The Air Bag: A rare cat leaps in from the past

On his daily walk to work a special car takes Nick March down memory lane.

The Panther Lima, a rare cat in the wild these days.
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A dusty street in the heart of Abu Dhabi is the last place you might expect to find a black Panther. An Arabian leopard possibly, at a stretch, but not a rare breed most commonly associated with remote and far-off lands. But there it was one morning last month, its eyes glistening in the early light as I wandered along the capital's Airport Road towards the offices where these pages are lovingly produced every week.

I should explain. My walk to work - oh yes, the irony of an occasional contributor to the Motoring section using his feet for the morning commute rather than hundreds of expensively assembled Italian horsepower is not lost on me, either - takes me through the full length of the capital's grandly-named car souq.

The souq, which runs between 15th and 17th streets on Airport Road, is really only a ramshackle collection of second-hand car dealers and their largely predictable inventory of one-previous-owner Toyota Land Cruisers and never-taken-off-road-before Nissan Patrols. What felines that usually roam through the neighbourhood are small, scrawny street cats scuttling under cars.

I've been treading this same path for more than two years and, inevitably, familiarity eventually breeds contempt. Where once almost every other "dealer special" or "new arrival" attracted my attention, now it takes a certain something to stop me in my tracks. Last month that certain something was - I say was, because it has sadly since disappeared - a Panther Lima, a retro-styled British-built small sports car. Manufactured for six years from 1976, it looked like a knockdown Morgan while still managing to retail for considerably more than its already-expensive British rival. Nevertheless, it was not without its appeal.

The Lima and, indeed, the whole Panther Westwinds range, has been dear to my heart since the days when I wore short trousers to school, largely because the company's factory (we'll call it that for now, it was more like a large potting shed with a chimney lashed to its side) was based near Woking, the Surrey dormitory town in the south of England where I spent far too many of my formative years.

Back then, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Woking and its environs were famous (maybe infamous) for no more than two things: Paul Weller and Panther.

In truth, the two were unlikely bedfellows. Weller was the frontman of The Jam, a post-punk band who raged against the injustices of Maggie Thatcher's Britain, while Panther produced the kind of hyper-expensive cars designed to appeal to the wealthy businessmen that Thatcher's "economic miracle" was so busy creating.

While Weller sold records by the millions, Panther made cars by the handful. Indeed, around the same time that Weller called time on The Jam, the receivers were walking into the car maker's shed to close its doors for good just as the company was on the verge of building large quantities of its six-wheeled supercar called (wait for it) the Panther Six.

The story doesn't end there, of course. The Panther brand was later resurrected and the company's production lines were moved to a purpose-built factory elsewhere in the Home Counties. Woking's loss proved Harlow's gain. At least, that is, until Panther went bust again a few short years later. Weller meanwhile kept selling records by the bucketload and one little boy never stopped dreaming that he might one day own a Panther Lima.

For now, at least, that possibility remains remote. Big cats are such difficult beasts to track down.