By on March 25, 2010

To many today, the French automaker Panhard (pronounced panAR) may be unknown or rapidly slipping into obscurity. But the story of this once renowned firm, one of the very earliest pioneers of the automobile is remarkable and more relevant than ever. It developed a distinguished series of ultra-efficient two-cylinder cars in the post war era that culminated in this tasty 24TC of 1967, the very last Panhard. It reflected the French approach to automobile making perfectly: innovative, eccentric, stylish, and all to often, out of the mainstream and financial success. But Panhard’s efforts were always highly memorable, advanced, and foreshadowed the cars of today and the future. Before long, we may all be driving updated versions of small, ultra-light and super-efficient 850 cc two-cylinder cars like this.  And if this delightful and sporty coupe is anything to go by, it may be something to actually look forward too.

Panhard et Levassor was established in 1887, and built its first car in 1891 based on a license of the Daimler patent. But instead of the rear engine that the first Daimler and Benz cars used, Panhard placed the engine and radiator at the front, with rear driven wheels, and a crude sliding-gear transmission. As such, it was the first FR (front engine – rear wheel drive) car, and that configuration became known as the “Systeme Panhard”. That configuration was later adopted by both Benz and Daimler and is still going strong. And the well-known Panhard Rod or track bar was commonly used on live rear axles .

Panhard became a modest sized builder of mid to upscale technically conventional cars primarily for the domestic French market. Much of their output during the period up to WW II was not particularly memorable, but the very beautiful Dynamic of 1935 certainly was. It reflected the popular aerodynamic influence of the time, and is analogous to the Chrysler Airflow of the same vintage.

But after WWII, Panhard decided to completely re-invented itself, abandoning the upper-middle class cars and developing an ultra lightweight low cost car for the post-war era when automobiles were expected to become available to all. It was a similar line of thinking as that at Citroen, which conceived its solution to the problem with its iconic 2CV.

Panhard put itself to a more ambitious and slightly more upscale task, taking on the development of a concept by AFG (Gregoire) a radical aluminum-bodied FWD compact sedan with an air-cooled boxer twin driving the front wheels. This unusual car even used aluminum in the main frame members (see above two photos). It was an exercise in exploring the outer limits of weight reduction in the pursuit of an optimum ratio of performance to efficiency, and Panhard took on the challenges of making it a production vehicle, the most advanced of its field.

The final result was the 1946 Dyna X, roomy enough four four in comfort, but with decent performance from its tiny but highly economical 600cc boxer twin. But its main competitor, the rear-engined but otherwise more conventional Renault 4CV outsold it by huge margins, and Panhard was challenged to carve out a niche in the increasingly crowded market, especially given the high cost of aluminum.

The little twin’s engine size began a series of incremental increases up to 850 cc, and combined with the car’s remarkable light weight, the Dyna X began to be seen more as a car with sporting potential. It became a popular entry in competitive touring events, and more serious sporty offshoots were inevitable. One could say it took a somewhat similar trajectory as the Corvair: intended to be a low-cost economy family sedan, but finally finding its true mission in enthusiast circles.

By 1952, Panhard embraced its sporty aspect fully, and the goofy little Junior was put into production (See Dyna Junior CC). Think of it as the French Austin Healey Sprite, but with a wide bench seat to accommodate a cozy threesome. That’s much more in the French spirit than those unromantic English bucket seats.

In 1954, the new Dyane Z replaced the X. It had a substantially roomier body, but still kept the basic layout, components and even the aluminum construction. That didn’t last, though, and within a few years, steel began to replace the more expensive large aluminum pieces. But the Dyna remained a remarkably light , roomy and efficient car nevertheless.

In fact, the wider Dyna Z was considered a six-passenger car (even a stretch in that time of sleek bodies), and its front compartment shows the tasteful and tidy design to maximize interior space. Note the well padded and smooth dashboard, an early concession to safety. And its more conventional four-on-the-tree stick shift, unlike the earlier umbrella handle shifter of the earlier models. In 1955, Citroen bought a 25% stake in Panhard, opening up the a much larger dealer network, and leading to the eventual complete takeover in the early sixties.

