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.