If you think Peugeot and Renault are hard to pronounce, don't even try to say this car's name out loud. Most Americans, on first attempt, come out with an embarrassing pairing of words having to do with feminine hygiene equipment and Easter hats. Instead, think German (doy-cha) and French poodle (with a bone-ay) or better yet, just say D.B. Should some automotive philistine think that by D.B. you mean Aston Martin's David Brown, imagine the savoir-faire you'll display when you introduce the benighted fellow to these fine French race cars.
Despite their diminutive size, these mostly blue cars are amazingly fast; they dominated the world's race tracks for a decade, from 1952 through 1962. They were created by two Frenchmen, Charles Deutsch and René Bonnet. Though his last name sounds German, Charles was born about twenty miles from Paris, in Champigny-sur-Marne, in September 1911. There he learned coachbuilding from his father, who had transformed his cartwright business into an automotive body shop by the mid '20s. Charles was designing car bodies by the age of 14, and by 18, when his father died, he took over the shop but by then had already begun college training as a civil engineer. So Charles and his mother sold the business--in the space below their living quarters--to René Bonnet.
Bonnet was only seven years older than Deutsch, but by the time he purchased La Maison Deutsch in 1932, he'd already suffered a lifetime of misery. A spinal injury caused by a sadistic officer in the French Navy (Bonnet was forced to dive into inches of water) landed him in a full-body cast; the doctor diagnosed a fatal tuberculosis of the spine and confined Bonnet to a sanatorium. There he was expected to waste away, a living mummy, but as the months wore on his health did not deteriorate as expected. Finally fed up, Bonnet chipped himself out of his plaster cast with a pocket knife and recruited his fellow inmates to arrange transporting him (he could not walk) to a local physician's X-ray machine, where the film proved his spine to be free of disease. He lived on the meager proceeds of a shawl-knitting business he'd begun in the sanatorium while he re-learned to walk. Over the years he'd read assiduously on everything automotive, and when his sister sent word from Champigny asking René to take over the garage her deceased husband had started, he was more than happy to oblige. When another brother-in-law wanted in on the business, René looked for space to open his own shop and decided the Deutsch place fit the bill.
To the existing carrosserie Bonnet added a Citroën dealership. In 1932, he'd entered his own Citroën C4F in the Paris-Antibes rally and finished well enough to get bit by the bug. In 1935 he enrolled at a driving school at the Montlhéy Autodrome, and by 1936 he was offered a ride as the third driver for Amilcar Pégase; at the French Grand Prix. When only two of the three Amilcars made it to the start, as Deutsch recalled, "Bonnet remained a spectator . . . with tears in his eyes. To console him I told him to cheer up, that the Pégase; wouldn't have been much of a ride anyway...they could barely reach 90 mph. I told him I could do better than that."
Deutsch was now working for the French Government in its Bridges & Highways bureau but had kept his interest in autos--and especially studies of the aerodynamic work of Frenchmen Andreau and others--up to date. Bonnet agreed and the two got to work on a racer powered by the Citroën 1911cc four-cylinder.
The D.B.9, which debuted at the winter 1949 Paris Salon, was the last Citroën-powered D.B. They were hoping to take orders for limited production of this GT, but Citroën wouldn't allow it. So the duo turned to one of France's oldest and most respected manufacturers, Panhard et Levassor (founded in 1891). In a strictly verbal deal (as were all Deutsch and Bonnet's own affairs), Panhard provided engines and suspension for Deutsch's bodies, put together by the mechanics in Bonnet's garage and under the financial protection of Bonnet's own (separate) company.
Deutsch's sleek pontoon-fendered roadster body was ready 17 months later. Both men took turns testing this D.B.1 at Montlhéy, and the car easily reached 100 mph, fulfilling Deutsch's original promise. D.B.2 followed as a coupe powered by the 1303cc engine from the Citroën Traction 7, bored out to almost 1500cc, but World War II interrupted before the car was complete. D.B.s 3 through 7 followed from 1942 through 1946, all Citroën-powered racers in various of Deutsch's body designs, but all sparked and died in short order (due to a nasty tendency of the camshafts to seize) or posted poor finishes due to drag caused by, in Deutsch's opinion, the inherent anti-aerodynamics of open-wheel configurations. The D.B.8, which incorporated design input from Deutsch's two coachbuilding heroes, Andreau and Labourdette, was a design coup for the small firm; the sleek two-seater won several concourses d'elegance before being driven (by Deutsch and Harry Schell) to win the team prize (along with D.B. 4 and 5) at the 12 Hours of Paris race.
