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

120 Years of Skoda

Skoda is celebrating 120 years since its foundation by Václav Laurin and Václav Klement. It is half a century since I first visited AND A lot has changed.

THE MOTOR March 20 1963

CAPTION SAYS: Skodas leaving the works at Mláda Boleslav. The banner above the gate is the nearest thing to advertising in Czechoslovakia. It publicizes the Twelfth Party Conference.

THE Czechs have words for it. Most of them are unpro­nounceable and not all of them polite, but the English which sums up Czech motoring (for the Czechs, that is) is Drab. Petrol is expensive and poor, roads are indifferent although compara­tively traffic-free and if you can’t afford a Skoda (nobody can afford a Tatra) and haven't the influence to get a foreign car, the only alternative is one of the miracles Czechs keep running years after they would have found an honourable resting-place in a Western motor museum. An old car movement would have splendid material in Czechoslovakia, but little enthusiasm; keeping antiques running is only fun if you don’t actually have to.

            One of the proudest men I met in Prague runs a Mini. He claims it is the only one in the country and brought it out of its garage specially for our visit. He has to get all his spares straight from Longbridge and pay for them in British currency, and he only uses his car at week-ends or during the summer. Heavy tax on petrol and no annual car licence encourages this sort of “week-end” motoring and his enthusiasm for his car was prodigious.

            As a government official dealing with foreign journalists, he whisked us about Prague in a chauffeured Tatra when we weren't using the Standard Vanguard Six which had taken us there. Requests to drive a Tatra were repeatedly turned down because these cars, I was told, were not for export so couldn’t possibly be of any interest to me. The only ones in Britain belong to the Czechoslovak Embassy in London and even in Prague, they are exclusively for Top People. Judging by the number I saw in the streets of Prague however, I would reckon the “classless society” to be in severe imbalance. The ratio of Tatras to other cars suggests a Top Heaviness of Top People.

            It took a Top Person and (I fancy) a hefty bribe to persuade the taxi insignia off the side of a Tatra 603 and let me drive it down the new motor road south from Prague beside the Vltava River. This is one of the network of roads planned to cover Czechoslovakia although so far the only one to have struggled off the drawing board.

            In the end I drove two Tatras, the second one belonging to a government department but both, unfortunately rather long in the tooth. The specification is the best thing about them, including coil spring independent suspension ail round and an air-cooled V-8 engine at the rear. The monocoque body is extremely roomy but the styling, even in its latest form is now rather old-hat.

            The wheel arches intrude on the front compartment quite a lot and the driving position is therefore offset. Although the Czechs call it a luxury car, the trim is somewhat Spartan to cosseted Westerners but it looks robust enough and is certainly practical. Even allowing for the suspension, which had taken a long beating from the local pavé, the ride is a bit soft and wallowy, and a pronounced oversteer limited cornering speeds and ob­viously inhibited the official driver who accompanied me on my second outing. My interpreter could barely keep pace with his voluble Czech, and translated about three minutes of non-stop instruction with, “I think he wants you to go slower”.

            The rather wretched petrol curtailed the car’s performance and produced loud pinking from the 2,545 c.c. (75x72) V8. A Czech motoring paper claims a top speed of 105 mph, which seemed a little optimistic after driving the car which has a claimed power output of only 100 net bhp at 4,800 rpm, and an all-up weight of 29.75 cwt. I would doubt its ability to out­perform our Vanguard Six which certainly handled better. Understandably, with linkage which has to go down the steering column then find its way to the very back of the car, the gear- change is rather sloppy. Describing the synchromesh, which is applied to all four speeds was nearly beyond a non-technical interpreter who concluded that, “the gears change but are not demolished.” I had to agree that they changed and they certainly had not been demolished in the course of 160,000 km. (around 100,000 miles), which one of the cars had covered.

