I’ve been smitten by old air-cooled Panhards for a long time. They’re deeply, clinically French, but not exactly French in the way Citroën is French, where peculiar engineering is worn outwardly and defiantly. No, Panhard—while they certainly have their share of unusual engineering—is French in the more elegant, artful, charismatic way, like an old Voisin or Delahaye or something, just on a smaller, more attainable scale. They’re kind of magical. And, like magic, the one I drove isn’t necessarily something you should believe in, at least as far as its ability to get you back home.
The 1954 Panhard Dyna Z that the Lane Museum let me drive is a great example of what made mid-century Panhard great. Mechanically, it’s not all that different than a Citroën 2CV, in the sense that it’s a FWD car using an air-cooled flat-twin engine.
The difference is that Panhard managed to get 50 horsepower from their 850cc twin, while the far more agricultural 2CV only managed 14 horses in 1954. Sure, the 2CV’s engine was about half the size of the Panhard, but even if we double that to 28 horses, it’s still just barely over half of what Panhard was squeezing from their engine.
Plus, the Panhard’s far more sleek and aerodynamic body was all aluminum, making the car remarkably light, which helped give it surprisingly good performance.
Sadly, costs of aluminum forced the switch to steel in 1957, which meant a severe blow to performance. There’s a story—it may be apocryphal—that when accounting for the cost of aluminum, Panhard somehow only calculated the amount of aluminum in the stamped body panels themselves, and didn’t account for the amount lost when stamping out of a rectangular sheet, and this mismanagement cost them dearly.
Maybe that’s not true, but it’s an interesting story, and really makes you appreciate the early aluminum cars.
Oh, I mention the unusual taillight setup in the video, so I may as well show that here in a bit more detail:
This is a really odd way to handle the taillight duties, all distributed around the rear of the car like this, but I like it. The indicators are in pretty noticeable spots, especially from oblique angles, and the other lights, while kind of confusing, seem to do the job. It’s a novel setup I’ve rarely seen on anything else.
As you can see in the video, driving this little Panhard was, um, well, challenging. The car had been sitting for a long, long time, and while the Lane’s very capable crew were able to get it running, it never really wanted to run, at least not much.
It would idle for a bit, then decide that, no, idling is for chumps, and promptly die. Getting it started again was like waking an old drunk— loud, slow, and full of swearing.
Plus, the transmission was a bit wonky, aside from being a tricky four-on-the-tree setup, with first being evasive at best. It was actually easier to see how to get into first from the passenger’s seat, but my non-elasticated neck prevented me from making use of this fact while driving.
So, yeah, it stranded me, right around the corner from The Lane. Happily, the fitness-interested camera crew and I were able to get it pushed back, where I could coast and steer it to safety, but in the Tennessee heat, that was no picnic.
Even with the Panhard barely running, though, I could feel that this was once something special; maybe one day when it’s been tended to a bit more I can try again, but even so, I’m still happy to have had a chance behind the wheel of this classy old lady.
Too bad it wasn’t as happy to have me there, though.