1902 Panhard and Levassor

The Legacy of the 1902 Panhard and Levassor

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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