(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…
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
What! More DS’s that aren’t GM? What a refreshing change here. And a big “thank you” for an informative and entertaining read.
The B pillar shut lines on the Dyna/ 17 make look as if the car is being pulled apart from each end.
+1 B-pillar. hehehe
+2 B-pillar, looks as if they might taken the approach the Cord 810/812 did for the doors: cross-cornered use of some tooling.
With frontal styling as goofy as it was, no surprise they would do the faux tiger interior, both are hilarious.
Thanks again, Tatra87, great history of an odd little French car I’ve occasionally encountered over the years.
The reason for the looks of the B-pillar is because all four doors was hanged from that post. The front doors opened forwards, suicide style. The rear doors opened rearwards, as most doors do. I guess they had to make some sort of intendation so that the outer skin of both doors wouldn’t touch when they were both open at the same time.
Wow. More unknown unknowns – that Dynavia is fascinating. And that tigerskin hilarious.
Is the Panhard X4 Flat-4 the same engine as used on the Panhard AML or was it another Panhard military vehicle?
I have seen Dyna Z/PL17 on the road because there was a French Garrison stationed in our town. (That garrison’s store was also a reliable and cheap supply of Goloises cigarettes to my brother). They always struck me as futuristic and I thought they’d be fast cars until I learned that they had small 2 cylinder boxers under the hood. Still, these bodies look futuristic even today. I also thought they used the Citroen 2CV engines, obviously I was wrong with that.
Very interesting. Certainly one of the most distinctive European cars of the ’50s — even having never seen one in the flesh, I couldn’t mistake the Dyna Z for anything else.
Panhards were sold in the US (now I know the marriage with Citroen likely brought that on), but I imagine sales were infinitesimal. Still, I did come across this 1958 ad from New York’s Citroen dealer:
In 50 years of car-spotting in the USA, I have seen a grand total of two Panhards (one Dyna Z and one PL17), and this was in the late 1960s. I have seen none since.
My dad’s cousin has owned a couple of Panhards for decades and bristles at the mention of Citroen.
I assumed that was just because they ended Panhard car production – I hadn’t realised the level of skullduggery until I read this. His father seamlessly transitioned from Panhard to Ami to GS.
I should have thought of this yesterday, with the Hotchkiss article but I should say something about the prevalence of aluminum in both yesterday’s article and today’s.
France was an early powerhouse of industrial aluminum production. Before 1886 aluminum was considered a precious metal, but American Charles Hall and Frenchman Paul Héroult independently discovered the cost effective process to reduce pure aluminum known today as the Hall-Héroult process.
So the technology and production of aluminum were a matter of French pride, which is likely one of the reasons it frequently found its way into cutting edge French cars like the Hotchkiss and Dyna.
When I started working in Aluminum Smelter equipment 20 years ago many of our competitors were French companies. Not so much these days, there were a rash of closures and mergers since the 2009 recession.
Thank you for elaborating on the historical use of aluminum. When I read this, my first thought was the sheer amount of shock at Ford using aluminum in their F-150 and now the heavier F-250, 350, etc. It wasn’t like it was anything new; maybe it’s a case of “it’s not been done here, so it’s never been done period.”
Scouring my brain, I know there were a few Panhard’s at the Lane this past summer at the CC Meet-up and this Dyna looks awfully familiar. As the engineering aspect of a car appeals to me quicker than does the shape, these are quite interesting cars.
“maybe it’s a case of “it’s not been done here, so it’s never been done period.””
Or just short memories, because the Marmon Sixteen used lots of aluminum, both in its engine and in its bodies. It was not, however, in any way a mass-market vehicle, so in that sense, you are likely correct.
It was done here, although, much earlier. Pierce Arrow used cast aluminum bodies extensively in the teens of the 20th century.
