The Editor investigates the latest of the giant Edwardian racing cars to be restored
The most exciting and satisfying of all the pre-war racing cars, to my mind, are the big Edwardians. Very few have survived, and those that have do not often appear on the race tracks these days. I can remember clearly the interest and enthralling delight, just prior to the Second World War, when these racing monsters, which had for so long lain dormant, were resuscitated, after Kent Karslake had drawn attention to their possibilities in the pages of Motor Sport and the VSCC had later decided to foster them; thereafter joined belatedly by the VCC, I should add.
Sam Clutton was campaigning the 1908 Grand Prix Itala, all low-tension-ignited 12-litres of it, as he and Jack Williamson still do. Not to be out-done in these rediscovered old-motoring adventures, Anthony Heal dug out a 1910 GP Fiat, a 10-litre overhead-camshaft monster. The venerable 1914 21-litre Benz four-seater re-emerged from the place where it had been hiding since its stirring Brooklands exploits, and when I heard that Michael McEvoy was harbouring a mysterious pre-war Bugatti in a shed at Derby, said to be of surprising engine-size and like most of the others to have chain transmission (although this I disbelieved), we went to look, in a Type 40 Bugatti, and it was so; some digging about in the archives showed that such a Bugatti had indeed been driven by Ivy Cummings, by Mr. Preston at Brooklands circa-1925, and that it was known, like all good racing cars, to Sammy Davis. Brig.-General G. M. Miles of the Bugatti OC spent good money on restoring it and to re-emerged “Black Bess”, which I hear Peter Hampton has just sold, after owning it for a number of years.
Continuing this saga of the Edwardian racing giants, I just missed buying the 1912 Grand Prix, Lorraine-Dietrich “Vieux Charles Trois” but Dick Nash tamed and raced it, in speed-trials and at the Crystal Palace (where the Big Benz fell over), etc., before the war, and the Blake brothers had their truly-historic 1903 Gordon Bennett Napier. It was a very good time to be alive and able to visit vintage race meetings. . . .
Since those days a few more fast Edwardians have erupted. Ronald Barker built himself a delectable Sixty Napier, Nigel Arnold-Foster has unearthed and caused to function a second 5-litre chain-drive Bugatti and a Sixty Mercedes, actually a veteran, is very much alive and kicking, in the care of Roger Collings.
However, there are those of as who cannot have too much of these admittedly-rare, pre-1914, multi-litred racing cars. So when the grapevine whispered that one of the 1908 Grand Prix Panhard-Levassors was not only in England but was in running trim, I was immediately intrigued. It is the property of J. M. Walker, who last month very kindly complied with my request that I should visit him to investigate it, and possibly drive it. Which is what this article is about.
When you speak of Panhard and Levassor you speak of the very birth of the motor car. What Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz did for the petroleum motor, these Frenchmen did for the motor carriage as such. It was in 1889 that Émile Levassor obtained a gasolene motor from Gottlieb Daimler in Germany and set about installing this primitive power unit in a motor carriage. In doing this he soon went his own way, ignoring the rear-mounted engines and belt-drive of the cars made by Karl Benz in those empirical times. It all arose from a wood-cutting-machinery concern founded in Paris in 1845 by Perin and Pauwels. Perin was the engineer in this Company and his band-saw, exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1867, won high acclaim. When his business partner, Pauwels, died, Perin brought in René Panhard, with whom he had studied engineering. The business flourished and bigger premises were acquired, at the later ever-more-famous Paris address, that in the Avenue d’Ivry. Perin died in 1886. He had left the entire Company to Mon. Panhard, who took in his friend Levassor, whom he had likewise met when they were studying engineering together at the Ecole Centrale Politechnique, as his partner. Perin et Pauwels became Panhard et Levassor. . . .
The quirks of history can be curious. It so happened that Edouard Sarazin, a lawyer, had obtained the French rights to Gottlieb Daimler’s engine patents. To keep these alive it was desirable to have a few engines made in France to the Daimler design. Sarazin knew Levassor because both had worked at Cockerill’s in Liège before going their separate ways, and he asked Levassor to make these engines for him.
