(Dis)missed Opportunity

Citroën suffocated France’s oldest carmaker in what seemed a needless fashion. Could it have ended differently?

Image: The author

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.

Panhard 24. Image: hemmings

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.

Image: Viaretro

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.

Image: Forum Retrorides

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.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

26 thoughts on “(Dis)missed Opportunity”

  1. Hi Bruno, thanks for another interesting bit of information not easily found. I’ve never seen a Panhard 24 in person but from what I can see in pictures and videos and in a 1/43 scale miniature I have, it’s a beautifully petite little car, but in a kind of odd, unusual way. I wish it had evolved to have a more substantial engine, like the subject of your article. By the way, theose prototypes have an air of “Mazda Cosmos meets Citroën DS” in them 🙂

    1. Hello Cesar,
      Thank you for your kind words- glad you enjoyed the piece. And about that Mazda Cosmo resemblance- yes, now that you mention it I can see it too. Here’s a photo of the Cosmo for reference:

    2. Never realized it resembled the Cosmo. Thanks cesargrauf and brrrruno.

  2. Good morning Bruno. What a tragedy that Panhard wasn’t developed alongside Citroën. The 24 was a lovely thing that could certainly have been extended into a full range. Your first photo shows a remarkable resemblance between the 24 and DS, at least from the front. I wonder if this was merely coincidental? It seems unlikely.

    1. Yes, the resemblances are striking, aren’t they? The shape of the bumpers, the windscreen surround, the general flow/shape of the front end, the narrow air inlet… it was such a natural “fit” (at least in the visual department) with Citroëns ID and DS models.

  3. How nice is this? A 24 four-door saloon:

    I wonder if it’s an escaped prototype, or a conversion? It looks highly professional.

    1. Beautiful! It almost looks better than the coupe! You’re right Daniel, what a wasted opportunity. With a suitable engine, in two door, short wheelbase form, the Panhard 24 might even have been a cool and quirky alternative to the Porsche 356 and 912.

    2. Hello Daniel,
      I have no idea, but if this is the work of a private individual it is highly impressive! In any case it demonstrates what a pity it is that the whole “Panhard under Citroën” saga turned out the way it did.

    3. I would really like to understand what Bercot’s thinking was here. Clearly he had faith in his Bureau d’Etudes, but given that they had hardly served up conceptual champagne during the run up to Projet F (and we all know how the F turned out), wouldn’t he have better served maximising what he had? Citroen had a huge hole in their product range and it took them more than a decade to fill it. Unbelievable.

      It would also be fascinating to better understand Panhard’s image and position amid the French motorist/car market during this period? It always occurred to me that once Panhard had been absorbed by Citroen, they really ought to have been handed the small car remit, allowing the double chevron to provide the larger, more profitable (okay, Citroen – ergo questionable) products.

      According to several former insider interviewed by author Marc Sonnery, Jean Panhard was too gentle a character to fight for his company once Citroen took over, attesting that the Citroen board bullied him into submission. Whereas by contrast Monsieur Berliet was a far more robust character and fought tooth and nail against double chevron management. His company survived.

    4. Bercot was crazy to throttle the 24 when it would have been such a neat fit into Citroën’s range beneath the DS. They could even have easily rebranded it as a Citroën if they didn’t want to invest in promoting the Panhard name any longer. It looks like a bad case of “not invented here” syndrome. A great shame.

    5. Thanks for sharing, Daniel. I had no idea a 4 door version existed.

    6. You’re welcome, Freerk. I had no idea it existed either, but just stumbled upon it by accident when browsing Google photos of the Panhard 24.

  4. A fascinating and thought-provoking article, as usual, Bruno – thank you.

    Panhard definitely got there first with the DS-type styling. That 4-door 24 has a lot of a Corvair about it (that’s a compliment).

    I watched a short documentary on YouTube, today, to try to understand Panhard’s history a bit better. I believe their first cars used Mercedes-Benz engines, back in 1898. Being one of the first, they just did their own thing and came up with many innovations. I love the idea of torsion bar tappet springs.

    Did Citroën buy them just to shut them down? Mergers – and especially horizontally-integrated mergers, where another company takes over another one in a similar business – are a bit of a hobby horse of mine; they seldom deliver what’s promised (or what is stated in public, at least).

    1. A quick shot of a 2 cylinder Panhard engine and the valve arrangement. These are earlier examples and weren’t fitted to the 24, but you get the idea.

    2. And p.14 of the brochure is glorious. It has made me laugh rather a lot, though.

      “Right, so a few pictures to really show off the car. What I need is a field of poppies and some urns, vases, trophies and statuettes. Now where’s that tab of LSD?”

  5. I’ve always had a soft spot for the 24. The first time I saw one in the flesh was in the early 90’s. Later a Citroën dealer nearby had a 24 CT in his showroom. The 24 BT in the photo is just leaving the street where I live. Not a good photo, but I had to be really quick with my phone. I like the valve arrangement with the torsion bars to prevent valve float in the Panhard engines. I’m not sure but, didn’t Honda do something similar on one of there motorbike engines?

