While crawling through city traffic on a rather dreadful and sun-less weekday morning, something caught my eye. Something grey, small and slippery. Something highly unusual. What on earth is that?
From that distance, my first guess was an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Speciale. Quite the rare bird! And sharing the street with all the other commuters, what a nice treat to lighten up one’s day!
But when I come closer, I wasn’t so sure anymore that I was really looking at an Alfa. The taillights were different from the ones on the SS’s, as was the rear window. Maybe an obscure spin-off of the Alfa, done by some Italian coachbuilder? Zagato, maybe, as there was a hint of „double-bubble“ in the roofline?
Or maybe something completely different … up close, I finally could read the sign on the trunk. And oh yes, it was something completely different indeed: a Panhard!
And if seeing any Panhard in traffic would not in itself be close to a miracle, it was probably the rarest Panhard of them all: the high-tech, race-bred Panhard CD. One of only 179 that were built between 1962 and 1965. As I wasn’t able to catch a picture from the front, here is one I found on the Internet (judging from the vintage Dutch numberplate, the very same car):
The Panhard CD apparently was conceived not as a Panhard, but a child of a company called DB, a cooperation of French engineers Charles Deutsch (hence the “D”) and René Bonnet (thus the “B”). Situated close to Paris, DB had been making racing cars in a very low volume, starting in the mid 1930’s. After WW II, DB began to also offer sports cars intended for road use, whiles still pursuing their racing activities.
While at the beginning, DB cars seemed to employ components from various manufacturers, it was Panhard sourced parts they became to rely on more heavily as the 1950’s progressed. The flat-twin Panhard engines of the day were very amenable to tuning measures and their low and compact design apparently was a good fit to DB’s philosophy focusing on aerodynamics rather than on brute strength. The outcome looked like this beautiful 1959 DB HRB5 (somebody complain about the numeric potpourri found on the trunklid of today’s cars!), whose picture I found on the Internet.
As the cooperation with Panhard deepened, Deutsch and Bonnet’s internal conflicts on the direction of their engineering apparently deepened as well – Deutsch wanted to keep up the relation with Panhard and thus the „traction avant“ guise of the cars, while Bonnet wanted to move on to build rear engined cars with more power, something Panhard couldn’t really provide. In the early 1960’s, this let to the two splitting up and closing down DB. Monsieur Bonnet went on to found his own company aptly named „René Bonnet“, creating the Djet, which used Renault-sourced parts in a mid-engine configuration.
In 1964 already, the company René Bonnet was in financial turmoil and bought out by French aerospace and defense manufacturer Matra. Soon, they went on using the Matra moniker on their cars, giving the world the strangely beautiful and clever Matra 530 (curiously named after an air-to-air missile built by Matra) as a follow-up to the Djet and not very much later ending up along with Simca in the big pile of trouble that was Chrysler Europe.
But back to the end of the company that was called DB: when splitting up, Charles Deutsch decided not only to keep its ties with Panhard, but to join them altogether. Along with him, he took a car almost ready for production, which was to carry his own name: the CD (as in Charles Deutsch, obviously – not the most humble of personalities, these guys appear to have been …).
The CD is a highly unusual and very French concoction: the body is made from fiberglass, resulting in a feather-light curb weight of only 620kg (1350lbs). It is powered by Panhard’s “Tigre” motor, a high-revving flat-twin with a capacity of only 851ccm, putting out 60hp, which propelled the CD to a – for the time – very respectable 180km/h (110mph) and even more in racing guise. If the numbers in Panhard’s brochure below are to be believed, it sports a drag coefficient of 0,13 CD („cx“ in French – which is, yes, the reason and source of another very clever French car’s name, but that story needs to be told another time), which appears almost too good to be true, as today’s cars like the Mercedes CLA proud themselves to have a supposedly extremely low drag coefficient of 0,22 cw.
(Editor’s note: Other sources cite a CD of o.22 for the Panhard CD, but do cite a CD of 0.13 for the 1964 DB LeMans prototype (blue car), which could hit 140 mph on the Mulsanne Straight with supercharged version of the 848 cc flat twin. The 0.13 CD cited in the brochure for the CD coupe is not credible. Maybe they got their numbers mixed up)
Overall, a most unusual car, for sure. And most beautiful, indeed. So it’s only doing it justice the marketing guys at Panhard did quote Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey in their brochure:
„La beauté ne se discute pas. Elle règne de droit divin. Elle fait prince quiconque la possède.”
Or, for those with a lesser French (like me):
“Beauty cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.”
Quite to the point, I think.