A Peugeot Enigma

WF Bradley was harsh on Boillot, Goux and Zuccarelli. Calling them charlatans distorts the history of motor racing and subverts the reputation of Ernest Henry. Inspired engineer or talented draughtsman, Henry was instrumental in the creation of the twin overhead cam, 4-valve cylinder head more than a century ago, a classic of racing engines that drives us on the road today.

 1914 Peugeot grand prix team. No 5 Boilot's 4.4litre retired lying second in the French Geand Prix at Lyons.

1914 Peugeot grand prix team. No 5 Boilot's 4.4litre retired lying second in the French Geand Prix at Lyons.

There is no dispute over Peugeot’s role in the creation of the abiding Henry head. Peugeot won grands prix and coupes de l’Auto in 1912-1913 and went on to success at Indianapolis and Vanderbilt Cups in 1914-1915. Laurence Pomeroy heaped praise on the Genevoise Henry in his seminal study The Grand Prix Car; others such as Bradley, Continental Correspondent of The Autocar in the 1920s and 1930s, scorned the modest technician saying he did no more than draw up the inspiration of the three racing drivers. The dispute among motoring historians rumbled on indecisively until the 1970s, when Griffith Borgeson an opinionated feisty American the Society of Automotive Engineers praised as a leader in the field investigated.

By the time Borgeson’s work appeared in Automobile Quarterly, Vol7 No3 of 1973, Henry had been dead more than 20 years. Paulo Zuccarelli died in a racing car in 1913, Georges Boillot in World War I. Jules Eugène Goux first European to win at Indianapolis died in 1965. Why had Bradley, aged 90 by the time Borgeson talked to him, contradicted my hero Pomeroy, dismissing all four men as charlatans, imposters, quacks, pretenders? Unimpressed with Bradley’s explanation Borgeson sought out René Thomas, Peugeot racer of the period and Paul Yvelin, former Peugeot engineer and historian, as well as Henry’s grandson Rudy. Had Henry merely put his colleagues’ ideas down on paper or, worse, filched the valvegear scheme from acknowledged genius Marc Birkigt, founder of Hispano-Suiza?

Borgeson consulted Michael Sedgwick, a historian with an impeccable reputation for accuracy on an assertion that “the twin ohc Peugeots were a direct crib from Birkigt.” Sedgwick’s response was that his informant was an historian of Hispanos. He didn’t have to add that the source was perhaps unwholesome but meanwhile Borgeson unearthed more history, including a Peugeot aero engine (below). This was a big, four-camshaft V8 he describes as “…pure Charlatan. So advanced and sophisticated that it could have passed for one of the Grand Prix engines of the autumn of 1968.” He might have added “like Keith Duckworth’s Ford-Cosworth V8, twin overhead camshaft, 4-valve head DFV”, which was winning its first races when he was writing. “I had copies made of these staggering drawings. It was uncanny how far ahead Les Charlatans really were.” The Musèe de l' Air in Paris said it had been planned by Chamuseau, Gainque, and Gremillon, of Peugeot but was so similar to one designed by Henry that it only enhanced his engineering reputation.

002 Peugeot 009313 - Copy - Copy.jpg

It seems to me that the self-effacing Henry did have something to hide, but nothing like the shady industrial espionage of which Bradley and others accused him. Like Ferdinand Porsche in the 1930s or Giorgio Giugiaro in the second half of the 20th century Henry and his driver friends acted as designers for others, sometimes sub rosa.

The twin-cam Peugeots reappeared as Sunbeams and Humbers. They were copied by Premier and Monroe and their principles duplicated in generations of American racing engines either illicitly or under licences bought covertly from Henry’s design office. Peugeot may even have been an agent as a means of making profit from its investment in a long and expensive racing programme. It was Peugeot policy to sell racing cars, sometimes immediately after they had been raced. (Below) Henry's classic dohc cylinder head.

Louis Coatalen reputedly bought one to borrow ideas for the 1914 TT Sunbeams. Veteran editor Bill Boddy thought that, “Others may have paid royalties to the Henry team, which would explain the many apparently blatant copies of his engines. There has been mention of a patent applying to the famous 1912 GP Peugeot, which strengthens this theory.”

Henry went on to design engines for Ballet among others post Second World War but even his family felt he had poor business sense. Essentially shy and scarcely entrepreneurial, he lost money on a factory making aluminium pistons and died in poverty on 12 December 1950. He was a representative for American Bohnalite pistons, yet it seems to have been left to Peugeot to secure a simple tomb in La Nouvelle Cimetiére at Courbevous, a suburb of Paris for Mme Henry nee Hamelin and Ernest Henry 1885-1950.

 Peugeot 1914

Peugeot 1914