French manufacturer DB’s cars were seldom conventional, but quirky looks tended to mask giant-killing performance
Writer Richard Heseltine
Photographer Manuel Portugal
There is no escaping, only ducking. At some point, you are going to have to change gear.
The flat-twin is making its presence felt, that’s for sure. All 744cc of it.
The ring-a-ding-ding backbeat fills the air as the revs build, the stubby lever fitting comfortably into the palm of your right hand. Just remember that it’s a reverse-pattern shift: you’re currently in second, not third. And don’t forget to blip on up and down shifts, a situation that isn’t made any easier by the close proximity of the steering wheel that juts out near vertically from the dashboard. It’s cosy in here, but that is to be expected. You don’t so much drive a DB-Panhard as wear it.
More revs, more noise. Pull the lever across and down and there’s a reassuring meeting of metal on metal. Now you’re in third, but even then movement across the gate is barely perceptible: there’s maybe half an inch of travel so it’s easy to grandma a gearshift. This time it’s in, but this is in no way a restful car to drive. It requires effort and forethought to get the best from it, but the sense of elation when you get it right makes it all worthwhile. This 1951 race veteran is a remarkable car in so many ways.
Which is to be expected given the brains trust behind it, chief among their number being the ‘D’ of DB, Charles Deutsch. Born 20 miles or so east of Paris in September 1911, this gifted Frenchman was once as big in stature as he was short in size (and eyesight); a self-starter with a passion for engineering and design that was evident from the outset. Working alongside his father, a cartwright who began creating his own coachbuilt bodies for new-fangled voitures, young Charles supplemented his on-the-job training by reading any book he could find on vehicle dynamics and technical theory. On leaving École Polytechnique in 1935, he began his professional life as a civil engineer for the government’s bridges and highways authority, and would in time become chief engineer. He retained this position until 1966, by which time he had long since established a parallel career as a car designer and manufacturer.
His rise to international prominence in motor sport materialised in tandem with that of sometime friend René Bonnet. Following the death of Deutsch’s father in 1929, 18-year-old Charles took over the reins at the family carrosserie but, three years on, the pressure of juggling his studies with operating a business was starting to show. Something had to give so he and his mother sold La Maison Deutsch to Bonnet. The newly-installed tenant, who was barely 25 years old, promptly turned the ground floor into a Citroën agency and general garage while his landlords continued to live upstairs.
With a back story that involved enduring a lengthy – and unnecessary – spell wearing a body cast due to a misdiagnosed back injury, Bonnet had eked out a living making shawls prior to taking on his sister’s faltering commercial garage. Displaying natural salesmanship, he transformed it into a thriving business only for a new brother-in-law to enter the picture, hence his decision to go it alone at La Maison Deutsch.
Predictably, Bonnet and Deutsch’s shared love of cars allied to the former’s desire to compete trackside led to the creation of a purpose-built racer. For 17 months the duo worked hand-in-glove on a Citroën Traction Avant-based roadster, the DB1 breaking cover in March 1938. A second car, a devilishly attractive coupé, was then mapped out for Deutsch’s personal use but it wasn’t completed until a later date due to the German occupation.
After the end of hostilities, a roughly formalised arrangement was thrashed out with DB becoming a recognised marque. There was, however, a slight problemette: Deutsch’s role was complicated by his position as a civil servant. In theory, he wasn’t allowed to engage in paid, non-governmental activities. In essence, he was a shareholder in a firm that had no shares although, strictly speaking, this business existed largely as a means for filling out a name on race entry forms. A sister company in which Deutsch maintained only a nominal stake was the one that actually made DB products. The principals’ business relationship was conducted on verbal understandings and handshakes.
The urbane Bonnet and the rather less so Deutsch were close friends, so what was the worst that could happen?
The fledgling marque would in time make Le Mans its spiritual home, despite success in a variety of disciplines. That said, it could have been Citroën rather than Panhard that got to bask in the reflective glow of track success had it been less sniffy about collaborating with the Champigny concern. The partners constructed a single-seater with Citroën power, and fielded two Traction Avant-based sports cars at the first post-war running of the 24 Hours in 1949, only to be told in no uncertain terms that they should expect no support from the factory. Nor a supply of parts for that matter. It was time for a rethink.
The first Panhard Dyna X-based creation appeared in public that same year, with two diminutive Antem-bodied cars (similar to the example pictured here) being entered in the following year’s Le Mans. The Louis Delagarde-designed air-cooled two-cylinder unit proved a fine basis for a race engine thanks to its roller-bearing crank, one-piece conrods, light alloy cylinders with integral heads and narrow-angle overhead valves closed by torsion bar springs.
The Index of Performance prize was of particular significance on the home front, the patience-testing regulations having been devised to encourage development of the ideal touring car. DB would make this accolade its own, claiming honours in ’54 with Elie Bayol and Bonnet driving. In 1959, the Index changed tack to one of Thermal Efficiency, allegedly in response to the Suez Crisis, with a car’s speed, weight and fuel consumption all being key constituents. That season, DB claimed the award after managing 25.69mpg over 24 hours on just 744cc.
