PANHARD: THE FIRST MAKE OF CAR IN THE WORLD
The Early Years: 1890-1945
Today, the Panhard name is nearly forgotten in the
automotive world. But this French
company marketed the first production car to the public – before Daimler-Benz
and Ford – and established the front-engine, rear-drive architecture used by
most cars for many decades. Panhard was also an early adopter of front wheel
drive, and the firm’s colorful history is filled with technological, stylistic,
and performance achievements. Panhards always led the way or were at very least
out on an edge. There was never an
ordinary Panhard passenger car, from the first in 1891 to the last in 1967.
Rene Panhard was an engineer whose business, based in Paris,
made woodworking tools and built engines under license. With his partner, Emile
Levassor, he experimented with horseless carriages, using engines licensed from
Daimler. In 1891, Panhard &
Levassor placed the world’s first production car on the market, using a Daimler
In 1892, they built what is generally believed to be the
first car with a front engine followed by clutch and transmission, all driving
the rear wheels. The modern car was born.
Panhard & Levassor quickly established a reputation for
fine engineering, excellent craftsmanship, superior reliability and outstanding
performance. A Panhard traveled from Paris to Versailles and then on to Etretat
in 1892 with no serious mechanical difficulties. And a Panhard won the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race in 1895, further
cementing the marque’s reputation for excellence.
Levassor died in 1897, and Arthur Krebs managed the company
until 1915, concentrating on engineering innovation and carefully shepherding
Panhard’s reputation for quality. Then
Rene Panhard’s nephew Paul took charge.
Until the Second World War, Panhard focused on the luxury
market and was without question one of the world’s finest makes. Many of the cars used sleeve-valve engines
licensed from Knight, and often were equipped with stunning custom
coachwork. A 290-horsepower Panhard
roadster set a world speed record of more than 133 miles per hour in 1934.
Panhard’s elegant Panoramique of the mid -1930s featured
flowing lines, three windshields (center and two at the sides for “panoramic”
visibility) and numerous mechanical innovations. Many collectors consider it to
be the quintessential luxury Panhard of the pre-World War Two era.
The Panoramique, so typical of Panhard’s established
conservative elegance, was followed by the startling Dynamic of 1936-39. This
was nothing short of an Art Deco fantasy in metal with semi-enclosed wheels all
around, the steering wheel mounted nearly in the center (in 1939 quietly moved
back to the side), triple windshields and wipers, and headlights enclosed
behind grilles in its chubby fenders. The Dynamic, styled by the company’s
longtime designer Louis Bionier, was technically as well as stylistically
audacious. Features included a tubular central chassis, hydraulic brakes and
four-wheel independent torsion bar suspension. But it made its debut in the depths of the Depression and was a bit of a
tough sell for the company. Popular or not, it certainly furthered Panhard’s
image as a quality but quirky, and now even slightly bizarre, brand.
Panhard had expanded into production of trucks, buses and
lightly armored military vehicles, but its decision to focus on the low-volume
luxury passenger car market ultimately excluded it from the world’s group of
major car manufacturers. Other French companies including Citroen, Renault and
Simca pursued production of lower-priced, mass-produced cars, a decision which
was to serve them well following World War Two.
The combination of the Great Depression and a strike in 1936
nearly destroyed Panhard, and from then until the war, commercial and military
vehicle production made up the bulk of the old firm’s production, with only a
few passenger cars being turned out each day.
Paul Panhard’s son Jean, a skilled young engineer with a
vision for the future, had joined the company in the 1930s. He saw that the world would be very
different once World War Two ended, and that Panhard’s already small
traditional market could be greatly curtailed. As Panhard considered a variety of models, including a medium-sized car
with Hotchkiss bodywork, Jean Panhard helped turn the firm in an entirely new
direction: development of a small, inexpensive car for a clientele Panhard had
never served before.
The project started with “VP-1” (for ”voiture petite”) But then Panhard saw a prototype small car
called the “Aluminium Francais-Gregoire” designed to showcase the advantages of
aluminum construction. Inspired by the
“AFG”, Panhard developed a new prototype, to be made largely of aluminum, with
four doors, front wheel drive and an aluminum two-cylinder engine.
The Postwar Years: 1945-1967
The socialist postwar government of France came up with a
plan that made acquisition of supplies easy only for car manufacturers who
would build small, and small-engined, cars. Fortunately, Panhard had such a car
on its drawing boards. But it had been
completely left out of the plan. Frantic negotiations finally resulted in Panhard’s being included, and
thus able to plan a viable course for itself.
