Levassor won the first proper motor race in history and also laid out what became the normal layout for all the automobile designers who followed him.
Emile Levassor died 123 years ago, he was 54
Born in the country to the south of Paris, the son of a farmer, Levassor studied engineering at France's most famous school, the Ecole Central, and then went into industry. In the early 1880s he met a Belgian lawyer called Edouard Sarrazin who was a patent expert and who had decided to invest in a little-known German engineer called Gottlieb Daimler, in exchange for the French rights to any engine that Daimler produced.
Levassor moved on to join a precision engineering from which was being run by Rene Panhard, a former classmate from the Ecole Centrale and when Panhard's partner died in 1886 the company became known as Panhard & Levassor. At the same time Sarrazin convinced Levassor that the firm could make money building Daimler's engines. Sarrazin died soon afterwards but his widow Louise took over the patent business.
In 1889 the French decided to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, with an Exposition Universelle, which was open for six months between May and November. The centerpiece of the exhibition was Gustave Eiffel's extraordinary tower which dominated the exhibition halls in the Champ de Mars but inside the halls were a stunning array of exhibits, which attracted an amazing 28m visitors.
One of the stars of the show was an automobile constructed by Daimler, featuring the V2 four horsepower gasoline engine which Panhard & Levassor were building.
The exhibition created great interest and as demand grew for the engines so Levassor, who was fascinated by the idea of building an automobile, was able to begin experimental work for the company's own vehicles. The first Panhard & Levassor appeared from the workshops in the Avenue d'Ivry, in the south-eastern suburbs of Paris, early in 1890, shortly before Levassor married Sarrazin's widow. The first vehicle went through a series of developments before Levassor settled on the best design. Initially he build a mid-engined device with the driver and three passengers seated back-to-back above the V2 Daimler engine but he soon realized that it was a much better idea to mount the engine in front of the driver and use a mechanical system of transmission to drive the rear wheels. This lowered the centre of gravity, allowed for a bigger engine and increased the stability of the car by lengthening the wheelbase.
The "systeme Panhard" would become the model for all automobiles for many years to come.