This vintage ad highlights the Dyna’s key features: 130 kmh (80 mph) top cruising speed, 7 liters/100kmh fuel consumption (34 mpg), and room for six! I’m not going to try to convert the price. The Dyna Z was simply unparalleled in its abilities to deliver these numbers in its time. One is readily tempted to call it the Prius of its time, although in looks it reminds me slightly more of the first Taurus.

The Firm of Deutsch Bonnet (DB) built a series of sports racers based on the Dyna that were phenomenally successful, especially in the long distance races like Le Mans and Sebring, where an Index of Performance (based on engine size) played perfectly to the Panhard formula. Their reliability and surprising speed allowed them to often score in the top ten, even against the big Jaguars and Ferraris of the day.

The DB panhard success story went on for years, and finally culminated in its most extreme manifestations in 1964.

Here are the 1964 Le Mans prototype CD Panhard and its production variant, the fastest of the street Panhards. (A full brochure is here). The street model had Panhard’s “Tigre” engine that developed 60 hp from 850 cc, quite an accomplishment for the times, more than double of typical “sporty” cars of the times in terms of hp/liter. Top speed was over 110 mph. The Le Mans prototype was the first to feature a “long tail” and other aerodynamic aids. Top speed was some 140 mph. These are incomparable cars of their times, despite all the attention that the big-engined Ferarris and Ford GTs receive.

In 1960, the aging Dyna received a questionable new front and rear and was now called the PL17. It was also starting to show its age, but the lack of profits kept Panhard from developing a new car. Engine power was increased, and by the latter years of the 17′s production run, the standard engine (still 850 cc) developed 50 hp, and the optional Tigre 60 hp.

Like all Panhards, convertible and commercial variants were available, like this pickup. A seemingly odd combination, but every taste was catered to, including those with a Panhardomino on their mind.

Even a station wagon went into production in 1963. But Panhard saved its best for last, the stunning 24 Series Coupe, which also debuted in 1963. It came in both a short wheelbase 2+2 version like the one at the top of this article, and the long wheelbase coupe/sedan (below). Citroen refused to let Panhard build a four door version because it didn’t want it to compete with its own sedans, and a similar-sized car it had in the works .

Still powered by the 850 cc boxer twin, it came in 50 and 60 hp versions. But performance expectations were increasing, and the Pnanhard formula was running out of time. Citroen wanted Panhard’s production capacity for building 2CV vans, and so it was a short lived finale. Panhard lives on a as a military contractor, but the car building was la fin.

The Panhard 24 was obviously profoundly influenced by the the 1960 Corvair; of course it was hardly alone in that regard in Europe at that time, as the Covair left a wide swath of imitators. But the distinctive front end of the 24 went its own way, with a preview of what Citroen’s DS would be sporting in a few years’ time.

Citroen now fully owned Panhard, and tried to slot it between its large DS/ID models and its small cars. There was even an proposal to build an economy DS/ID using the Panhard drive train. Economy of scale in production was the goal, but it was all in vain. The world was moving on to bigger engined cars, and Panhard’s unique approach was becoming irrelevant. The 24 was the swan song, and a lovely one at that. It’s a sought after collectible now, and a memoir of a time when a radical approach to the efficiency-performance equation was pursued with a vengeance.  History repeats itself, but perhaps this time the Panhard formula will be more enduring.

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43 Comments on “An Illustrated History Of Panhard...”


  • avatar
    Contrarian

    Both models in the top picture simply ooze with class.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    The Panhard CT24 was a strong design influence for the fourth gen Toyota Celica (1985-89), with its heavily canted A- and C-pillars, making the greenhouse lean inwards at practically the same angle front to back.

  • avatar
    geeber

    Thank you, Paul, for a great recap of Panhard’s history.

