Emile Levassor had the devil’s own time with his first try at a horseless carriage. After mounting the engine amidships, he put his car on the road in 1890 and got nowhere, literally. Workmen in the factory in Paris lampooned partner René Panhard’s name into Pannehard (“panne” or “breakdown”).
Levassor persisted and came up with a revolutionary idea: engine in front, gearbox behind it, drive to the rear wheels. This layout gave the world the first automobile that did not betray horse-drawn carriage antecedents. And it worked. Breakdowns ceased. Orders poured into the factory. Would-be manufacturers everywhere copied the Système Panhard.
Over the next few years the Panhard et Levassor factory became a model for the aborning industry, filled with state-of-the-art tools from America, Germany and those designed in-house including woodworking equipment (René Panhard’s specialty) to make the acacia wheels.
Levassor was arguably the first to recognize the good business sense of motor sport competition. He took top honors in the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race single-handedly: 745 miles in just under 49 hours. His epic drive was the talk of the Continent. Levassor didn’t slow down. Following a serious accident in the Paris-Marseilles race of 1897, ignoring his doctor’s orders to rest, he collapsed and died over his drawing board.
Señor Dromceus of Antequera in the Spanish province of Málaga took delivery of this display car on February 28, 1896. It is believed to have remained in Spain for the next 115 years with one exception. In 1956, No. 593 competed in England’s famed London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.
In 1900 Panhard was making 75 cars a month, more than any U.S. automaker and more than most in Europe. But in 1901, came another revolutionary idea to copy: a Daimler named by its distributor for his daughter Mercedes. The Panhard was instantly obsolete. Panhard & Levassor’s subsequent career was checkered, its end sad. In the mid-sixties the company was sold for neither its name nor its car. Citroën simply needed more factory space.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
Most race cars were non-competitive after their first campaign — the 1927 Vauxhall was competitive for 23 years (1927–1950) and you can see it in person. Learn more