1901 Panhard-Levassor 7hp Twin-Cylinder Four-Seater Rear-Entrance Tonneau
Coachwork by J. Rothschild et Fils “Lightweight”
Chassis no. 3010
*Competed the 1927 and 1928 Old Crocks Run, more than 60 London to Brightons
*VCC Dated and copy of Panhard-Levassor ledger record on file
*Freshly serviced by NP Veteran Engineering
*Offered with an entry to the 2019 London to Brighton Veteran Car Run
Among all surviving automobiles of the pioneering Veteran era, this is one of the most famous. It has an unparalleled history of being cherished from the day it was commissioned and has resided in a handful of notable ownerships throughout its life, better still it is one of that ‘rara avis’ of named cars.
As confirmed by a copy of its factory record on file, this majestic sporting car, number 3010 was specially ordered by none other than Chevalier René de Knyff on 21st August 1901. Of Belgian nationality, De Knyff was intrinsically connected to the Panhard et Levassor story. He was one of their best, and most well-known racing drivers of the Victorian era of major city to city races, winning 5 of the 18 competed for between 1898 and 1903, having taken over as director of the company on Levassor’s death in 1897. This was a snapshot in his career, however, as his place in history is more associated as President of the Commission Sportive Internationale, now better known as the FIA. He was a most appropriate ambassador for the sport, being noted for his sportsmanlike attitude. By way of example Charles Jarrott records that in the 1899 Paris-Bordeaux, when de Knyff chanced upon his adversary Fernard Charron broken down by the side of the road, exhausted and unwilling to continue, de Knyff is said to have offered him a glass of cognac and encouraged him to rejoin the race. When his own car floundered later, Charron won!
De Knyff would have no doubt been delighted with the way his sporty ‘about town’ Voiture Legère had turned out. This partnership was not to last however, for as recounted in Elizabeth Nagle’s Veterans of the Road, a passionate motorist Sir Leslie Bucknall happened to drop by the Works and saw this “dream car” parked there… As told to Nagle, by Bucknall’s Chief Engineer J.V.E. Taylor –
“We were informed that it had been made expressly for the Chevalier René de Knyff, director of the firm, and that every piece had been specially selected, tested and finished by their best craftsmen. The bodywork was by Rothschild et Fils, Paris. The body was a tonneau, enameled in a pale Cambridge Blue, whilst the upholstery was scarlet (hunting coat) cloth, which, with a liberal amount of very highly polished brass fittings, mouldings etc. made it, for that time, a most beautiful carriage.
We saw the Chevalier, who was a typical French (sic) aristocrat, spoke perfect English, and received us very cordially, but flatly declined to sell the car for any consideration. This only made Bucknall more determined to have the car somehow, and he urged his request really beyond the limit of politeness. At last the Chevalier told him frankly that if he forced him to sell, it would be at a figure out of all proportion to either the normal price, or the actual cost, which must have been very high.
I have a mental note that Bucknall offered over twice the amount which I regarded as the maximum… Eventually, the two principals retired to a private room, returning after a time to announce the deal completed, the final figure not being stated.”
They proceeded to drive the car back to England, Bucknall then going ahead by all accounts to preempt news of his purchase with a normally unapproving Mrs. Bucknall!
As Taylor continued “The naming of the car was the occasion of quite a little ceremony. I had the name plate prepared, and Bucknall’s little daughter, Vivienne performed the “christening”, which involved a bottle of the best, none of which was allowed to touch the car!”. Period images including the one on these pages show the name plate to have been present since those early days.
Strangely, despite the lengths to which he had stretched to purchase her, it was not long before Bucknall placed her on the market, in a comprehensively described advert in The Autocar, the Panhard is described as:
‘Panhard-Levassor, the very latest 1901 type, 7 h.p., specially light semi-racing carriage, two months old in the most beautiful condition, tonneau body for sale ; enameled in light blue and scarlet, red cloth cushions; this carriage is probably the best finished carriage in the world’. Precisely when, or whether this precipitated a sale is not known.
