1902 Panhard and Levassor

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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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. [And] all the parts Levassor used were already in use on other vehicles ... [but] the strength of Systeme Panhard [was] 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.

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The 1902 Panhard and Levassor had a lasting effect on the automotive world. Levassor entered his cars in the very earliest motor races. In 1894, his Panhard tied with a Peugeot as victor in the Paris-Rouen Trial. In 1895, he drove a Phenix-engine machine for some 53 hours all by himself to win the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race, averaging 15 mph over 732 miles. In 1897, Levassor became the first casualty of motorsports when he died due to his fall in a Paris-Marseilles run the year before. René Panhard carried on, with Albert Krebs as new chief engineer, until his own death in 1908, when son Hippolyte Panhard became the firm's manager.

Technical progress continued apace: aluminum transmission cases (1897); wheel steering, pneumatic tires, and a new four-cylinder "Centaur" engine (1898); fin-tube radiators (1899). By 1903, Panhards boasted quadrant change for their four-speed transmissions, "automatic" intake valves, drip-feed lubrication, piano-type foot pedals, even electric ignition. This, plus continuing competition success and a "reputation for superb construction and unparalleled reliability ... made the Panhard the car for the ultrarich," wrote Ralph Stein.

Nevertheless, Panhard soon turned out a bewildering variety of cars in all price ranges: three-, four-, and six-cylinder models ranging from 1.8 to no less than 11 liters in displacement and from eight to 50 horsepower. Further progress involved multi-plate clutches (1907), shaft drive and stamped-steel chassis (1908), monobloc engine (1909), and "gated" gearchange (1910). In 1912, Panhard introduced its first sleeve-valve engine-its mainstay for the next decade.

Panhard would occasionally capture the spotlight after World War I -- as with that famous suspension rod in 1930-but was already on the wane. The firm came under Citroën's financial control in 1955, and both the name and the company vanished in 1967. But this long, sorry decline in no way diminishes the historic work of the forward-thinking Emile Levassor. On his death, a friend had described him as "very active, always working day and night; he dreamed only of carriages, alterations, improvements." That's a fine epitaph for anyone in the auto business, let alone one of its most visionary pioneers.

On our final page, you will see the specifications for the 1902 Panhard and Levassor.

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The 1902 Panhard and Levassor was one of the earliest automobiles to really capture the public's attention. On this page, you can find the specifications for the 1902 Panhard and Levassor.

Engine: 2-cylinder sidevalve, inline, 104 cid/1.7 liters, approx. 7 bhp 4-cyIinder sidevalve, inline, 41 cid/673 cc (1.57 × 5.27-in./ 40 × 134-mm bore × stroke), approx. 15 bhp

Transmission: 3-speed sliding-gear

Suspension, front: Solid axle on cantilevered elliptic leaf springs, friction dampers

Suspension, rear: Solid, axle on cantilevered elliptic leaf springs, friction dampers

Brakes: Mechanical drum acting on rear wheels

Weight (lbs): est. 2,000

Top speed (mph): approx. 40 (4-cylinder)

Production: NA, but likely no more than 250

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