay let’s do it. All right before I go for a ride, let’s go over the gauges here, obviously manual six-speed.  What do we have here?  This is all aluminum here?

John:  All aluminum trim, although we’ve got a very unique billet wood process as well that we’ve got for the customers.

Jay:  Oh okay.  So people can get wood instead of aluminum if they want?

John:  Correct or carbon fiber.

Jay:  Got yah.  You have your screen and that’s your audio and everything in there.

John:  Advance system everything that you’d expect, satellite, radio.

Jay:  And obviously this is the start button here.  There’s no key, oh you do have a key but you have the fob.

John:  Key for the trunk and the alarm.

Jay:  And this is?

John:  Electronic parking brake.

Jay:  Oh okay.

John:  HVAC controls. Those are all three for your HVAC.

Jay:  All right very cool and the lights are here and let’s start it up.  And your steering column is adjustable anywhere you want, that’s nice.

John:  And the display is also customized.  You can have the silver background or the black.

Jay:  Okay so you have two tachs on the outside, is that what it is here?

John:  That’s what it is, they’re just mirrored.

Jay:  You got two tachometers there and your speedometer is in the center.

John:  Even a little demo mode.

Jay:  Okay there’s a demo mode right there.

John:  And the speedometer is infinite, it just keeps going around and around until you run out of speed.

Jay:  Oh Okay very good.  All righty I think we’re ready to go for a ride.  Let’s do it.


John:  One of the things that’s most unique about the car is, if you stop at the gas station everybody wants to talk to you.

Jay:  Yeah.

John:  If you stopped in a Lamborghini, you stopped in a Porsche, you stop in anything else, you’re one of those guys and they don’t talk to you.

Jay:  Yeah.

John:  So something about the car is more friendly.  It’s obviously not edgy.

Jay:  Okay.

John:  You’ve got the same OBD-II diagnostic port.  You can also just go to the local auto parts store and they can plug in the scanner and tell you what your code was.  From the service stability standpoint everything is painless.

Jay:  What does the car weigh?

John: 31.028 pounds.

Jay:  Oh that’s not bad.  It’s a hydraulic powered steering or electric?

John:  It’s hydraulic. We haven’t made the switch to the electronic yet.  It’s getting better but it’s not quite there.

Jay:  See this is the part of California nobody ever sees.

John:  Exactly.

Jay:  The roads have no traffic on them.  People yell about the traffic but it’s the 5.405 and the 101. You get off those and there’s hundreds of miles roads.  Notice you don’t see another car here.

John:  No, I’m actually quite surprised.

Jay:  Well very comfortable car.  Nice driving this car. The steering is nicely weighted. So how many people work at the factory?

John:  It’s pretty small.  When we were in peak production, we were able to build a car a day; we had about 65 people.

Jay:  Wow.

John:  Right now there’s 14 of us total.

Jay:  Okay.

John: When they introduced me as the chief engineer, part of the team. I’m also the only engineer.

Jay:  All right there you are.

John:  I grew up racing.

Jay:  Well it’s certainly a comfortable car, there’s plenty of leg room.

John:  That’s one of the things we did for 2015 was improve the interior ergonomics and bought some more interior space.  The car is actually 7 inches lower than a regular Esperante because of the chopped windshield.

Jay:  Right.  I like the chopped windshield but I’m still looking through it.  I’m not staring at that.

John:  Right.

Jay:  Sometimes when they chop the windshield, I’m staring at the headliner here.

John:  No right.


Jay:  All right Don’s in the garage so he doesn’t know that we’re out here.  So we can pull this off.  We’re trying to find out if the sports car is pretending to be a muscle car or is the muscle car pretending to be a sports car.  We already saw the sports car part, let’s see what the muscle part does.

Don:  Damn kids, I hope you had a good time.

Jay:  We had a good time.

Don:  I saw all this rubber on the road, anyway thank you so much and it’s been a pleasure.

Jay:  Thank you so much for building a great American sports car.  It’s nice to see people building cars in America, using American technology. And this is an all-American sports car and it’s a limited production.  And as I said, the fact that in a business of 25 years, purely on word of mouth, no advertising, no slick gimmicks, just building a really cool product that people seem to like and enjoy and hold their resell value pretty well.  John nice job, Don thank you very much.

Don:  Thank you Jay.

Jay: Okay.

Don:  Okay and anytime.

Jay:  See you guys next week.  I’m going to take them up on that.

Stay with us!

I hope you all enjoyed this quick review of this 2015 Panoz Esperante Spyder GT Prototype. Let me know in the comment section below. Take care everyone.

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