The Priest and the Panhard

The first replay of the 1896 emancipation run from London to Brighton for horseless carriages organised by the Daily Sketch and Sunday Graphic in November 1927, was seen as a stunt involving what were then just Old Crocks’, with a comic element prevailing. Yet had this not happened it could be that the Veteran Car Run, the greatest event of its kind, might never have been conceived.

The 1927 event was meant for any car over 21 years old at the time. There was no VCC Dating Committee to check the ages of the ancients dug out for the occasion, by some for a joke, more seriously by others who liked motoring adventure. A veteran car is now one made before 1905; my Chambers dictionary says so. But in the 1927 fun-run, some participants were probably younger than their owners declared. Still in regular use were some nine of them, from an 1897 Daimler and Panhard to 1906 Renault hackney carriage. But that was 72 years ago.

The digging for very old motorcars had begun. They began to appear from barns, garages, the backs of old workshops and in France, where Sammy Davis found his soon-to-be-famous 1897 Leon Boll & vicar ‘Beelzebub’, which he used for so many Brighton Runs. Two years after the newspaper venture a very early solid-tyred Daimler, also allegedly dating from 1897, was reported to be in daily use as an hotel bus in Burnham-on-Sea, pulling a horse-cart carrying visitors luggage. The hunt was on. But for true veterans, what of the Panhard-Levassor used by a humble French Priest to visit his parishioners, in such a remote part of Picardy that his village could only be located on military maps? Not a veteran tarted up for the 1927 Run, or over-hauled for later ‘Brightons. This was a real veteran, an 1891 Panhard with a two-cylinder engine, gears uncased, ignition by hot-tube, wheels shod with steel tyres, steering by tiller, cooling augmented by a rear-mounted coil radiator fashioned and fitted by the Cure himself. The humble churchman, living far from railway, telegraph or telephone, spent long hours of prayer before committing himself to the luxury of a car. But his parish was scattered and walking it wasteful of time, a horse a little slower than a motor would be.

The problem was money. A £120 offer was beyond the priest’s means; the price of new cars appalled him. Finally he had the chance of an 1891 Panhard when a more modern one replaced it. After which it trundled across the Picardy plain, over the cobbles of Amiens, crawled up hills, day in, day out, on errands of mercy, birth and burial. When its burners blew out the old priest relit them, when it rained he put up a large hood. The 1914-18 war years saw his passage permitted, if not exactly blessed, by the Commanding General. The troops and motor-convoys flowed back and forth, the Germans overran, then retreated, but nothing stopped the grandfather of all autos from the missions of religious calling.

The war over, the story leaked to the press. He was offered a new car but refused had he not asked for God’s sanction that his Panhard was not a sin, if it served his vocation?

Yet his church needed repairs, and his flock comforts after wartime privations. In 1924 the pressure to part with was no longer resisted. Panhard-Levassor wanted it for their Paris showrooms. A lorry would fetch it. But the 65-year old refused. He would drive the Panhard to its new home, though the 90 miles would be its longest journey yet.

So the journey began, to be completed without incident, driver and car finding a reception at the memorial to Emile Levassor, at the entrance to Paris. The priest drove on to the showrooms. He checked the water in the radiator, topped up from a wine bottle, and started the engine for the last time. I regard that as true veteranism.