This $56k Panoz Esperante is a rare bit of American sports car history

Cars & Bids/rpmcarssa

Sometimes a car crosses your path that you’d completely forgotten about. One glance is all it takes to conjure fond memories and prompt a fresh round of internet searching to brush up on its spec sheet and illustrious history. Such was the case for me when Insider editor-in-chief Brian Rabold shared this 5600-mile 2002 Panoz Esperante S JRD Roadster, which sold this week on Cars and Bids for $56,691, including fees.

I first encountered the Panoz name while watching sports car racing in the late ’90s, and by playing a PC racing game called Sports Car GT, which included the monstrous front-mid-engined Panoz GTR-1. Long successful in business, the family was just hitting its automotive stride by the turn of the century. Their ambitious creation of the American Le Mans Series gave American sports car racing fans hope, and the Panoz class win at Le Mans in an Esperante GTLM in 2006 forged an amazing underdog story. All the while, the family was operating a boutique car company, too.

Running a racing league during challenging times and getting a small car company off the ground are not small undertakings on their own, but family patriarch Don Panoz was heavily involved with, and successful at, both. His son, Dan, headed up the street car effort and set out to create limited-production vehicles that could tangle with the best the world had to offer and serve as the foundation for Panoz race cars.

The Esperante was Panoz’s second offering, following the Roadster, a cycle-fendered topless sports car that looked a bit like the lovechild of a Cobra and a Caterham 7. Debuting in 2000 and coming to market the following year, the Esperante was a good bit more civilized.

Panoz Esperante rear three quarter
Cars & Bids/rpmcarssa

Comprised of multiple substructures bolted and bonded together, the Esperante’s chassis made extensive use of aluminum and carbon fiber. Wearing a voluptuous aluminum body, the car weighed around 3200 lbs, similar to a Corvette of the same vintage.

A small shop designed to turn out dozens rather than thousands of cars in a given year realistically needs to rely on sourcing components, and the Esperante received its drivetrain from the Ford SVT Mustang Cobra (later cars could also be had with a variety of GM LS engines). This included a dual overhead cam 4.6-liter V-8 (specced to 350 hp in this example), five-speed manual transmission, and independent rear suspension. That IRS was a bit of a compromise from the get-go, being designed by an aftermarket supplier to fit the Mustang’s stick axle rear suspension mounting points. As a result, Panoz made some tweaks of their own, including trick cantilever coilover shocks mounted horizontally, and revised control arms on later cars.

Panoz Esperante suspension
Look closely and you can see the trick pushrod-actuated coilover shocks positioned horizontally above the axle shafts. Cars & Bids/rpmcarssa

The Esperante was met with a healthy reception. Reviewers in-period lauded the car’s sporty-yet-comfortable characteristics and even the build quality—a rare achievement for small-scale manufacturers.

Production numbers vary depending on the source, though 234 is the most oft-quoted number for the 2001-07 first generation. Only a handful of coupes were produced for homologation purposes.

This low-mileage example is mildly modified by JRD, a tuner who offered a variety of upgrade packages for Panoz. Aside from some minor blemishes and worn weatherstripping, the car presents quite well, and with a proven, mass-market drivetrain underneath, there’s not much concern for future reliability.

What to think, then, about its $56k price? A C5 Corvette convertible can match the performance for half the money, but that misses the point. If you’re chasing an Esperante, there’s probably as much allure in the Panoz story and this car’s ties to racing as the car itself. Plus, you’re likely to be the only person pulling up in one at your local cars and caffeine.

This sale falls in the middle-upper range of Hagerty’s average quote values for these cars, which range from $40K to $60K. That makes sense—it’s an early car with a few minor defects, but it does feature some nice and rare tweaks. Newer Esperantes can command substantially more, but they are also a lot more car, often coming with close to 600 hp. The record for the model was set in 2021, when a 2015 Esperante Spyder GT with a GM LSA engine sold on PCarMarket for $195,000, inclusive of fees.

Quotes for the Esperante have grown slowly the past couple of years, but Hagerty still only issues around one new policy a month. Nearly 90% of those policies go to older enthusiasts, although 2023 found more Gen Xers showing interest in the Esperante. It may well be the best-kept American V-8 manual sports car secret out there.

A rare, engaging, and comfortable sports car, built by a family who deeply loves cars and racing. How could I have forgotten the Esperante? If you didn’t know about Panoz, this car just gave you some homework.

Panoz Esperante badge
Cars & Bids/rpmcarssa




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    Great article and thanks for brining this great name back in the forefront. I own a 2001 Esperante but only bought it after racing my Panoz GTS in SCCA since 2004. I love both cars in the fact that parts are easy to get when needed and everyone stops by and asks what they are. I get comments from “is this a Viper to is this a stretched Miata”. When i tell them it is a Panoz the story begins. You are correct that when i take the Esperante out for Cars and Coffee there is never another one there. BTW you should do a piece on the Race version GTS. They made around 60 of those cars and a few are still racing today in SCCA, NASA, SVRA. Thanks Again.

    Cool car. I recall reading tests of this back in the day, but don’t recall actually ever seeing one on the street.

    I don’t see many of these in the wild but when I do I’m usually the guy answering the question what is that? The Cobra motor had a good home in these cars.

    I see they went with the Ford cluster. Even though we know of ways around PATS, back then Ford appears to have sold them the turn key version of the harness. Likely due to cost, just going with what work is best at times.

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