The French rebels that revolutionized the racing world

Photograph Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Paris in the early 1900s was one of the centers of the educated Western universe. Imaginative concepts and inventions of every type seemed to appear mystically almost daily from the dozens of brilliant minds that had been drawn there by the collective energy on constant display. 

The complex world of engine design especially was in full flower, with technical innovations in machining and metallurgy fueling the passionate demands of visionaries in the burgeoning aircraft and automobile industries. Both of these new technical wonders, unimagined just years before, had equally captured the public’s imagination. 

Aircraft designers demanded ever greater amounts of power for their wings to climb faster and higher, while automotive engine designers competed on their drawing boards and on the surrounding roads in the constant search for greater speed, durability and efficiency. In this free-wheeling competition they often borrowed ideas from each other, which continually cross-pollinated the field and resulted in constant improvements. Early accounts note that as many as 50 different engines were being developed in the Paris area alone.

Racing became the accepted method of proving superiority. As a result, the enlightened French took a keen interest in enthusiastically embracing all types of motorized technology on the ground and in the air. 

The world’s first automotive magazine, L’Auto, which debuted in 1905, even outsold the regular newspapers. Roads in France were so superior to those elsewhere in Europe that point-to-point races over great distances in major city-to-city competitions often resulted in top speeds over 80 mph on sections of fairly smooth but still unpaved byways. 

These events were attended by thousands who were so densely packed along these unprotected sinuous and dusty corridors that crowds often spilled out onto the center of roads for better visibility, creating serious mayhem. These dangerous conditions lasted until 1903, when the most important event of the era, the now infamous Paris-Madrid race, killed and injured so many spectators and participants that the competitors were unceremoniously blocked at the Spanish border. 

 With a couple of notable exceptions, the focus on automotive design and racing in America was far more practical. Since quality roads were almost nonexistent beyond city limits, competition was much different. Public enthusiasm for racing was just as great, but entrepreneurial American promoters soon realized the value of converting local horse tracks and steeply banked bicycle racing ovals into much safer venues so they could control and, most important, profit from the easily contained masses. 

Within a few years, these specialized tracks developed into a number of immense, unique and beautifully constructed high-banked, wooden-surfaced super-speedways that would define America’s automotive competitions for years to come. 

Jules Goux—top and above, shaking hands with riding mechanic Emil Begin and talking to fellow driver Paolo Zuccarelli—helped shape the modern racing engine. Photography Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

In Europe, though, road racing prevailed. There, the ever-improving teams from Italy, Germany, France and sometimes England continued in their fight for engineering superiority—until 1912, when the game-changing Gran Prix of France in Dieppe saw the introduction of a brilliant new challenger from Peugeot. 

In America, visionary ex-barnstormer Carl Fisher built and opened the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1908, initially planning the huge 2.5-mile oval as a test facility for America’s burgeoning Midwestern automotive industry. With growing public interest in automobile racing, Fisher soon realized the potential for the sport and began promoting the idea of a special yearly event. That competition would soon become America’s most respected, with the world’s highest speeds and largest purse for the winner. 

America’s top car constructors, like brothers Fred and August Duesenberg, Louis Chevrolet (Frontenac), Mercer, Stutz and Marmon, all used racing to publicize their latest designs, often contracting or selling to famed drivers like Barney Oldfield, Pete DePaolo and “Terrible Teddy” Tetzlaff to prove their worth.

In France prior to 1911, the cars of wealthy enthusiast and patron of the sport Ernst Ballot had reigned supreme against Italy, Germany and the U.K.’s finest.

However, deep within the massive Peugeot organization, a new theory of lighter, higher-rpm engines was developing that would soon change the entire world of engine design. This radical and highly unconventional concept had not yet fully emerged because it didn’t originate “upstairs” in the formal confines of Peugeot’s engineering office. Instead, it was born far below on the gritty garage floor, where three young test-driver mechanics had begun questioning their futures with the company’s current offerings. 

