Panhard – Notes From The Archives
August 10th, 2017 by James Chartres
Words by: Gary Horstkorta – July 2017
The word “special” was a popular term back in the 1950’s when an individual could create a car out of various bits a pieces on the cheap and go racing. Of course that period gave way to purpose built race cars of ever increasing sophistication and speed. However during the 1950’s there was one class of racing that exemplified the true spirit of amateur SCCA racing – H Modified.
H Mods came in all shapes and sizes with the exception of the engine which by rule was to be of 750cc displacement or less. Crosley, FIAT, BMW (motorcycle), SAAB, Bandini, OSCA and many other engines were used by car builders. However, one of the most popular was the French-built Panhard, an opposed two-cylinder, four stroke engine with front wheel drive. In stock 750cc form with a single carburetor, the engine developed thirty-eight horsepower giving these cars a respectable power to weight ratio.
Panhard is appropriately named after Rene Panhard who along with partner Emile Levassor established their automobile firm in 1887, producing their first car in 1890. A succession of cars followed with many unique features including the use of a clutch, front-mounted radiator, a modern transmission and one of the first to use a steering wheel. Oh yes, that Panhard Bar you might have on your race car, yes, invented by Panhard/Levassor in the early Twentieth Century.
Panhards were very successful race cars winning many events around the turn of the century and continued manufacturing cars and trucks into the 1950’s. They won the “Index of Performance” at Le Mans 1950-52 for small displacement cars and their innovative two-cylinder opposed engine was used by several other manufacturers including Deutsch – Bonnet. Panhard was eventually acquired by Renault and survives today specializing in military vehicles.
As Panhard production cars began arriving on the west coast they began to show up in race grids as early as 1954 when three different cars raced at Pebble Beach. A special built and drivne by Perry Peron of Southern California, a sports model driven by Francois Couzet and a stock sedan driven by dealer Glen St. Louis. Seeing the potential in the Panhard engine, two Southern California enthusiasts, Perry Peron (with help from Stan Bucklein) and Bill Devin decided to build their own specials. Each used the Dyna Junior sports car as the base for their chassis, engine and suspension components then added their own multi-tube upper structure all wrapped in a fiberglass body. Devin created a body from the DB Panhard LeMans while Peron used one designed by Murray Nichols.
Devin raced his car very successfully and built four more for customers before moving on expanding his business to a full range of fiberglass bodies for various cars. Peron also raced successfully his first creation then built three more customer cars which became known as the Nichols Specials.
In 1955 Orr purchased and raced a full schedule of events in a new car, a Devin Panhard. Orr had met Bill Devin at a previous race and struck up a friendship so when Devin introduced his first fiberglass bodied car, the Devin Panhard, Orr bought the second one produced. He would race this model in twenty-four events over the next three years in H Modified Class finishing third in national points in 1955 and first in 1956. He raced in Northern and Southern California and at the Bahamas Speed Week for three years in a row, 1955-57.
Perhaps the best known of all the Panhard specials was built by Jerry Fairchild, bodied by Nichols and raced by Dr. William Molle. Appropriately it was called the Fairchild Special which featured an 750cc, dual overhead cam, fuel injected engine which developed close to 80 horsepower. With this powerful engine in a light weight, good handling car with a top speed of 118 mph, it was usually near the top of the standings in the H Modified class wherever it raced. Molle raced to numerous wins, Pacific Coast Championships in 1958-59, a second in H Modified Regional Points in 1958 and won his class in MotoRacings Championships in 1959.
These cars eventually were supplanted by more modern and faster cars and slowly disappeared from the SCCA racing scene. However, many were found years later, restored and found a second life in vintage racing. The Aardvark, Nichols Special, Fairchild Special and several Devin Panhards can be seen at vintage racing events today.