Automotive History: Peugeot, The Early Years (1889 – 1939) – A True Pioneer, Most Of All Of The DOHC Four-Valve Engine

peugeot L76 1914gp81912 Peugeot L-76 racing engine

The early history of Peugeot is one that is difficult to do justice in the time available to me this time of year. Suffice it to say that Peugeot was one of the most important early players in the development and evolution of the automobile, during those very heady days of the late 1880s up to WWI, when France was the undisputed center of the world’s automobile industry.

The greatest achievement and final culmination of those fertile years was the brilliant and revolutionary L76 engine of 1912 (above), a DOHC, four-valve per cylinder hemi-head racing engine that not only dominated Grand Prix racing in Europe and Indianapolis, but became the template of every racing engine thereafter and eventually virtually every modern gasoline engine, from the mightiest right down to the lowliest ones. For that alone, Peugeot secured itself a key spot in the automotive Pantheon. But there’s plenty more…

Peugeot 1886 type 1

The Peugeot family had been involved in a number of manufacturing activities since 1842, and were a major force in the new bicycle industry starting in 1882. Armand Peugeot became intrigued with the automobile very early on. The first Peugeot, the steam-powered Type 1, was designed by Léon Serpollet, the inventor of the flash boiler.  It is one of the very first industrially-manufactured automobiles. Its oil-fired boiler allowed the four cylinder steam engine to make some 5hp, and propelled the Type 1 up to 16 mph (25 kmh).

Peugeot 1890 type 2

Peugeot quickly abandoned steam after seeing Gottlieb Daimler’s revolutionary new compact high-speed internal combustion engine at the 1889 Paris Universal Exhibit. Daimler arranged for his engine to be built in Paris by Panhard et Levassor. Peugeot secured the rights to the Daimler engine from the widow of Eduard Sarazin for its Type 2 (above), and this was to be a pivotal moment in propelling the French automobile industry into the lead. France quickly became the world’s largest and most innovative automobile manufacturing country, until the US eventually pulled ahead after 1906. Note that the Type 2 pre-dates Henry Ford’s first car, his Quadracycle, by fully six years, which was practically an eternity then in the evolution of the automobile.

The Type 2 had a 596 cc v2 engine under the seat making 2 hp, giving a top speed of 11 mph (18kmh). It was a very functional and relatively reliable production vehicle. It had a three-point suspension system, credited to be the first suspension system on an automobile. Apparently Peugeot’s prowess in suspensions got an early start.

Peugeot 1897 Type 15

In 1896, Armand Peugeot broke with the rest of the Peugeot businesses, and created Automobiles Peugeot. His 1897 Type 15 (above) no longer used Daimler engines; the transverse 8hp flat twin was designed in-house, and was built in the new Audincourt plant. Charles Rolls, who went on to co-found Rolls-Royce, bought a Type 15, was suitably impressed, and became a Peugeot dealer in London.

Peugeot 1901 5hp bebe

Peugeot’s next bold move was perhaps the world’s first successful compact car, the one-cylinder 5hp 1904 Bébé. It was a groundbreaking design; one of the most advanced cars of the time, with a front engine and shaft drive to the rear wheels, and it stole the show at the 1904 Paris Motor Show. It was also very stylish, and propelled Peugeot into the forefront of automotive design along with engineering. By 1903, Peugeot was building half of all the cars in France, and was a very major player in the overall European market. There were also larger Peugeots in the line-up, as well as their first six cylinder in 1907.

Peugeot 1912 bebe

No less than Ettore Bugatti designed the second Bébé of 1912. This again was a revolutionary design, with an 855cc four cylinder that yielded 10 hp and propelled the very light (770 lbs) Bébé to a spritely 37 mph (60 kmh), an exceptional performance for the time for such a small and cheap car. It became very successful in its racing class. And it put a lot of French into the driver’s seat for the first time, including many country doctors.

Peugeot 1912 L-761

Peugeot’s racing team included some of the wildest and brightest of the times, and was organized in its own fashion, mostly separate from the more conservative production engineers, who were often aghast at what the racing team came up with. The Peugeot team had been successful in the light-car voiturette class, but wanted to run with the big guys in 1910, like the 16 liter Fiats.

Paul Zuccarelli was lured away from Hispano-Suiza, and the team set themselves the task to design and build a competitive GP car. The new formula for 1911 called for maximum 7.6 liters and four cylinders. A young Swiss draftsman named Ernst Henry was employed to design the new racing engine, and what he came up with was absolutely ground breaking.

Peugeot L-45_Racer_Blue_DV-06-PBC-e01

It was the first engine to combine dual overhead cams, hemi-heads and four valve per cylinders. The cams were driven by bevel gears and a vertical shaft at the front of the engine. One biographer called Henry “perhaps the most brilliant engine designer ever”; another described one of his designs as “so technically advanced it could have landed from outer space”. Henry’s “theory, design and execution” of twin-cam engines was to guide engine development in Europe and then around the world for the next century. (Wikipedia). Henry later designed the Ballot racing cars of 1919-1920 that were a direct evolution of the Peugeots.

