The horse before the cart – or was it the other way round?
It hardly seems like an invention but innovators often do something that, with the benefit of hindsight, the rest of us think is so bloody obvious that we can’t see what the fuss is about. So, in 1892, after a couple of years of fiddling around with alternatives, Émile Levassor decided to put an internal combustion engine in the front of the car he was developing with René Panhard, then he connected it to a clutch with, behind that, a simple gearbox which took drive back to the rear wheels. This they continued to develop, producing the forerunner of the manual gearbox we recognise today in 1895.
Le Système Panhard flourished for the next 80 years, becoming the default set-up for a range of vehicles, saloons, sports cars and trucks and, to this day, many claim it is the only set-up for a proper ‘driver’s car’. Both the US industry and its satellites loved it. It became what they knew and it was cheap. Also, although channelling even the massive 55 hp of an Issigonis Mini Cooper through the front wheels offered no problems, the much greater (even allowing for SAE exaggeration) power of US V8s combined with crude suspension was far more problematic. In the Sixties, Detroit tried three departures from Le Système. First was the Chevrolet Corvair, combining VW type swing axle rear suspension with a heavy, rear-mounted flat six. This could have been a fine car, but cost cutting led to some horrific accidents which tarnished its name irretrievably.Next, GM developed the Oldsmobile Toronado, a full sized front-drive vehicle with a good amount of big V8 power going through the front wheels using a transmission that saw an unexpected return to chain drive. This, and its Cadillac Eldorado cousin, remained the sole production deviation from Le Système’s hegemony in home-built US cars until the late Seventies.
History shows a complete lack of innovative US Fords in this period, but that’s not entirely true. Much of the German industry shared the American antipathy to front drive cars, but the German Taunus 12M of 1962, though looking reasonably similar to its British Cortina sibling, was in fact front wheel drive. But this car wasn’t a bit of independent thinking from Cologne, the 12M was actually a US cast off, fully developed in the States and production ready to be sold as a home market compact as the Ford Cardinal. A change of ‘strategy’ caused it to be surplus to requirements, so it was foisted off onto Germany. Taunus 12M excepted, and in 1970 even this otherwise very ordinary car, now in 15M form, was replaced by a rear driven model, the US Big Three’s overseas offshoots were generally happy to stick to the Panhard benchmark, except Chrysler who inherited cars not developed under their guidance, such as the rear-engined Hillman Imp and the front wheel drive Simca 1100. It was not until 1976 that, after a long-winded development, Ford Europe came up with its first home-designed front wheel drive car, the Fiesta. This was followed by the Escort, then the Mondeo. In 1979, the year before the Escort Mark 3, the FWD Opel Kadett/Astra was released, starting GM Europe’s FWD revolution.
In Japan, overall things moved even more slowly. Subaru and Honda, two engineering-led companies had their own ideas, but Nissan and Toyota felt safer making scaled-down versions of Detroit products. Nissan actually produced the small 100A Cherry in 1970 but it took ultra-conservative Toyota another 8 years before they built the Tercel. Rather than looking to a transverse layout as found in BMC and Fiat products of the early 70s, Toyota used the Triumph 1300 as a benchmark – a strange move on first view but a typical bit of Toyota thinking since the Triumph was, actually, a very good car. As regards larger models, with an eye on the conservative US as well as parts of the UK market, changes for these makers was a long, slow process.
Meanwhile, in Italy, Fiat stopped making the Argenta (née 132) in 1985 completing a shift to front drive that had started almost imperceptibly with the Autobianchi Primula of 1964. From that point, the Système Panhard was being kept alive in Italy by the Maserati Biturbo, the Ferrari 412 and the increasingly marginal Alfa Romeo with the last of its Alfetta spin-offs, the 75. Back in Britain the Rover SD1 was superceded by a car based on Honda’s FWD engineering, leaving Jaguar and Rolls/Bentley to carry on as rear driven saloons, until the short lived aberration that was the MG ZT 260. All his underlined the opinion that, whatever the advantages of driven front wheels for the hoi polloi, the Système Panhard remained the choice for the motor conveyance of distinction.
In 2011, Ford US stopped making the Panther platform and, with the end of the Crown Victoria, the Système Panhard disappeared from American Ford saloons, leaving just the Cadillac CTS and ATS and the Chrysler 300 to carry on in the US. So, despite the fact that DKW, later Audi, led with a front wheel drive production car around 85 years ago, and the presence of both Ford and GM’s European operations, the last true bastion of the Système Panhard remains Germany. BMW and Mercedes may dabble with front and four wheel drive, but a significant core of their customers still expect their rear wheels only to be driven. Many, possibly the majority, of them would not recognise the particular qualities that such a car possesses but they know that it is the ‘driver’s choice’. Despite their success, Volkswagen Group’s complete disinterest in producing rear driven machines has always ensured that Audi are viewed by the snobbish motoring world with a touch of suspicion – a bit light on their feet maybe?
Panhard itself dumped Le Système after the Second World War, realising that there was a better way to drive their innovative, small, front drive, twin cylinder saloon car, the Dyna X. By that time, Citroën had already gone over to front wheel drive and the other French manufacturers began to either follow Citroën’s lead or to put their engines in the back. From 1975, only Peugeot, and for a short while Talbot, kept Le Système alive in their large cars until, in 1992, the 505 ceased production and Le Système Panhard ceased to be employed in any French car. By this time Panhard was, appropriately enough, owned by Peugeot but had actually ceased making cars 25 years before, whilst under Citroën ownership. But the Panhard name is durable. Taken over by Citroën, then sold off by Peugeot it is now owned by Renault and continues to be used on police and military vehicles although, as you might expect, none of them uses Le Système, being all 4x4s.