Believed to be the oldest working car in Norfolk the 1898 Panhard et Levassor was first owned by the Right Hon. Charles Rolls and now belongs to the Norfolk Museum Service. This historic car is operated by “Team Panhard” who are made up of retired engineers and craftsmen who volunteer their skills to maintain this lovely old machine in its workshop at the Gressenhall Rural Life Museum.
Following a visit to Gressenhall for Apple Day 2006 and talking to some of the team I was invited to join them for a session in the workshop. Soon after that I was privileged to be invited back for driving instruction and a road test. I quickly learned that this 1898 Panhard looks more complicated than it actually is and most of its operating systems are simple and logical (it is regarded as the fore runner of the modern motor car). This article is to give some idea of what it is like to drive this historic motor vehicle.
As with all the team I have some experience of working on and operating older vehicles although nothing as old or unique as the Panhard. But having learned to drive on, and owning cars of the twenties and thirties, must make driving the Panhard easier than for some one who has only driven cars produced in the last forty years and what I say here should be looked at in that light.
I will begin by notes in sequence. Pushing the car from its workshop is very easy because of the large and thin tyred wood spoked wheels which at 60 to 80 pounds tyre pressure have little rolling resistance. Preparing to start the engine is quite straight forward. The petrol is carried in a large tank under the driver’s seat and a simple lever tap under the bodywork beneath the driver is turned on to allow the fuel to low through to the carburettor. On the dash are two sight glass pumps which deliver oil to the cylinders and crankshaft bearings. Surprisingly little is needed, just two strokes with your thumb for the cylinders and six for the crankshaft. The oil squirts into the cylinder bore half way up the stroke. The sight glasses are to ensure that sufficient oil is in the system to be hand pumped at intervals to the parts as the engine runs.
Ignition is by trembler coil which we believe was fitted after a magneto system which replaced the original hot tube mechanism. Early writing of the hot tube system and the dangers of operating blow lamp jets of flame in close proximity to raw and vaporising fuel suggests that the change was extremely sensible as well as making starting and running much easier.
A simple on-off switch connects the battery and the coils buzz when they come to life so you know the systems are ready to go. The spark is retarded for starting by moving downwards a small brass lever on the right hand side of the dash panel. The lever has a ratchet which holds it in place and is moved fully down to start and fully up when running. The engine boils very quickly if the setting is left in the down or retarded position.
Before starting it is easy to check that the car is out of gear by looking at the position of forward reverse lever. The gear levers are on the right of the driver and outboard of the car and each slides in a simple quadrant. The nearest moves from neutral to either forward or reverse. The other lever, which is just outside the first, moves through four speeds which operate whichever direction has been selected. The hand brake is outside that. These three levers make the vehicle look more complicated than it is although the handbrake does require considerable strength but as the only effective brake it is best mastered. The change speed lever moves forward and back but not sideways and has a tooth which clicks into a notch when the correct position is reached. This requires more physical effort than a modern car and despite the tooth and notch it can be frustrating finding the correct gear position when learning to drive. Of course there is no synchromesh.
Having checked that we are out of gear and the handbrake is on we move to the front of the Panhard to turn the starting handle. It doesn’t have a built in dog to disengage as the engine starts. In its place you push in a small metal plunger behind the starting handle to engage the crankshaft but it kicks out when the engine is turned and has to be re-engaged for each attempt.
With two and a quarter litres of engine the handle is heavy to turn and although advised to give a downward swing I find it easier to pull up against the compression. The engine usually starts instantly. In fact it starts more easily than most of the other cars I have owned with a starting handle except the o.h.c cars made by Singer which rarely presented any difficulty.
The four cylinder Daimler Phoenix engine picks up and runs without hesitation but sometimes surges (hunts) as if on a rich mixture which sounds disconcerting but is in fact the governor operating the throttle butterfly. Because of the heavy iron castings the engine has less mechanical clatter than the later push rod engines that many of us are used to and although has a camshaft and push rods for the exhaust valves the inlets are opened by suction (atmospheric pressure).
There is no accelerator but the engine is set to run at around nine hundred revs per minute, which is just above the tick over of a modern car. A small pedal in the modern accelerator position is set to keep the governor open and to hold it steady against the surging caused by its cutting in and out.
