WHITE ELEPHANTITIS

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A TALE OF TWO PANHARDS

I HAD not been on Safari since 1966, when I stalked a magnificent specimen of low-chassis Daimler Double-Six 50 in distant Somerset. But my interest in automotive white elephants has not abated. Consequently, try as I did, I could not suppress my curiosity when rumour had it that species of the family Société des Anciens Etablissments Panhard et Levassor had migrated to this country. This massive breed has never been particularly prominent in Britain, but used to he found fairly frequently in the more affluent areas of its native France. It moves silently rather than swiftly, although when pursued the larger specimens have been known to gallop quite fast. It is a peculiarity of these now rare animals that they leave in their wake a faint blue haze, by which they can he identified as one of the poppetless group. These were the beasts I was after but by the time I had checked up, they were already safely in captivity.

One was described as a 5.3-litre four, “same as holder of World’s one-hour speed record, driven by George Eyston at 115 m.p.h.”, and the other Panhard was apparently one of the biggest of them all, in the form of a 40/50 chassis. Clearly, if this were the case, the wires were a bit crossed, because Eyston used a bored-out straight-eight of nearly 8-litres capacity to set the coveted hour record to 130.73 m.p.h. in 1933. So I decided to investigate. What was clear was that both cars were sans-soupape, i.e., had sleeve-valves, as several others included in this series have had; this could be significant and perhaps has some bearing on their “White Elephant” status. . . ?

Be that at it may, this oldest of motor manufacturers, originating from a family wood-working concern and dating back to 1889, fell under the spell of the American Knight double-sleeve-valve system in 1910, a year later than Daimler of Coventry, and had abandoned poppets completely by 1922. They built cars with such engines in a variety of sizes from 1.2-litres upwards, with four, six and eight cylinders, adopting Ettore’s reversed-1/4-elliptic rear springs for their smallest model. And by using light steel instead of cast-iron sleeves they made some of them go very quickly. It was a couple of these illustrious motor cars that I was stalking. The first one was located, not in Burma, as the heading to this article might lead you to believe, but adjacent to a Burmah filling station in Surrey. With it was a Panhard puppy, and a fine pair they made.

By my reckoning a “White Elephant” has to exceed 5-litres and this light green Panhard tourer with aluminium bonnet qualified, being described as a 110 x 140 mm. (5,321 c.c.) sports 30/150 model, as introduced into this country in 1928/29. “Bentley Boy” Dr. J. D. Benjafield had intended to drive one in the 25-mile Gold Star Handicap at the 1928 BARC Meeting but, objecting to his handicap, as well he might, for he was on the same mark as Malcolm Campbell’s supercharged 2.3 Bugatti and Dudley Froy in the 21 1/2-litre Benz, he withdrew. The aforementioned confusion with Eyston’s bigger and faster car probably arose because Breton had used one of these 5.3-litre Panhards, bored out to 112 mm., to break Class B records at nearly 140-m.p.h. at MontIhéry in 1926.

The history of the big four-cylinder sporting Panhard I had located is interesting. Mr. Lock, of Lock Brothers of Armadale, imported a couple of these chassis to Australia and the example which now confronted me had been sent to the Victoria Carriage Co. (T. D. Erskine) of Windsor, Australia, to have the handsome two-door body rather like those seen on sporting 24/70 Sunbeams, made for it. It was then sold to a Newport railway engineer who kept it for many years, making a 1,400-mile trip in it shortly before selling it to its present keeper, Murray Rainey. Mr. Rainey brought it, and its puppy, to England and it has appeared at two vintage-car concours d’elegance, in one of which it won the premier award. Incidentally, he also has some parts of Mr. Lock’s other 5.3, which was broken up, and instruction manuals for both cars.

The bigger of these two cars is a 1928 model, typically Panhard-Levassor in its honest construction and considerable individuality. When new, P-L of Gt. Portland Street sold these 5.3-litre sports chassis for £850, complete cars from £1,150. The engine is an imposing affair, typical of a sleeve-valve power unit, with a huge Panhard-Levassor updraught triple-choke carburetter feeding into a big-bore three-branch brass (or bronze) inlet manifold on the o/s. At the front the chain driving the sleeve-operating shaft carries buckets which pick up the sump oil and deliver it to troughs, which feed it to bearings and sleeves. The sump has oil-filler “trap doors”, with filter gauges, On each side and there is a metering valve whereby the further the carburetter throttle is opened, the more copious the oil supply to the sleeves—hence that blue haze! Two breathers on the n/s of the crankcase and five sump drain-plugs are incorporated.

