Panhard was another manufacturer that was at the very beginning of the automotive industry and were based in France, in fact as you will see, they were associated with many of the leading French brands of the century. Rene Panhard, the son of a saddler and coach-builder, and his associate Emile Levassor founded their company in 1887.
They had both worked at a wood-working machine factory together and had worked on gas engines to run the machines. Both were in their mid 40s when the opportunity came to build internal combustion engines under licence. A Belgian lawyer and presumably an associate of Levassor had bought a licence to build engines from Gottlieb Daimler. The lawyer, Eduard Sarazin asked Levassor if he would manufacture them, which he did. Levassor and Daimler started to collaborate on technology and share ideas.
In 1890, at around the same time that both Daimler and Karl Benz were starting to sell horseless carriages – separately, Daimler and Benz had not yet merged – so was Panhard, using the Daimler designed V2 engine. The first vehicles were hand-built for their new owners and as such were all different, although they used pedals for the clutch and other ideas that have evolved into the modern car such as front mounted radiators and an early version of a gearbox. Panhard was the first to mount the engine at the front and have the rear wheels deliver the power and this has become known as the Systeme Panhard. This was introduced in 1891 as the first true design from Levassor.
They also developed the Panhard (or Track) Bar. This is a simple bar fitted to the rear suspension of a car that prevents the unit from moving in any other direction than up or down. This dramatically improved the road holding and is still used on cars today. Also in 1891, Panhard agreed to share their engine licence from Daimler with a bicycle manufacturer that would become another great French car manufacturer: Armand Peugeot.
Like other manufacturers of the time, it was important to show the world that their cars were a) reliable and b) fast and exciting. So Levassor entered and won the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race, in fact the company got a 1-2. Racing was popular before the turn of the century and Levassor sustained critical injuries the following year in another race on public roads that brought on an early death in 1897. Levassor’s death enabled a very experienced engineer to take his place at the helm of the company.
Major Arthur Krebs was involved in early flight, helped design submarines and had designed the Castor Angle for a steering system – this is what cars use to centre a wheel after it has been turned. He joined Panhard and brought this design with him – he had designed a small car as well that became known as the Clement-Panhard because Panhard couldn’t build in the volumes the market wanted, so they outsourced it to Adolphe Clement who wanted to build cars and who ultimately sold licences to Talbot and eventually was acquired by Citroen.
In the meantime, Krebs was developing new ideas including the steering wheel, improved carburettors, shock absorbers and many other items that are now common place on modern vehicles. He also licensed the Knight Engine for production with the Panhard cars. The Knight Engine was a British design that didn’t use any valves! Krebs also took the company in a new direction: trucks, and ascertained early on that the same technology could be used not just for commercial delivery vehicles but also military ones – being an ex military man this wasn’t too difficult for him to visualise!
So, like Lanchester and Rolls-Royce in the UK, he built armoured vehicles for use by the French army during the hostilities leading up to and including World War 1. Models included the 1904 Genty and the Chatillon-Panhard. Krebs was instrumental in growing the company – especially after Rene Panhard died in 1908 – through to 1915 when Rene Panhard’s nephew Paul Panhard took control and like many companies converted their manufacturing lines to build for the war effort – however unlike many car companies, Panhard didn’t embrace the mass production facilities as the market grew in the early 1920s and then later in the 1930s.
They preferred instead to build a line of luxury and sports cars whilst generating revenues from trucks, rail cars, aircraft engines and military equipment. Production was set at about ten cars a day with a range of engines up to about 35hp. During the 1930s they launched cars such as the Panoramique and Dynamic with engines up to 3-litres in size. These were classically styled cars – the Panoramique looked like a Duesenberg and the Dynamic included grilles over the headlights. The late 1930s were a struggle for the company, having survived the Great Depression by manufacturing multiple product lines. In 1936 the workers went out on strike and with the looming war, the company dropped production to just three cars a day!
During World War 2, Panhard used a lot of aluminium as steel was being redirected for the war effort and after hostilities finished, the French Government placed a heavy tax on steel based products so that the material could be used to rebuild the country. Panhard, now run by Jean Panhard, Paul’s son, had been quite innovative. They had already seen a market for very small cars and had been developing a micro-car with a 350cc two cylinder motor. With the tax on steel, they switched to aluminium and launched the Dyna in 1947 with a revised 610cc power plant. Initially the bodies were made by Facel (who soon after losing the contract became Facel Vega). This model lasted until 1953 when it was replaced by the Dyna Z.
As the tax was being reduced on steel, this car gradually morphed from aluminium to steel such that by the end of its run it was all steel. The Z had an 850cc motor. This is where another relationship was formed – with Deutsch and Bonnet or DB. They took the mechanical components from a Dyna, increased the power to 60hp (from 22) and built their own fibreglass bodies and raced them. The DB’s were sold through Panhard dealers.
DB were very successful and after Bonnet took full control was ultimately absorbed into Matra who were a major player in sports car and F1 racing during the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1955, Citroen took a 55% stake in Panhard and started to share technology, in fact the Panhard factory made some Citroens as well. After the Dyna Z had stopped production in 1959, Panhard released the PL17, which was in effect an upgrade with some Citroen components and was available through Citroen dealers as the Panhard dealers were converted over. The model was sold as a saloon, convertible and as a utility vehicle. Production continued until 1965 still with the original 850cc motor.
To complement the PL17, Panhard designed its last model before Citroen took full control of the business. This was the 24 series and was released in 1963. The front is very familiar to Citroen fans as the headlights were similar to the DS model launched in the mid 1950s and the back looked like an early BMW 2002. It was also powered by the older 850cc motor. 1967 saw the Panhard name come to an end for car production as Citroen needed the facility to build their own models, however the military vehicle business continued.
Citroen used the 24 as the basis for the new GS, which came out in the early 1970s – a radical design that was technically advanced for its time and was one of the first hatchbacks. The SM was a Maserati engined replacement for the DS but used concepts first developed by Panhard. In 1974, Peugeot bought 38% of Citroen and then increased this to 89% after Citroen went bankrupt in 1976. This was the catalyst to form PSA Peugeot Citroen.
Peugeot had entered into a joint agreement with Mercedes-Benz to build a vehicle for the French army. Basically Mercedes supplied a G Wagon shell and Peugeot fitted the running gear from their 504 and 604 saloons and it was known as the P4. From 1985, Peugeot built these at the Panhard factory and in 2006 Panhard lost the bid for the replacement of the P4 to Auverland who won with their PVP model. Auverland acquired Panhard from Peugeot and renamed themselves the Panhard General Defence Company.
Whilst researching this article I came across Panhard Motorsports. Like another French manufacturer, Delahaye, who have a US based company named after them, so too does Panhard. This other company, Panhard Motorsports, known as PMD, manufactures the Csport, a Le Mans category sports racer and are based in Tarpon Springs, near Tampa Bay in Florida.