“Le Papillon Bleu” appears to have been cocooned in this period for the sole time in its life, presumably being outmoded earlier on and no doubt laid up during the war. She surfaces in the mid-1920s, when then owner H. Wallace Simpson of Henley wrote to The Autocar on April 17, 1925, and depicting a current photo of the car, posed the question as to whether this was the oldest car still in use on the roads in Great Britain. By then two dozen years old, he would recount a recent 50-mile journey in the car without any troubles. Its next owner was G. Roger Wakeling, who writing to Motorsport in 1969 in response to an article on Bucknall, recounted acquiring the car from a garage in Henley.
In 1927, the very first commemorative run from London to Brighton took place. Sponsored by the Daily Sketch, ‘The Old Crocks Run’ as it was termed saw some 51 vehicles travel down the Brighton road, for the first retrospective edition of the event which we all enjoy today 92 years later this weekend. “Le Papillon Bleu”, piloted by Wakeling was one of those cars, it repeated this for the 1928 edition also and so it has continued to be for more than 60 subsequent editions.
From Wakeling the car would pass to the Veteran Car Club Acquisitions Scheme, being one of the first cars so offered in 1944. Its buyer was Lavenham based enthusiast Alec Hodson, and it would share stable with his Gardener Serpollet for a number of years (the same car that later would pass to George Milligen and was then sold here by Bonhams a few years ago). Its next owner was Clement Shillan of Rochford, who used her on the London to Brighton through the 1950s.
Veteran Car Club President Tom Lightfoot became the car’s next custodian and it would remain with him until 1976. His 16 year tenure saw it continue to be exercised on the Brighton Run, albeit piloted by a variety of his friends, including Jean Djaniguian the Vice President of the Club des Teuf-Teuf (1960), as illustrated and Count Bernard de Lassee (1966/1969).
From Lightfoot, the car moved on to Roy Woollett. By this stage the Panhard was in need of some refreshing and Woollett entrusted it to Graham Neale, of Worcestershire to carry out this work. Its cloth interior was reinstated, the car repainted and some mechanical work carried out. Viewed today, the car’s 1970s restoration has now aged a little, but remains entirely presentable. Close inspection reveals the distinctive bodywork to be almost entirely of aluminium construction, which would most certainly make it lighter than others of its type. There is no longer a coachwork plate signifying Rothschild, yet the manner in which it is constucted and its well documented history fully endorse the comments by H. Wallace Simpson and J.V.E. Taylor that they were its coachbuilders. By the time that the ‘Blue Butterfly’ was celebrating the anniversary Old Crocks Run in the late 1920s it had long been converted to Krebbs’ ‘automatic’ carburetor and steering wheel controls. Since the carburetor maker’s plate carries the engine number 3010, it seems more than likely was supplied either by the French works, or Acton based UK Panhard Service Agency.
The present owner acquired the Blue Butterfly 27 years ago and has maintained its record on the run, completing the event 25 times since, two particular highlights being the Centenary Run, when Lord Winchelsea, grandson of the original Lord who tore up the Red Flag in 1896 was a passenger, and twenty years later in 2016 when it was exhibited at the Regent Street Motor Show and won the Concours d’ Elegance award for ‘the car which most embodies the spirit of the veteran era, in composition of the coachwork, paintwork and upholstery’.
7hp Panhards have long been considered as one of the definitive ways to campaign the London to Brighton, and they are rightfully coveted. Their user friendly ‘Systeme Panhard’ controls make them a good deal more manageable than many of their peers, and then you have the aesthetics, the iconic ‘serpentine’ radiator, bonnet, large wheels and chain-drive which combine in a beautiful harmony that was copied almost universally before being eclipsed by the Mercedes. Early examples such as this are powered by the iconic Daimler Phenix powerplant on which much of the industry became based.
The logical progression of oldest first in the journey from London to Brighton ensures that a car such of this, while extremely competent and usable entries by merit of their date start within the first 100 cars and are provided with a less congested journey down the Brighton Road.
Of those, this must be the best. After all, how often can one purchase a car that was built specifically for a pioneer Racing Driver and Director of Panhard-Levassor at the time? A generational purchase, “Le Papillon Bleu” has it all.
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