Light-blue touchpaper

This 1908 Panhard was build for one purpose: To win a Grand Prix. It was as stunning then as a modern Formula One car is today. And the parallels don’t end there, explains Paul Fearnley.

A damn silly rinky-dink idea in the first place: stick some modem-day road-testing equipment on a 92-year-old grand prix car in a bid to explode a few myths about ‘jalopies’. So there I was, fussing and fretting, minuscule mobile phone to car, tiny, recalcitrant, hand-held computer to hand, while my photographer colleague drove and navigated via his in-car global positioning system. We arrived several seconds west of Leicester a few minutes late but, hours later, I was still fingers-and-thumbing my hi-tech bit of kit, which led me on a merry dance of ‘non-fatal errors’ and ‘corrupt A drives’. As I pressed ‘retry’ and/or ‘escape’ for Britain, the low-tech piece of kit (by today’s standards) grumbled impatiently away underneath us, waiting to bellow down its Bofors Gun of an exhaust pipe and seven-league-boot its way up Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground’s two-mile straight. The contextual irony was not lost on me and a sweat broke out on my brow.

I needn’t have worried. Times to the nearest thousandth of a second would be but a fly on the aeroscreen of history — if this car had an aeroscreen. No, to travel a handful of miles in John Walker’s magnificent 1908 Grand Prix Panhard is to be convinced. Convinced that, at its core, a core nowadays buried beneath layers of PR, froth, spin and gloss, motor racing is unchanging. Pared to the bone, it’s A to B asap. Always has been, always will be. Praise be! People who say it was better in the old days are wrong, so very wrong. People who feel the current heroes are the best there’s ever been are equally as erroneous. Put Nuvolari in a Newey McLaren and you would have a winning combination; slot Schumacher into a P3 Alfa Romeo and zap! he’d be bang on the pace. No question. For all a driver can do is beat his contemporaries. And anybody who does that has the same mindset, the same seatof-the-pants feel, the same desire as anybody who has ever done that And you can take it all the way back. Watch rare footage of the GP monsters that roamed the earth before WWI and the mid-gridders of yesteryear disappear down escape roads, spin like tops; the Schumachers of yesteryear — Felice Nazzaro, Christian Lautenschlager, Victor Hemery, Leon Thery — tweak their perpendicular mounts through in a surprisingly fingertip style, looking after their tyres, keeping it neat and tidy, making it look easy: Fangio, Moss, Clark and Prost would have done the same given the same environment

Mark Walker, son ofJohn, will be doing backflips to be mentioned in such company. Don’t get me wrung, he would not beat Schumacher given Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari slot, but he is way competent enough to prove several racing constants.

The first is that this Panhard, like any racing car, needs, demands, to be driven hard. It’s designed for a specific purpose: A to B asap. It is tractable — as you would expect a 13-litre four-pot to be — but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of ‘stick in top and leave it’ security. By the very nature of its 1500rpm limit, this car has a narrow rev range within which to work. Its gear lever (on the right, inside the bodywork) is shiny through use, not polish. The engine’s also lumpy at idle and has little flywheel effect. That should all sound familiar.

Selecting first — nearest to you and back on the H pattern — requires patience, leaning dog against dog until they acquiesce and mesh, otherwise this is a close-ratio, four-speed crash ‘box that puts those of 20 years’ hence to shame (John owns a 3-litre Bentley of which he is very fond but which, he says, proves this to be true). Sound familiar too? It will when even the lowest-of-the-low family buzzbox has a paddle shift and sequential ‘box in 2020. Now to balance that power, through that race-bred transmission (a transaxle, in fact), against the available grip — an equation as relevant to the Panhard as it is to this year’s Ferrari F1-2000. For this a racing driver needs, demands, clear, direct messages, which he can interpret quickly and respond to instantaneously. This is exactly what the Panhard provides. True, its front wheels flap alarmingly to the modern eye as its all-round semi-elliptic springs and friction dampers (neatly given a rising rate by a cam inside their body) snuffle and shuffle across the crown of the road, but every twitch, buck and bronc is fed, uncorrupted by excessive unsprung weight (no front brakes!) through to a wood-rimmed steering wheel that snuggles into the driver’s chest This is high-geared — less than two turns from lock to lock — and requires a bit more bicep on today’s tyres and surfaces than it probably did in its day.

The car now sits on wire wheels (designed by Mark, who prefers the warning of twanging spokes than the sudden snap of a failing wooden military wheel) and straight-sided tyres, as opposed to beaded edge, because of the extra safety their steel bead provides. That tiny contact patch remains the same, however. Which means traction can easily be broken. And the tail easily held. Grip and roadholding is, as you might expect, poor, but the handling is, as you might not expect, excellent This car works for you. It turns in with remarkable alacrity and facility. Understeer is simply not an option; the twin, 35mm pitch, final-drive chains ensure equal grunt to both rear wheels and require, demand, you to be on the power at turn-in. Once in, chassis flex sees the inside rear lift slightly and smoke lightly as the car is driven on the throttle. Jean Alesi would have a whale of a time in it. Photographer Newton, following in a brand new Audi A6 estate, was stunned by the Panhard’s midrange punch and poise as we touched 70mph on the brief run to Bruntingthorpe.

