The 1902 Panhard and Levassor was one of the first automobiles, and it influenced other models for decades. Many car enthusiasts know of the Panhard rod, the clever device that helps locate rear axles in the lateral plane. Few know about the company: Panhard & Levassor. It's understandable.

Though the last Panhard wasn't built until 1967, the firm's glory days had passed a half-century before. Yet Panhard deserves to be appreciated for its historic contribution to automobile design, one made well before the 20th Century -- this was the firm that pioneered "the horse before the cart," the front-engine/rear-drive format that would be all-but-universal for more than 50 years.

This Systeme Panhard was not conceived by René Panhard, but by fellow engineer Emile Levassor. Both had studied at the prestigious Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufacturers, then met later in 1872 at Perin et Pauwels, a Parisian maker of woodworking machinery.

When Perin died in 1886 they became sole owners of the renamed Panhard et Levassor. Both men knew about engines, but only Levassor was experienced in the budding business of designing and building them. And he had three important connections: the Otto and Langen Gas Engine Works of Deutz, Germany (Nickolaus Otto being the father of the four-stroke internal combustion engine), Gottlieb Daimler (who had worked at Perin et Pauwels around 1860), and friend Edouard Sarazin (Paris agent for the engines).

Panhard & Levassor thus became a licensed producer of the Daimler-designed Deutz gas engine, which like other powerplants of its day was used mainly as a stationary source for running factory machines. P&L's contract ended when Deutz set up its own French factory, but Sarazin stayed in touch with Daimler even as the latter was setting up on his own in Canstatt. By 1887, the two were again seeking an engine builder for a new "high-speed" Daimler unit that could turn up to 750 rpm.

P & L might never have tried automaking had it not been for Sarazin's sudden death in late 1887 -- and for his wife, Louise. Sarazin had implored her to; "continue to work with Daimler. No living person today has any idea of the possibilities of the Daimler patents." The widow Sarazin thus remained Daimler's Paris agent, struck up a friendship with Levassor, and married him in 1890 (giving him a financial interest in the Daimler engine).

On the next page, learn about the development of the 1902 Panhard and Levaassor.

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