The new small Panhard, dubbed the Dyna, appeared in
pre-production form in 1946. It went on
the market in 1948. Leaving aside its distinctly conservative, 1930’s-style
bodywork, it was bristling with technical innovations.
The Dyna’s traditional-looking body was made from aluminum, as was its two-cylinder,
air-cooled engine with roller-bearing crankshaft which revved far higher than most others.
It had front wheel drive and a four-speed transmission including an overdrive top
gear, and an unusual rear suspension consisting of a v-shaped axle and six
small torsion bars. It was a miracle of
lightweight, advanced engineering.
But it was also a car of contradictions, and Panhard was now
a company of contradictions, culturally devoted to expensive innovation while
committed to a new, lower-priced, lower-margin market segment. So the Dyna,
with a combination of performance, speed, ride comfort and roadholding that
amazed the press and shamed its competitors such as the Renault 4CV and Citroen
2CV, had a difficult time establishing itself in the market.
For one thing, the Dyna was comparatively expensive, with
its complex technical specification and extensive use of aluminum,. Customers could buy a 4CV, 2CV and, before
long, a Simca Aronde, at very competitive prices.
Also the Dyna, though technically advanced, was in truth not
as reliable as its peers. Pistons and connecting rods broke, transmissions and
exhaust systems failed with alarming frequency. The Dyna was noisy, and it
vibrated, which might be tolerated in a 2CV but became an obstacle for
customers paying the elevated price for the Panhard. There was no heat, and the
car was notoriously leaky.
Finally, Panhard was a small company compared to the giants
of the French motor car industry that had passed it by before the war. Its dealer network was small, its finances
limited. Its Paris factory was old, cramped, and not hospitable to the type of
volume production needed to make the Dyna an overwhelming success. In fact, the postwar Panhard bodies were all
made elsewhere by contractors and trucked to Panhard, further cutting profit
Nevertheless, the original Dyna, called the Dyna X, steadily
gained a group of loyal customers willing to put up with its deficiencies in
exchange for its technical wizardry, its delightful driving characteristics,
and its quickly legendary fuel economy. Power and engine size were increased step by step, from 600 cc and 22
horsepower to 750cc and 37 horsepower. A late model Dyna X could achieve 75 miles per hour, easily leaving a
4CV in its dust. The Dyna X brought
home numerous trophies from increasingly popular European rallies.
Numerous specialty manufacturers used the brilliant Panhard
mechanicals as the basis for sports and racing cars. The most notable were Charles Deutsch and Rene Bonnet, whose
Deutsch-Bonnet sports cars charmed enthusiasts and achieved numerous
competition successes. Panhard also
came out with its own little two-seat roadster in the early 1950s, called the
Junior. Juniors can still be found in
racing trim in the U.S. and elsewhere today.
In 1948, Panhard had displayed the Dynavia, an audacious and
extreme study in aerodynamics. This experimental teardrop-shaped vehicle was the inspiration for Panhard’s next
version of the Dyna.
That Dyna Z appeared in 1954, sporting a bulbous – and many
said ugly – new self-supporting aluminum body/chassis whose shape was
determined through wind tunnel tests and road testing. Whatever one thought of its appearance, it
left few people without an opinion. Using a 42-horspower, 850-cc version of Panhard’s flat twin, it could
achieve 80 miles per hour and upheld Panhard’s title as a fuel economy
champ. The company had wanted to develop a new powerplant for this new car, but the funds weren’t available.
Despite its controversial appearance and elevated cost, the
new Dyna sharply increased Panhard’s sales, and more than 1 hundred 20 thousand
of these cars were built by the time production ended in 1959. But Panhard was still fighting a financial
battle to survive, and one casualty was the use of aluminum for the
body/chassis. By 1958, the Dyna
bodywork was all-steel, with aluminum used for trim and of course the engine.
The Dyna Z, even as it registered new levels of sales, was
not enough to keep Panhard solvent. Competition from other makes including
Simca and Peugeot was intense, and the company had made serious miscalculations
regarding the cost of the bodies. Now it had to find a way out of what looked
to be financial ruin.