The earlier Land Rovers were all aluminium bodied steel framed. The low cost of smelted military aircraft no doubt contributed to that choice. The Rovers didn’t seem to resist rust any better than any other vehicle with a steel frame though. The body still looked the same as the frame disappeared…
The big Packard Straight-8 of the 1930’s used an aluminum head and cast aluminum crankcase. It was replaced by a monoblock cast-iron design that was I believe all-in-all lighter, cheaper to manufacture, and more compact. There was a lot of that in the 1930’s I believe as folks got better at making more sophisticated iron castings, and as the Depression wore on nice things like aluminum castings gave way to more economical iron.
Image from a Hemmings Article:
I took up a weird fascination with Panhard cars on my visit to the Lane Museum last summer. Thanks for this great re-telling of their story. Panhard under Citroen has some similarities to Studebaker-Packard under the management of Curtiss Wright in 1957-58, except that Citroen swallowed Panhard while C-W spit Studebaker Packard back out after it had sucked out most of the revenue-producing military business.
Between the shape of the body, the unit construction and the thickness of that B pillar, the car gives the impression of one of the most rigid structures ever made.
What a sad end to a great old French company. It is too bad the way that some countries postwar tax policies discouraged any reasonable sort of powerplant development in a car of this size. With a larger 4 cylinder engine, this could have developed a following in export markets.
At some point in 1967 (I forget which issue), Automobile Quarterly had a Panhard history titled “Panhard: Limelight to Twilight.” This was written when the end was in sight for Panhard passenger cars. Well worth seeking out.
Hemmings did an article and brief test drive a couple of years ago:
Needless to say, I’ve had a soft spot for these going way back. There’s just something about making the most with the least that speaks to me. And don’t get me started on the 24 coupe….
Thanks for this excellent write-up.
These Panhards PL17 were assembled in Uruguay with fiberglass bodies that were pretty similar to the aluminum or steel ones. Apparently they were quite fast and are remembered fondly there.
Looking forward to Part Three (which I am more familiar with)
So these were made in aluminum, steel, andfiberglass versions? I can’t think of any other car that was built with three different body materials.
Dad had a Z12 Tigre in light purple lila with tiger print upholstery in the late fifties – early sixties. Mom hated the darn thing, my kid brither was nearly born in it when dad rushed mom to the hospital. Later dad drove Mercedes, Peugeot, Rover, you name it.
Dad’s benchmark throughout his life was the Z12.
Simply coz nothing drove better, was more nervous, with the revving growlin never happy flat twin, it felt so much like an ‘automobile’ , the genious and avant garde idea of clustering all switches handles and leavers around the steering column in reach for the driver and the superb handling of the low positioned FWD flat twin.
And dad was right, years later I bought a BT24 simply a great little car, that needs your attention all the time when driving , nervous like a stallion, a delicate gearbox, but when it all works, man what a great drivers car, I mean an 850cc flat-twin that is capable of 100mph.
Ow, for the third nose of the Ds series, Citroën stole the inserted doorhandles, and the headlights behind one glass (for non US Spec models) from the 24 Bt series from Panhard.
Actually the whole shape of the third Ds series were ‘inspired’ on the Bt 24.
I understand that if you lugged the engine with its roller-bearing crank, you’d destroy the bearings instantly. Definitely not suited to the American car-as-appliance mindset.
Here’s a brief Youtube video of Panhard wipers in action:
I’d love to know what the linkage was like.
When I was living in Los Angeles (1977-81), I had some contact with the Citroen Club, even though I’ve never owned a CItroen. One of the their members told me that a few years prior, there had been a Panhard that was often seen parked on Laurel Canyon Blvd. and was known as the Laurel Canyon Panhard. One night it was swept away and smashed up in a flash flood. 🙁 It’s not like the cars were thick on the ground in the States.
The 24 had downward-pointing lights set into the bottoms of the doors to keep you from opening the door and stepping into a puddle. When I heard of this, I thought, “So cool and so obvious–what took so long to think of it, and why doesn’t every car have this?”