On Christmas Day 1887 Sarazin died, leaving the Daimler patents to his wife Louise. She was able to obtain Daimler’s consent to use them and turned to Levassor for advice. In less than two years he was not only conducting his horseless-carriage experiments but he had married the lady! Levassor’s first car employed a vee-twin Daimler motor amidships but very soon he decided to have the engine in the front, driving the back wheels of his later chassis through a clutch and a gearbox. He designed the gearbox — based on the actions of a lathe and at first with the sliding gears uncased and thus exposed to the mud and dirt of the road, which gave rise to the alleged historical remark “It is brutal, but it works!”
So Émile Levassor set the fashion for all the cars that followed, with a few freak low-output, or prototype, exceptions. Until, that is, Prof. Ferdinand Porsche brought the rear-placed engine into prominence, with the Volkswagen Beetle and Sir Alec Issigonis perfected the transversely-arranged frontal engine for front-wheel-drive cars. Even so, these layouts apply mainly to small cars, and Levassor was therefore not only a successful pioneer automobile constructor but the person who invented the conventional chassis layout.
The first car of this type, which the Panhard-Levassor factory made, appeared in 1891. In 1895 the gears were encased. The vertical-twin Daimler-Maybach Phoenix engine was used at first but later came Panhard Levassor’s own Centaur engine, which was given dual ignition, by hot-tube and coil, with a dynamo to charge the batteries. It was an unfortunately noisy engine, but Panhard was advancing fast, with a special carburetter designed by Comdr. Krebs, a Panhard-Levassor Director, and with a three-cylinder, four-speed 8 h.p. car with its valves mechanically-operated in the catalogue.
However, it is with racing that we are here concerned. In that field Panhard-Levassor was, for many years after the commencement of this new sport, in a completely dominant position. A car of this make won the very first motor race, in fact. That was in 1895, the race from Paris to Bordeaux and back, over the remarkable distance of 732 miles. Levassor entered a special 4 h.p. Panhard-Levassor racing-carriage, tiller-steered, and driving himself throughout, won at a speed of 14.9 m.p.h. It was an incredible performance, occupying 48 hr. 48 min. To commemorate it a special monument was erected to Émile Levassor at the gates of Paris (I believe this failed to suivive the German invasion of the city, but perhaps a reader residing in Paris could comment).
In 1896 the leading event was the Paris-Marseilles-Paris race. Levassor again drove a 4 h.p. Panhard but he struck an obstacle while travelling at some 20 mph. and the steering-tiller was wrenched out of his hand, causing the vehicle to turn over, with severe injuries to the great pioneer designer-driver. He died in the following year. No doubt it was this which resulted in race victories going to Panhard in 1897. However, by 1898 the exciting new 8 h.p. four-cylinder racer was ready, of 80 x 120 mm. (2,402 cc). With one of these powerful racers Ferdinand Charron achieved victory in the 148-mile Marseilles-Nice race, at 21.4 m.p.h. Even greater acclaim was earned when, in the 1898 Paris-Bordeaux race, the Head of the Company, the celebrated Chevalier René de Knyff, who was President of the Automobile de France, won on one of these 8 h.p. Panhards, averaging 23.5 m.p.h. for the arduous 359 miles. By this time Panhard-Levassor was the premier motor car in the opinion of many, not only because it was the first French make, but due to these great racing successes. It remained so, for a majority, up to the 1914/18 war. The racing domination was endorsed when Charron won the Paris-Amsterdam race that year, doing the then-thought-appalling average speed of 27.3 m.p.h. over the enormous distance of more than 900 miles. The hazards of driving these high, unbalanced cars with their crude brakes had been sadly underlined when Mayade was killed due to the tiller-controlled Panhard he was conducting getting out of control, much as Levassor’s had. Charron had used wheel-steering for his convincing victory. . . .
The 1899 season was a particularly good one for the Panhard-Levassor marque. The Paris-Rouen-Paris race was won by Giradot on a model of only 6 h.p. which nevertheless averaged 30¼ m.p.h. The great Paris-Bordeaux contest saw the celebrated Charron win for the Company with a new 12 h.p. car with frontal radiator, at a rousing 30.3 m.p.h. Moreover, de Knyff pulled off both the big race in Belgium and the Tour de France, averaging a notable 30.8 m.p.h. in the latter, despite its 1,377 miles! That was on a 16 h.p. car, with a 4½-litre engine having the same dimensions as a vintage Bentley. Giradot, not to be left out, dead-heated with the rival Mors in the Paris-Ostend, although he was pitting a 12 h.p. Panhard against the 16 h.p. of the Mors, and he won Paris-Boulogne outright at 33½ m.p.h.
