Citroën suffocated France’s oldest carmaker in what seemed a needless fashion. Could it have ended differently?
At the official June 1963 presentation of what would be Panhard’s last new car introduction – the 24 – Jean-Pierre Peugeot was among the attendees. Having inspected the new car he took CEO, Jean Panhard aside and said to him: “How fortunate you are to have such talented designers – we’re forced to go and ask the Italians to do it for us!”
Head of those talented designers was veteran stylist Louis Bionier (1898-1973) who had been with Panhard since 1929. The experienced Bionier had indeed overseen a chic and distinctive design which, while displaying some GM influence (the Chevrolet Corvair in particular), was praised by the vast majority of observers for its clarity and modernity of line.
Had Citroën, who had taken a controlling share in Panhard in 1959 and would own it outright by 1965, not allowed Panhard to wither and die by neglect and what seemed disinterest (some would simply call it sabotage) a complete range of 24 model variants would have seen the light of day.
Citroën CEO, Pierre Bercot however forbade Panhard to bring out a four door version or a station wagon, stating that Citroën was developing its own lower-medium price field model and had no desire for an internal competitor. The convertible 24 that was also in the prototype stages may have been grudgingly allowed but would remain stillborn due to lack of financial support.
Preventing Panhard from developing a range of cars which could have served very nicely as a bridge to cross the gaping market chasm between the 2cv/Ami and ID/DS was a course of action that has generated discussion ever since. Citroën would find itself in a blind alley with the Projet F (ironically it was cancelled in 1967, the same year that Panhard was scuttled), and it was not until 1970 that the GS came to the rescue.
There was however work done by Citroën (and also by Chausson who produced the Panhard bodies and was loathe to be stuck with almost new tooling if the 24 were to be discontinued so soon) to save the 24 by fitting the larger engine of the DS and using its platform with hydropneumatic suspension, as well as the DIRAVI power-steering that was still in its trial stages at the time.
The idea was to reposition Panhard as a sporty medium priced brand, thereby extending the life of the 24 and if all went well continue along these lines in the future.
Two prototypes were constructed in late 1966, of which one has survived. The first received the familiar 2,1 litre DS21 engine delivering 130 Hp in this application. The other was fitted with an experimental 2 litre 143 Hp engine with double overhead camshafts- this car was also the one fitted with DIRAVI.
Both cars looked similar to the regular 24 but had longer front-end sheetmetal and a wheelbase extended to 103.4 inches; performance-wise the DS-Panhards were transformed: both registered maximum speeds of between 120 and 130 mph and were apparently very pleasant to drive with a good balance between comfort and performance: a happy marriage of both brands.
Timing worked against the survival chances of the augmented 24 however. Pierre Bercot, although certainly planning to crown the Citroën range with a fast and luxurious coupé, had by this time started talks with Maserati concerning a takeover – which would become reality in 1968.
Soon most attention of the bureau d’études was diverted to the Maserati-engined super DS (or S-vehicle) which we now know as the SM; the 24 was unceremoniously killed off and the second prototype equipped with DIRAVI was turned into an SM development mule fitted with an early version of the V6 Maserati engine.
History has shown that neither the buyout of Maserati nor the resulting SM came anywhere near to fulfilling the high expectations Citroën had of the enterprise. It is of course impossible to know how things might have turned out if the DS-Panhard had seen its development continue into actual production, but at the very least this account shows that there is more than a whiff of missed opportunity to be detected.
This is not to say that Citroën and in particular Bercot were misguided in pursuing and acquiring Maserati, but with Citroën covering the family/ comfort field, Panhard the medium priced sporty segment and Maserati the luxury/GT and sportscar category each brands’ strengths would have been in harmony with its market position and France’s oldest car brand allowed to continue.