Panhards, for a brief time at least were built in Ireland. You heard that right.
As Universal truths go, ‘history is written by the winners’, is up there with the best of them. However history is just as often written by the survivors – although this comes with the obvious and necessary proviso that to do so, one must first survive.
This was not the fate of one of motoring’s more significant pioneers, so while the three pointed star of Sindelfingen remains widely celebrated as the oldest name in motoring, that of Panhard et Levassor is confined mostly to the pages of history – books one is moved to add, others have written.
Having established with the eternal ‘Systeme Panhard’, (where the engine and transmission was mounted in front of the driver, and with the tractive effort being taken to the rear wheels); a layout which became the default automotive architecture, Panhard’s history as an independent carmaker was characterised by periods of conservatism and stasis with bouts of fierce creativity and innovation. But like so many carmakers who espoused the more creative end of the spectrum, fate would not be kind.
France has a long and proud history of what are termed compact cars, but it would be more accurate to describe them (especially in the post-war era), as light cars. The 1946 Panhard Dyna X, a car based upon the design principles of the talented (if seemingly somewhat intractable) Jean-Albert Grégoire. This car, powered by a compact and lightweight air cooled flat twin, featured an alloy chassis and body which gave it a very competitive performance, but a higher price than its putative rivals.
In 1953, Panhard introduced a larger, more upmarket car. Now with a streamlined six-passenger body by gifted Panhard designer Louis Bionier to match its advanced mechanical specification, the sleek Dyna Z was launched that year in the luxurious restaurant Les Ambassadeurs at the Hôtel Crillon on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The car quickly found a modest niche within the French market, but not one which proved sufficiently lucrative to the company’s fortunes. In 1955, Citroën purchased a 25% stake in the business. A closer or more apt match few could envisage, given that a lack of oleopneumatics aside, the Dyna Z was almost as advanced as Citroën’s more prestigious DS19, but the larger carmaker would not prove to be a benefactor.
Meanwhile, a small independent nation clinging to the edge of Europe was itself struggling to chart a course alongside a larger and not always beneficent neighbour. Ireland (it established itself a Republic in 1948) had emerged into the post-war era economically impoverished having prior to the outbreak of global hostilities in 1939 been engaged in a bruising and for Eire at least, damaging economic war with its former colonist.
One of the side-effects of this were punitive tariffs on most imported goods, which of course included motor cars. To sidestep this and as a means of encouraging manufacturing, ergo job creation, local car assembly was encouraged and from the early 1950s until around 1982, car manufacture, from full scale production at Ford’s Cork plant or in knocked down form elsewhere became widespread.
Just how widespread might surprise readers, however, one of the less well-known stories from that era relates to the fact that for a brief time at least, Panhards were assembled in the Dublin suburb of Lucan. The story begins in 1948, when Irish concessionaires, Motor Distributors (MDL) imported four knocked-down Dyna X models, which were subsequently assembled in Dublin’s Townsend Street, which appears to have been the sum total of MDL’s interest in the marque.
Some years later, an Irish businessman, John Caldwell was seeking to expand his motor business outside of the bubble car market (he held the agency for Messerschmitt) and made contact with Panhard’s Paris headquarters to secure exclusive rights to Panhard cars in the Irish Republic – not that he had a great deal of competition at the time.
It’s believed that Panhard had ambitions to sell their cars across other protected markets, and that by working with Caldwell in Dublin, it would prove a valuable dry-run for any foreign assembly effort. By the time Caldwell had approached Panhard, the Dyna Z had been re-engineered to employ a steel shell, the original aluminium one having proven a massive cost drain on the business, driving them into the arms of Quai de Javel.
With the car on the market for some time, it was also felt that its styling required a refresh, which was once more carried out in-house under the supervision of Bionier. Heavily redesigned, the centre section remained broadly unchanged apart from the orientation of the front doors – now front hinged (in 1963) and the addition of rather ornate looking stylistic addenda to nose and tail which only served to undermine the Dyna’s purity of line. The cabin was also enhanced.
The revised PL17 was introduced in June 1959 and the following year, the first twenty (of the proposed one hundred per annum) CKD kits arrived in Dublin port. In order to keep costs down, items such as batteries, tyres, glazing, upholstery fabric and paint were sourced locally. Following several teething issues in stitching the body shell together accurately, the first cars were duly built and sold. In 1961, a further ten arrived – of these only nine were built up, the remaining car being retained for spares. No further Panhards would be made in Ireland.
Allegedly however, on a visit from Paris, Panhard’s Pierre Klaus took copious photographs of the production process in Lucan, telling Dublin management that he was going to show them to the Americans who were having trouble assembling PL17s there to the required standard. He said he would take special pleasure in informing them how they were being built “in a farmyard in Ireland”.
To a large extent, the PL17 ought to have been an ideal car for local conditions. Roomy, lightweight and economical, it’s lusty air-cooled flat twin, compliant suspension and front wheel drive traction making it an inexpensive car from a running costs perspective. However, despite the VW Beetle’s lasting success in the Republic, the Irish customer was broadly suspicious of what he didn’t understand and there was perhaps too much in the way of unknowns here. In addition, the PL17 was expensive to buy and insure, so potential customers stayed faithful to less advanced, safer (and for the same money), larger options.
With the PL17 entering the market, Panhard was already at work on a replacement, the very pretty CT/ BT series, which were developed under Citroën’s purview. These would be the marque’s swansong, Quai de Javel pulling the plug on Panhard’s carmaking operations in 1967. Panhard’s operations were thereafter centred on military vehicles, the Irish Defence Forces using Panhard M3 and AML armoured cars, the latter of which remained in service up to the mid-1990s.
Sources: Motor Assembly in Ireland: Bob Montgomery – Dreolín Press/ Curbside Classic/ Veloce Today