Before the First World War it can be argued that the French firm Peugeot was more successful in motor racing than any other manufacturer. In the Paris-Rouen trial of 1894, Peugeot shared first prize. Peugeot won the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race, and there were numerous other successes, not least the French Grand Prix wins in 1912 and 1913, then the world’s premier motor race. Peugeot’s record in America is exceptional – 1st at Indianapolis in 1913 and 1916, as well as winning the 1915 Vanderbilt Cup.
Peugeot’s racing achievements from 1912 onwards were largely due to the development of dual overhead camshaft engines. They were not the first to make such an engine, but they were the first to fully exploit its potential for maximum power from a given engine size. Driver/mechanics Georges Boillot, Paulo Zuccarelli and Jules Goux together with draftsman-designer Ernest Henry and factory engineer Vasselot each made a contribution. The result was a successful engine that spawned many outstanding followers including Delage, Alfa Romeo and Sunbeam, and from them Miller, Duesenberg and Aston Martin. To this day, there have been few successful racing engines that have been other than dohc units; an enormous debt is owed by all motor racing to the Peugeot company for its pioneering work.
After the Great War, motor racing spluttered back into action. André Boillot (brother of George) won the 1919 Targa Florio at the wheel of a pre-war 2½-liter Peugeot. Howard ‘Howdy’ Wilcox won at Indianapolis the same year in one of the old 1913 Lyon Grand Prix cars. For the Indianapolis 500 of 1920 Peugeot commissioned their designer, Maurice Grémillon, to develop a car to meet the new 3-liter formula.
Inspired by the pre-war twin-cam engines, Grémillon took what seemed to a logical step forward and designed engines with three overhead camshafts, 5 valves per cylinder and twin ignition from two separate magnetos. In most ways, these cars followed pre-war practices but with some differences. These 4-cylinder engines went into chassis that were upswept over the front axle, reducing ground clearance.
Four cars were built, three being sent to America for Indianapolis, and one kept in reserve. Drivers were André Boillot, Jules Goux and Howdy Wilcox. Unfortunately, the cars did not live up to expectations. Ralph de Palma took the Indianapolis pole at 99.15 mph in a French-built Ballot, an elaboration of the pre-war Peugeot dohc principles. None of the three Peugeots finished the race. Whatever the theoretical advantages of the triple camshaft engine, it was not a success.
The cars were returned to France and Grémillon cut his losses. Two cars were equipped with sleeve-valve engines similar to those Peugeot then had under development for production cars. The two remaining 1920 Indianapolis cars were rebuilt with dohc cylinder heads, one of 85x130mm bore and stroke (2950cc), the other of 80x148cc (2975cc). In The Autocar of April, 1921, W.F. Bradley notes that the larger of these two cars had the engine and gearbox in unit and was assigned to Jean Chassagne for Indianapolis while the smaller-engined, separate gearbox car was driven by Howdy Wilcox. The car offered here has the engine and gearbox in unit and a 148mm stroke, clearly the Chassagne Indianapolis Peugeot.
The barrel crankcase of this car is from one of the 1920 Indianapolis 3-cam cars, with platforms for a pair of magnetos as fitted to the twin ignition 1920 cars. Typical of overhead cam Peugeots of the period, the camshafts are driven by a beautifully-crafted train of gears at the front of the engine. In 1921, the Peugeots were again unsuccessful, Wilcox retiring after running as high as third. Chassagne was disqualified on lap 65 after the hood blew off.
A 2-liter formula then prevailed in Europe and the Indianapolis Peugeots were ineligible for racing. It appears that the Chassagne car offered here was given by Peugeot to Boillot for his racing school at Montlhéry, where it served with admirable longevity through the Thirties. An apocryphal story recounts the Indianapolis Peugeot being driven at high speed from Paris to Bordeaux ahead of the advancing German forces at the start of World War II. It remained in Bordeaux on display at the Bonnal Renaulac Collection until its acquisition by a French enthusiast who recommissioned it for use, appearing at a number of events over the years including the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 1998.
Close examination of the car reveals that, although restored, it is essentially original. The hood (apart from the panel below the exhaust system) is a replacement, supporting the story of Chassagne’s retirement from Indianapolis in 1921. The carburetor is a Solex instead of the original Claudel-Hobson, and only one magneto is fitted whereas two were in place for racing, one being a spare. These details apart, the car is basically a 1920 Indianapolis Peugeot with the 1921 twin cam head. The engine is a masterpiece of engineering, fully in the tradition of the twin cam Peugeots. Only two other Peugeot dohc racing cars are known to survive: the 1914 Grand Prix car owned by the Bothwell family in California and the pre-Great War 3 liter in the Collier Collection.