Once we have climbed back in and allowed the engine to warm up a little (not too long for it boils very quickly) and settle down then we can think of driving. This Panhard has a thick wood rim steering wheel which is surprisingly strongly mounted through a column rising almost vertically from the floor. It can support the weight of the driver. The handbrake, which is rather like the old railway signal levers, is to the right and behind the driver’s shoulder. Unlike the modern handbrake it moves backwards for off and forward for on and is the only practical means of stopping the car. Halfway along its movement the handbrake opens the leather faced cone clutch which disconnects the engine when the brake is applied and means gears can be selected with the brake on.
The clutch has little movement but requires enormous pressure. I would have said at least three times that of a modern car. When the hand brake has been released and moved fully back then the clutch pedal can be let out. It is very smooth and pleasant to operate. There is no accelerator but the fixed rev engine pulls powerfully to what feels like a high road speed but this a perception caused by sitting so high, so far above the bonnet and in the open. As the car moves forward so it becomes necessary to engage second gear by depressing clutch and sliding the lever forward to the next notch. This is a very smooth movement and needs to be done as soon after moving away as possible. There is a sensation of the vehicle taking charge because there is no accelerator to release to slow the car. The driver is torn between the joyous irresponsibility of driving a vehicle with no doors or protective bodywork and so few legal essentials such as windscreen, indicators and speedometer, and the horror of being solely responsible for an absolutely priceless and irreplaceable piece of history.
Third and fourth gears are selected and the speed quickly builds up to a little over thirty miles an hour. One is constantly looking as far ahead as possible and anticipating how the machine will be pulled up if a hazard presents itself. The “hazard” is of course the inevitable car parked half way into the road and that creates two problems. Firstly you must stop before running into it. More importantly you must allow time to pull in because if a vehicle does come the other way you simply cannot put your foot down and nip round or use the brake to stop. Every move must be very carefully planned and very gently carried out. To slow and stop you must reach behind and pull/push the handbrake with all your weight. Because of its position this is painful and difficult but eventually the Panhard rumbles to a halt with good grace but nothing like the stopping of a modern car. The footbrake which operates a band on the near side drive shaft but is continuously fed with oil from the engine and gear box as the car runs so rendering it a superfluous attachment except at very low speed!
There is one very limited mirror so you really do need a passenger to check and double check if things are clear behind before you move away after the stop.
It is essential to prepare carefully before attempting to slow to turn. The clutch is depressed which causes the vehicle to lose speed (unless going down hill), and the gear lever is moved back through the quadrant to second (this usually results in a great deal of resistance and unpleasant and embarrassing mechanical noises). After that and as the machine slows the clutch is depressed again and a hunt made for first gear. You then reach out to apply the handbrake while hanging grimly on to the steering wheel. To bring the car to a final halt the footbrake is applied in conjunction with the handbrake. Looking ahead and steering while applying the hand brake is a feat for a contortionist.
On the road the steering is light and sensitive with no free play but some wheel shimmy which has proved impossible to remove despite many attempts. Rebuilding and tightening the whole system has cut it to a minimum. Despite this the Panhard is an absolute joy to steer when on the road but needs strength to turn the wheel when manoeuvring at low speed and it is clear that some dumbbell exercises are required if one is to pursue this venture. In fact the only after effect of driving, apart from the sheer euphoria that results from being part of this wonderful historic motor car, was pain in my shoulders from the effort of manoeuvring at low speed and using the hand brake.
The Panhard wails with a tremendous whining noise when running which has caused some questions but is only the running of the straight cut gears and is not dissimilar to the sound of first and reverse on later cars and commercials.
There is no doubt that this particular century old motor car is in very close to it’s original condition and with the improved ignition is probably better than when new which makes it much easier to drive than you would expect such an old car to be. The steering has no free play and is very accurate with the vehicle naturally maintaining a straight line. Although reluctant to stop the car brakes in a straight line which is very much better than many older cars I have met. This is the result of the input and excellent work of Team Panhard.This one hundred and twelve years old Panhard Levassor is a unique motor car which is a glorious step back in time and as with all veteran vehicles a privilege and joy to drive.
Leader, Team Panhard