Transversely at the front there is a cross-shaft, which drives a water pump from its o/s extremity, a Bosch ZU4 magneto on the n/s, where the imposing heavily-ribbed exhaust manifold with rear off-take is situated. The type LR30 Ducellier dynastarter on the nose of the crankshaft originally had an ingenious sliding armature which, in conjunction with epicyclic reduction gearing, provided an 8 to 1 starting gear but direct drive when serving as a dynamo. This has now been locked in the latter position and hand cranking is no longer indulged in. The massive vee radiator with its “S P-L S” insignia has a belt-driven three,bladed fan behind it and fuel feed from the 26-litre rear tank is now by means of two bulkhead-mounted SU electric pumps. There is a Bosch electric horn under the bonnet, with town and Country notes. The engine number is 54177.

The chassis is sprung on 1/2-elliptic springs, innocent of shock-absorbers. The wire wheels, with split-rims except for the well-base spare wheel at the rear, have centre-lock hubs to which ears have been welded, and are shod with Dunlop 90 tyres, 6.50 x 20 at the front, 7.00 x 20 at the back. The enormous headlamps are Bosch, with Monogram lenses from a 1928 De Soto adapted to them to comply with Australian lighting regulations. Beneath them are the Bosch spotlamps. The petrol tank has a glass-topped level gauge, and the batteries now live in the toolbox on the o/s of the car.

Climbing up into the Panhard (there is a foot-hoard on the n/s, but not on the o/s) I was confronted by a big 4-spoke, thin, wood-rimmed steering wheel, with a small knob controlling the hand-throttle in its hub. The deep metal instrument panel is impressively endowed. There is a gaping hole on the extreme left, from which I imagine a clock has been purloined. Next to this is the vertical advance-and-retard control (moving up to advance the spark), with a Hoyt volt-meter below it. Next, an 80 m.p.h. speedometer with trip odometer, Ki-gass pump, and in the centre the characteristic tower-like P-L switch-box, with incorporated ammeter, to the right an eight-day clock, a Le-Nivex fuel gauge registering to 15 gallons, oil and water temperature dials (the litter a later addition) and the “essence” tap. There are, in addition, a switch for the fuel pumps, adapted from some other function, and a magneto button; two Bosch dash lamps light the panel.

Having heard of distinctly odd gear gates on these cars, such as 1st and 2nd at the top, 3rd and 4th at the bottom, necessitating U-movements of the lever, or even an X arrangement, I looked with interest at the slender central gear lever, only to discover that it works in a conventional gate on an alloy pedestal, except that the movement between 3rd and top, which are on the left, is notably shorter than that from 1st to 2nd. To the left of the gear lever there is a typical girder-like P-L brake lever, very long and substantial, with a big button in its knob for releasing its ratchet. The accelerator is r.h., the big brake and clutch pedals had unworn rubbers, and there is a foot-dipper, a small rocking pedal which once actuated the exhaust cut-out, and a starter button out of sight up under the toe-board, where it cannot be trodden on inadvertently. You sit on comfortable seats, adjustable by removing wing-nuts under the cushions, behind a vee screen. The 1-section front axle, above the springs, has an unusual king-pin inclination and brakes with unribbed drums are operated by rods as heavy as the steering drag-link, the cam-linkage being within the king-pins, a neat layout in keeping with Panhard’s impeccable engineering.

Having tracked down this Panhard, I set oil in a snowstorm, on April Fool’s Day, to see how it runs. I was pleasantly surprised. From the start the taut steering and effective brakes inspire confidence, and although the long, high bonnet, stretching to the big radiator cap, cuts off all view of the n/s front mudguard, there is no need for anxiety when driving this big vintage tourer. Another surprise was the facility with which the gear lever controlled the gearbox; the change from 3rd into 2nd is particularly easy, after which the lever, normally apt to flop about as if it is a ball change, and liable to flirt with reverse unless constrained, nestles shyly against the driver’s left leg. There is a modicum of movement sensed rather than experienced from the body, but no vibration or kick-back at the steering wheel.

Geared lower than that on the majority of vintage cars, the steering is quite light, even for parking the Panhard. As soon as I thought it decently warmed-up, 1 extended the old car, and saw the speedometer needle go to 65 m.p.h., although the pacing MG-B calculated this to be slightly less than the mile-a-minute gait. At this speed the car felt not only relaxed but eminently solid and safe. It is a line specimen of a now very rare motor car and is (or was) looking for a good home. Apart from a few departures from original and aluminium paint on its silencer, it seemed to be in sound, workaday condition; it has a shapely hood and, although never registered in this country, a current MoT certificate.

The companion Panhard -Levassor, although not a “White Elephant” by my definition, made a splendid stablemate for the 5.3, until it was sold to an Italian sportsman who promptly shipped it to Europe for a rally. It is a 1926 14/20 with the 75 x 130 mm. (2,298 c.c.) engine, and is virtually a scaled-down version of the bigger car. It was owned from new by the aforesaid Mr. Lock until he died about three years ago, when Mr. Rainey acquired it. It is a blue four-door tourer with black mudguards, on 8 mixture of Olympic and Dunlop 6.00 x 21 tyres, the body being by Martin & King of Malvern, Australia. The main differences from the other Panhard consist of a small horizontal dual-choke carburetter bolted directly to the block, friction shock-absorbers all round, and a direct-running dynastarter on the crankshaft nose.