At the time, Peugeot only raced its production cars in the smaller, less publicized Voiturette class using a single-cylinder, production-based engine. However, Peugeot’s top three racers, all just 27 years of age—Jules Goux, Paolo Zuccarelli and Georges Boillot (not to be confused with well-known French engine and car manufacturer Ernst Ballot)—had greater aspirations for themselves and for Peugeot. 

The trio dreamed of competing in Europe’s premier events against the continent’s most sophisticated competition with a much larger-engined car of their own design. Multi-cylinder, aircraft engine-derived Fiats and Benz racers, some as large as 20 liters, were Europe’s serious Grand Prix contenders against the French Ballots and Delages that reigned locally at the time. Even though Peugeot had gained early fame as a producer of bicycles and the world’s fastest motorcycles, its automotive division had not yet built a serious large-displacement racing car capable of running in Europe’s major events. But all that was about to change.

In 1911, when news reached Europe that Ray Harroun and his Marmon had collected the incredible sum of $14,000 by winning Carl Fisher’s first Indy 500, the European engineering community took serious notice. While making plans for an even more spectacular 500 in 1913, Fisher sent his personal emissary to Europe to find and entice the continents’ best to challenge America’s fastest in what had become the world’s richest race. In Paris, teams from Peugeot and Ballot were receptive to Fisher’s financial incentives and immediately made plans to construct new racers for the 500. 

Advanced metallurgy was in its infancy, so large-displacement, slow-revving engines were in vogue. Their heavier rotating masses couldn’t endure the strain of high rpm, so the only contemporary solution seemed to be ever larger and unfortunately heavier engines, which in turn required even bigger and heavier chassis that demanded great strength to drive. 

In theory, a higher, lighter-rpm solution seemed obvious to most in the local engineering community, but without the materials or a suitable design, all except the three young visionaries at Peugeot were still struggling with the realities of physics. This highly talented trio was convinced its combined abilities and ideas could deliver a superior design capable of competing successfully against the large-displacement, aero-engine Italian and German racers of the time. 

All they needed was a trained draftsman to transcribe their combined visions onto vellum. They found their fourth team member in Ernest Henry, a quiet Swiss freelancing draftsman who had been attracted by the potential of the swirling Parisian engineering community. Each of these four men had an interesting background that enabled them, in cooperation, to eventually prove their controversial concept.

Initially, Jules Goux, whose family had worked for Peugeot almost since its inception, held a key position within the team. Even though Goux was a graduate of Paris’s famed School of Arts and Merite, he was also one of that era’s special class of driver-engineers who were expected to know as much about working on and repairing the automobiles they were driving (as were their riding mechanics, who risked their lives to race with them).

Goux was not a formally trained engineer, but as one of the factory’s winning drivers, he’d also become the trusted personal friend and chauffeur for the company’s president, Robert Peugeot. It was Goux who personally convinced Monsieur Peugeot of the informal team’s credibility and potential—no small feat in the highly structured caste society of French engineering, whose members would never have even considered the untrained suggestions of a mere works mechanic.

George Boillot’s proven ability behind the wheel of the smaller-engined Peugeots was impressive, but even more notable was his organizational expertise that eventually proved so valuable. It was he who welded the team’s disparate skills into a serious force to be reckoned with by dealing with various Parisian subcontractors during the construction of their new racing cars and, later, with organizers and promoters wherever they raced.

Photograph Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

In 1910, brilliant Italian driver Paolo Zuccarelli had been convinced to join the nascent Peugeot team after racing against Goux and Boillot in the Voiturette class and handily beating their single-cylinder racers with his obviously superior four-cylinder, Spanish-built Hispano-Suiza. 

Zuccarelli had gone to Spain several years earlier as a teenage apprentice mechanic after meeting and servicing the car that the Hispano representative had driven to Paris from Spain. Hispano’s man had come to Paris with the intention of establishing a facility to build Hispano-Suizas in France. With Spain then in the middle of political instability, the Parisian locale seemed ideal. 