The story, indeed, becomes almost monotonous. The first Gordon Bennett race went to Panhard-Levassor, although Charron, on a new, powerful 24 h.p. racer, with electric ignition, had his troubles, experiencing a bent back axle and a friction-driven water-pump that could only be kept in contact with the flywheel by the efforts of his luckless riding mechanic. But what a victory, this drive from Paris to Lyons, 354 difficult miles at 38.6 m.p.h. And the older 12 h.p. car had scored, too, at the Circuit du Sudouest and in the Nice-Marseilles, driven in both races by de Knyff. Nor was there any let-up in 1901; Maurice Farman took a 24 h.p. model to victory at Pau, doing better than 46 m.p.h., and in the Gordon Bennett race, for which the famous 40 h.p. was produced, the race went to Giradot — normally called “The Eternal Second” — the only finisher, at 37.3 m.p.h.
For the year’s top race, Paris-Berlin, for which Panhard-Levassor entered several “Forties”, the Mors challenge strengthened, however. For Fournier’s 60 h.p. Mors had the legs of the Panhards that chased it, winning from Giradot and de Knyff, with five more Panhards chasing Brescia’s 60 h.p. Mors. But as the victorious Mors moved off for the triumphal procession a driving-chain broke, so by that margin had Panhard lost this prestigious 1901 contest! It was in it that Charles Jarrot was allowed to have a 40 h.p. Panhard to drive.
Anxious to avenge defeat, the great 70 h.p. Panhards now came on the scene. The race regulations did not prevent enormous engines being installed in frail chassis, as the best, the only, way to gain ever more speed. The “Seventy” had a 13.6-litre motor of 160 x 170 mm., in a wooden chassis reinforced with steel plates, transverse front springs, and quite a low driving position. These Panhards actually weighed less than the 40 h.p. cars and were the most exciting racing cars of their day. One remembers Jarrott’s enthusiasm when Harvey Du Cros, who held the British Panhard agency, got him his drive. He was shown his car by Mon. Clement at the factory, where it had been painted green, to off-set its unlucky no. 13! Jarrott’s mechanic was to be Smits, “one of the best bicycle-riders of his day”. Later, going to the Avenue d’Orvy to collect his lightened 40 h.p. car for the Circuit du Nord, he was recognised by de Knyff, who invited Jarrott to go for a test run with him on the new 70 h.p. Panhard, prepared for the Paris-Vienna race, “The power of the motor seemed to me to be enormous, and immediately the prospects of driving a 40 h.p. car against such a monster appeared very tame. However, there was only one ’70’ and de Knyff had it”. . . . In the event, a slipping clutch put the big car out and Maurice Farman won on a “40”, at 45 m.p.h. for 541 miles, with Jarrott a commendable second. De Knyff had no better fortune in the 1902 Paris-Vienna race, for when leading Edge’s Napier by a big margin in the Gordon Bennett part of the contest, a differential sleeve broke, 20 km. from the finish, giving the GB Cup to England. However, Henry Farman won the big-car class in the race to Vienna, with a “70” Panhard. Charles Jarrott had been promoted to a “70” for this race but the unstrengthened frame broke up. Using the same car, he won the 1902 Circuit des Ardennes, at 54.3 m.p.h.
Although from then on other makes arose to out-bid the Panhards, especially the Mors and the Mercedes, de Knyff was second to the flying Jenatzy on the stripped Sixty Mercedes in the 1903 Irish Gordon Bennett race, after the other two Panhards had expired, and Baron de Crewhez’s “70” Panhard won that year’s Circuit des Ardennes race, at 54½ m.p.h. Then George Heath was first in the 1904 Circuit des Ardennes, driving a monster 90 h.p. Panhard, and going over to America, this driver scored for Panhard-Levassor their last victory in a classic road-race, by winning in Florida the first Vanderbilt Cup Race, at 52.2 m.p.h. for the 284 miles. That was the close of ten years’ domination of motor racing by this pioneer French make, but with the advent of the Grand Prix in 1906 Panhard-Levassor was competing again, as we shall see, after being ousted by Richard-Brasier, Mors, Turcat-Méry, and De Dietrich as France’s representatives in the 1904 and 1905 Gordon Bennett races.
