Who is Louis Bionier? Gijsbert-Paul Berk explains the great French engineer
It is well known that Panhard et Levassor, founded in 1886, was one of the French pioneers as manufacturers of automobiles. Panhard et Levassor constructed their first ‘motorcar’ in 1891. Many are familiar with the names of the great designers that shaped the coachwork of French automobiles in the years before and just after WWII. Still, it would not be surprising if only a few can place Louis Bionier and his work.
In the pre-war era, engineers and designers who were employed by car manufacturers or coach building companies generally worked anonymously. The press rarely interviewed the people behind the drawing boards, and by temperament, Louis Bionier was not a man who sought the limelight. However, Bionier deserves to be better known, as from 1929 up to 1967 he was responsible for the chassis and all of the factory built coachwork of Panhard et Levassor.
Apprentice at Appareils d’Aviation Les Frères Voisin?Louis was born in 1898 in Alfortville, a small town under the smoke of Paris. He was only nine years old when his father died and, after getting his school certificate, had to find a job. Fortunately, he had inherited an intuitive insight into technical matters from his father, who had made and repaired bicycles. Therefore it was logical to try to find employment with one of the fast expanding industries in the Paris area that produced aircraft or automobiles.
It has been said that for a short while he was an apprentice in the workshop of the ‘Appareils d’Aviation Les Frères Voisin’, the aircraft construction company established in 1906 by Gabriel Voisin and his brother Charles. However, in 1915 Panhard et Levassor engaged Bionier as ‘ajusteur-outilleur’ (fitter) and he started his career in the factory at the Avenue d’Ivry. By that time Panhard et Levassor was already an important manufacturer not only of large and luxurious passenger cars (they supplied the official automobiles for President Raymond Poincaré) but also of trucks, buses and military vehicles.
In 1918, Paul Panhard a nephew of the founder René Panhard was appointed as General Manager. He was a man with a great sense of social justice and responsibility. He recognized Louis Bionier’s talents and pushed him to develop them.
In charge of the coachwork department
Panhard had its own ‘École Pratique’, an in-house training center for its personnel. Bionier attended their evening classes with excellent results. In 1929, after having gained experience in several departments at the factory, he was put in charge of the department responsible for the design and development of chassis and bodywork. He was just 31 years old by then. Louis Delagarde, his colleague in charge of the design and development of the Panhard engines and military material, was the same age.
In order to manufacture their own coachwork, in 1924 Panhard et Levassor had taken over the factory of the small car maker Delaugère & Clayette in Orléans. Panhard et Levassor was at that time (like Minerva and Voisin) committed to the powerful and silent Knight sleeve valve engines. Their cars had an excellent reputation for quality, but the shape of their bodies was no longer fashionable by the mid 1920s. For this reason many clients engaged the service of one of established French coachbuilding firms such as Binder, Dubos, Fernandez et Darrin, Janssen of Paris, Kellner, Letourneur et Marchand, Vanvooren and Weymann.
The 1934 Panoramic; a breakthrough for Panhard and Bionier
Paul Panhard wanted to change the growing perception that Panhard was no longer fashionable. Bionier was commissioned to design a more modern coachwork style for the Panhard models introduced in 1932. His second innovation was presented at the Paris Motor show of 1934.The coachwork of these new Panhards was called ‘Panoramic’ because of their improved view on the road, due to thin twin A pillars at either side of the windshield each containing a small curved glass panel. As producing curved safety glass was still very difficult, Bionier sought the help from the specialists of his supplier Saint Gobain. Bionier’s idea was based on the knowledge that most human beings have what is called ‘binocular vision’. This means that what we see is in fact an image put together by our brain with the input of both our eyes. For this reason the two thin pillars do not obstruct our vision and thus prevent blind spots.
The Wall Street crash of 1929 also began to affect the economies in Europe. Consequently sales of expensive cars suffered. Paul Panhard, being an ambitious optimist, prodded his commercial and technical staff to beat the competition and gave Bionier a free hand to design a completely new car. There was only one condition: that he retained the six cylinder Sans Soupapes (sleeve valve) 3.5 liter (20HP) and 2.5 liter (14 HP) engines and their rear-drive.
The result was the Panhard Dynamic, introduced in May 1936. In many respects it was an outstanding car. It was a roomy six-seater, with the driver positioned in the middle of the front seat behind a central steering wheel. The windscreen was fitted between two small curved windows similar to those in the ‘Panoramic’.
Bionier abandoned the conventional ladder frame. Instead, the Dynamic had a monocoque (body-cum-chassis) construction with a rear suspension using two longitudinal torsion bars. It also had hydraulic brakes on all four wheels, but with two separate hydraulic circuits each with a separate master cylinder. Thanks to its smooth and silent power, good road holding and impressive comfort, it was a very nice car to drive. However, sales were disappointing. Until the end of October 1934 only 840 had found a buyer, whereas the Panhard management had planned to produce some 4800 units per year.
Why a dynamic design became a commercial catastrophe
What were the reasons for this commercial failure? Was it the modern styling, with wide front mudguards, which practically hid the front wheels (to reduce drag) and ‘waterfall’ grilles over the radiator and the headlights? The sales of the new ‘streamline’ styled Peugeot 402, and the low front-wheel-drive Citroën, introduced at about the same time, proved that the French motoring public was not averse to modern design, but it is certainly possible that for the conservative hardcore of Panhard customers the Dynamic was a bit too far ahead of its time. The monocoque construction also prevented prospective clients having their car bodied by one of the coachbuilders.
A real and serious problem was that the new Dynamic models were rather expensive. Their price tag went from 58.800 up to 70.000 Francs, whereas the new 2-liter, 6 seat Peugeot 402 could be bought for 22.900 Francs and a wide bodied 5/6 seat Citroen 11 B cost 21.500 Francs. One of the reasons for this was that sleeve valve engines are more complicated, demand more precision machining and are therefore more costly to produce than engines with poppet valves. Also, comparing performance and fuel consumption, sleeve valve machines were not competitive anymore. The political situation in France, reflecting great social unrest, was possibly another factor.
Panhard’s financial situation was saved by a contract from the French army
After a parliamentary victory of the Front Populaire (a powerful coalition of left-wing parties against Fascism), the industry was forced to pay higher wages and improve labor conditions. Higher wages, reducing the number of working hours and providing fully paid holidays strongly increased the labor costs and for the first time in its history the balance sheets of the company Panhard et Levassor showed a deficit. It was forced to reduce its workforce and from the first to the sixteenth of June 1936 the factory was occupied by protesting workers. Fortunately after long negotiations between Paul Panhard and high placed French government officials, the future of Panhard & Levassor was temporarily saved by an order of 400 military trucks and light combat vehicles.
In the meantime Bionier adapted the Dynamic to be more in tune with the wishes of the clients. The steering wheel was moved to a more conventional position at the left of the car. The range was furthermore extended with a two-door coupé with a trunk, a two-door convertible and a six-window sedan that could seat nine. The latter was also sold to the French army as a staff car for senior officers.
When in 1940 the German Army approached Paris, Paul Panhard moved most of its production and technical personnel from their factory at the Avenue d’Ivry to their subsidiary at Tarbes in the south of France (Midi Pyrenées). After the military defeat of France on 25 June 1940, the French authorities ordered them to return to Paris. During the years of the Nazi occupation the Panhard works were requisitioned and forced to work for the German Army. Part 2: 1940-1950