Automotive History: French Deadly Sins (First Batch) – 1954-65 Panhard Dyna Z / PL 17: Faustian Bargain


(first posted 12/21/2016, revised, augmented and re-illustrated 12/21/2022) Welcome to the second post in this first edition of the French Deadly Sins series (see Part 1 here). Today, we shall focus on a DS that spanned the ’50s and ’60s, the Panhard Dyna Z (1954-59) and its related successor, the Panhard PL 17 (1960-65). True to the spirit of the Deadly Sins, these cars may have sold well, but they still led their maker to oblivion…

1899 advert


The Panhard & Levassor company was France’s oldest automaker, having built their first petrol-engined car (with a Daimler engine) in 1890. By 1892, Levassor had opted to move the engine to the front of the vehicle, replaced the tiller with a steering wheel in 1894 and created the gearbox in 1895 — some rather fundamental innovations for the fledgling automobile concept. Over the years, Panhard diversified production to include trucks, coaches, railbuses and, from the First World War on, a very successful line of military vehicles.

Paris Motor Show, October 1929


In the 1910s, the hot new thing was the US-patented Knight sleeve-valve engine, which many carmakers adopted, especially in Europe. Peugeot, Mercedes, Daimler, Voisin and Minerva were licensees. Panhard joined the fray in 1911, timidly at first. By 1923, the whole range used sleeve-valves, from the modest 1.4 litre 4-cyl. to the massive 6,3 litre straight-8.

Above: 1934 2.5 litre CS short wheelbase coupé; below: 1935 4.8 litre DS Spécial limousine

Panhard moved towards higher-end productions as the ’30s arrived, ditching the 4-cyl. cars after 1931. By this time, Louis Bionier had started styling the cars, which were increasingly bodied by the factory. In the early ’30s, Panhards became distinctively beautiful and had plenty of sales, despite the economic headwinds. But then, Bionier overplayed his hand.

The dramatic Dynamic six-seater, with its central steering and baroque detailing, proved a hard sell…

The last pre-war Panhard, the 1936-40 Dynamic, sold poorly but introduced all-steel unit body construction to the French luxury car market, among many interesting technical features. Even as the Second World War started, the family-owned firm wisely decided its future lay in small cars.

The big sleeve-valve 6-cyl. era was over. During the German occupation, Panhard developed a plan than married a prtotoype 2.3 litre 4-cyl. used in military verhicles and a Hotchkiss body, suitably modified by the in-house styling team. But nothing came of this plan, and Panhard found themselves without any concrete idea as the war came to an end.

The 2nd Aluminium Français-Grégoire (AFG) prototype built in 1945 by Simca, who really preferred making Fiats.


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).

The 1946 Panhard Dyna X still had a lot of AFG DNA, IMHO


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 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).

By 1951, Bionier had put so much bling on the little Dyna that the French press were calling it “Louis XV.”


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. Body variants also followed in due course — first a wagon (below) and, to add a touch of glamour, a four-seater cabriolet.

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 1948 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 June 1953, the new Dyna Z was ready for its launch. 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 a much larger 11CV Citroën or Renault Frégate.

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.

1958 advert


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, such as the cabriolet seen above, but the car was now five years old and sales were flagging.

1957 US advert, starring the DS and a bit-player part for “the Panhard…”


Citroën furthered its dominance on the Panhard Board by increasing its ownership to 45% of Panhard stock. The double-chevron 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 old marque’s car line.

1960 US and French brochure excerpts

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.

The tarting-up of the old Dyna was obvious, but the heavy eyeliner treatment worked well for the time. Not Bionier’s finest work, but then the PL 17 was never seen by its maker as anything but a facelift. A completely new body was out of the question.

The PL 17 inherited the Dyna Z’s body variants, such as the desirable cabriolet. In 1961, the front doors finally lost their suicidal tendencies…

But there was still some life left in the Dyna platform. Panhard’s truck side withered away to irrelevance by the time the PL 17 came around. The final remnant of this once-crucial component of the company was the car-derived F65 pick-up and van, which Panhard made between 1959 and 1964.

Even as the platform was in its tenth year, Panhard kept developing new versions — they were sort of stuck with it, so they just made do with what they had and launched the PL 17 wagon.

The interior is probably the bit of the car that changed the least over the years, though late cars like the one above, from MY 1963 on, did get a bit of a refresh. And the faux tiger skin was also given the boot, thankfully.

1963 Dutch brochure


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.

Panhard’s 1964 range: the old saloon was now just the “17.”


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.

It is worth noting that Panhard is still alive as a military vehicle manufacturer, now owned by the Volvo Group. The EBR above was quite a machine, for instance: 4×4 for road use or 8×8 for rough terrain, four-wheel steering, hydropneumatic suspension (and not the Citroën one, by the way) and powered by a 6-litre 200hp air-cooled flat-12 — essentially six Panhard flat-twins put together. They thought outside the box. even when in camo.

Panhard sinned by excessive ambition and naivety when introducing the Dyna Z. Though they did manage to sell 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.


Tune in tomorrow for the third and final installment of this batch of French Deadly Sins series: the Citroën GS Birotor!


Related CC posts:

Cohort Classic: Panhard Dyna Z – The Lowest Priced Six Passenger Car In France, by Perry Shoar

Automotive History: Panhard – Back to the Future, by Paul Niedermeyer

Car Show Classics: Dutch Panhard Automobile Club, Ready For Their 2016 Spring Day Trip, by Johannes Dutch

Car Show Classic(s): 1966 Panhard 24 B (and CT) – Be Still, My Beating Twin, by T87