It was Kent Karslake, erstwhile Motor Sport correspondent, who wrote that had he been a millionaire in contemporary times he would undoubtedly have purchased Panhard-Levassor products in the years 1897 to 1900/1, buying successively a 4 h.p. (or a 6 h.p. if available), an 8 h.p., a 12 h.p. and a 24 h.p. as a result of their prowess in racing, before changing his allegiance to Mors and then to Mercedes . . .
That is the background to the exciting motor car which I set off to see, in the Rover 3500, one Saturday in March.
* * *
The motor car awaiting me beside Mr. Walker’s house was exciting indeed. Painted in the light blue of France, this big Panhard looked more “Gordon Bennett” than “Grand Prix”, a real monster from the past. No radiator badge disclosed its illustrious make, the maker’s name being confined to the hub caps, but it was unmistakably a product of the Company responsible for the ancestor of the modern automobile. Maybe Panhard never quite threw off this label, for the design of their GP cars was less advanced than most, side valves sufficing when overhead valves held sway, and some of the other design factors being out-dated. Yet, as I was soon to discover, this great car does not lack for performance, achieved in a most impressive, brute-force manner, and it is endowed with more interesting technical, and speculative, aspects than most cars of its era.
Although absent from those later GB races, when the first GP de l’Automobile Club de France was announced for 1906 at Le Mans, Panhard built cars for it. They were rated at 130 h.p., having a bore and stroke of 185 170 mm. (18,279 c.c.), the design following that of the 90 h.p. 170 x 170 mm. racers of 1904, but with a plate instead of a cone clutch, a honeycomb instead of a gilled tube radiator, but retaining the carden-shaft transmission that had replaced chain final drive on Panhard racing cars from 1904. The drivers of these fabulous cars were the American George Heath, Tart, and Teste. After the first day’s racing Heath and Teste were lying 7th and 8th, after having been well up with the leaders. To get these huge-engined cars within the race weight-limit Panhard had had to forgo using the new Michelin detachable rims that had helped Renault to victory and they had pared down the safety factor of theft chassis. On the second day Teste retired with a broken spring hanger, but Heath, the No. 1 driver, came home in 6th place, at 52.1 m.p.h., some 11 m.p.h. slower than the winning Renault.
The 1907 GP at Dieppe was on a fuel-consumption basis and Panhard ran cars with the old-type 170 x 170 mm. (15,435 c.c.) engine, driven by Heath, Le Blon, and Dutemple, and they now used dashboard radiators and pointed bonnets. They were unsuccessful, all failing to finish. For the 1908 race, again at Dieppe, the cylinder-bore limit was 155 mm. so Panhard used this maximum bore size with the 170 mm. stroke reverting to a front-mounted radiator and going back to chain drive. George Heath, Henry Farman and the motorcyclist Henri Cissac were nominated to drive for them and the cars were very fast and well up with the leaders until the detachable rims, of the later type secured by one bolt, gave trouble. With his team-mates delayed, Cissac drove splendidly until, alas, a tyre burst, the car overturned, and he and his mechanic Schaub were fatally injured. Heath was 9th at 60.3 m.p.h. and Henry Farman contrived to finish the course, in last place, at 50.8 m.p.h. — Jarrott said that if Maurice Farman was brilliant, his brother Henry was persevering! The winning Mercedes averaged 69.0 m.p.h. There had been 49 starters, but only 23 finished the race.
John Walker’s car is one of these 1908 GP cars. It looks very much the great Edwardian racing car! Compared to the 1908 Itala, another surviving car from this race (along with British Leyland’s Austin), it is 786 c.c. larger, 10″ shorter in wheelbase, the track is 4″ less, and emphasising Panhard’s stringent weight-saving, it is lighter by some three cwt. or more, the Panhard weighing about 24 cwt. In the race Cissac’s Panhard was timed at 97 m.p.h., against 105 m.p.h. of the Bayard-Clements.
Naturally, as with most old racing cars, there is speculation as to which of the team cars John Walker’s is. Photographic evidence, the position of one particular bolt for example, suggests that it is the Farman car. There is only one other known survivor from the team, the sister car now in the Schlumpf Collection, that Serge Pozzoli found, road-equipped, in Paris in 1965. This is said to be the Cissac car, although as this was significantly wrecked in the accident, after a burst back tyre had locked the wheel, causing it to somersault twice, it seems surprising that it was worth rebuilding with no GP scheduled for 1909 . . .