But the marque was already tilting towards oblivion. Despite a symbiotic relationship with Panhard, which included DBs being sold through select marque agencies, and a strong personal bond between Deutsch and company principal Jean Panhard, matters came to a head when Bonnet concluded a deal with Renault to build cars using its running gear. Depending on whose version of history you believe, Deutsch hadn’t been consulted beforehand and was stunned to receive a letter from Bonnet’s lawyer in early ’61 outlining the dissolution of Automobiles Deutsch & Bonnet. The precise reason for the split is somewhat clouded although Panhard’s parlous financial state may have been a contributing factor. Whatever the truth, what followed was all-out war between the former collaborators at a venue where together they had enjoyed such great success – Le Mans.
Having seemingly reached an agreement with the state, Deutsch became a manufacturer in his own right. In March ’62, CD was contracted by a still smarting Panhard to build five new cars for an attack on that year’s 24 Hours – which was barely three months away. Not only did the firm beat the René Bonnet marque to the Index of Performance prize and 850cc class honours, it also claimed the GT Championship of France. Road-going replicas went head-to-head with René Bonnet offerings with about 150 being sold in 1963.
But it couldn’t last. The Panhard flat-twin was struggling to keep pace with newer, more rev-happy units. For 1963, CD returned to Le Mans with a DKW-engined challenger.
For the following season there was a return to Panhard power, the supercharged, ultra-low drag LM64 featuring a silhouette unlike any other. For the following year CD switched allegiance to Peugeot, which prompted Deutsch to retire from his day job and concentrate on his SERA-CD design consultancy (which would in time help shape sports-prototypes such as the Porsche 917LH and Alfa Tipo 33 TT12).
He also took time out to pen several works on mathematical simulation in vehicle dynamics. He died in 1980. Bonnet perished in a car accident three years later, having left the automotive arena for good after being obliged to sell out to Matra in late 1964.
While the partnership didn’t end well, there is no denying the marque Bonnet and Deutsch created punched above its weight while it lasted. And while they displayed a rather laissez-faire attitude to selling their wares outside France’s borders, that didn’t stop enthusiasts from across Europe and North America beating a path to their door. Bodied by French domiciled, Spanish-born coachbuilder, Jean Antem, ‘our’ car, chassis DB768, was delivered new to Portuguese enthusiast Emygdio da Silva. While better known for his wild flights of fantasy created in conjunction with Philippe Charbonneaux, Antem had prior form in shaping racing cars, not least on Delage and Talbot platforms.
De Silva didn’t waste any time campaigning his ‘Antem Cabriolet’, competing in speed and regularity events, rallies and circuit races. In the winter, he drove with a full windscreen and hood, on track with a small ‘saute-vent’ which, we’re told, may have increased the top speed from 85mph to a giddying 88mph. The first major success for the DB was a class win and fifth place overall on the ’51 Vila do Conde Circuito da Primavera, beaten only by a Ferrari 166MM, an Allard J2 and two ‘specials’ based on Fiat/Simca 1100 running gear. During the following year da Silva won a production car race on the same circuit while also claiming class honours in the national hillclimb championship. In 1953 there were further category wins and giant-slaying acts (not least a fourth-place finish behind larger capacity rivals at the Porto circuit), the bodyshell being reworked during the season to ape the style of the Antem-bodied DB barquette which won its class in that year’s Sebring 12 Hours.
The DB rounded out its frontline career on the ’54 Volta a Portugal rally before being replaced by a DKW and assorted Alfa Romeos. The car subsequently disappeared into a private collection where it was left to fester. It was acquired five years ago by Carlos Cruz, who entrusted the restoration to João Teves Costa.
And it is a delightful little machine, one in which the engine overhangs the front axle. The tiny short-stroke twin initially pops and parps before settling down to a gentle thrum. Contrary to expectations, it doesn’t sound the least bit angry, nor does the car vibrate. The clutch is sudden but smooth-acting, but once mastered (or near enough) the gearchange is ultra-direct. The revelatory part, however, is the handling.
Given the weight bias front to rear, you approach the DB expecting it to understeer like a wayward shopping trolley, but it doesn’t. Not even close. The regular Dyna was one of the best riding cars in its class in period, with steering to match. Here, its ability to absorb the worst topographical nastiness is appreciated as you do feel as though you’re skimming the ground. Turn in is immediate – disarmingly so, and while it does plough on a little, it never threatens to spill. It’s huge fun. It makes you smile. The steering is perhaps the car’s best feature: there are no vague spots, which given its vintage puts it in rarefied company.
Unfortunately, a minor technical problem that cannot be fixed on the spot ends play early, but not before the DB has wormed its way into our affections. It is so much more than the sum of its proprietary parts, being a car that in period at least was as adept on track as it was off-piste. This isn’t the easiest car to drive, but it rewards perseverance. It is, in every positive way, eccentric and left-field. You wouldn’t want it any other way.