The 1902 Panhard and Levassor almost did not see the light of day. At first, Levassor saw no future in making "auto-mobiles," as Daimler and Karl Benz were doing. Though one of the few who wasn't impressed by the Daimler "quadricycle" -- a last-minute surprise at the 1889 Paris Exhibition -- he was intrigued by its engine. And eventually, he concluded that P&L should make complete, specifically designed motor cars as well as engines.
Most early automobiles were cobbled together as motorized buggies, so engines were put in the only practical place: below or behind the operator's seat. Levassor did likewise. But dissatisfied with his rear-engine experiments, he hit upon a new formula by 1891: engine in front-Daimler's 1.2-liter, 3.5-bhpV-twin protected within a box-followed by a midships clutch and transmission.
Though it seems revolutionary now, Levassor's systeme was not viewed as [such in the 1890s. As British writer Jonathan Wood observed some 90 years later in Britain's Thoroughbred and Classic Sports Cars: "There were no doubt many ... who looked upon [Le-vassor's first car] as inferior to the rear-engine/belt-drive vehicles that far out-numbered it ... Engines at the time ran at a constant speed, and the Daimler power unit no doubt suffered from the vagaries of hot-tube ignition and poor carburetion.
Thus, gear-changing [the only means for varying speed] involved much grinding of teeth both on the part of the machine and driver. all the parts Levassor used were already in use on other vehicles ... the strength of Systeme Panhard that it was capable of almost infinite development, whereas the rear-engine/belt transmission soon represented an archaic backwater."
Panhards advanced rapidly: solid rubber tires in 1892 and, in 1895, enclosed gearboxes and a new Daimler-designed "Phenix" 2.4-liter, vertical-twin fed by a Maybach float-feed carburetor (instead of the old wick-type or "surface" carb). Yet engineering ever seemed to follow Levassor's two basic tenets: "Make it heavy and you'll make it strong," and "It's brutal, but it works."
On the next page, you will learn about the legacy of the 1902 Panhard and Levassor.