In 1955 Paul Panhard negotiated a deal through which Citroen
purchased 25 percent of Panhard. Under this arrangement Panhard would assemble
2CV trucks, and the Dyna would be sold by Citroen dealers. Paul and Jean
Panhard believed the future was bright, with the Dyna in far more showrooms
than it had ever been before, and able to plug the huge gap between Citroen’s minimalist
2CV and the grand ID/DS sedans. But what the Panhards evidently saw as a collaboration, Citroen’s Pierre Bercot
seemed to see only as a subcontracting situation and a way of keeping a
competitor in check. Citroen dealers turned out to be reluctant Panhard
promoters, Panhard received no major financial help to develop a new model or
engine, and it turned out that Panhard lost money on every 2CV truck it put
together. Over the next decade, Citroen slowly purchased greater control of
Panhard, and in 1965, completely took over the venerable company.
In the meantime, Panhard soldiered on with sales of about
25,000-30,000 vehicles per year. The company had in mind a complete revamp of
the Dyna, with a new, more modernistic body and possibly a new engine. Due to the chronic lack of funds, those
dreams never came true. Instead, a
face-lifted Dyna appeared in the spring of 1959: the PL17.
The number was the sum of three significant figures: 6 passengers, 6 liters of fuel consumed per
100 km, and an engine displacing 5 fiscal horsepower (5CV) under the French tax
system: 850 cc.
The car itself was nearly a throwback to the Art Deco
Dynamic: a Dyna with new front and rear, available in wild two-tone color
combinations such as light-and-dark lilac or coral and black, and sporting
hilarious wrap-around aluminum eyebrows over both front and rear lights. But it did the trick, pushing sales up from
a serious slump the Dyna experienced in 1959, and helping the company through
another few years. Approximately 130,000
PL17 and successor 17 models were made by the time demand collapsed in the 1965
model year and Citroen ended production.
Despite its troubled beginnings as a substitute for the
totally new car Panhard dearly wanted, the PL17 continued Panhard’s competition
successes. In 1961, three of these cars
took the top three places overall in the Monte Carlo Rally. And PL17’s regularly took home honors in
fuel economy trials.
Panhard tried again to develop a new model, but Citroen,
which was finally planning a mid-sized car of its own, decreed that the new
Panhard 24 would be a two-door car only. And once again, the flat twin would
have to suffice for power.
Stylist Louis Bionier, whose work with Panhard had started
in the company’s golden age of sweeping fenders and decadent luxury, reinvented
his esthetic one more time after his work with the Dyna and PL17. The 24 coupe was a stunningly, timelessly
elegant design that in the hands of a company with deeper financial reserves
and more freedom could have been a major success.
The car appeared in the spring of 1963 as a 1964 model, and
though it was widely acclaimed for its appearance, handling, and innovative
interior amenities, it never sold more than 6 thousand examples per year. Today
the 24’s, in coupe and slightly extended “berline” versions, are some of the
most collectible postwar Panhards.
Despite Citroen’s orders to the contrary, Panhard had drawn
a 4-door version of the 24, and one prototype was rumored to have been built.
But with Citroen working on its C-60 and Project F cars (neither of which ever
saw the light of day), a new mid-sized competitor from Panhard was not what
Bercot wanted. Convertible and station wagon versions of the 24 were also in
development, but never saw production.
The noose was tightening. The new Citroen Ami 6 was
undercutting the Panhard 17 at Citroen/Panhard dealers, and cars like the Simca
1300 and 1500, Fiat 1300 and 1500, and Peugeot 404 were making it increasingly
hard to sell a relatively large, spacious car in the 17’s price class with
outdated bodywork and a two-cylinder engine. Denied the chance to create a new
mass-market car or a new engine, Panhard found itself left with only the 24
coupes, expensive cars to produce that were not enough to keep the enterprise
going. Citroen, with mounting problems
of its own, first directed all further development work on the 24 to stop, and
then, having earlier assured Jean Panhard that the marque would not die,
decided to end production. The last
Panhard passenger car, a blue model 24BT, came off the line in July of 1967. So
ended the career of the world’s first maker of passenger cars, the so-called
dean of marques.
Panhard continued as a maker of military vehicles, and the
company survives today as part of the Panhard & Auverland Corporation,
which has a web presence at www.panhard.fr
The name also survives among an energetic band of collectors
who appreciate the unquestionable uniqueness and historical importance of
Panhard cars. We restore, preserve,
show, and drive these wonderful vehicles on the streets of the world. Some of us even race our Panhards and
Panhard’s history in the U.S. was brief, with the cars
imported in small numbers from the mid 1950s until about 1962 through a variety
of channels, including Citroen. But Panhards always were and still are very
rare in the United States, and our club seeks to bring Panhard owners and
enthusiasts together to keep these cars on the road. We hope you’ll join us, whether you own a Panhard or not.