    Believe it or not, a Panhard Dyna has shown up at the Carlisle Import car show. It always attracts a great deal of attention. If I recall correctly, it is small even compared to the other imports from the 1950s and 1960s

    Too bad we don’t get any French cars here in the U.S. When I was in Germany a few years ago, it was always interesting to see French cars, particularly the Renault Twingo and Megane.

  • avatar
    Syke

    Paul, thank you very much. Panhard has always been one of those marques that absolutely fascinates me. At the Richmond vintage car show last fall, some guy showed up with a mid-50′s Deutsche-Bonnet. First time I’d ever seen one in the metal.

    A lot of Porsche owners in the next row over weren’t happy that it was getting all the notice.

  • avatar
    ott

    Great post Paul! Interesting to see how they were able to get so much power from small displacement engines–6 decades ago! Looks like history is repeating itself.

    You can definitely see Citroen’s influence on the 24, particularly in the headlights.

    • 0 avatar
      Uncle Mellow

      “Interesting to see how they were able to get so much power from small displacement engines–6 decades ago!”
      Very few cars had hemi-head engines in the 50′s , apart from Jaguar and Panhard.

    • 0 avatar
      Fenaille

      “You can definitely see Citroen’s influence on the 24, particularly in the headlights.”

      It’s exactly the opposite. You can see on the late DS, in the headlights, Panhard’s influence.

  • avatar
    tced2

    Enjoyed the review of Panhard history. I was aware of the “Panhard rod” part of an auto chassis but did not realize the auto history.

    How did the lady with the very bouffant hair-do ever fit into the car? A lot of neck strain holding her head back to clear the roofline.

  • avatar
    MU78

    A hot looking woman with the flexibility of a gymnast can get into any car.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    Thank you for this introduction. I knew of Panhard, but unaware of their history – until now. I am wondering, how is “Panhard” pronounced? If I anglicize it, it doesn’t sound French, “Pan-Hard”? It doesn’t sound like a French word to me.

    I would like to see one of these cars in person. Like Tatras and a few other historic exotics, I’ve only enjoyed these cars virtually. Attending university in Europe exposed me to current brands, and being an autophile I grabbed chances to get in and drive whatever I was allowed to, but with Panhard, we’re talking history. It would be like expecting to find a Studebaker Avanti in Moscow. I hadn’t a chance to really see this brand in the flesh.

    That interior shot is so French, I can smell the old cigarette butts filling the ashtray.

  • avatar

    This is a dream come true to me. Thank you, Paul! I have always loved Panhards.

    Some tidbits from me. Bob Lutz while he worked at Ford of Europe was responsible for the development of the highly-advanced Sierra (sold in the US as a Merkur). He has been quoted as saying that the most important design influence for the Sierra was the Panhard Dyna.

    One of the finest convertibles ever (if you ask me) was made by Panhard. Check out a gorgeous video of an American guy driving his:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31seoMtk7TI

    I continue to find the concept of a two-cylinder boxer located low in front of the front wheels intriguing. Lightweight so as not to corrupt steering, space-efficient, smoothe. I had Citroens with that architecture that were uncommonly sweet. I do hope that somebody will someday utilize that concept upon the new generation of turbocharged twins appearing.

    VanillaDude, pronounce it “Pahnáhr” and you’ll be fine.

  • avatar
    eastcoastcar

    An incredibly well done retrospective of this brand. Thank you very much!

  • avatar
    relton

    I’ve driven a Dyna-Panhard sedan, ca 1961.

    Flimsy is the word that comes to mind. I guess one man’s light weight automobile is another man’s flimsy car.

    Definately interesting, great pictures.

    Bob

  • avatar
    blowfish

    Some literature mentioned FH Royce build his 1st car from Panhard Levassor, some say Decauville. So which is correct?

    Sadly these nice cars bite the dust.

  • avatar
    partsisparts

    When I was growing up in NY, a neighbor had a faded orange Dyna Z slowly deteriorating in their driveway.It was their from about 1965 until around 1974 or 5. I remember examining it as a kid and wondering, who would buy this? It did not run and I believe it was their because they were unable to get parts for it.