I had a drive in this one, too, but naturally it seemed very pedestrian after the 30/150. There is a good deal of play in the steering, the indirect gears are extremely noisy, acceleration is negligible, the footbrake had some free movement, and the screen-wiper wouldn’t work, which was awkward in the snow. But it was fun to be in a little vintage Panhard, its instrument panel, controls, gear-change and the view over the bonnet (the n/s mudguard hidden) the same as those of its illustrious parents, and it felt just as solid and indestructible.

That almost completed this particular Safari, but not quite. For not far away, in the dark corner of a cave near Guildford, I sniffed out an even more imposing specimen of the Panhard family. I was permitted to approach it at close quarters by its Curator, Rodney Clarke. It turned out to be one of the great Type SK 40/50 straight-eights, with the 85 x 140 mm. (6,358 c.c.) engine, which Ortmans and Eyston used so effectively for record-breaking in 95 x 140 mm. form. It was purchased late in 1925 by that great enthusiast, the late Mr. A. F. Smith, then of Mottingham, Kent, from Frank Hallam of Birmingham (who raced Alvis cars at Brooklands). It seems that it cost £1,304 1s. 9d. to import through P-L’s London depot, with such specified special items as straight-sided tyres, a tachometer, etc. It was given a smart open body, was nicknamed “Peter Pan”, and on the 30th of November, 1925, Mr. Smith took his new possession to the Track and did some personal performance checking. He clocked the Panhard over the f.s. half-mile at 84 m.p.h., carrying three passengers, and it did a lap at 77.8 m.p.h. The half-mile speed was perhaps, incorrectly timed, as the speedometer was apparently reading 89 m.p.h.—another attempt recorded 85 1/2 m.p.h. So this Panhard was no sluggard!—not many cars would exceed 80 in road-trim on Brooklands 45 years ago . . .

By 1931, however, this one had served its original purpose and was converted into a laundry van, in which guise it was used at its owner’s business in the East India Dock Road. I wonder how many Londoners realised that their clean linen came to them in a straight-eight van with a racing pedigree ? I only hope the driver was young enough to enjoy it !

After Mr. Smith’s death his collection of cars was sold by auction, the Panhard laundry van fetching £680. Today it awaits resuscitation, a grand but rather sorry sight, the body gone, the chassis partially cleaned up. The big vee radiator is through to the brass, the unpainted bonnet, with Yale docks, covers the great engine, which is a bi-block edition of the “four” described above. Twin magnetos are mounted where one suffices on the 30/150, the exhaust manifolds are like “handed” versions of those on the four-cylinder car, feeding centrally into a Y-off-take pipe. The impressively loftly chassis stands on 35 x 5 Dunlop Reinforced tyres. The brake gear is like that of lesser Panhards, but the massive rods from cross-shaft to front axle are divided. The long torque tube is stayed to the back axle, which is damped by friction shock-absorbers set transversely behind the axle tubes. On this Panhard the gear lever is r.h. and spring-loaded to neutral, like that of a Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce, but again the gate pattern is conventional. The “signal-box” hand-brake is outboard of it. There is a roller r.h. accelerator, the hand-throttle knob in the centre of the four-spoke steering wheel is numbered 0-9, there is a small horn-ring outside it, and the batteries, if there were any, would go in boxes flanking the torque-tube. The fuel tank gauge reads up to 27-litres and the instruments are a miscellaneous collection—a Cambridge thermometer, a Jaeger of Paris tachometer, an AT 100 m.p.h. speedometer, and a Roller-Smith Co. (American) ammeter, with two holes empty. The imposing P-L electrical switchbox apparently hadn’t appeared by 1925, for there is merely a rotary switch labelled OFF, NEUTRAL, START. The oil is metered to the sleeves as on the 30/150 but fuel feed is by Autovac and the dynastarter is at the back n/s of the engine, with a chain drive. The water pump is similar but two non-original horizontal SU carburetters, looking minute against the expanse of the straight-eight cylinder block, are found on the o/s. The engine and chassis numbers are both 59319.

These interesting Panhard-Levassor motor cars seem to be emerging from hibernation; apart from the trio I tracked down, there is apparently another eight-cylinder in Hungerton, an alleged 1930 27 h.p. saloon (a model I cannot identify) in Essex, a 1912 example is hiding not far from the captive specimens I have described and a 1906 10-litre poppet-valve model is thought to be convalescing in Lincolnshire. To conclude with an intriguing thought, if anyone craves a couple of the more exciting sleeve-valve versions, the two bigger ones dealt with in this article are available, or were at the time of writing, for somewhere in the region of £4,250; but you will need a body and sonic mudguards for the 40/50,—W. B.