Zuccarelli, seeing the racing potential in the obviously more sophisticated Spanish design, managed to convince Hispano’s representative that his skills and passion for fine machinery could best be used in Spain. As a result, Zuccarelli went and stayed in Spain for several years, becoming thoroughly familiar with the firm’s quality and designs. Eventually, he became a valued race driver-mechanic and company sales representative. 

Hispano-Suiza’s founder and designer, Marc Birkigt, was then building one of the few marques in the world that could compete with Rolls-Royce in terms of quality and finish. It was the young Italian racer’s eye for the potential in Birkigt’s advanced designs that initially attracted him, but it was most certainly the experience acquired in Spain that matured his abilities and thinking. Upon returning to France to race for Hispano-Suiza and seeing the opportunity with Goux and Boillot at Peugeot—to build and race a car of their own design—Zuccarelli succumbed to the temptation and the die was cast.  

Once Goux convinced Robert Peugeot of the validity of his team’s concept, the president quietly agreed to back their promising project to go big-time in the GP class against the world’s finest. Robert Peugeot then had to gain a consensus from his own management. This of course was a formality, but with so much internal discussion, word of the plan leaked and caused a near revolution within Peugeot’s outraged engineering hierarchy. Being unilaterally bypassed by their president for the unproven ideas of a few greasy mechanics seemed insulting as well as highly unprofessional. Soon the outrageous affair was the talk of the entire Parisian automotive community. 

Lightning in a Bottle

The four young rebels were soon labeled Les Charlatans for their bald-faced effrontery in challenging the status quo. Peugeot, however, had been very careful to ensure the credibility and success of his highly controversial decision. First, he moved Les Charlatans’ entire project away from the main factory, where it would have been under constant verbal and political attack. It went to a smaller Peugeot-owned company operating under a different name that was quietly developing a special aero engine for the equally fast-expanding French aircraft industry. 

Second, Peugeot made a similar, but much quieter, deal with another ambitious young French engineer who claimed he also could design and build a superior GP racer to carry the Peugeot name to victory against Europe’s fastest. His name? Ettore Bugatti. Peugeot’s rules were simple: When both of the new designs were completed and ready to race, the faster of the two would receive his full support for the coming 1912 French Grand Prix in Dieppe. 

The runoff between the two teams for Peugeot’s patronage spoke volumes about the future of motor racing. Bugatti’s admittedly beautifully finished racer, with a top speed of 99.4 mph, was completely outclassed by Les Charlatans’ first effort, which turned a then mind-blistering 115 mph. 

In truth, the winning Charlatan prototype, although officially called a Peugeot, was actually entered as part of a privateer team under the name Equipe Boillot—much as Enzo’s Scuderia Ferraris were actually custom-built Alfa Romeos some decades later. It was Boillot’s organizational genius that held the team together for Peugeot, while his prodigious talent behind the wheel gave him the personal fame and satisfaction that helped create history. 

The unconventional Peugeot team’s first GP racers were unlike anything seen previously. And it wasn’t just the engines. 

Everything was reconsidered for the team’s new design, so the engineering focus was on lighter weight in the chassis as well as in the moving components of their revolutionary engines. Instead of building just one car, Les Charlatans built four. 

When one comprehends that almost every single detail of these new cars had been merely a figment of the trio’s collective imagination just weeks before the completion of their proof of concept, then one begins to grasp the equal genius of the team’s draftsman, Ernst Henry, a man with a unique talent capable of converting verbal dreams into drawings for buildable parts. 

There were few outside sources. Almost everything was conceived and made internally. Once on paper, each of these hundreds of individual components had to be entirely hand-fabricated or carefully machined to an exceptional finish by highly experienced hands, almost like pieces of singular art. Only when all was finally assembled and fired up could the skeptics appreciate the true genius and mechanical innovation of these early racing designers.

In deference to their engine’s displacement, these first cars were referred to as L76s. Smaller by half at 7.6 liters and much lighter than the highly favored Italian monsters from Fiat, these first four Peugeot GP racers literally bristled with new ideas.