  • avatar
    relton

    In Johnstown, NY, there was a dealer, Sherwood Smith of Kingsboro Motors, who was perhaps the ultimate optimist. He sold, at one time, Citroen, SAAB, FIAT, Lloyd, Goggomobile, Borgward, MG, Triumph, Rover, DAF, and, of course, Panhard. I still have brochures for all those cars. If your neighbor had a Panhard, this is likely where it came from.

    Eventually he hit the big time, and got a Studebaker dealership. His kid had an Avanti in high school, in 1963, and was very surprised to discover, the hard way, that an 8 year old Chrysler was faster from 0 to 100.

    In French, the H is silent. In Panhard, the emphasis is on the 2nd syllable. The French pronounciation is panARD.

    Bob

    • 0 avatar
      postjosh

      wow, he really was an optimist! i spent a few weeks working on a movie in johnstown/gloversville. the production company picked it because it was only 200 miles to nyc but still the middle of nowhere. and let’s not forget the hills and snow. i remember driving a huge winibago there and wondering if i would survive the ordeal. this is definitely the part of the country where you need all wheel drive and lots-o-torque.

  • avatar
    venator

    Excellent review of a once famous, now sadly forgotten old marque.
    Here are some snippets of further information:
    -The Dynamic Panhard of 1935 shared a feature with the ultimate streamlined car of the 1930s, the Tatra 77, in having a 3-seat front bench with central steering wheel.
    -Pre-WW2 Panhards had double-sleeve-valve engines developed from C.Y. Knight’s concept, similar to Daimler, Voisin, etc.
    -The 2-cylinder, air-cooled Dyna Panhard engines featured torsion-bar valve springs.
    -L’Ancienne Establissement Panhard & Levassor did not die in 1967, only passenger car production was ended. Panhard were important producers of armoured military vehicles, and as late as the 1980s were selling armoured cars. If I recall correctly, the Mexican army procured large numbers of Panhard amphibious light armoured cars around that time.
    -Back to the Dyna Panhard, the roomy body combined with the frugal engine meant that these cars were quite popular as taxis in their day.

  • avatar

    !!!! I first became aware of these cars when I lived in France ’65-66. But I didn’t appreciate them until years later. The history is almost entirely new to me, however. I get a big kick out of how inventive the French were with cars. The Dyane Z has a very interesting face, and the 24 is simply beautiful, somewhat like the Corvair, as you say.

    I agree strongly with the resemblance between the Dyna and the gen1 Taurus. When the Taurus first came out, I immediately thought of the Taurus, and a friend of mine, a British woman, told me, independently of my own thoughts on the matter, that she thought the Taurus “looks like a French car.”

    The cost of that Dyna from the ad was roughly $11,000 in inflation adjusted dollars.

    Oh, and by the way, the “d” on the end of Panhard is silent.

    Anyway, thanks for filling out my memories

  • avatar

    I don’t ever recall seeing a Panhard station wagon, which suggests to me that they must have been very rare.

    • 0 avatar
      A is A

      Here you have one:

      http://images.forum-auto.com/mesimages/200635/MVC-146X.jpg

      And a shot of the fantastic CENTRAL steering wheel in the Dynamique.

      http://neveryetmelted.com/wp-images/Panhard.jpg

      Note also the panoramic 3 pieces windscreen, forerunning the curved windscreens of the 1950s.

      Panhards were so delightfully excentric that out-Citröened Citröen.

  • avatar
    Billy Bobb 2

    That French gal in the top pic ooozes class and is smoking hot-at once.

    Oo la la.

  • avatar

    Great article! The boxer twin’s engine noise might have also been a reason for Panhard’s decline. It was a tinny whirl, suggesting a weak engine. The Renault 4CV’s engine, by comparison, although really no power demon, simply sounded “stronger”.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    I tried to log in/post via Facebook a few hours ago, apparently didn’t work, so here goes again…

    This article is great news for me, since I am a Panhard fan. Thanks, Paul!