Given a less populous country, driving it would be a straightforward affair. But crowded Britain needs, demands, brakes. Which is where the Panhard falls down; applying its ‘stoppers’ is akin to little more than a secondary lift. This anchor does not reach the bottom. The transmission brake is to be avoided at (almost) all costs, as this contracting shoe-on-drum affair, mounted between engine and transaxle, could easily become a transmission breaker. First port of call, therefore, is the handbrake (on the right, outside the bodywork) which is punched rather than pulled on. And left there — cast-iron shoes expanding onto steel drums. This allows the driver to declutchblip-declutch down the ratios as the car is (imperceptibly) slowing: not so much heeling-and-toeing as palming-and-palming. Just before turn-in the fly-off handbrake is flown off with a flick off the wrist. This sequence seems the most logical method (the Walkers have been racing, sprinting and hillclimbing the car since 1980, so they should know) and was probably practised by the car’s original pilots. The long straights of the circuits of the time put a premium on long-legged power, but Dieppe was not without corners along its 47-mile length, and you can bet that Jo Siffert was not the first of the ‘last of the late brakers’.

This day, though, was supposed to be about acceleration. The computer at last blinked into life. As did the Panhard. As did Mark. Despite a very high bottom gear preventing wheel-spinning starts, the resultant figures were impressive (see sidebar).

But these are cold statistics. Lets’s just say, Mr Renault Laguna 1.8RT owner, that if you are ever in Leicestershire and a light blue ‘old banger’ looms large in your mirrors, don’t expect to pull away until you reach 80 or so. And don’t forget to give it everything you’ve got because the Panhard is a hundredth quicker through the gears from 30 to 70mph, at 12.79s.

And if he’s hard on the cam as he catches you trundling along at 50mph in top, forget it Even an Aston Martin 3.2 Volante would have to change down to pull away. And commit to a ton to get fully rid. The computer showed a 95mph top speed, but the Walkers are adamant that 1500rpm on the car’s tallest 28-tooth sprockets equates to a whisker over 100mph. It felt like it. Interestingly, all three Panhards at Dieppe sported a different final drive: set-up and driver preference — sound familiar? The runs over, a few spooked horses and startled tractor owners later, the

Panhard was home and silent licking and pinging as it cooled, it was all purposeful, pared-to-the-bone, primed. One hell of a motor car — the spaceship of its day.

Yet there is a twist, a fact that scrambles the brain: the Panhard was the Sauber of its day. Its once-pacesetting T-head engine (12,831cc, 110bhp at the wheels, crossflow, aluminium pistons, tubular conrods, five main bearings — front ball, others plain — single updraught carb) was falling behind; the 1908 Merc used overhead inlet, side exhaust Not necessarily that much better (yet), more indicative of their go-ahead attitude. Panhard had dominated the early years of motor racing (see sidebar), but had failed to build on that success, become complacent and gone three years without a win. Motor racing waits for no man, no machine: never has, never will.

Henri Farman and American George Heath, who had been with the marque throughout the glory years, drove their hearts out at Dieppe in a bid to make up for their cars’ shortcomings, but were foiled by punctures by the dozen — if you find yourself on the wrong rubber in motor racing, you’re nowhere. Sound familiar? Panhard’s newcomer, ex-motorcyclist Henri Cissac, pushed that little bit harder still, as eager newcomers tend to do, and ran as high as fifth before becoming the first driver to be killed (his mechanic also died) during a GP race. Motor racing’s final, saddest, unchanging element

French initiative wrested away by Italy and Germany

Frustrated by the Gordon Bennet trophy’s restriction on the number of cars (three) able to be entered per country, the Automobile Club de France organised their own grand prix — the first to carry that nomenclature — at Le Mans in 1906. There was no restriction on entry which meant all of France’s proliferating manufacturers could race their wares. And things went well for the home country that first year, Renault’s Ferenc Szisz taking the spoils.

The race moved to Dieppe in 1907, and this time the French were beaten by the Fiat of Felice Nazzaro; Szisz was second. But even worse was to come in 1908.

The third French GP, again at Dieppe, provided a German 1-2-3-5-6 — and their closest rivals had been the Fiats of Nazzaro and Louis Wagner, both of whom had spells in the lead.Victor Hemery’s Benz also led, until he spun and stalled, but it was Christian Lautenschlager’s Mercedes that took the chequered flag, from Hemery and his Benz team-mate, Rene Hanriot.

The leading French car was the fourth-placed Clement-Bayard ofVictor Rigal, who had stopped 19 times to change tyres.

France was disgruntled, the majority of their manufacturers agreed to drop out of racing and the French GP would not run again until 1912.