The first D.B.-Panhard success was a 610cc sports two-seater with Panhard's independent front suspension and Deutsch's own torsion-bar independent rear suspension. The racing version won first overall--including over more powerful 1500cc competitors--in the 24-hour Bol d'Or race at Montlhéy (and the entire 24 hours were driven by a single driver named Auneau). The D.B.-Panhard went after the Index of Performance--the grand prize for all small-bore machinery--at the 1950 Le Mans 24; it led until the 19th hour. At the 1951 Le Mans 24 the little cars held on to the end, finishing fifth on Index and impressing Alec Ulmann, who extended an invitation to the upcoming endurance event in Sebring, Florida.
So it was in 1952 that three of the little D.B.s, one piloted by René Bonnet himself, amazed the American public by winning the Index at the Sebring 12 Hours. From that day forward the little French race cars developed a devoted cult of American followers, led by Hobart "Bill" Cook and Howard Hanna, a VW dealer in Philadelphia.
The Panhard powerplant was the Dyna aircooled flat-twin engine that journalists called "phenomenal" and "a tiny thoroughbred." They featured full roller-bearing crankshaft, one-piece connecting rods, light alloy cylinders and integral heads, narrow-angle inclined overhead valves and torsion bar springs. Sizes ranged from the tiny 610 to an 851cc version, and D.B. used the 610 to develop their own 745cc version. From the 851cc engine D.B. pulled 51 hp (over Panhard's standard 42), reached a top speed of 88 mph while burning only one gallon for every 34 miles.
In late 1952 a D.B. roadster set ten new international records in the 750cc class, including a top speed record of 118.842 mph. The runs were good publicity for D.B.'s new GT Coach, the company's first production run with 100 bodies built in cooperation with Chausson, an innovator in the new fiberglass body techniques. Racing wins accumulated from 1953 through 1956, especially in the Index of Performance category. In 1957, the Panhard engines were improved with detachable, dual-plug cylinder heads, which increased output from the 610cc engine to 60 hp. Race results improved commensurately, with the 24 Hour of Le Mans serving as the marque's patriotic showcase: from 1958's second on Index to the 1959 sweep--first on Index of Performance, first on Index of Thermal Efficiency, first in class, and the 25th annual Biennial Cup. The Index remained a D.B. given through 1961, and the only reason D.B. lost the Index in 1962 was because D.B. no longer existed.
The all-verbal business arrangements between Deutsch and Bonnet had finally disintegrated in an acrimonious parting set in motion in December 1961, when Bonnet secretly signed on to drive for Renault. Panhard--already in difficult financial straits--were outraged at this turn of events and hired Deutsch separately to build a five-car team for the express purpose of beating Bonnet's new Renault-powered car (called, immodestly, "René Bonnets" which eventually became Matra Djets, but that's another story) at the 1962 Le Mans 24.
Amazingly, with only four months to perfect the redesigned race cars, Deutsch's team of C.D.-Panhards bested the René Bonnets by taking the Le Mans Index and the 850cc class. The same car went on to win the GT Championship of France for the same driver (Guilhaudin) and sired 150 replicas built and sold in 1963.
It remains unclear today how many D.B.s were ever built. Common estimates range from 900 to 1,500, though Deutsch himself, interviewed at the age of 70 by journalist Griffith Borgeson, guessed there were around 2,000. He recalled that among the GT's there were at least 25 different variants and claimed that no one in the world could say what they all were. Only a tiny subset of that total ever made it to the U.S.
The car featured here is owned by collector Tom Mittler of Michigan and was one of the winning team at the 1959 Le Mans which then came to America for Sebring. The Panhard engine bears signs of the special modifications made for Le Mans that year--two dynamic balancers on each side of the engine, and a special oil system activated by a lever in the cockpit. Mittler vintage-races the car, which he says drives a bit like "a little Mini Cooper pickup truck...there's no weight in the back end; the total car is like only 700 to 800 pounds." The car's build quality and unusual body design were the main attraction: "I don't know who designed it, but it's pretty and aerodynamic...every latch is like jewelry; it's really weird that way. The French just engineered cars differently than anybody else did. It's really fun; its very unusual."
He's had the car for a dozen or so years and doesn't plan to sell it. "I tell everybody you can always go out and buy a Testarossa, but you can't go out and buy one of these. It's the really unusual cars that I think today are the most fun." Does the value compare to a Ferrari? "Well," he answered with a laugh, "if I could just find ten more cylinders, it'd be a $10 million car!"
Ref: "D.B. Stands for Deutsch-Bonnet," by Griffith Borgeson, Automobile Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, 1980.