Be that as it may, John Walker’s car was unearthed in Argentina by Colin Crabbe, who told John about it when he was seeking an exciting car to offset the 1913 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost he has had since 1949 and which shares its garage with his 1924 Speed Model 3-litre Bentley, both immaculate, but now overshadowed by the Panhard. The latter was in poor condition, sans body, tyres, when found, and with only three c.i. pistons remaining. Undaunted, Walker had it air-freighted over the Atlantic in 1972 and it has since been superbly resuscitated by Bentley-specialist Richard Moss, the task occupying five years. With very few exceptions it is back to original order, apart from non-detachable rims and aluminium pistons. It is thought that it may have been used for a few speed events in America, circa 1912, before retiring into obscurity.
Before I went out for a stirring run on the Panhard I looked at its many fascinating details. The cylinders are separate, and all four well spaced apart, on a quite modern-looking aluminium crankcase. They have copper water-jackets and when Panhard went over to mechanically-operated inlet valves in 1903, for the Paris-Madrid race, they attached the new T-heads to the cylinders with four studs, the connecting passages from the cylinder barrels being no larger than the inlet valves. These valves are on the o/s, the exhaust valves on the n/s of the engine, topped by very big screw-threaded valve caps. The valve timing is: inlet valve opens 12½ deg. after t.d.c., closes 45 deg. after b.d.c., exhaust opens 45 deg. before b.d.c., closes 12½ deg. after t.d.c. The tappets rise from neatly-tapred brass guides.
The crankcase and sump possess four separate and unconnected compartments, that at the front containing the front main-bearing, which is a ball-race, and the timing-gears. The crankshaft runs otherwise in four plain bearings. The con.-rods are tubular, with four-bolt big-ends, of white metal in wide bronze shells. Lubrication is by a mechanical-oiler down on the rear n/s of the crankcase. This feeds oil from a tank under the seat to a gallery, and it then goes via drip-feeds to the centre three main bearings and to the big-ends, the latter fed through , large holes in the big-end shells and con.-rod walls — there are no oil-scoops. The fourth drip-feed is blanked-off, because the rear main bearing relies on crankcase pressure for its lubricant. Presumably for this reason no breather could be used, and, indeed, each crankcase compartment can be filled only through a tiny plug, and there is provision for wiring these to one another, to stop them working loose. Each crankcase compartment has a tiny, but slotted and therefore quick-action, drain-plug, possibly for relieving crankcase pressure should too copious a quantity of oil should get therein. The main drip-feeds are all under the bonnet but another single one before the mechanic shows that oil is flowing, in this total-loss system; I suspect that it was this new mechanical-oiler that so intrigued Chevalier de Knyff’s personal mechanic, Aristides, when first he was confronted with it instead of the expected dashboard drip-feeds, that on arrival in Nice from Paris he promptly dismantled it to see how it worked! Incidentally, it is said that Aristides had so much faith in de Knyff’s driving tht when the Chevalier retired he wouldn’t ride with anyone else.
Ignition is by a big Lavalette Eiseman l.t. magneto, driven from the timing gears at the front o/s of the engine. It swings in its brass cradle through some 30 or more degrees, to obtain advance and retard of the sparks, and provides coil ignition for starting and magneto ignition for running, using a common distributor, with h.t. current for the magneto via the same external coil, firing 18 mm. sparking plugs set horizontally in the sides of the heads, one per cylinder, on the o/s. The radiator is a shapely honeycomb-type, with square-section cooling tubes, and an ingenious locking-device for the filler-cap. Behind it there is a six-bladed metal fan, driven by a flat belt, tensioning of which is effected simply by lifting up the right side of the cross-tube on which the fan-spindle is mounted and relocking this at the required angle. It is thought that perhaps, as so many tyre-changes were called for in the Grand Prix, the engine was kept running at the pits, and the fan therefore fitted to prevent overheating at such times. The water flow is sent powerfully through the cooling system by a big pump of what can be described as the twin-stage centrifugal type, with an aluminium casing, mounted behind the timing gears on the n/s.
The cylinders are connected by large brass water-galleries. There is an enormous exhaust manifold lagged with asbestos string, as it was for the race, feeding into a cylindrical muffler with a short tail-pipe, and on the opposite side of the engine one encounters the imposing polished-brass, four-port inlet manifold. The carburetter was originally a Krebs, which Henry Royce is said to have copied, so that John Walker thought he might have used a Rolls-Royce carburettor on the Panhard! Instead, a Zenith updrught is now fitted.