It’s easy now to point to their double overhead camshafts with four valves per cylinder and centrally positioned spark plug in the crown of a semi-spherical combustion chamber, or to their slim, vertical, crank-driven shaft on the engine’s nose that in turn drove the bevel gear mounted to the cylinder head that spun the twin spur gears attached to the leading edge of each cam, and then note the close similarity to almost any modern racing engine running today. 

The cross-section of Les Charlatans’ lightweight, high-revving powerplant (top) looks contemporary even by today’s standards. Equipe Boillot (above) drove a team entry to first overall at the 1913 French Grand Prix.

But back then—for those only familiar with conventional “flat head” designs, with the valves hidden down in the block much like in Ford’s ubiquitous Model T—these jewellike details and their intended purposes seemed almost beyond comprehension. 

Even the L76’s four pistons were unique, being completely machined from steel billet. Perhaps two of the engine’s least appreciated unseen details were their cast-iron blocks with integral cylinder heads to eliminate problematic cylinder head gaskets and the L76’s pioneering dry-sump lubrication. 

Somehow, perhaps in early testing, Les Charlatans had discovered the importance of scavenging the oil from the sump to reduce internal crankcase pressures at high engine speeds. This detail eliminated much of the inherent friction while guaranteeing constant pressure feed to the crank’s main bearings and connecting rod journals. 

The improbability of Les Charlatans’ amazing first-overall victory at the Grand Prix de l’ACF in Dieppe can only be imagined. Now formally entered as Peugeots by Equipe Boillot, the cars had appeared seemingly out of nowhere with four essentially brand-new, radically different, unproven designs to challenge the crème of European racing aristocracy in an immense 47-car grid. 

Included among the lesser lights were a 9-liter, six-cylinder, Belgian-built Excelsior; two 6.2-liter French Roland-Pilains; no fewer than three 15-liter, aircraft-engined Fiats; and four 15-liter, probably also aircraft-derived French Lorraine-Dietrichs. 

But it wasn’t just the intimidating numbers in this vast field of mechanical wonders that faced Les Charlatans; the race itself was to be an incredibly destructive 956-mile run over some of France’s best, but still relatively primitive, dirt roads. The expected duration was so daunting that race officials divided it into a two-day affair that would still allow each team some limited time for repairs in the parc fermé during the lightless late-evening break. 

The Auto Club de France’s grueling two-day Dieppe Grand Prix included a special prize for under-3-liter cars called the Coupe de l’Auto, posted by L’Auto magazine. The GP was the premier racing event of the year, attracting countless thousands. The purpose of the special Coupe de l’Auto prize was to create interest in smaller cars that seemed closer to the public’s perception of what could actually be acquired. The race’s front-running, elite, fire-breathing monsters seemed almost unworldly to the throngs, many of whom had never even seen an automobile.

The team’s European success earned them an invitation to Indy in 1913. Jules Goux drove the No. 16 to a 13-minute victory; Paolo Zuccarelli’s No. 45 dropped out early with engine problems.The race was almost Peugeot’s and Equipe Boillot’s complete undoing. Realizing how difficult the event would be, Boillot had wisely elected to build four L76s for the car-killing event. The prevailing conditions were so brutal that three of their four entries were lost before the end of the first day. Photography Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Zuccarelli’s Peugeot made only seven of the first 10 laps, never running higher than 13th overall. Rene Thomas—the team’s fourth driver, who would later figure larger in Les Charlatans’ fortunes—went out with a burned rod bearing early on the first day. Goux was easily running third overall behind the two leading Fiats by the third lap, when a fuel line ruptured and he lost an irreplaceable hour repairing it in the countryside—only to be later disqualified for not refueling in the pits as officially specified. Even today, only those who have competed in a French event like Le Mans can begin to understand the origins of the incredibly complex FIA rules and sometimes anal officiousness of the French organizers. 

Team leader Georges Boillot and his inseparable riding mechanic, Charles Prevost, lost time in the beginning laps with minor fixable annoyances but still somehow managed to stay with two of the fastest thundering Fiats. Through the exhausting two-day battle, Boillot finally managed to pass and win overall by what was then considered a “slim margin” of 12 minutes. 

