With an engine which looks to be straight from a 1930s history book, no one would believe that the P&M Panther was still in series production as late as 1966. Honda might have been making overhead-cam, electric-start super-sports machines but Panther was still soldiering on with an incredible ultra-long-stroke Single which had originally been conceived in 1932.
But it would be easy, and wrong, to dismiss the Panther as a motorcycling joke. In fact, it was a clever piece of design which did its job very well.
Panther founder, Joah Carver Phelon, had conceived the idea of using the engine as a stressed member of the chassis in 1900, a concept which is still used by MotoGP teams today. The Panther filled a very specialized niche and successfully, too. Its job was to haul a double adult sidecar at modest speed but with a fuss-free style. Before the advent of affordable, reliable cars the working man who wanted to take his family for a day out at the seaside relied on a sidecar outfit. With Mum on the pillion seat, Grannie in the front and three kids jammed in the sidecar, the family could escape from their terraced house and head for the countryside.
This workload required a huge amount of torque which was provided by the Panther’s enormously long-stroke engine. A bore of only 88mm was linked to heavy flywheels and a mammoth 106mm stroke. This enabled a Panther outfit to cruise at 50 mph, fully laden, and dismiss hills with contemptuous ease.
The rest of the bike was also committed to its role as a workhorse. Huge 8″ brakes were intended not to cope with high speed but huge weight. No lightweight in its own right, the 120 had to be able to slow down anything up to half a ton of sidecar, passengers and luggage – plus the bike!
That P&M intended the Model 120 to be only a sidecar hauler is shown by the fact that solo gearing and fork yolks were optional extras which had to be specified at the time of ordering.
Despite appearances, the 120 did its job very well and was highly regarded by its customers. Unfortunately, events were to overtake the old fashioned factory based in the equally unfashionable Yorkshire mill town of Cleckheaton. First, P&M’s suppliers stopped making essential components. Burman withdrew their four-speed gearbox to concentrate on car sub-assembly work and Lucas called an end to the complex and unprofitable, magneto/dynamo unit which Panther still used. But the factor which truly killed Panther was the introduction in 1959 of the Austin Mini. Cheap to buy and run, and capable of doing so much more than any sidecar outfit, the Mini was the working man’s dream transport.
Today, the Panther is enjoyed by many enthusiasts as a solo, rather a sidecar, machine. With the long-stroke single chuffing away at 3,000 rpm, the countryside glides past with a serenity which is a million miles away from the adrenaline-induced stress of 175-mph Superbikes.
Contact Panther Owner’s Club c/o Graham Dibbins, firstname.lastname@example.org