Dyna from Dublin

For a brief time at least, Panhard cars were built in Ireland. You heard that right.

Late-model Panhard 17. (c) stubs-auto.fr

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 engine and transmission is 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.

Image: l’automobile-ancienne

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, highly damaging economic war with its former colonist. Amongst the side-effects of this were the punitive tariffs enacted upon 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 (CKD) 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, Panhard cars were assembled in the Dublin suburb of Lucan. The story begins in 1948, when Irish concessionaires, Motor Distributors Limited (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, seeking to expand his motor business outside of the bubble car market (he held the agency for Messerschmitt) made contact with Panhard’s Paris management to secure exclusive rights to Panhard cars in the Irish Republic – not that he had a great deal of competition at the time.

It is 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 – front hinged in 1963 and the addition of ornate looking stainless steel stylistic addenda to nose and tail which was to prove of a questionable aesthetic nature. 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 built 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, its 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.

Panhard. BT 24. Image: hemmings

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 upon military vehicles, the Irish Defence Forces using Panhard M3 and AML armoured cars, the latter of which remaining in service up to the mid-1990s.

Sources: Motor Assembly in Ireland: Bob Montgomery – Dreolín Press/ Curbside Classic/ Veloce Today

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

8 thoughts on “Dyna from Dublin”

  1. What a great story! I can only imagine the reaction to the Panhard in the ultra-conservative Ireland of the early 1960’s so it’s little wonder that this venture foundered. That said, I think there was a degree of antipathy towards Britain and British cars in Ireland at the time, which encouraged the Irish to buy (locally assembled) “foreign” cars instead, hence the popularity of the Beetle.

  2. I have a soft spot for Panhard. I love the lightweight engineering, the air cooled flat twin with the torsion bar valve springs and of course the styling. I especially like the 24 CT/BT.

    Reading something about Panhard I was previously unaware of, like the production in Ireland, is a good thing. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Back in the late 1980s, I witnessed what is, I believe the only Panhard I ever recall seeing in the wild. This incredible sighting took place in the grounds of Dublin’s Phoenix Park – seat of the Presidential residence and believed to be the largest enclosed public park in any European city. Apart from the excitement of seeing such a rare and interesting car, the sound it made as it accelerated away is what I recall most vividly. ‘What a marvellous device’, my younger self thought. Still do…

    I would never have believed at the time that it had probably been built locally. Apparently there is a small but dedicated Panhard owners club in Ireland, who contributed significantly to the store of knowledge about production efforts in Lucan.

    As much as I revere the double chevron (as was), I do feel their treatment of Panhard was not only reprehensible, but needless.

  4. So a grand total of 33 Ireland Panhard cars made; no wonder they are difficult to spot! Well done Eóin on rooting out the story in the first place. Thought I’d look up the Panhard AML which led me to the Toyota War from 1987 where Chad used mainly Hi-lux and Landcruisers to repel Libya’s armed forces. Interesting how the thread extends on subjects I never knew.
    Have to agree with you on Citroen’s treatment of Panhard; uncouth and most un-Gallic

  5. I was lucky enough to holiday in Europe with my fiercely francophile parents, from the age of 7 = 1958. These glorious Panhards were a fairly common sight then. I can recall the sound of their smooth running horizontally opposed twin cylinder engines even now!

  6. I’m a bit puzzled by your statement that “… 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.”

    I’m fairly sure American-market Panhards weren’t assembled from CKD kits. On general principles Panhard’s minuscule U.S. sales volume wouldn’t have warranted it. Were you thinking of the usual process of pre-sales preparation of cars that had been imported fully assembled?

    1. Staxman: Apologies for the delay in returning to this – but having returned to the source text – Bob Montgomery’s tome, ‘Motor Assembly in Ireland’, I must point out that I was quoting from a statement made to the book’s author by Frank Curran, who worked on assembling Irish market Panhards in Dublin at the time. According to Curran’s recollections, Panhard’s Pierre Klauss distinctly referred to “the Americans who were failing to successfully assemble their PL17s”…

      This statement does seem to suggest that actual assembly took place in the US rather than pre-delivery ‘finishing’ and while I accept it seems unusual for Panhard to have built cars in CKD form in the US, when other European importers (at the time) did not, I can only recount what was documented – I’m afraid I have no further information to add at this point.

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