    Funny how David H. mentions the resemblance between Panhards and the first Taurus. Bob Lutz, who was working for Ford of Europe at the time, once said the primary inspiration for the groundbreaking Ford Sierra (Merkur in the U.S.) was the Panhard Dyna.

    Here’s a gorgeous video of an American guy who drives a Dyna cabriolet. It’s one of my all-time favorite convertibles.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31seoMtk7TI

    I have driven and owned several two-cylinder Citroens and can attest to the advantages their architecture entails. A boxer twin lying low in front of the front wheels: light weight, no corruption of steering, low center of gravity, great space economy. Perhaps one day one of these new turbocharged twins will adopt this concept. It would be great news.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    Wonderful review.

    I have always wanted a Dyna.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    “The Panhard 24 was obviously profoundly influenced by the the 1960 Corvair; of course it was hardly alone in that regard in Europe at that time, as the Covair left a wide swath of imitators.”

    Very true, but Why?

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Robert: The Corvair had a very original design language which completely broke from the fifties’ mold, especially in regard to small cars. Americans were not all that impressed, but European designers went gaga over it. Seriously, it blew them away, and it was the single most influential car on European design since Pinifarina’s pioneering work in the late forties and early fifties.
      Here’s some more:
      http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/in-defense-of-the-chevrolet-corvair/

  • avatar
    djn

    Great article Paul,
    I had a friend in the 80′s that had a Dyna. I ended up donating a Dauphene to his stable. I also recall seeing a DB in the vintage race held in the NW during that time.

    There is a Dyna that shows up at the French and Italian Car Meet in LA, held the first Sunday in November.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    I recall reading a Consumer Reports road test of a Panhard sedan (circa 1958?) that included a photo of a “panic” button on the dashboard. The button apparently did nothing besides offering existential comfort.

    Ah, the French.

  • avatar
    Corky Boyd

    Great story.

    One little sidelignt were the efforts of the French to ensure the Dyna Panhards won something at the Le Mans 24 Hours. While they would buzz along in the low 100s, Jaguar, MB and Ferrari were running near 200 on the long Mulsanne straight and got all the glory.

    So the they invented the Index of Thermal Efficiency (a combination of speed and fuel efficiency) that would almost surely guarantee a French win. That is until Ford came along with the 7 litre OHC V8. Not only did it win overall (1966, I think) but it blew the DBs and Dyna Panhards away in the economy run. The Ford could run over 215 down the straight, an unheard of speed for the time. But the big V8 was essentially loafing for most of the race and getting fabulous mileage.

    Sacre Bleu.

    The French changed the rule the following year essentially banning the large V8.

  • avatar

    Martin,

    Very interesting about Lutz and the Merkur. It makes sense to me!

    @Riko: you have to convert 1955 dollars into 2010 dollars. You can go to an inflation calculator such as this one: http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl/. This tells you that one 1955 dollar is worth eight 2010 dollars. Beyond that, I made one big assumption: that there were 5 new francs (500 1955 francs) to the dollar, which was the conversion rate when I lived in France a decade later.

  • avatar
    raphael

    Bravo for this well documented article. I puchased my first car in 1986, a 1956 Dyna : the transition model since the body is in steel and the doors, bonnet and trunk door are in aluminium. 24 years later it’s still my only drive and I use it at least once a week !

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    beautiful cat too, raphael!

    • 0 avatar
      raphael

      Thank you, Martin ! Now I’m fixing the old radio, an expensive option at the time, good for a use in Paris traffic only because at full speed on high roads the car is too noisy.

  • avatar
    duralinox

    Hello, I live in Denmark, and own a Panhard Dyna Z1 1955 in aluminium. My father worked as a mechanic for the danish Panhard importer, and my car was the companys show car, wich my father bought in -61. It was used as an everyday car by my parents, up untill 1999, when they gave it to me. It was also used for going on holydays every year, from -61 to -76, driving through Germany, France, Schwitzerland and over the alps to Italy, and has never let us down.
    Now it is used for going to old car gatherings and such, and is a rare car even here, as there was only 5 of them imported, and only 2 have survived.


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