1959 Panhard PL17 vs. 1962 Citroen ID19 Confort

Gus Gregory & Drive-My

Citroen ID19 vs. Panhard PL17 both these French smoothies have je ne sais quoi by the chateau-load, but although the Citroen is lauded as futuristic, was the Panhard the real innovator? Space Racers. The Citroen ID19 and Panhard PL17 raced into the future while rivals clung to the past. Only one went on to enjoy worldwide acclaim, but was the shorter-lived underdog the real innovator all along? Words Andrew Roberts. Photography Gus Gregory.


For the classic car enthusiast suffering from the stresses of modern life, I can really recommend a turn at the wheel of a 1962 Citroen ID 19. Ensconced on the thickly upholstered front seat, I am cushioned from all the cares in the world. All that is needed to complete the illusion is a Françoise Hardy soundtrack as the Surrey countryside flashes by the slim-pillared windows.

However, gliding along in splendid isolation isn’t really an option with the Panhard, for this is a car determined to make me know how hard it’s working at all times. If you can imagine a nest of hyperactive wasps trapped inside a turbocharged spin dryer, then you’ll have an accurate impression of a PL17 in third gear. This sound, plus bodywork resembling an earth-bound flying saucer, causes many a pedestrian to mouth: ‘What the blazing Hades is it?’ Or words to that effect.

Our two test cars represent the difficult decision faced by the 1960-vintage French motorist who craved style, space and front-wheel drive at a reasonable price, and for whom the Renault Fregate was too nouveau riche, the Simca Ariane 4 too slow and the Peugeot 403 or 404 just too conventional. When Citroen took a 25 per cent stake in Panhard et Levassor in 1955 the PL17 and ID 19 would have been sold through the same dealerships. But after just one drive any motorist would soon realise that each has its own highly idiosyncratic appeal. Some 55 years later, this is still very much the case.

Understanding the intricate Citroen hierarchy is a process that often resembles being trapped in a Hitchcock film, one where various sinister characters relentlessly shout ‘DS’, ‘Safari’, ‘Pallas’ and ‘EFI’ at you until you beg for mercy. And so, to make matters slightly less confusing, Citroen launched the ID in late 1956 (a year after the DS) as a replacement for the 11CV Traction and a cheaper alternative to the original DS. The lack of hydraulic assistance for the clutch, gearbox and steering, together with more spartan trim, led to a saving of FF40,000. As such the ID appealed hugely to taxi operators. Our test car is the Confort version with a clock, rear hot air ducts, windscreen washers and DS-style seating as standard. Fleet operators may have been offered the Normale (paint in every shade of black and sans passenger sun visor, ashtrays or heater) or the marginally more luxurious Luxe, but our ID19’s interior is almost as comfortable as that of an equivalent DS.

But regardless of trim, any big Citroen of this period looks like a basking shark in repose, a car that sets out its stall from the outset. Unlike a Wolseley 6/110 or Flumber Hawk of this era, the driver does not so much sit upright at the wheel, retired Major fashion, as actually sink into the seat. Once acclimatised to this strange sensation (and used to a front ashtray placed seemingly deliberately to catch my right knee) the Citroen proves exceptionally comfortable. And besides, the view down the bonnet is equally inspiring on Confort, Normale and DS Prestige alike; it is very hard to believe that it was aimed at the French middle classes and not the jet set.

On firing up, it is quite evident that moving away before the suspension has risen is not a good plan; the hydraulic system works very much on its own terms. The 1.9-litre engine may be slightly less powerful than the standard DS unit (66bhp plays 75bhp) but it does not impede progress; in fact the weight saving on the ID’s less elaborate hydraulics actually results in superior acceleration.

‘Cornering at speed demonstrates the steering’s strong self-centring action, but it feels more precise than the DS’s assisted system’

This ID’s steering is unassisted (PAS wouldn’t become an option until late 1962) but although I certainly feel the Citroen’s sheer size when driving through town, twirling the vast wheel never demands the all-in-wrestling skills necessary for piloting a similarly unassisted British six-cylinder rival of the period. The ID has a conventional brake pedal in place of the familiar DS rubber brake ‘mushroom’, but the merest application of my size 12 Chelsea boot still causes it to virtually stand on its elegantly pointed nose.

Cornering at speed demonstrates the steering’s strong self-centring action but it lightens noticeably on A-roads; in fact it feels slightly more precise than the DS’s assisted system. All the while my progress is accompanied by the suspension moans and groans to which all ID and DS owners soon become acclimatised.

That the Citroen is designed for relaxed travel is made explicit by its four-speed manual gearbox. It’s extremely enjoyable to operate, but only once you’ve remembered that all shifts from second into the non-synchromesh first should only ever be made when stationary. Going up the box is swift and easy though, and well-chosen ratios allow the ID to waft reasonably rapidly to 70mph, a speed at which it seems happy to remain all day long.

