1963 Panhard PL17b Relmax
Because it doesn't really get more french than that, even japanese want some!
Panhard is a car manufacturer that many people, even in France, have sort of forgotten. Eventhough the manufacturer still exists today and produces military vehicules, most french people as well as most inhabitants of this planet have no freaking idea what Panhard was, let alone today’s car: The Panhard PL17.
First, let’s start with the pronunciation. Pân-âr, phonetically written pɑ̃-aʁ. You don’t pronounce the “n” you don’t pronounce the “d”. So good luck with that my dear american friends, and therefore no, this will not be a good pornstar name.
Now the PL17 itself. PL stands for Panhard-Levassor, the funders of the brand and the number 17 is quite a strech as it’s the addition of its french fiscal horsepower, 5 + the number of people it can seat, 6 + its gas consumption, 6L per 100km. 5+6+6= 17. Just this tells a lot about how tortured the minds behind the car must have been! This particular PL17 has a 50hp 2 cylinders 4-stroke engine and can reach a theoretical top speed of about 130kmh. To achieve this top speed, you most certainly need to be going downhill and benefit of a strong tailwind.
But what about the car itself? It’s not beautiful, it’s not ugly, it’s just french. This car screams goofyness, weirdness and has a total disregard for what people believe to look good. Its uniqueness only equals its propension to create big smiles on people who sees it rolling around and, let’s face it, that plays a big role as to why someone may be willing to drop 7 or 8000$ to own one.
It’s, in a strange way, very good looking... some sort of 4 wheeled Betty Boop with its big round curves and the almost cartoonish vision of what a car is supposed to be.
The interior is not exactly remarkable to say the least. Do you remember those seats at your grand parents’ place? Those seats, that were very soft but set permanently at 95 degrees, making them utterly unconfortable unless you had something stucked up your ass? Well, these are those seats. You cannot recline them and they are at a 95 degrees angle. You can also feel the springs trying to make their way into your butt which makes medium to long trip incredibly tiring. You keep bouncing and sliding inside the car, the seats looking closer to some sort of couches with no holding abilities whatsoever. The “Relmax” name of the car actually defines the upgraded seat option that is fitted with this specific PL17. It means “Maximum Relaxe”. Yeah, right.
Other than that, the dashboard is covered of some sort of plastic with a rugged feeling to it and glued just like this, directly on the dash. Of course it peels fairly easily after so many years. The steering wheel is big, thin and made of plastic which, in summer, considering how hot it gets inside the car slides around your hands more easily than a Savon de Marseille in the shower.
Overall: not fantastic to say the least.
Options-wise, be ready for a surprise: there's pretty much none! Only game you can play is “What does this switch do?”. Half of them don’t seem to do anything, eventhough I keep trying to turn them on and off, just in case it suddenly start doing something like, lauching the hidden Nitrous or whatever. I keep on hoping. Fun times!
Once you start the engine, the first thing that strike you is the sound of it! Like the car’s design, the unique sound of its 2 cylinder 4 stroke engine is an important part that creates the appeal people have for it. It’s hard to describe it, but you can get a taste of it in the test drive video that comes after. I like it. I like it a lot!
Then comes the time to go somewhere and see what it does. It moves. It manages to get its wheels to turn and it will bring places. Slowly. Very slowly. The accelaration is comparable with a Subaru 360, which means it's SLOW. Top speed is better though as you can reach 130kph if you happen to have 3 or 4km of straight road ahead of you.
It will brake also. Drum brakes on four corners of course, but it will stop the car fairly well. The fact that it doesn’t go very fast helps a lot though.
The ride on the other hand, is just not very good. A bit bouncy, quite a lot of body roll, all that combined with the crappy seats and you end up with passengers suddenly starting to feel seasick. Go figure. It’s also incredibly hot in the car, the engine being air-cooled and producing lots of heat that transfert into the cabin. Since temperatures in Japan average 30 degrees with A LOT of humidity, the whole thing just feels unconfortable, moist and you just want to get out of it ASAP when you start driving around.
Shifting with the column shifter fits the car pretty well. It’s not practical to use in anyway, but it allows more space to fit 3 people in the front. The gearing is well adjusted for the car but the lack of synchro in first gear and the overall fragility of the gearbox make it a bit annoying to use in the city. Since there is no tachometer, I have no idea how high it revs but considering the car, it simply doesn’t really matter.
Then comes the time to push it a little around corners! What do you expect exactly? Of course it handles like a pig! It’s not a car built to handle the roads. It can turn (somewhat), it can stop and that’s it. Don’t ask for more, if you do, the only thing you’ll get, is a french platanus reducing the length of your car by a good meter. Here is a little video I made of it while going back from Nagoya Port, as soon as it set wheels in Japan. Don’t watch it at work if you are sleepy or it will send you pay a visit to Morpheus (The greek god of dreams, not Laurence Fishburne) faster than you can imagine. Notice the “ghost wipers” at 4min05.
But if you ever end up buying one, prices are not going anywhere. Prices won’t go up anytime soon but you can be certain that you will not lose money on it. The overall great reliability of the car will help minimizing the costs of ownership but the lack of specific parts might get annoying if you ever need some part very specific to the car.
The day I picked up the car along with a Fiat Dino Coupe I bought during the same trip.
To conclude... I'm not a fan of the car. It’s not fun, it’s tiring to drive, it’s really slow, looks funky and it makes a cool noise. Not my type of car and I was happy to see it go to a great new home, but I understand the appeal that some may have for it. Personnally, I’ll stick with comfier and sportier cars. Long live to french weirdness though! If not fun to drive and own, it’s fun to watch and hear!
So long, strange little car! You are not for me, but I know you will keep on making many people happy for many years to come!
Bye-Bye weird little thing!
Note: Since this article was written I imported 2 more PL17 into Japan. Somewhat popular car apparently !