The drive from the 12.8-litre engine goes through a multi-plate clutch, the outside casing of which is in the flywheel, and there are no flexible joints in the drive, other than slight movement of this clutch assembly, back to the differential-cum-chain-countershaft drive.
The chassis has channel-section steel side members. It is mounted on ½-elliptic springs above the axles, the front ones shackled at the back, the rear ones at both ends, the torque taken by side-arms. These are damped by drum-type shock-absorbers, these having a cam-action that is inclined to lock-up over bad bumps. The steering track-rod is well ahead of the front axle and it is encased by faired-section wood, presumably to prevent its flexing. The original axle was missing, so it has been replaced by a Rolls-Royce Ghost axle and the steering-box is also non-original. The wooden wheels are shod correctly with 875 x 105 front and 895 x 135 back tyres, now of course by Dunlop. A copper fuel tank behind the seats, holding some 25-30 gallons, has a long filler neck, with enormous orifice, and the spare covers are placed over this — it seems that three were generlly carried, maybe two for the back wheels, one spare for the front wheels, during the race. The final drive is by 35 mm. — pitch chains, and the overall gear ratios are 4.0, 2.9, 2.1, and 1.6 to 1, against those for the 1908 GP Itala quoted to me as 5.3, 3.4, 2.3 and 1.65 to 1. The speeds at 1,500 r.p.m. for the Panhard-Levassor are therefore 37, 52, 72 and 95 m.p.h., respectively, compared to the 27, 42, 65 and 97 m.p.h., from the Itala at 1,600 r.p.m. — unless Cecil Clutton has any comments?
The braking system of the Panhard is ingenious. The pedal operates two drum brakes on the transmission, so arranged that one of them acts as a clutch-stop when the pedal is slightly depressed, to facilitate engaging bottom gear from rest. A quick action cockpit adjuster enables the clutch stop to be disengaged as required. The hand-lever works the rear-wheel drum brakes when the lever is pushed forwards, and also withdraws the clutch through the normal pedal-operated clutch mechanism.
The starting proceudre is normal for a racing car of this age. Pressure is pumped-up un the fuel tank, the cylinders are primed, and the engine cranked over, the starting handle being geared down 2-to-1. As a further aid to persuading the machinery to commence a T-handle in front of the radiator is pulled out, moving the exhaust camshaft forward to give reduced compression (the inlet camshaft is also arranged in this way but naturally isn’t used as a half-compression device). When this exciting moment arrived John and I put on warm coats and flying helmets and then climbed into the high seats of this delectable motor car. You do this by standing for a moment, unceremoniously on the front driving sprocket. Before me was a fairly-protective scuttle obviously fitted as an afterthought, perhaps when it was realised how rought the GP course had become, chewed up by the preceding voiturette race, a theory supported because that on each of the three team cars, No. 16 driven by Heath, No. 32 by Farman and No. 48 by Cissac, were different.
A rather interesting point emerges here. There are four big holes in the top of the light and very easily detachable bonnet, one above each priming-tap. But the two bonnet-straps obscure two of these holes! Likewise, the bonnet-sides have elaborate side-inspection doors, but they cannot be opened with the bonnet straps done up. Yet the straps appear to be as originally positioned. I thought that maybe compulsory bonnet straps might only have been revealed in late, supplementary, Race Regulations. However, this theory is destroyed by looking at the pictures in T.A.S.O. Mathieson’s book, when it appears that, if straps were not compulsory in 1906 one or two per car were called for in the 1907 and 1908 Grands Prix . . . So here is another unsolved Panhard puzzle!
From my high vantage point, looking down this flat-topped bonnet, I could take stock of what poor Schaub was confronted with until he met his death in Cissac’s crash — and perhaps be glad we were not seemingly on that actual car! There is a dashboard as such but on the metal firewall one is confronted with the “Metres d’Eau” gauge, on the far left, calibrated 0-2-4-6-8-10, with the pressure pump inclined behind it. Beside this dial is the aforesaid oil-flow drip-feed sight. A wooden box before the driver contains the coil, with the accumulator in another box behind his legs. On the floor, moving away from the driver’s side of the cockpit, are a hand-throttle lever in its quadrant, the bigger advance/retard lever, also in a quadrant and somehow reminiscent of steam-practice, a little lower with wooden grip that moves across the floor to select either magneto or coil or to cut off the ignition, and the previously-mentioned tiny T-handle by means of which the mechanic could render the brake-pedal-operated clutch-stop inoperative. Those are the sole minor controls — and only the one dial!