The higher end of the DS range has inevitably received a great deal of attention from the classic car press over the decades but it is the ID that the average French motorist is most likely to have encountered during the model’s heyday. In fact the ID 19 is a vivid demonstration of how a lower price does not necessarily have to result in reduced driving pleasure; indeed, this 52-year-old’s venerable four-cylinder engine seems so much more refined than the six-cylinder motor in my own Vanden Plas 4 Litre R.

It is easy to believe that the DS was still seen as being ahead of its time when the CX finally replaced it in 1975. To quote a 1961 issue of The Motor, it really is a car made for ‘going far and fast, with the minimum of disturbance to body and mind’.


 

X HITS THE SPOT

By contrast, the Panhard seems not so much ahead of its era as possibly from another dimension. The marque was associated with cars for the grande bourgeois before World War Two, but the impact of Le Plan Pons (which limited vital supplies to manufacturers of small and medium-sized cars) caused the company to radically alter its design philosophies in the late Forties.

Panhard’s first new post-war car was the 1947 Dyna X. This light alloy front-wheel-drive saloon was fitted with independent suspension and a new air-cooled, horizontally opposed, twin-cylinder engine designed by the great Louis Delagarde. Delagarde believed that the opposing forces gave the flat-twin motor an innate balance and he also employed roller bearings for the crankshaft and big ends. To remove the possibility of blown head gaskets the head and cylinder were cast in one piece.

Seven years later the X was superseded by the Z powered by the previous model’s 851cc engine (first

introduced in 1952) and a new aerodynamic body designed by Louis Bionier. Many readers will be familiar with Roland Barthes’ descriptions of the Citroen DS in his book Mythologies, but in 1954 Panhard introduced the world to a design of arguably equal impact; in short, the Dyna Z looked different from any other car on the road. At a time of upright and ornate radiator grilles, the Z had a sleek front and its body was even tested in a wind tunnel, where Panhard claimed a drag coefficient of just 0.26. The Z was also the first production car to have an all-aluminium chassis, some 35 years before the similarly- endowed Ferrari 360.

Such a car inevitably proved extremely expensive for a small firm to produce, so the 1955 agreement with Citroen afforded Panhard some financial relief while the latter gained additional production capacity and dealership outlets. Within two years the Panhard’s body was steel rather than alloy and in June 1959 the Z was facelifted as the PL17. The headlamps were placed further apart to give a greater illusion of width and the boot enlarged. There were also two trim levels plus the high-performance Tigre version, which Maurice Martin famously drove to overall victory in the 1961 Monte Carlo Rally.

The PL17 survived until 1965, by which point Citroen had complete control over Panhard. Production ended two years later. UK imports began in 1959 but inevitably proved too unconventional for Macmillan-era motorists who could buy a reassuringly respectable Farina-styled MG Magnette for much the same price.

Period photographs rarely convey how substantial the PL17 is in the metal or how elegant its profile is. It’s a fairly narrow car – the brochure’s claim that there is ‘space for six’ seems a little disingenuous – but longer than a PA Series Vauxhall Cresta.

Opening the entire front section allows total access to the steering, front suspension and truly diminutive power plant but the PL17 really sold on its promise of an 80mph top speed allied to 40mpg – both achieved through the coachwork’s aerodynamic qualities and the inherent skills demonstrated by Delagarde’s engine design.

The Citroen may be an ideal boulevard cruiser, but the Panhard’s low centre of gravity, light weight and precise steering make it one of the most entertaining four-door saloons of its day. It suits 70mph motoring because most of its verve seems reserved for the top end of its power band. The bare figures may suggest that the Panhard’s acceleration is inferior to the Citroen’s but in reality it feels at least three times as rapid. The Tigre may have been the cognoscenti’s car of choice, but even this standard model’s two-cylinder plant feels ready for take-off.

The steering is firm but the simple suspension gives a ride quality not far removed from the ID’s far more elaborate set up and elicits only slight (and wholly predictable) understeer on sharp bends. Gung-ho cornering produces comparatively little body roll, with the main challenge coming from the seats. The split front bench is upholstered in a washable plastic which offers zero lateral support and is cursed with a Heath Robinson adjustment mechanism that allows it to easily come off of its runners. Still, if the thought of drum brakes conjures up images of frantically pressing the pedal as a Give Way sign looms ever larger in the windscreen, then the PL17’s finned units turn out to be an object lesson in efficiency.

A comparative lack of comfort (and the sheer amount of noise it generates) means that the Panhard is less suited to long-distance cruising than the Citroen. The ID feels substantial in every detail, but the PL17’s suicide front doors close with a resounding clang and its cabin favours brash plastic trim where the ID exudes an air of comfort. There is also an idiosyncratic approach to ergonomics; the brochure states that the wiper and light switches are ‘just a finger-tip away’ but neglects to mention that this involves reaching down through the steering wheel.

