Veteran to classic -- 40/50 Panhard Levassor

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In the Grand Manner

“Panhard and Levassor since the ‘nineties’ of the last century have been names to conjure with, and few cars throughout the whole of the Motor Industry have so high a reputation. An inspection of the chassis at Olympia proves that they are built to last indefinitely and discloses several interesting points of design, for example the engine and the four-wheel brakes, which latter are quite unlike any other car”. [From a 1924 Motor Show report.]

Many years ago I discovered a forlorn straight-eight Panhard Levassor chassis languishing in the basement of a Guildford motor emporium. When I heard that it had been rebodied and had this year just returned from a successful 2000-mile tour of France, including opening an historic car meeting at Montlhéry Track, I invited myself to see it.

The car’s history is interesting. It was bought new in 1925 by Mr AW Smith of the Stepney Laundry, who had a touring body put on this fine straight-eight, sleeve-valve chassis. The bill of sale shows a price of £1400. This model was then the largest offering from the long-established and highly respected French manufacturer, the oldest maker of automobiles in the World. At home these great Panhards were used by Field Marshall Petain and other dignitaries and here, apart from Mr Smith, Gordon Watney supplied a Mr Cecil of Ascot with a special six-light saloon with swivelling occasional seats and a roof luggage rack, at a time when Panhard had premises in Great Portland Street in London and exhibited regularly at Olympia. At Brooklands Mr Smith’s tourer did 85-1/2 mph over the flying start half-mile and lapped at 77.4 mph, before he changed its Panhard carburettors for two SUs. As was his wont, the car was eventually made Into a laundry van, in 1931.

Its present owner, Mr RJ Hill, bought it from Rodney Clark’s widow and found it to be in astonishingly good condition. The total mileage was apparently only 33,000 and the 40-year-old Dunlops on the back wheels are still in use, with new 35 x 5 Goodrich tyres on the front. For some time Mr Hill and his wife Sandra ran the Panhard as a chassis, while they planned a suitable body for it. They also have a 1926 32/34 AK Minerva, which they restored after bringing it home from Malaysia where it had been a State car. They regard this as their car for state occasions, using Hill’s 1930 Boulogne II Frazer Nash for shopping (although it has done most of the Chain Gang Raids). Indeed they used the Minerva for their wedding and the Frazer Nash for the honeymoon. Now they have this truly impressive Panhard Levassor as their fast tourer.

Finding that he could not accept the skills and business methods of the specialist bodybuilders he approached, for the Labourdette-style of skiff coachwork he wanted, a most capable craftsman was discovered in the Midlands, who makes a couple of bodies a year when the fancy takes him, and who completed the work to Hill’s complete satisfaction. I hope my photographs will do justice to this commendably imposing and rare motor car.

Before it was ready for its new body this enthusiastic couple toiled away fitting new junk rings, new piston rings (56 in all!) and getting to understand and put in order the complicated Panhard mechanicals. They now have a unique grand tourer, in the best vintage tradition. The decked skiff body has doors on the nearside, front and rear vee-windscreens, two hoods, one for each compartment, and plenty of tool and other stowages. On the lofty 12 ft 6 in wheelbase chassis this fawn and cinnamon Panhard with its brown mudguards is a splendid, almost awe-inspiring, motor car.

I spent some time while Mr Hill explained the lubrication of the Knight double-sleeve-valve engine. I do not profess to understand it fully, but it could be said to be perhaps more sophisticated than the oiling on Minerva, Daimler and Voisin sleeve-valve engines, etc. The timing chain lifts the lubricant from the sump in lieu of an oil pump (Mr Hill reminded me that Panhard eschewed such things, even the Dynamic using a lifting screw instead). Oil-dippers look after the big-ends and a system of troughs supplies oil progressively from No 8 to No 1 sleeve-assembly, with saddle tanks on each side supplementing the sump oil, via oil galleries. A trap by the timing-chain deflects oil to funnels within the lidded fillers on each side of the crankcase, and the accelerator controls a further adjustable oil supply to the sleeves. Hill sets this to feed from 500 rpm and the result is fail-safe and virtually smokeless, once the engine is warm.

Silkolene SAE 30 oil is normally used, the sump being drained every 1500 to 2000 miles and refilled through the breathers; although that is not the maker’s instruction. . . On the aforesaid French tour the consumption was two-pints-per-100 miles, and of petrol from the now-Autovac-fed 30-gallon rear tank, with inset contents gauge, about 10/12mpg.

During the production run of these great 40/50hp (35 cv) Panhards from 1921-30, sleeve-valve development was taking place, with steel sleeves replacing cast-iron ones. Panhard Levassor were using light steel sleeves lined with white metal for this 85 x 140mm (6355cc) engine. Another individuality is the braking system, substantial rods used as the operating medium, so that at first glance the car appears to have double steering drag-links. The front brakes are actuated by vertical rods in line with the king-pins, on the bottom of which rack-and-pinions expand C-shaped bands within the large, narrow brake drums. The brake bands provide a greater area of contact than conventional shoes (some 2-1/2 square feet of lining per drum) and the operating rods are supported from the chassis side-members, obviating lost movement. The stub-axles are behind the front axle, giving good castor action.