Photograph Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

This completely unexpected victory by the radically new Peugeot racer against the highly favored Fiats was an unprecedented public success for Peugeot. It immediately raised the manufacturer’s European status and, with it, the highly questioned credibility of the previously ridiculed Charlatans. Rene Thomas said later, “If Boillot had not won, it would have been the finish of our entire team.” The Peugeot’s victory proved a turning point in racing history, as it signaled the end of slow-revving, dinosaur-sized aircraft engines for racing. 

When the representative for Indy’s Carl Fisher arrived in France, he found Les Charlatans’ incredible win at the Dieppe GP had made Peugeot the toast of the continent. He made a point to meet as soon as possible with the leaders of the two best teams in France: Peugeot’s Equipe Boillot and Ernst Ballot. He also met with teams from Germany and Italy. Eventually, a total of six drivers would sign. 

A generous offer of support to bring the two leading French teams to Indianapolis was made. The added incentive of $20,000 for the winner (almost half a million dollars in today’s money) made the decision fairly easy, as the costs to design and build two very special new Peugeot racers for the American 500-miler were then considerably defrayed. 

The rules for the 1913 Indianapolis 500 were based on an engine size limit of 450 cubic inches. That dimension had become popularly accepted for American racing engines because it matched the displacement of production versions by Duesenberg and several others of local origin. 

The new Peugeots for Indianapolis were carefully refined yet slightly smaller-engined versions of Les Charlatans’ L76 Dieppe GP winner. Time and finances limited Peugeot’s entry to two cars.

Image Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

When Goux and Zuccarelli first tested on the brick-surfaced Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they encountered serious tire problems. Anxious to make sure his foreign stars would be competitive on race day, the event’s promoter, Carl Fisher, introduced them to experienced American driver Johnny Aitken, who analyzed the problem and determined that the Peugeot’s Michelin tires, combined with the Peugeot’s obvious speed advantage, were an unsuited combination for the circuit’s hard brick surface. 

Europe’s softer dirt roads had been much easier on the French rubber. With no American tires available to fit the Peugeot’s Rudge-Whitworth wire wheels, Aitken had only one solution for the Frenchmen’s dilemma: Slow down.

Aitken was hired as the team’s crew chief and strategist for the race, and Goux put his sage advice to good use. During the race, Zuccarelli’s harder-pressed Peugeot lasted only until the 18th lap, going out early with main bearing failure. Goux and his race mechanic, Emil Begin, ran the entire 200 laps with no relief, the first team ever to do so. 

Goux kept a steady, reserved pace of just under 80 mph to easily win the 500-miler, finishing a comfortable 13 minutes ahead of his nearest rival, American Spencer Wishart in a Mercer. Even with carefully planned stops for rubber, Goux essentially controlled the race in four intervals by leading 138 of the 200 laps. 

Goux and Begin created a minor sensation in the pits—and a great story in the press—by reportedly downing several bottles of fine French Champagne during their pit stops to “refresh” themselves. Later, after collecting his $20,000 winnings, Goux remarked that it was one of his most enjoyable races ever. 

Photograph Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

After the race, in keeping with Peugeot’s practice of selling its cars to offset costs, both the 1913 Indy Peugeot racers were sold to top American drivers Arthur Duray and Bob Burman. The results of this now questionable sale would change motor racing history forever. American copies of the Indy winner’s Peugeot engine, in time, completely altered the direction of previous endeavors. 

And it wasn’t just in America: The first four Charlatan racers from the 1912 Dieppe GP race had also been sold to manufacturers in the U.K. and France, so the team’s previously closely held speed secrets soon influenced the details of almost every serious contender in Europe. But it was in America that the winning “Indianapolis Peugeot” engines effected the most change. 

The Secret’s Out

By the winter of 1914, the threat of war had changed all of Europe. Peugeot was concerned with far more important matters than motor racing in preparing for the coming conflagration. Bob Burman, who had bought one of the Indy Peugeots, had blown its engine, so he contacted Peugeot for a replacement, hopefully in time for the 1914 racing season. Told the company was no longer in the racing engine business, Burman turned to American racing specialists Harry Arminius Miller and Fred Offenhauser in Los Angeles. The two had recently joined forces to manufacture Miller’s innovative Master carburetor for the general market. 

