Welcome to part 2 of the French Deadly Sins series. Today, we shall focus on a DS that spanned the ’50s and ’60s, the Panhard Dyna Z (1954-59) and its related successor, the PL 17 (1960-65). True to the spirit of the Deadly Sins, these cars may have sold well, but they led their maker to oblivion…
Panhard Gets Eaten Alive: The Dyna Z / PL 17
The Panhard company was France’s oldest automaker, having built its first petrol-engined car in 1890. Over the years, it had diversified its production to include trucks, coaches, railbuses and a very successful line of military vehicles.
Panhard cars evolved toward the higher end of the market by the mid-‘20s, offering a range of mid to larger 6-cyl. and 8-cyl. cars with Knight sleeve-valve engines and very distinctive styling courtesy of Louis Bionier. The last pre-war Panhard, the Dynamic, sold poorly but introduced unibody construction to the French luxury car market, among many interesting technical features. Even before the end of the war, the family-owned firm wisely decided its future lay in small cars.
In 1945, the French government was pushing for Simca to manufacture a completely new car devised by Jean Albert Grégoire (him again, see Part 1) during the war. It was a tiny alloy-bodied FWD design, powered by a flat-twin engine. J.A. Grégoire was in cahoots with the Aluminium Français (the French aluminum producers lobby), who wielded considerable influence over politicians in Paris, who in turn forced J.A. Grégoire and his car on Simca. J.A. Grégoire was a Simca executive for a brief time, but Simca viewed him and his car with suspicion, dragging their feet, toying with the car to give it more contemporary styling and finally selling the aborted project to Kendall in the UK and Hartnett in Australia (neither were successful).
Panhard had seen the first AFG prototype even before 1945 and secured licensing rights from J.A. Grégoire before he went to Simca. It was a great solution to the company’s conundrum, though it desperately needed improvement. Now that Simca had thrown it away, Panhard could modify the car at will: only one version of the AFG would be produced and J.A. Grégoire had backed the wrong horse. Panhard’s chief engineer, Louis Delagarde, gave it a new engine with innovative features such as torsion bar valve springs and hemi heads cast together with the finned aluminum cylinder barrels (no gasket). The AFG’s body was extensively reworked to include rear doors and gradually “embellished” by Louis Bionier with polished aluminum trinkets. The Dyna had a steel chassis instead of the AFG’s alloy platform, but the aluminum body panels would remain, as they allowed Panhard to fast-track the Dyna’s production: steel was rationed, aluminum was not.
Panhard never publicly acknowledged Grégoire’s paternity of the car, leading The Engineer to sue Panhard for intellectual property theft (he lost). The car was relatively expensive (50% more than the Renault 4CV), but was brilliant and sold pretty well. The engine grew from 610cc (28hp) to 745cc (33hp) and eventually 851cc (40hp), propelling the little car to over 120 kph (75 mph).
The main problems with the Dyna X were its tiny size, antiquated styling and dreadful aerodynamics. The Dynavia demonstrated that a properly streamlined saloon could dramatically improve fuel consumption and speed: it could reach 130 kph with the 610cc flat-twin and could deliver 5 litres / 100 km (47 mpg). Using Bionier’s design as a starting point, Panhard invested massively in a completely new all-aluminum body. Around that time (the early ’50s), the company also started to quietly put out feelers to join forces with another automaker – Ford SAF and Peugeot were approached, but nothing came of the secret meetings…
By late 1953, the new Dyna Z was launched. The lightweight (710 kg / 1560 lbs.) streamlined car was perfectly suited to the small engine, keeping it in the 5CV tax band while providing enough to accommodate six (thin) passengers, like an 11CV Citroën or Renault.
The price was a bit steep: FF 699,000 for the base model, FF 760,000 for the 42hp Deluxe. Though the cars sold well in 1954-55, Panhard were selling a 2-cyl. car for the price of a Traction Avant! Alas, it quickly turned out that the price was not steep enough to turn a profit.
Panhard had miscalculated the cost of the new body by a wide margin. Like the Dyna X, the Dyna Z used duralinox, a strong aircraft-grade aluminum / magnesium alloy throughout the car, including the platform. But both metals’ prices were on the rise as the war surplus DC-3s were gradually being replaced with newer designs in Europe and elsewhere. Similarly, piston-engined military aircraft were being retired en masse in favour of new jets. The Dyna Z would soon sink the company unless many more could be sold and manufacturing costs could be brought down. Panic-stricken, Panhard knocked on Citroën’s door: the Dyna might be a good fit in the Citroën range, which had a massive gap between the 2CV and the Traction Avant.
A deal was struck in 1955: Citroën bought 25% of Panhard’s stock and add the Dyna to its line-up, both in France and abroad. In the meantime, Panhard resorted to gradually switch from aluminum to steel bodies. The increased weight was matched by increasing the engine’s power through various means, some of them to the detriment of durability. Panhard’s flat-twin was still brilliant, but it was becoming fragile. Citroën quickly killed off the Panhard truck range and used the factory space to manufacture 2CV vans, but deliberately paid its subcontractor below cost.
By 1957, the Dyna Z had completely switched to steel, tipping the scales at 875 kg – about 23% heavier than a 1955 model. The 851cc flat-twin was available in base 38hp guise – positively asthmatic – or the 50hp “Tigre” version, which debuted in 1959 and finally matched the heavier body. The range also included new variants to broaden the Dyna’s appeal, but the car was now five years old and sales were flagging.
Citroën furthered its dominance on the Panhard Board by increasing its ownership to 45% of Panhard stock. It wielded veto power over all decisions that ageing CEO Paul Panhard (at the helm of the company since 1916) and his son Jean proposed to continue the marque’s car line.
A new saloon was out of the question, so the Dyna Z was tarted up by Bionier and became the PL 17 for model year 1960. Despite the car’s weird looks, complete with faux tiger skin interior, sales were boosted, but Citroën were carefully and methodically taking over their smaller partner’s operations, especially the highly profitable military vehicles arm.
Citroën vetoed a civilian version of Panhard’s X4 engine (essentially a twinned flat-twin), as well as any hope of a new four-door saloon: Citroën were working on their own mid-range saloon, which would ultimately come out several years late as the 1970 Citroën GS. But a two-door coupé with the flat-twin was green-lit in 1961 and introduced in the spring of 1963 as the Panhard 24, just as Citroën gobbled up another 30% of Panhard stocks.
The four-door cars, now competing with the Citroën Ami 6, were left to rot with their ‘50s bodies (albeit with one final facelift in ’63). The last Panhard 17 saloons were sold in May 1965, just as Citroën completed the absorption of its rival. The 24 coupé carried on for two model years with a Citroën manufacturer’s plate. No more Panhard cars would ever be made.
Panhard sinned by excessive ambition and naivety when introducing the Dyna Z. Though they did manage to build over 230,000 Dyna Z / PL 17 cars in 11 years thanks to Citroën’s dealer network, the bean-counters had not done their homework. Manufacturing costs had been insufficiently worked out and based on quicksand (i.e. the price of a relatively rare commodity), precipitating Panhard into the arms of a rival whose only goal was to gradually tighten its coils around Panhard and slowly swallow it, like a python does a deer. It is worth noting, though, that Panhard is still alive as a military vehicle manufacturer, now owned by the Volvo Group.
Tune in tomorrow for the third and final installment of the French Deadly Sins series: the Citroën GS Birotor!
Related CC posts:
Automotive History: Panhard – Back to the Future, by Paul Niedermeyer