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.
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 in 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.
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.