As motoring got into its stride in France in the latter part of the 1890s, it was realized that there was a need to fill the gap between the larger, powerful, expensive motor cars and motor tricycles. The great firm of Panhard-Levassor joined the throng with a light car. Panhard-Levassor could not produce enough of these cars to satisfy demand and so licensed the manufacture of their Voiture Légère to one of their directors, Adolphe Clément, resulting in the Clément-Panhard pictured here.

Its layout is distinctive, with a tubular chassis frame having an inclined single-cylinder engine of 4 horsepower mounted at the back, the cylinder head to the rear. Drive is through an open, constant-mesh gear train, with transmission to the rear wheels by side chains. The center-pivot steering controlled by a wheel is a somewhat idiosyncratic feature, but it works well enough in practice, as does the transmission brake augmented by a hand brake working on solid tires.

Full-scale production of the Clément-Panhard commenced in 1899 with car number 101, and continued until 1902 when the planned production of some 500 cars had been achieved. This car, carrying one of the lowest car numbers of any surviving Clément-Panhard, appears to date from the first year of production.

Copies of the extensive personal file collated over this car's life go with it, and confirm its history and origins. Chassis number 141 was sold new in France to a nobleman, and then came into the possession of a Colonel Thornhill of Drogheda, Ireland. By the very early 1900s the Clément had been registered as "IY 45," the first car in Drogheda, and was owned by Dr. J. Parr. It has remained within the Parr family and descendents ever since.

The car was sympathetically restored in the mid-1950s, and completed the London-to-Brighton Run in 1956. Since then, it has been regularly turned over, topped up with oil and occasionally run.

The voiturette's condition has mellowed with age, and there is no disguising its patinated presentation. Cosmetically, it would benefit from repainting the fenders, and other details, but is intact. Beneath the seating area is a purpose-built tray containing all of the necessary spares one requires for a run.
It has been observed that the car has a slight list to port, but careful examination of archive photos suggests this is not a new affliction, and would not necessarily require attention. Mechanically, the engine is free, and gears appear to operate. Nonetheless, the car should be fully recommissioned to put it back into running order.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1899 Clement-Panhard Voiture Legere Type VCP
Years Produced:1898-1902
Number Produced:Approx. 500
Original List Price:$879
Tune Up Cost:$400
Distributor Caps:N/A
Chassis Number Location:Cast plate, left rear chassis rail
Engine Number Location:On the side of crankcase
Club Info:Veteran Motor Car Club of America, 2030 Calvary Rd., BelAir, MD 21015-6413
Alternatives:Armand Peugeot, Buckboard pulled by two Friesians
Investment Grade:A

This car sold for $77,480, including buyer’s premium, at Christie’s December 4, 2002, London auction.

Two young men, Rene Panhard and Emile Lavassor, met in the prestigious Industrial Engineering School (Ecole Central des Arts et Manufacture) in Paris in the mid 1800s and parlayed their education and friendship to form, in 1873, a company appropriately called Panhard-Levassor. The original intention was to produce under license the four-stroke internal combustion engine developed and patented a year earlier by Gottlieb Daimler with help from Wilhelm Maybach (yes, that Maybach).

The engine displaced 921 cc and developed 1½ horsepower. The first client, in 1890, was one Armand Peugeot, who bought two engines and built two cars. Shortly afterwards the partners decided to build their own car and by March of the same year had a successful test drive of 20 kilometers in Paris. By 1896 the company was producing more than 100 cars per year, their flagship having a four-cylinder, 5,313-cc engine.

P&L was at the forefront of automotive technology, pioneering such things as the radiator (instead of a water tank), tilting the steering column from vertical to the angle it has today, and introducing the coil and battery as replacements for hot tube ignition. (The company still exists today as a manufacturer of armored vehicles.)

By 1898 P&L was producing several hundred cars annually. Always sharp in spotting trends, they introduced a smaller, lighter and cheaper car named the Voiture Légère Type VCP in 1899. Lacking space to manufacture it in its suburban Paris factory, the production was licensed to Adolphe Clement, a board member and a well-established manufacturer of bicycles.

Which brings us to the car sold by Christie’s in London last December. I was fortunate enough to be present and examined it closely. Two things are striking about it: by looking at it you realize right away why the car was called a “horseless carriage,” because that is exactly what it is. And the originality, including the continuous and documented chain of one-family ownership since 1902, is incredible. There is noble and delightful patina (no, the paint is not original-it’s only about 50 years old), and after some minor work the car appears as if it would be ready for any event open to Veteran cars. Estimates of the number of authentic, complete, non-bitsa, pre-1904 cars vary wildly, so finding an exact comparable, and value, for this car is difficult. But if your heart yearns for London-to-Brighton and such, you would be hard-pressed to find a better-documented Veteran car at nearly any price. May the new owner enjoy it to the max.-Raymond Milo

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