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“Always listen to experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done, and why. Then do it.”

~ Robert A. Heinlein – Time Enough for Love~

The experts at Peugeot condescendingly called them “The Charlatans”. Georges Boillot and Jules Goux were racing car drivers. The Peugeot engineers maintained they were misguided amateurs who mistakenly believed they were capable of designing a race car. It wasn’t to be encouraged. Imagine the arrogance to even consider they had the expertise to create such a complicated piece of technical machinery.

Boillot and Goux were dissatisfied with their current Peugeot race car. It had dominated the 1909 season, winning almost every race, but in 1910 they were being humbled by Paolo Zuccarelli in his Hispano Suiza. Their car was rapidly becoming uncompetitive and they had ideas for a state-of-the-art design. They also got the opposition on their side. Hispano Suiza was pulling out of motor racing and Zuccarelli joined the Peugeot team of drivers. He was a qualified engineer with mechanical experience but had spent more time as a racing driver than working as an engineer.

1914 PeugeotThey brainstormed together and sweet-talked their boss, Robert Peugeot, into bankrolling their new Grand Prix car. He wasn’t particularly interested in racing as he didn’t consider it necessary for the company. They must have caught him in a good mood because in a moment of weakness he agreed to finance their project at four thousand pounds per car.

They knew exactly what they wanted. Their car had to be light as their engine would be lighter and smaller than the current crop of Grand Prix engines. Their lack of design experience gave them the advantage of not having any pre-conceived ideas. They took all the latest theories and put them together to create the car they wanted to drive.

None of the Peugeot engineers took them seriously – after all, how much could a race driver know about designing a car. They weren’t bonafide engineers and no one wanted to be associated with them as their car was certain to be a failure. They weren’t even capable of putting their ideas onto paper. They hired Swiss engineer/draftsman Ernest Henry who turned their schemes and suggestions into a blueprint plan.

Henry had experience building marine engines. What isn’t clear is was he only the draftsman or was he also the genius behind the innovative new Peugeot engine. The engine that Henry and his three assistants designed was cutting edge. With its four cylinders and four valves per cylinder along with a double overhead cam, it is still the basis of the majority of racing engines today.

Peugeot EngineThose were the days near-limitless regulations – there was a maximum car width but the only factor limiting engine size was the imagination and ego of the designer. However, the trio of drivers wanted a car that was light and efficient. Up until now, racing engines had become ever bigger with the hope of attaining greater power and, more importantly, speed. Even though the competition was constructing engines as big as 15 litres they chose to build a “tiny” 7.5-litre engine.

Each of the engine’s four cylinders had four values. The overhead valves were included in the cylinder heads and were operated by two overhead camshafts. With two small intake valves and two exhaust valves the engine was able to breathe much more efficiently than with single values. Situating the double camshaft above the valves meant that the operating gear could be much lighter which resulted in less valve float. The downside of two camshafts was noise and expense. Neither was of much concern to designers of cutting edge racing machinery.

They did the seemingly impossible. At the 1912 French Grand Prix, their 7.6L Peugeot beat the 14 L Fiat. The following year they further refined their engine to 5.65 litres and the again won the French Grand Prix as well as the Indianapolis 500.

The Peugeot’s greatest triumph (though not a victory) was at the 1914 Indianapolis 500. The works Peugeot team had turned up with their 5.65-litre cars but they didn’t cause the biggest surprise. Arthur Duray had been born in New York to Belgium parents and later took French citizenship. He had broken the land speed record three times over 1903 and 1904 and entered a privately owned 3.0 litre Peugeot belonging to the French chocolate family of Jacques Munier. His car was so small compared to the rest of the contestants that it was christened “Baby”.

Arthur Duray at the 1914 Indy 500

Arthur Duray at the 1914 Indy 500 driving “Baby”

His critics were silenced when he led the race for 77 of the 200 laps. He eventually settled for a safe and secure second place rather than pushing his car to its limits and risking breakdown. The winning car, a Delage, had an output of 105 hp from an engine twice the size of Duray’s Peugeot. Within a couple of years, every successful Indy 500 race car would be powered by an engine carefully copied from the Peugeot.

The French drivers came back from the 1914 Indianapolis 500, having taken the top four places, full of confidence for the 1914 French Grand Prix. Peugeot had won the previous two years and had every expectation that their car would still be the dominant car. But Mercedes was about to unveil their new creation for its inaugural race.

Below is some amazing footage from the early Indianapolis 500 races, including 1913 when Boillot became the first European to win despite allegedly drinking four bottles of champagne during the race!

Coming Soon: Part 2 – 1914 French Grand Prix – The Contenders – Mercedes