The under-bonnet aspects of this fine car are as impressive as the overall appearance, especially as Hill keeps the engine free from dirt and oil leaks. The two SU carburettors on the offside are bolted directly to the ci cylinder block, and the water-pump is towards the front in line with the crankcase, from the side of which emerges the tachometer drive. On the nearside the two Bosch magnetos are at the front of the crankcase, at right-angles to it, and the two ribbed exhaust manifolds have vertical off-takes to the exhaust pipe, which incorporates a cut-out. The engine is extremely clean, a huge Dynastarter at the rear, and the KLG plugs — the hotter grade the better — out of sight; there are no untidy cables and controls. The tall vee-radiator is flanked by big Bosch headlamps and carries the “s-PL-s” badge — implying Panhard’s preference for an engine sans soupapes. The cooling system holds four gallons of water. It was this type of straight-eight Panhard Levassor with the engine enlarged to 7938cc (Hill thinks perhaps by enlarging the inner sleeves rather than reboring the block) with which Capt GET Eyston, OBE, MC, raised the coveted World’s one-hour record to 130.73 mph at Montlhéry in 1932, was given second place after a protest at his victory in that year’s Brooklands’ BE Trophy Race, at 126.35 mph, and increased the hour record to 133.01 mph at Montlhéry in 1934, after the streamlining of the big single-seater Panhard had been improved. With standard-sized engine, Ortmans had set the hour record to 120.26 mph in 1926.

This historic car was at the aforesaid historic car meeting at Montlhéry but its driver had not turned up. So the Hills’ Panhard opened the course, with Robert Panhard (who has his own Panhard Coupe) and the Chef de Course as passengers.

This really is one of the more impressive vintage cars I have encountered and I was glad to know that it is in the care of these two very genuine enthusiasts. It all started when, with some difficulty, the young Hill persuaded his parents to let him pocket the train fare for the 200-mile journey back to school after the vacations, if he rode there. For this he used a 350cc Federation (sold when new by the Wholesale Co-Op in Birmingham), hiding it in the village on arrival. It was followed by an Ivory Calthorpe, after which came three Morgans, including a Family Model damaged by an army lorry and abandoned, never to be reclaimed — a call 20 years later to the Canon’s garage where it had been given shelter proved that it had long since gone! — and a Brooklands Morgan with Baragwanath-tuned JTOR JAP engine. A couple of Alvis cars came next, before Hill went out to Malaysia and found the Minerva. He returned with it, added to his stable the Frazer Nash, and a 1950 Douglas motorcycle — and now has this magnificent Panhard.

It was time to go for a drive. The starting procedure, Mrs Hill assisting: petrol on, clear SU slides, inspect an oil-funnel to make sure the essential oil-drips are appearing, set hand-throttle on the steering-wheel boss, mags on, and energise the Dynastart while the starting handle is wound. That from cold — when warm the Dynastart alone is sufficient, but later engines had a geared-down starter at the front. The eight cylinders come to life with just a hiss from the SUs — making a Rolls-Royce at idle seem like a bag of nails, someone said.

Running about the Leicestershire by-roads in the July sunshine in this lofty, sure-footed, quiet-running Panhard Levassor was sheer delight. It rides firmly, the Hartfords on a setting for French roads, the gearchange, double-declutching up and down, is very easy (the lever is inboard, knobbed like the longer outside handbrake, which moves “on-for-on”). The plate clutch which is oiled from the gearbox is smooth, the steering, the big 4-spoke wheel carrying an unobtrusive horn-ring, unexpectedly light. Geared at 33 mph at 1000 rpm, Hill regards 1700 rpm as a reasonable cruising gait, but it was very evident that the car was willing to continue gathering speed from 70 mph. I could have continued all day; motoring in this fashion in France, where the old car is properly appreciated, must have been indeed travelling in a style long since departed for most motorists.

The driver has before him the deep aluminium dash, containing Jaeger-Paris instruments — 80 mph speedometer, 4000 rpm tachometer, temperature gauge (showing 80 deg C) plus a two-window Tapley meter and a Brequet clock. The Dynastart switch is marked OFF, N, START, and there is a weak/rich mixture lever, two-tone horn button, choke knob, and floor dipswitch. There is, of course, no oil gauge for the splash-lubricated engine. The right hand accelerator has a roller-pedal. That, then, is the very formidable car which the Hills have created from the one-time laundry van, to their great credit.

Panhards of the vintage years are now rare, perhaps half-a-dozen in this country and rather more in France, including a central-steered Dynamic. When it was new the Type SK 40/50hp model was reasonably priced, the chassis selling here in 1924 for £985, compared to £1075 for a 40/50 Delage chassis and £1850 for a 40/50 Rolls-Royce chassis — maybe the exchange rate had a bearing on this. As for spares, which might seem a problem today, Mr Hill discovered that sleeves are still being manufactured in France. And when he was without a spare wheel, another small establishment there miraculously came up with the correct hub for the French-made Rudge wire wheels, to which a new wheel was spoked.

RJ Hill can be considered a fortunate man to possess such an individual and rare motor car, a splendid foil for his Frazer Nash.– WB

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