Peugeot L76 racing

And it wasn’t just the engine; the chassis of the L76 was considerably lighter with much better road holding than the unwieldy giants that had been dominating Grand Prix. The L76 effectively became the very model of all racing cars to come. Top speed was 120 mph (190 kmh). The team won the prestigious French Grand Prix in 1912, as well as many other key races.

Peugeot L76 Indy 1913

A 7.3 L version of the L76 was sent to Indianapolis in 1913 and won, at an average speed of 75.99 mph over the full 500 miles, pit stops and all. It was the first time a European car won the Indy 500, and it left a lasting influence on future racing cars in America. Essentially all future Indy-type racing cars were modeled closely on the Peugeot. There is no doubt that Harry Miller copied the Peugeot engine’s architecture for his four and eight-cylinder engines that soon utterly dominated Indy and other US oval racing for decades. And the Offenhauser DOHC four-valve fours that evolved from the Millers and dominated for so long into the 60s were of course also direct spiritual descendants of the Peugeot.

Peugeot 1919 Indy email

Peugeot took second at Indy in 1915, won the 1916 500, and then won a third time in 1919. No wonder their cars and engines were so profoundly influential. They dominated the brickyard for a number of year until the American’s adaptations of their designs took over.

Peugeot 163 1923

After WW1, Peugeot went back to some racing and cultivating its line of production cars. We can’t cover them all here, but this mid-range 10CV-class Peugeot 163 from 1923, a 1480cc four that first came out in 1919, is representative of their cars from that era. They were generally conservative, a leaning that Peugeot would cultivate more and more with time, despite flashes of technical and stylistic ambitions.

Peugeot 201 1929

Peugeot’s X0X naming convention started with the 201 of 1929. Appropriately enough, the 201 was Peugeot’s firs really high-volume car, built at its Sochoux plant near the Swiss border. It was a very well built car, powered by 1122cc, 1307cc and finally a 1465 cc four. Despite arriving at the dawn of the Great Depression, the inherent qualities of the 201 allowed Peugeot to weather that dismal period quite well, and reinforced its status as a major global automobile manufacturer. In 1931, the 201 received a new independent front suspension, and was otherwise refined further through its long run through 1937. There was also a larger 401.

Peugeot 601 Eclipse_1934_Pourtout

The Peugeot 601 Eclipsé was the world’s first retractable hardtop. The 601 was Peugeot’s largest and most expensive car at the time, with a 2148cc six. Designer Georges Paulin came up with the idea, and coach builder Pourtout built it. The top was electrically powered, and dropped into the opened “trunk”, setting  a precedent that is still being used today, albeit with a folded roof section. From looking at the car I shot, I assumed it was a two-seater. But this pictures shows four aboard, although I suspect the rear seat might have been a bit cozy. The 601 Eclipsé was the first in a series of retractable hardtop Peugeot coupes.

Peugeot 402

Like a number of other manufacturers, Peugeot jumped on the aerodynamic bandwagon early on. Starting in 1933, Peugeot began to restyle all of their cars in the aerodynamic mode, clearly with some influence from the Chrysler Airflow. What didn’t go over so well in more conservative United States was readily embraced in France. But it should be noted that mechanically, the Peugeot family of cars, like this 402, continued to be quite traditional with front engines and rear wheel drive. In fact, this 402 may look somewhat like an Airflow, but it still has the front wheels well ahead of the engine, since its chassis wasn’t all that much changed from its 401 predecessor.

Peugeot 402 Eclipse

The 402 Eclipse retractable hardtop was even more sensational with its aerodynamic styling. The 402 family initially came with a 1991 cc four, replaced by a 2142 cc inline six after October 1938. The 402 was the counterpart to Citroen’s ground-breaking FWD Traction Avant, which really defined the directions France’s leading car manufacturers were taking: Avant garde for Citroen; mechanically conservative but stylistically ambitious for Peugeot.

We’re going to leave off here, as we will be covering some of the Peugeots from this 1930s era individually, and than of course the post war cars will all get their own CCs, and more.

Peugeot was a true pioneer, one of the very first automobile manufacturers with very advanced cars. Perhaps its greatest achievement was the L-76 racing car and engine, which revolutionized racing car design. It became France’s largest automobile maker during the era when France was the world leader in that industry. And it continued to pioneer new ideas, like the retractable hardtop. And its bread-and-butter cars developed a reputation for being exceptionally well-engineered and solidly built, as well as stylish.

peugeot 203 3294_3424_969X7271948 203

World war 2 changed the European industry dramatically, but perhaps Peugeot came back the least changed, as it continued on the same path it had established for itself in building a long line of stylish but solid and conservative middle-class cars instead of pursuing the many bizarre new directions others took at the time. That would serve Peugeot well, until it was finally forced to expand and embrace FWD and small cars. And it managed that challenging transition exceptionally well. What ultimately challenged Peugeot the most was the shifting change in taste: the French, like so many other Europeans (and Americans), became besotted with the German holy trinity: Mercedes, BMW and Audi. Peugeot is still struggling with that, like so many other storied European brands, many that are no longer with us. Will Peugeot survive the German onslaught?