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Bon Anniversaire, Tonneau!

Bon Anniversaire, Tonneau!
April 11, 2018 By: Kim Cady, Assistant Curator, Car and Carriage Museum

Bon Anniversaire, Tonneau!

Celebrating 120 years, our 1898 Panhard et Levassor Tonneau is believed to be one of the earliest automobiles on the roads of Pittsburgh.
By 1898, it was probably one of the most technologically sophisticated vehicles, with such features as aluminum gear-box casing, front-mounted vertical engine, pneumatic tires and wheel steering. This two-cylinder, forty horsepower Panhard was purchased in Paris during the summer of 1900 by Howard C. Heinz, son of Henry J. Heinz. Howard drove the Panhard in the French Century Run, reaching a speed of forty mph (astonishing at the time) before bringing it home to the streets of Pittsburgh (Frick Art & Historical Center, 2015).

Panhard et Levassor, Paris, France. Tonneau, 1898. Frick Art & Historical Center, 1997.7. Gift of G. Whitney Snyder.

Originally founded by Jean-Louis Périn as a woodworking company, René Panhard joined the firm in 1876 as the business changed over to metalworking machine production (Vershinin, 2019). Educated as an engineer and with a background in carriage manufacturing (Vershinin, 2019), it’s not surprising that René transitioned the company once again in 1890 to the manufacturing of automobiles establishing the Panhard et Levassor Company (Les Doyennes De Panhard Levassor, 2017).

Following their successful venture into gas-powered engine production while under license from Daimler, schoolmates René Panhard and Emile Levassor rolled out their first automobile in 1891 (Neidermeyer, 2010). By 1892 this innovative firm had created the mechanical blueprint nearly all other successful manufacturers would follow—front-mounted engine, sliding gear transmission and chain drive design. Called “La Systeme Panhard” it was the beginning of many modernizations the company brought to automotive development, such as wheel steering and standard pneumatic tires (Bomstead, 2006). Panhard et Levassor quickly established a reputation for fine engineering, excellent craftsmanship, superior reliability, and outstanding performance.

With a win in the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race, Panhard et Levassor became outstanding players in the early city-to-city races. Although the company suffered a setback in 1897 when Emile Levassor succumbed to injuries suffered in a serious racing accident, the firm continued to develop several important innovations for the Panhard, including a variable-speed carburetor and coil and battery ignition (Bomstead, 2006). These advances aided them the following year when a Panhard secured a first place victory at the Paris-Rouen Trial, the Marseilles-Nice, and the Paris-Amsterdam-Paris races. A triumphant victory in the Paris-Bordeaux event bookended their racing successes in 1898, while winning the Gordon Bennett Circuit des Ardennes race in Belgium and the first Vanderbilt Cup Race on Long Island, New York in 1904, further cemented the marque’s reputation for excellence.  

Monument celebrating the victory Emile Levassor during the race Paris-Bordeaux-Paris in 1895,
on the place de la Porte Maillot in Paris, France. January 1, 1900. Courtesy Getty images

The 1898 Panhard Tonneau on display at the Car and Carriage Museum was found in the 1950s by brothers G. Whitney and William Penn Snyder III when they inquired of the Heinz family if any of their early automobiles were still in existence. The Heinz family, like the Frick’s, kept meticulous records of their purchases and the Snyder’s discovered an 1898 Panhard et Levassor Tonneau that showed no record of having been re-sold by the family. The brother’s, equipped with a list of Heinz property holdings, began their search for the lost Panhard. Their first site was a Heinz owned rooming house in Pittsburgh’s East End. The maintenance man of the building informed the inquisitive brothers that although he did not recall seeing any antique cars on the property, he had come across a false wall in the basement and had always wondered what was behind it. When the three men removed the wall, they unearthed the well preserved 1898 Panhard et Levassor rear-entry Tonneau tucked into the concrete crevice. G. Whitney Snyder restored the vehicle to operable condition and renewed its customized finish of ketchup red body, pickle green spokes, and mustard yellow trim. In April 1979, the Panhard Tonneau was exhibited at the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation’s Old Post Office Museum on the Northside (Davidson, 1984). When the Children’s Museum’s opened in that space in the late 1980s the Panhard, along with other antique automobiles from the Pittsburgh area, found a new home at the Transportation Museum located in Station Square. In 1997, with the expansion of the Car and Carriage Museum, G. Whitney Snyder donated the restored Panhard et Levassor Tonneau to the Frick, followed at Mr. Snyder’s death by fourteen other brass and pre-war vehicles. The Panhards’s bright red body and brass fittings make quite an impact in our recently renovated gallery space. 

Howard Heinz with his father in the first of the Panhard et Levassors he brought from Paris, standing before Greenlawn in 1900.
Photo courtesy The Good Provider: H. J. Heinz and His 57 Varieties by Robert C. Alberts.


Works Cited

Bomstead, Carl. “1901 Panhard Et Levassor Rear-Entrance Tonneau.” Sports Car Market, Mar. 2006,

Davidson, Jim. “A Sock Is a Sock Is a Souvenir.” The Pittsburgh Press, 22 Apr. 1984,

“History of the Firm.” Les Doyennes De Panhard Levassor, 2017,

Niedermeyer, Paul. “An Illustrated History of Panhard.” The Truth About Cars, 25 Mar. 2010,
“Oldest Operating Car.” Oldies & Goodies, July 2008, p. 95.

“Panhard 1861-1967.” Unique Cars and Parts,

The Frick Art and Historical Center. Panhard Et Levassor, Paris, France. Tonneau, 1898. Panhard Et Levassor, Paris, France. Tonneau, 1898, 2015.

Vershinin, Vladimir. Panhard et Levassor. Vladimir Vershinin, 27 Aug. 2019.

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