1961 Panhard Dyna
1961 Panhard Dyna. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The pioneering Panhard & Levassor company of Paris, France, built cars for almost 80 years, but it’s hardly known in North America. Panhards were imported for a few years in the 1950s and early sixties, but didn’t sell in any quantity.

The first Panhard appeared in 1891 with a centrally located Daimler V2 engine. They soon established what became the standard automobile layout with the engine in front driving through a transmission to the rear axle.

Panhards excelled early in motor racing, tying Peugeot for first place in a run from Paris to Rouen in 1894. In 1895 it won the first real motor race, from Paris to Bordeaux and back, driven entirely by Emile Levassor. He covered 1,178 km (732 miles) in 48 hours and 48 minutes, averaging 24 km/h (15 mph), a remarkable demonstration of endurance for both man and machine.

Panhards dominated motor racing during the 1890s, but then other competitors began to take over. They evolved into upscale cars, and started fitting the ultra-quiet Knight sleeve-valve engine in 1911.

Following the First World War Panhard concentrated on sleeve-valve engines, culminating in the advanced 1937 Dynamic model. It had a Knight six cylinder engine, four wheel independent torsion bar suspension and a backbone frame. The aerodynamic body had faired in headlights, fully enclosed wheels, and a windshield that wrapped around the centrally located driver (soon changed to left hand drive). Unfortunately before the Dynamic could really test the marketplace the Second World War began.

After the war, Panhard recognized that the world had changed, and began building smaller, lighter, more economical cars. Its Dyna series, introduced in 1946, was based on a design by front-drive specialist J.A. Gregoire, who had worked for the French Tracta company before the war.

The Panhard Dyna’s front wheels were driven by a two-cylinder, horizontally-opposed (flat), pushrod (no more sleeve valves), air cooled, 610-cc engine. Its modest 22 horsepower gave the lightweight Dyna acceptable performance, but styling was still in the 1930s mode.

That all changed with the introduction of the 1954 Panhard Dyna Z, the car that introduced the marque to North America. Like the 1930s Dynamic, it bristled with interesting technology. The flat, air cooled twin was now up to 851 cc. The cooling fan was bolted directly to the front of the crankshaft, and the engine was ahead of the front axle, driving the front wheels via a column shifted, four-speed manual transmission and constant velocity joints. Although fourth gear was an overdrive ratio, the little engine still had to turn 3,980 rpm at 96 km/h (60 mph), a common cruising speed.

The all alloy engine had a built-up crankshaft carried in roller type bearings. The aluminum cylinders had iron sleeves, and the valves were closed by torsion bar springs rather than the conventional coil springs. This allowed shorter valves for reduced inertia. Angled valves gave the hemispherical combustion chamber made so famous by Chrysler. Engine oil pressure kept the rocker arms in constant contact with the valves and pushrods for reduced noise. The 850-cc engine produced 50 horsepower, and the entire drive-train could be removed from the body for repairs.

The full envelope body was thoroughly modern and aerodynamically efficient, if perhaps a little bulbous. The body was aluminum when the Dyna was introduced, but changed to steel in 1958 for cost reasons. The aluminum model weighed only some 694 kg (1,530 lb), which went up to 807 kg (1,780 lb) with the steel body, although this was still light for a six passenger car. There was no traditional grille, just a mouth-like opening above the front bumper, and the entire front of the body rose up for easy servicing.

Suspension was by transverse upper and lower leaf springs in front, and a solid axle and torsion bars at the rear.

The Dyna was not a midget car. It had a 2,565 mm (101 in.) wheelbase and an overall length of 4,648 mm (183 in.), which allowed it to carry up to six passengers and their luggage.

The Dyna’s performance was quite surprising, in spite of its small engine. It could accelerate to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 23.7 seconds (Road & Track 9/56) at a time when a Volkswagen Beetle took 28, and exceed 129 km/h (80 mph) when a VW could barely reach 113 (70). It also gave up to 40 miles per gallon.

Panhards, and Panhard-powered cars such as the Deutsch-Bonnet, did well in competition, winning hundreds of races, including the LeMans 24-hour race several times in both its class and on the Index of Performance (based on a formula of engine size and distance covered).

In spite of its technical novelty, or perhaps because of it, Dyna production was never high by North American standards (it reached 30,000 in 1957). Dynas stopped being imported in the early 1960s. The company was bought by Citroen, who needed the factory space for its own models, and Panhard production ceased in 1967; thus ended one of the automotive pioneers that had dared to be different.

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