A Citroen dealer in 1960 may have presented motorists with a choice of two large front-wheel drive saloons but their respective personae were totally different. Where the ID19 would waft you along I’Autoroute du Nord to your next business appointment, the PL17 was better suited to the economy-minded press-on motorist. The differences between the two are wide in terms of refinement and speed, but each has its own very unique merits and neither believes in convention for its own sake.

If my choice is for the Panhard PL17, this is purely down to its exquisite coachwork and an engine so far ahead of its time that in 1959 Citroen actually considered using it to power the much bigger ID 19.

What a car that might have been.


 

Tech and photos


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1962 CITROEN ID19

Engine 1911cc inline four-cylinder, ohv, 33mm Solex downdraught carburetor

Power and torque 75bhp @ 4500rpm; 101lb ft @ 3000rpm / DIN

Transmission Four-speed manual, front-wheel drive

Suspension Front: independent semi wishbone with anti-roll bar and oleo-pneumatic strut per wheel, Rear: trailing arms with anti-roll bar and oleo-pneumatic strut per wheel

Brakes Front: discs, Rear: drums

Steering Rack and pinion

Length 4800mm

Height 1470mm

Width 1790mm

Weight 1120kg

Performance Top speed: 88mph: 0-60mph: 22.1sec:

Economy: 24.2mpg

Years made 1956-1970

Cost new (1956) £1726

Current value £7500-15,000

{module Citroen DS}


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1959 PANHARD PL17

Engine 851cc flat twin with single Zenith 36 carburettor

Power and torque 42bhp @ 4500rpm; 50.61lb ft @ 2500rpm

Transmission Four-speed manual, front-wheel drive

Suspension Front: independent upper and lower transverse leaf springs, De Carbon telescopic dampers: Rear: rigid axle, single trailing arm, De Carbon telescopic dampers

Brakes Drums all round

Steering Rack and pinion

Length 4585mm

Width 1651mm

Weight 805kg

Performance Top speed: 82 mph; 0-60mph: 22.3sec;

 Economy 45mpg

Years made 1959-1965

Cost new (1959) £909

Current value £5500-15,000


1959 Panhard PL17 vs. 1962 Citroen ID19

1959 Panhard PL17 vs. 1962 Citroen ID19 road test. Early ‘bug eve’ Citroen ID looks more conventionally handsome than the Panhard PL17 arid less ’obviously a product of the Fifties. 


1959 Panhard PL17
1959 Panhard PL17 road test. Long-distance cruising isn’t the Panhard’s forte; it’s much happier on twisty B-roads.


1959 Panhard PL17 road test
1959 Panhard PL17 road test. Wind tunnel testing reduced Panhard’s drag coefficient to a remarkable claimed 0.26. Air-cooled flat proved potent enough to win the ‘1961 Monte-Carlo rally.  Slippery split front bench seat can land the driver in the passenger s lap during hard cornering. Exquisite Art Deco detailing isn’t matched by imperfect ergonomics.


1962 Citroen ID19 road test
1962 Citroen ID19 road test. Even on the ID model, mechanical spec Is as advanced as the Bertoni styling. Citroen is happiest cruising at the UK limit, but has near-90mph potential. ID is a revelation in the corners, where its simpler steering and brakes offer more feedback than the DS.


1962 Citroen ID19 road test
1962 Citroen ID19 road test. Oft-maligned Traction Avant- derived four cylinder engine is smoother than legend suggests. Huge single-spoke wheel hints at heavy steering; in fact, ID’s unassisted helm is surprisingly wieldy.


 

MEET THE OWNER: CITROEN ID19

Paul Chapman bought his first classic Citroen when he was 17 and over the years has owned six DSs. He first encountered this 1962 ID when his music professor bought it in 1991, ‘He asked me to look after it and I bought it in 2007 when he passed away.’ Some 23 years on, Paul is still smitten, ‘It still turns heads,’ he enthuses.

One challenge relates less to the car’s age and more to its design, ‘The engine is simple to work on, but so it should be – it just doesn’t match the sophistication of the chassis.’ Another concerns the suspension. I’ve had to replace the height correctors and spheres. The original LHS fluid is very corrosive, so I’ve experimented with rapeseed oil.’ His verdict? ‘After driving it. almost every other car feels like an anti-climax.’


MEET THE OWNER: PANHARD PL17

In 1990 Richard Vick bought a 1963 PL17 L6. He says,’ I drove it regularly for several years. I’m sure I was the only commuter in the South East using a Panhard.’ Richard is now President and Secretary of the Panhard et Levassor Club GB and his 1959 car shares garage space with a Slough-built Citroen Big Fifteen and a 1968 Ami 6. ‘It is quite capable of travelling at 70 or 80mph despite that tiny engine.’

Club expert John Passmore adds, They’re very complicated in their simplicity, but the fact that they can cope with modem traffic shows how advanced they were.’ But there are issues, The engine and gearbox are mounted such that you have to remove the exhaust before you can remove the engine. The supply of body parts has dried up so GRP panels are not uncommon.’


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