Across London in an 1897 Panhard et Levassor Veteran car

The 1897 Panhard et Levassor [Photo: Matthew Lange]

Ever wondered what it was like to ride a car from the Edwardian era? We got to find out in the heart of modern central London.

There's a reasonable argument that the internal combustion-powered automobile is at its evolutionary peak. Cars such as the McLaren P1 and Ferrari LaFerrari have performance capabilities far beyond what can be used (legally) on the road, and future emissions laws will mean that car manufacturers will be forced to look for alternatives to the internal combustion engine.

Considering the car has only been around for about 130 years, this has been a very fast evolution, but what were cars like at the beginning of that journey?  Drive Cult was recently given the opportunity to find out when we were given a short ride across London in an 1897 Panhard et Levassor, in advance of the car entering the 2014 edition of the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.

In car evolution terms, the Panhard et Levassor is at about the same point as in the evolution of life when animals first began to leave the water and venture onto the land. The company was established in 1887, only two years after the first Benz Motorwagen was completed, and produced its first car in 1890 using a license-built Daimler engine. In 1891 they began to produce their own engines, and by 1895 their cars were beginning to gain some of the accoutrements that we take for granted in a car of today. Steering wheels replaced tiller steering - considered a safety upgrade, due to the possibility of being impaled on the tiller in the event of an accident! - and multi-speed transmissions using a clutch to change gear were introduced. They were also beginning to take the typical form of a car, too, with the engine at the front and the passenger compartment behind. However, chassis design was still very much inspired by horse-drawn carriages, with tall thin wheels being the standard.

This particular car features all of those items. The two front passengers sit in what are effectively large armchairs, and in the back there's room for two occupants or luggage on side-facing bench seats. Power is provided by a 2-cylinder engine producing 6bhp, transmitting its power to the rear wheels via a chain drive.

The day before the Veteran Car run, many of the cars entered are displayed at the Regent Street Motor show in central London. The normally busy road is closed off and the veteran cars are lined up along the street, along with some other classic and modern cars, so the crowds can get really close to them.

At the show I met up with Mathieu Planchon and friend of Drive Cult Frédéric Brun, both of whom would be driving the car on the run. Frédéric showed me around the car and as the event was drawing to a close asked me if I would like a ride in the car as they needed to take it back to their hotel in Hammersmith. As I doubt I will ever get to ride in a 117-year old car again, I was never going to say no!

I climbed into the back whilst Mathieu took the wheel and Frédéric cranked the engine with the starting handle. The engine caught quite easily and settled into a lumpy idle that made the whole car shake. Frédéric climbed aboard and once Mathieu had convinced the sliding gear transmission to find a gear, we were off.

Driving a classic Ferrari means I’m quite often the centre of attention whether I want it or not, but sitting in the Panhard et Levassor as we made our way past the crowds on Regent Street took this to a whole new level. Hundreds of cameras seemed to be pointed in our direction and everyone seemed to be cheering and waving as we crept down the street. Frédéric and Mathieu were appropriately dressed for the car in fine three-piece tweed suits and Frédéric was spotting a neat set of Chapal driving goggles. I, on the other hand, felt a little out of place in an old leather jacket, t-shirt and jeans! You can see our trip down Regent Street in the video (shot on my iPhone) below.

Turning out of Regent Street, we headed down the appropriately-named Conduit Street into Berkeley Square and the heart of supercar-loving Mayfair. Ferrari F12s and Lamborghini Aventadors might have been parked on the streets here, but no-one was giving them a second look as what was now a small convoy of veteran cars made their way down Mount Street. It was a sight to stop traffic - literally, in this case, since none of the cars were capable of moving faster than a walking pace.

Mathieu and Frédéric were keen to take a route that would require the minimum of stops and as little traffic as possible, and using a combination of old-fashioned local knowledge and thoroughly-modern Google Maps on my phone to look for traffic, I came up with a suitable route. This being London, though, it wasn't possible to completely avoid the traffic as we had to navigate a small section of Park Lane. Passing cars and buses may have only been travelling at 30mph but that's quite a speed differential when you are completely exposed in a car whose top speed is measured in single figures. It was a little scary, especially when the car momentarily dropped out of gear.

Fortunately it was only a few hundred metres before we could turn off into the relative serenity of South Carriage Drive in Hyde Park. I created a quick moment of mirth as my directions into Hyde Park indicated that we should ‘follow that Porsche’ (a 991 Turbo) in front of us.

The run through Hyde Park was easy and we eventually turned out onto Kensington Road before taking Queens Gate and then Old Brompton road towards the hotel.  We were still moving at walking pace and at one point were overtaken by a couple of cyclists. Frédéric even had a couple of opportunities to jump out and take some photographs!

Arriving at the hotel created the final challenge. The car park was underground with a low ceiling, 5ft 8” being the maximum height for cars. In a normal car this is not much of a problem, but you sit very high up in the Panhard et Levassor and we all had to duck down to fit under the ceiling. Still, we made it safely inside and parked up. The Panhard et Levassor was dripping a few fluids as it cooled, but no more than any other old car I have experienced.

What did I learn from the ride? Well, the car was surprisingly comfortable, even if leg-room is at a premium in the back. The most important aspect of driving a car like this is seems to be maintaining momentum. The car is difficult to get going, mainly because of the troublesome gearbox, but once it’s going it can make reasonable progress given the limitations of its top speed. The whole journey was around 4 miles and took us maybe 30-40 minutes, despite not encountering much in the way of traffic. It’s a route I've taken many times in a modern car but in the Panhard et Levassor it felt like an adventure. I wonder if the original motoring pioneers felt the same every time they took their cars out?

Mathieu and Frédéric’s run to Brighton the next day would be a rather bigger adventure. In pouring rain they completed the trip from Hyde Park in London to Madeira Drive in Brighton in a time of 7 hours and 32 minutes. Huge thanks to Mathieu and Frédéric for letting me take a ride in a car unlike anything I have ever experienced before.

All pictures and video by the author.