It is interesting that only a right-hand, foot-accelerator is fitted, this being another possible indication that this was Farman’s car in the Grand Prix, as the other two are thought to have had the typical Panhard-Levassor twist-grips on the steering wheel spokes in addition to foot-accelerators.
What can I say of the run on which we now embarked, except that it was one of the most exhilirating and enjoyable I have experienced on a car of this type. The great 12.8-litre engine burst into life, the whole car trembling with latent power — its scuttle edge a blur of vibration, even the front wheels adopting a shimmy of anticipations. The half-compression lever was slammed home, the coil changed over to magneto, the ignition was advanced, the exhaust thunder increased to a crescendo, and we were away. John drove over the pleasantly deserted Leicestershire roads with skill and determination, although this was about the second outing for the car. Drivers of little saloons, and even riders on horses, were passed, without any inconvenience to them, and some modern cars would stop for their occupants to view this unexpected passage, as they once did of early aeroplanes.
The Panhard engine picks up its revs. very quickly — it is said to peak at some 1,300 r.p.m. when it develops about 120 b.h.p. they say. On the long straight towards Husbands Bosworth we really flew, the March wind plucking at helmet and goggles, and drowning the rumble of the exhaust and the rattle of the driving chains. C.R., who had come up in his Alfa Romeo to take the photographs, had to use all the Editorial Rover 3500’s acceleration to pass the Panhard, even before it was into its stride, and the back-up VW Gold Diesel, driven by John Waker’s enthusiastic son Mark, was left far behind. Exhilirating:— Shall we just say that in top gear the old racer achieve the legal maximum motorway speed very comfortably indeed? Second gear gives quite astonishing pick-up and is noisier than bottom gear, perhaps because it was a useful ratio to employ out of the corners at Dieppe.
From this short but memorable run I would say that the Panhard should be very competitive in VSCC events, in which it may one day run against the 1908 Itala. When I took my turn behind the big, wooden-rimmed wheel on its long unsupported column, I was surprised how easy the monster was to control. You release the outside hand brake by moving the lever back. The gear lever, inside the body, goes forward from 1st into 2nd, 3rd, and top positions being to the right, the highest speed forward in the gate. (Reverse is beside 1st). The clutch is light and engages smoothly, the gearbox is a delight to use (nicer, we both agreed, than that of a Rolls-Royce Ghost), and if the steering wheel judders in one’s hands there is no kick-back, so a relaxed grip is in order. The steering is also light, but the lock is limited. John thinks the understeer on corners stems from the Royce front axle. It did not in the least quell his enthusiastic handling of his latest motor car, but both of us, as we climbed down afterwards, expressed respect for those who drove it in anger in the long, gruelling road races of long ago and I can do no better than agree with John Bolster who, in a light-hearted article about the sister car, wrote: “I can only say that the idea of holding the Panhard at 97 m.p.h. on a narrow, cambered road with a very loose surface is almost too terrible to contemplate.” . . . I had my drive after we had run out of petrol — consumption in the Grand Prix was said to have been at approx. eight m.p.g. — but the engine restarted without oiling its plugs, although the temperature that day was inducive to icing-up of the unheted inlet manifold.
I will conclude by thanking John Walker for a brief glimpse of what motor racing implied, over 70 years ago, and to wish him every success and pleasure from this unique motor car, so beautifully restored. It now carries a two-letter Bournemouth Registration number, is equipped with bulb-horn, rear-view mirror, licence-holder and convenient hand-holds for the riding mécanicien, and is lubricated with Duckhams oil.
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That 1908 Grand Prix, from which this Panhard-Levassor comes, was the racing swan-song of the great pioneer French manufacturer. They turned to Knight sleeve-valve engines in 1911, with which there was a return to former prestige when Capt. George Eyston took the World’s hour record in the 8-litre single-seater Panhard-Levassor at Montlhéry in 1932, to 130.73 m.p.h., its fastest lap at nearly 138 m.p.h., a record he lifted to 133.01 m.p.h. in 1934 with the same car. — W.B.