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2013 Will Be The Year We Expose The Truth About The Système Panhard

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I'm only about 120 years late to the party on this one, which really isn't too bad, since I wasn't alive for most of that time. Now that I am (more or less) alive, I don't have that excuse anymore, so I need to do what I can to right this wrong: the front-engine/rear-drive layout that is named after René Panhard should really be named after Amédée Bollée. This is important.

I'm sure by now at least half of you have flung your laptops at the wall in unrestrained rage. I'm just asking you to hear me out. I know the front engine/rear-drive layout pioneered by the firm Panhard et Lavassor in 1891 is a favorite of many of us. Hell, it was the dominant automotive architecture for decades, dominating until the mass-advent of FWD in the 80s. Even today, a front-mounted engine driving the rear wheels is still the preferred sports car layout. And it's been called the Système Panhard for over a century.


But it's time to change that. And this isn't change for the sake of change, it's about righting a wrong. It's about justice, and giving credit where credit is due. See, Panhard et Levassor were not the first ones to develop a car with the front engine/rear drive layout. I believe that honor should go to Amédee Bollée, way back in 1878.

Bollée's car was called La Mancelle (named after Le Mans) and was likely the first automobile to enter series production, with 50 built. This was Bollée's second car, after L'Obeissante which, while similar, did not quite employ a true front-engine transmitting power to a rear drive layout. La Mancelle did, having its three-cylinder steam engine up front, and power transmitted by shaft to the rear wheels. The car also had independent suspension (via leaf springs) and rack-and-pinion steering!


Yes, the boiler was still mounted at the rear, but in some ways one can argue that's closer to a gasoline car's fuel tank than strictly part of the engine. Still, in every way that matters, La Mancelle developed the template that all FR cars would follow for well over a century— from a 1902 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost to the Subaru BRZ someone just lied about their income to get today.

And yet for all this time, the credit for this wildly influential vehicle architecture has been given to Mssrs. Panhard and Lavassor. Sure P&L were extremely influential and pioneering auto makers, but the facts are the facts. If we're going to name the FR layout after the first to develop and produce it, Bollée's 1878 La Mancelle beats Panhard's 1891 offering by any kind of kooky math you want to try.

Maybe some people will try to defend the Panhard claim by saying that Bollée doesn't count because it's a steam car. To that, I'd cleverly and delicately retort that that's horseshit. The term refers to the layout, the general architecture of the car, not what sort of fuel is powering it. The type of engine just doesn't matter— a front engine-rear drive layout is just that no matter if that engine is steam, gasoline, electric, or a glowing orb of pulsing orgone energy. So there.


So, one of my personal new years' goals is to popularize the term "Système Bollée" to refer to front engine-rear drive cars, and to right an injustice that's been perpetrated for a century and a half.


And maybe if I do, the ghost of Amédée Bollée will finally stop making the walls bleed in my house.