This is sounding a bit like the story of the English Ford accountants and the Mini. Ford UK was losing small car sales in the early 70s to the Mini because it was cheaper than competing Fords. The punchline is Ford purchased and disassembled a Mini, worked out the component costs and found out BL was losing a chunk of money on every car they sold.
Apparently Daimler / BSA under the Dockers at one point wanted to assemble the Panhard Dyna Z in the UK possibly under the Lanchester badge, only for the UK government to put a stop to it by preventing the import of ready made body panels.
Which led to them designing a completely new Lanchester that incorporated the best features of the Panhard Dyna Z, eventually evolving into the ill-fated Lanchester Sprite with both the project and the marque being dropped soon after the ouster of the Dockers.
Great article. Love these little cars but have only a limited understanding of them because I do not read French. Doesn’t stop me buying the books, however.
Thank you, TATRA87. And thanks to Staxman for the YouTube link, that’s a very amusing action
Thanks for your kind words, everybody!
If you can stand Jay Leno, I recommend watching his take on the PL 17 — easily the best video on Panhard available in English on Youtube…
40-some years ago,an eccentric friend had bought up 1/2 dozen dyna panhards in Coquitlam,BC,which might well have been the entire western world’s alotment. He only ever registered one of course, and moved the plates from one to another as needed…Fortunately,my nerves were pre-primed, thanks to yet another gent who had driven me through downtown Montreal rush hour traffic in a 2CV trucklet on 2 wheels [I can’t believe I’m still alive and nobody else died either….]Aftter that, riding shotgun in one of Tiny’s Panhards was a walk in the park.
Same engineer who killed Hotchkiss, where does this toxic individual surface next?
Tatra87: Really enjoying this series! A lot I did not know.
This wasn’t a technical DS. Panhard Dyna Z really was the future of the car. Unlike to GM, Panhard also was ahead of this time but they had got few money for their ambitions. The ingenuity of using the aluminum was from the need of using the Dyna X’s engine. Futhermore, GM usually suffered with its Bean-counters. On other hand, Panhard didn’t look at spending.
Another GREAT post! This is as good a piece of automotive journalism as I have ever seen, either online or in print. Thanx again, Tatra!
A Panhard PL17 raised a bit of a kerfuffle by winning the Monte Carlo Rally in 1961, not on its own merits, but based on a labyrinthian system of power-to-weight balancing. Needless to say, the rally committee changed its formula a bit for 1962.
Here’s one of the Lane Panhards.
Oops…I forgot to attach the picture.
That’s our Hotchkiss-Gregoire behind it! We have acquired a 1950 Panhard Dyna X85 since the CC visit last summer.
Also forgot a picture of the Dyna X85:
I saw this Panhard at a small car show last summer. A small show, that is, not a show for small cars. It has the look of a well-loved original car.
I wonder whether it’s the only one in Washington.
By any chance did you see it at the Italian car show in April in Issaquah, Washington? I’ve seen it there twice. The owner told me it had belonged to his grandfather, who’d had several Panhards.
Ca. 1991 I spoke to the owner of a Panhard, which I remember being a different color from this one, in Seattle. Washington license plate 055-DDY. No idea if it’s still around, or wearing the same plate.
I am the owner of this Panhard which was given to me by my father in 1989 not running (It had been in storage for 17 years). I got it running in 1989 and it is still a work in progress. My son Paul is the main driver of the car now. He uses it to lead several vintage car drives each year. There is another one located in Bothell, Wa.–similar color but driven very rarely. The 055-DDY was my old plate.
It had a very plasticky interior.
Saw one idling at a car show – the 2-cylinder engine sounded like a popcorn machine!
I’ve heard that the roller-bearing crankshaft of the air-cooled Panhards contributed to the engine’s efficiency, but if you lugged the engine even momentarily, you’d instantly destroy the bearings. Is this correct?