Emile Levassor - Architect of the Automobile

Published: 04th February 2016 11:11 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th February 2016 11:11 AM   |  A+A-

By R Gopu

Buildings have architects. Do cars have architects too? But think about it! A car has doors, windows, a floor, a roof, seats, air conditioning, radio, television.. a car is a room designed to move! But also - it has an engine, a petrol tank, a steering wheel, gears, speedometer, headlights, wheels…

Isnt a car just bullock cart or a horse carriage with an engine? Did bullock carts or horse carraiges have architects? In fact, in ancient times, chariots, called rathas in Sanskrit, were made by a caste of people called rathakaaras – also called taksha in Sanskrit or thachcha in Tamil; this word also means sculptor. Sthapathis who built temples in Darasuram and Konarak shaped them like.. rathas. And sthapathis are architects!

Horseless carraiges

We saw how Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, independently fitted the petrol engines they designed to horseless carriages. Benz called his vehicle the Patent Motorwagen. Daimler named his motorcycle Motoren Gesselschaft. Daimler also fitted engines to horseless carriage and sold them.

But neither Benz nor Daimler’s vehicles were really cars as we think of them today; they were horseless carraiges. Like bicycles, they had a chain based transmission. The seats were on top of the engines. Their brakes were nominal, operated by leather cords, but effective at the low speeds they were driving. At best, their vehicles were glorified fish carts!

Neither vehicle had a proper steering mechanism. There was no steering wheel, just a rod-like tiller, which demanded great physical strength to operate. Horses and bullocks were steered by whips. Trains ran on rails, their steering needs were very different. Benz and Daimler invented the mechanical working parts of the car, but a lot of things had to be invented to make them usable.

A Marriage, A License, A Newborn

Both Benz and Daimler’s companies successfully sold a few hundred vehicles every year and they exhibited their vehicles in the 1889 Paris World Fair.

Two Frenchmen Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor, who worked for a company that manufactured engines for saw mills, were intrigued by Daimler’s engines. They formed a company Panhard et Levassor and negotiated rights to build Daimler engines in France, with Edouard Sazarin, who handled Daimler’s patents on his engine. When Sazarin died, his widow successfully negotiated with Daimler and won the license to build vehicles with Daimler engines. Then she married Emile Levassor – never have the words marriage and license been simultaneously so romantic and businesslike, in society or business!

But this marriage resulted not only in both a family and business – it gave birth to the automobile as we know it today.

The mindset of engine manufacturers like Benz and Daimler was to adapt an engine to a carriage, made traditionally by artisanal communities. Panhard et Levassor was the first company that decided to make automobiles with no reference to horse-drawn traditions.

Levassor experimented with one model called vis-à-vis (face to face) and later, another called dose-a-dos (back to back), which had passengers seated with their backs to the engine, one seat facing forward, the other backward. Then Levassor chose to move the engine forward. Says, Vaclav Smil, “Levassor deserves the honor of having led the development of the motor-car. He moved the engine from under the seats and placed it in front of the driver, a shift that placed the crankshaft parallel with the car’s principal axis rather than parallel with the axles.” Larson adds: “Placing the engine up front under its own enclosure, protected it from dirt and pollution.”

He also designed the clutch, gear box and transmission which mechanisms still drives cars today. In their next model, a windshield and side curtains. This model built in 1892, was called the Cabriolet. Like the word car originated as a contraction of carriage, the word cab comes from this innovation.

The successof Levassor’s innovation can be guaged from this fact : Panhard et Levassor’s cars sold more successfully than the cars built by Daimler or Benz, even in Germany!

Car Races and Accidents

When cars are invented, can car races be far behind? In Paris, in the world’s first car race in July 1894, four cars with Daimler petrol engines did very well coming second to fifth. But the first place was won not by a car, but by a De Dion and Bouton tractor which had a steam engine!

This is one of the other amazing things about the history of the automobile. In this period, steam engines and electric motors were actually more popular and successful than petrol engines in the experimental street vehicles of the day. In the United States, concurrently, Thomas Edison was experimenting with a battery operated electric car, after having amazed the world by inventing the phonograph and the incandescent electric light bulb.

A year later, though, Levassor himself drove his test model in the 1200 km Paris Bordeaux round trip race, his car won. We may not call this competition a race today – the average speed was only 24 km / h. Chennai autorickshaws go through red lights faster than that. But races made cars popular and a number of sportsmen were soon buying and racing cars.

Sadly, in 1896 Levassor was seriously injured while driving in the Paris Marseille race. He died of wounds caused by this accident, the next year. It seems tragic and ironic that the architect of the car would die of a racing accident

But the fundamental model of the car that Levassor gave us continues to serve us today.

The success of the Levassor design so enamored an Austrian businessman living in France Emile Jellinek, that he asked Daimler to make bigger engines with better design, like Levassor’s. Daimler’s partner Wilhelm Maybach joined Jellinek, who then named this design after his daughter – Mercedes.

Not long after, in the USA, a young engineer refused Edison’s offer of a job designing electric cars and started his own experiments with petrol engines : Henry Ford.


  1. Dreams to Automobiles Len Larson
  2. Creating the Twentieth century, Vaclav Smil


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