            Standard equipment on the Tatra includes a radio and heater and there is a large, deep luggage compartment in the front. It is generally quiet but the gears whine and the fans circulating air past the cast-iron cylinders (which have machined fins) whirr quite noisily. Valve operation is by pushrods, there are two carburetters, and light alloy is used for the cylinder heads and manifolds. The rack-and-pinion steering is light considering the weight of the car but rather lifeless. Stopping the Tatras from speed was something of an adventure which took a heavy pedal pressure and most of the width (and a good deal of the length) of motor road, although both cars were due for overhaul.

            The Czechs quite sincerely believe that the Tatra 603 is at least as good as anything in its class in the world. While it seems strongly built, and overcomes some of the drawbacks of earlier models, which had poor rearward visibility and meagre luggage space, the mountainous oversteer persists. With decent petrol and a little more youth than the ones I diove it would probably be quite fast but still rather stolid and ungainly. I enjoyed Czech food (the Moskva Restaurant is a “must” for visitors) and Prague Ham is excellent, but the rather indigestible, heavy dumplings on which the workers grow portly, always made me think of Tatras.

            The general isolation from international motoring thought makes the Skoda quite acceptable in Czechoslovakia. It also has independent suspension all round but is something of a relic too. The ride is stiff and bouncy and the interior cramped. More progressive ideas will not prevail at Skoda until 1964 when the new factory opens alongside the present one at Mláda Boleslav. Hampered by scattered buildings and (surprisingly in a country with a famous machine tool industry) a great deal of antiquated plant, production is laborious. But the shape of prototypes I saw at the works would indicate that after 1964, Skodas will matter more. [They showed me a rear-engined car duly introduced in April 1964 with the engine at the back, swing-axle suspension, certainly inspired by the Renault 8 and perhaps developed with French advice. Editorial policy of The Motor in the 1960s permitted me to drop hints but not break confidences about forthcoming models like the 1000MB (below).]

            Personifying the more liberal thought in the second generation Skoda executive, was the man who showed me the factory. He has worked as a Skoda service representative in Burma and Australia and was one of the few Czechs I met (and they included several prominent motoring writers) who knew foreign motor cars at first hand. There is apparently a tendency for promotions to result from personal worth nowadays rather than party or idealogical prowess. Like any motor industry executive anywhere in the world he is very proud of a slightly non-standard car from his own factory, but unlike a Western counterpart, his car spends most of its time in its garage at home. Private motoring, even by people connected with the industry, is officially con­sidered something of a nuisance.

            A large number of the 10,000 workers who produce some 200 Skoda cars every day are women. Everybody works without fear of sacking; even gross dereliction of duty can only result in demotion which, as Skoda executives themselves admit, makes difficulties. The factory is dominated by pictures of President Novotny, Lenin, and rather idealistic Workers clutching spanners and marching Shoulder to Shoulder. Red Starred exhortations to work harder for the Glory of the C.S.S.R. might all have been so much wallpaper compared with the galvanizing effect my guide had, appropriate to his position in the local world of ice-hockey.

Payment by Czechs

            If you were a Czech with enough Crowns for a new car, you would go along to Mototechna, the state car sales organization and have your name added to those of several thousand of your countrymen who have had the idea (or the Crowns) first. Mototechna would offer you a Skoda for 38,000 Crowns (£1,900) or a Tatra for 75,000 Crowns (£3,750), looking for a deposit on the first named of 20,000 Crowns (£1,000) with the balance when the car is delivered in something like a year or eighteen months’ time.

            If your taste were to run to a foreign car, there are limited numbers of Wartburgs (East German) Warsawas (Polish-built versions of the old Russian Pobiedas) Moskvitches or Volgas (both Soviet but the latter imported only for the nebulous upper class). Your smelly petrol at about eighteen shillings a gallon is brought from Russia by pipeline but a compression ratio is the same in any language. You might also buy a Hillman Minx, Renault Dauphine, Fiat 600, or Simca Etoile out of the import quota at a price inflated about five times from that in its country of origin. The surprising thing is that there are enough Czechs with the kind of money to produce such long waiting lists. Clever ones can by-pass the waiting list by managing some hard currency to pay for the car, so once again the upper class wins over the poor worker with his own, home-grown cash.

