By Greg Wing
What is it about things being small and going unnoticed? The three French team Deutsch-Bonnet Panhards that ran at the infamous 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans qualify! These small displacement (750cc) racecars become ever more amazing the more one learns about them. The Marques’s namesake comes from the company’s French founders/drivers, Charles Deutsch and Rene Bonnet. Add the engine they fitted to their unique racecar from French auto maker Panhard and you get DB-Panhard. The French say, “Day-Bay”.
Based upon the concept that smaller, more streamlined (aerodynamic) and fuel efficient qualities along with being light made for faster speed, the DB’s were enormously successful in their class (H-Sports) and the “Index of Performance” events. The Index of Performance was a handicapped category which rewarded not only speed and endurance, but gas mileage as well. Remember that gas was in short supply in Europe following WWII. When you really think about it, this is a great model for a contemporary sports/racecar maker. With today’s gas prices in flux, import oil issues, Detroit stumbles and a “planet in peril” we need to rethink smaller-lighter-faster. The Mini Cooper S, Mazda’s Speed3 and Honda’s Civic Si are currently ahead of the curve in this thinking. In racing this year, the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) featured a “Green Racing Challenge” event; the “Petit Le Mans” at Road Atlanta in October, 2008. A Penske Racing Porsche won the Prototype class and Corvette Racing won the GT class.
Most sporty car buffs know about the infamous 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans because of the deadly accident of Mercedes team driver, Pierre Levegh where approximately 80 spectators lost their lives. A spectacular and horrific crash in front of the stands was captured and recorded on film. This was truly the so-called “Darkest Day” in auto racing. This crash, and rightfully so, overshadowed the accomplishments of the DB-Panhard that year. DB won the 750cc class while finishing 16th overall after 24 hours. This “is” something to be remembered. But, some will be more amazed that a DB traveled the Mulsanne Straight at 117mph, with front wheel drive, a 2 cylinder engine and disc brakes in 1955!
Following the 24 Hour race the DB factory team went to Ireland’s Tourist Trophy (TT) and then on to the USA for the 12 Hours of Sebring (FL) in March, 1956. Then the cars were sold to privateer ownership to fund the 1957 DB racing efforts. My father, Gordon and his brother Wil raced one of these X-factory team cars from 1957-1960.
After prolonged and challenging researching for 14 years, I located the same car that my father and uncle owned. It is now restored to its 1955 Le Mans color and number 57. Bernard Dervieux still races and shows the car pictured here in Southern CA 53 years later. Just this past spring my Uncle Wil got to hear his old racecar via telephone and he remarked, “Just as loud and nasty sounding as ever!”
You can explore these amazing French racecars and their history by following this link: http://mysite.verizon.net/vzeolrbc/db1955.
[Source: Photo: 1955 DB-Panhard at Thompson, CT – SCCA Nationals in 1959, credit: Wil Wing]