    1. Hello Freerk – yes, the 24 is beautiful and special. Its brochure is suitably atmospheric, too:

      https://www.veikl.com/d/Panhard-24-Brochure-1966-FR-47300

      Many of the Panhards are marvellous – for example, I like the Art Deco Dynamic with its central driving position.

      Re the torsion spring valves – yes, I understand Honda’s CB 450 motorcycle twin engine had them. While it can take up a bit more room, it’s still an elegant solution.

      Panhard ought to have teamed-up with NSU and Jowett. Actually, I think the resulting company would have torn the space-time continuum.

    2. Charles – thanks for posting the brochure link. The camera work and composition is delightful. That´s very evocative and only makes Citroen´s smothering of the marque all the more spiteful. All of that styling was achieved using the camera´s settings, some deft handwork during photography and the development process. It looks real in the way digitally manipulated images don´t. I can´t see why this has to be. The digital images seem brittle (if that makes sense) whereas these analogue images have substance.
      The PL cars could so easily have been remodelled as Citroens since they look like Citroens (or vice versa).
      I had a chance to sit in a PL a long time ago. It was impressive, even if merely stationary. All the instruments were sited inside the circumference of the steering wheel.

    3. Richard – yes, I know what you mean about modern images – they can seem ‘flat’ and ‘dry’. All one lighting level, too.

      A bit of humanity and humour (and imagination and talent) goes a long way and I think this Rover brochure has it, too. It’s from the same year and is good at giving the cars some context and emotional background – ‘What’s the story, in this picture?’.

      https://www.veikl.com/d/Rover-2000-Brochure-1966-EN-47555

  6. It was a missed opportunity for sure, heard different accounts about the Flat-Four engine Panhard envisaged for the 24. Some claim it displaced 1.2-litres, others say it was either a doubled-up version of the Panhard Twin or the 2-litre Flat-Four from the AML if not a more radical if unviable idea.

    A case though could have obviously been made for a DS-based Panhard 24 (had it appeared earlier) to feature a DS-derived engine, including a smaller entry-level 1600cc version as Citroen intended for the smaller ill-fated Projet F up to a 2-litre or so engine.

    Between a DS-based Panhard 24 and the Citroen C60 prototype, it is a tough call whether Citroen would have been better off focusing on the former with an existing DS-based engine or one of number of prototype Flat-Four engines Citroen were working on during the 1960s.

    The former would be utilized in both the DS and DS-based Panhard 24 on the basis it would be cheaper opting for an engine that was already in production with a displacement range of 1600-2000cc+, OTOH a Flat-Four with a displacement range of 950-1654cc+ could not only cover the 24 and C60 / GS but also been used in the Ami and early Axel analogue (if not possibly the CX via the 1654cc Flat-Four in Projet L).

    Another idea for the late-60s to early-70s have also been for Citroen collaborate more with NSU earlier on in the decade outside of Comotor, with a non-Rotary* version of the Ro80 along with the K70 forming the basis of a pair of Panhards with different exterior styling.

    1. Another potential dimension to a further collaboration between Citroen and NSU would be early involvement by Citroen in the development of the NSU K50 project (aka Audi 50 / Volkswagen Polo) that was said to have been first conceived in 1968 prior to NSU being taken over by Volkswagen a year later.

      Around the same time Citroen did make use of the Fiat 127 floorpan for its early studies during Project Y, when Citroen at the time was was pursuing an alliance with Fiat, so it would not be unusual for Citroen to take a similar approach with NSU with the K50 and other pre-Volkswagen NSU projects. https://www.citroenet.org.uk/prototypes/projet-y-ta-vd/projet-y.html

      Essentially Citroen at best could have drawn upon the ideas of both the NSU K70 and Fiat 127 to further refine its own Supermini project, if not opt for either one of the two to be a starting point for their own Citroen or Panhard Supermini.

      The NSU K70 as well as the NSU Ro80 meanwhile slot above the Citroen GS yet below the Citroen CX, perhaps Citroen could share in the development of the NSU K70 engine with it being uprated in Panhard guise?

  7. More Panhard 24 loveliness. These are Photoshopped, but they do give one an idea as to how the saloon and estate might have looked:


    I’m now suspicious that the first photo is also a Photoshop job.

  8. There isn’t all that much information floating about regarding the Dyane programme, and actually the official history on Citroën’s current website seems a rather contrived whitewash over the few Panhard-related facts about it that we already know.

    https://www.citroenorigins.co.uk/en/cars/dyane <- "Gimme some truth, all I want is the truth."

    Strange, that. Any further insights?

    1. Oh, click on “Dyane Epic” to read the full [redacted] history. “This is the challenge taken up by Robert Opron and Jaques Charreton…”

  9. thanks Bruno and everyone for the insight into
    this charming car. a vivid reminder of excellent
    design. reinforced for me when out walking an hour
    ago and a ute passed towing a trailer. thereupon an
    admirable contemporary of the 24, a Lancia Fulvia
    coupé. ah well, beauty survives somehow. even in
    a brochure.

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