These were selling by the thousands, so by the time Burman contacted Miller Engineering for a new engine, the company had raised enough capital to expand its facilities to specialize in the repair and re-creation of parts for exotic engines from Mercedes-Benz, Isotta, Delage, Hispano-Suiza and Fiat as well as the usual domestics. 

Taking delivery of Les Charlatans’ masterpiece and using it to build a brand-new, Peugeot-inspired engine for Burman became an education that gave Miller rare insight into some of racing’s most revolutionary ideas. The opportunity to carefully inspect and then completely redesign, refine and improve the design would change racing engines in America for decades to come.

Subsequent Miller and Offenhauser racing engines, powering every combination of American chassis through the next 60-plus years, showed constant evolutionary refinement and upgrading of the original Peugeot concept. These new Miller engines came in a variety of sizes and configurations, all drawn by brilliant American designer Leo Goosen, and they became the racing world’s mechanical marvels. 

They came to dominate all forms of American competition, especially at the Speedway, until the advent of the game-changing, rear-engine, Colin Chapman-designed Lotus 35 with Ford Cosworth power in 1965. But even then, its winning Cosworth V8 was still based on the basic concepts established by Les Charlatans’ 1913 Peugeot Indy winner, an inspirational concept that will no doubt continue to influence dozens of challengers for decades to come.

Genius Endures

Even without Peugeot’s official backing, Boillot’s Peugeot team came again to Indy in 1914, this time as privateers. But it wasn’t quite the same. Zuccarelli had been killed in practice for the French GP shortly after their 1913 Indy win. By May of 1914, almost every other engine builder in Europe had seen what Les Charlatans had invented and was already building or attempting to copy their revolutionary concepts. 

Indy’s brick surface chewed up the team’s soft, white tires. Local racer Johnny Aitken (top, in cap) offered a solution: Simply slow down. Photography Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The 1914 Indy-winning Delage, with ex-Peugeot driver Rene Thomas at the wheel, may not have been the fastest in qualifying (tires again). However, its engine, recently designed by Thomas’s good friend and ex-Peugeot draftsman Ernst Henry, certainly had many similarities to his earlier Peugeot Dieppe GP winners. 

Upon their return to France after Indy in 1914, both Goux and Boillot joined the French army and essentially disappeared in the fog of war. Ernst Henry went back to Peugeot and designed a V8 aircraft version of Les Charlatans’ original four-cylinder racing engine. Peugeot made some 8000 of these V8s to power the revolutionary (first all-metal) Voisin bombers that helped stop the German invasion of France. 

In America, development of the Peugeot-inspired Miller engines continued for decades, with two of the special front-drive Miller racing cars that had been taken to France by French racer Leon Duray in 1929 being purchased by Ettore Bugatti for development of his own designs. Time proves change is constant, but original genius remains forever. 

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4jarlson2 New Reader
6/17/21 5:59 p.m.

I'm quite certain the engine in Jimmy Clark's Lotus in 1965 was not a "Ford Cosworth." The Cosworth V8 did not come about until 1967 and was significantly different than Ford Indy V8.

gstidsen New Reader
6/17/21 8:40 p.m.

The 1965 engine had one of the best names in automotive history:  Coventry Climax   1499cc V8 212hp   

4jarlson2 New Reader
6/18/21 12:54 p.m.

The Climax was the engine Lotus used for Formula 1. The Indy engine was a 4.2 liter, quad cam V8 that featured the exhausts in the vee and the intakes between the cams. Bruce McLaren sleeved one down to 3 liters for F1 but that project never had success unless you count it's powering a camera car in "Grand Prix."

RGarnett New Reader
12/8/21 12:26 p.m.

L'Auto, 1905? Far from first auto magazine. #1, The Autocar (British) and #2, The Horseless Age (US) started publication in 1895... 


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