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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 engine.

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 margins.

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-engined cars.

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.


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