Changed days (below) celebration of 2014's millionth sale.

            Mototechna also handle quality used cars. Second hand cars (which include those well-used antiques) can be sold privately after three years and Mototechna guarantee new and used vehicles. Enlistment in the state-run insurance organization, which is compulsory takes a premium of around £12 per year.

            Official estimates put 25 per cent of car-owners into motoring clubs where the emphasis is not so much on sport, but collective servicing at home. Interest in sport centres on motorcycling but there was a good deal of speculation when I was there in Decem­ber, before the South African Grand Prix, on the destination of the World Drivers Championship. Graham Hill and Jim Clark mean something to the Czech enthusiast and my opinion was frequently sought on the future of Stirling Moss.

            Several Formula Junior racing cars have been built recently and there have even been some meetings at Brno, scene of several “Internationals" since the war. The Juniors have been mostly Skoda-based but some, like the space-frame, rear-engined car built by a Prague team under Eng. Hausman, editor of Svet Motoru, use a Wartburg gearbox and differential. Clubs, rather than individuals build the cars but sport is another aspect of domestic motoring which leads rather a threadbare existence.

            The Czech motorist is pitifully isolated but burning with curiosity. A Belgian drove into Prague when I was there with a Mark X Jaguar and as soon as it was parked it immediately became invisible behind a crowd at the kerbside. Government planning insists that a traffic problem will not be allowed to develop and that roads must come before cars but this is scant comfort to the would-be motorist. Particularly since road development is so obviously slow. But there is plenty of interest and even enthusiasm for motoring as the Czech reputation in the two-wheeled world indicates. Although the production part of the Czech motor industry looks like dragging its feet for some time to come, the development of new models at Skoda is along promising lines. Isolation from the rest of the world's motor cars will remain something of a problem to the enthusiast, the motoring press, and even the industry itself, but more progressive ideas may well prevail in the future.

            Last December, a British firm of consulting engineers were being employed to dismantle an enormous statue of Stalin which, for nearly ten years dominated the Prague skyline. And after de-Stalinization . . . ?

The rest, as they say, is history. Captions to The Motor pictures below...

Crossed Czech. Prague policemen became very angry with the Vanguard Six when it failed to observe a local crossroads custom. Traffic turning left at cross­roads wait in the right-hand lane until all is clear, then cross. We had re-written half the rule book before discovering this and had altercations with some formidable pointsmen.

Dated Czech. A pre-war Aero climbs a snowy Prague street. This is typical of the carefully-preserved “oldies” with which Czechs often have to make do.

The headlights of the Tatra 603 are behind a glass panel in the front. Later models have four. Intakes at the back gulp in air to cool the 2.5-litre V8 engine. The roomy and practical interior takes six people easily, but Tatra drivers have to sit offset because of the large front wheel arches. The gearchange is on the right of the steering column.

The culture of MG

Something about MG brings out the best in people. Applause for winners at the Lincolnshire Centre MG Car Club’s concours wasn’t just polite. It had warmth. Classic MGs cover a wide spectrum. This was no Hurlingham with cars costing millions, nor a Bentley or Jaguar club affair with cars at hundreds of thousands. MGs can reach big money of course, yet ever since Cecil Kimber poshed up Morrises to make world-class sports carS, MGs have been unique. They are classy without being class-conscious. Some cars are classics because there weren’t many. MGs became classics even though there were lots.

Yesterday at the Concours I didn’t meet any owners who talked about what their cars were worth. Well, with one exception because I asked him. Not many seem to restore or refurbish MGs because of what they’ll fetch at Bonhams’ or how they’ll look at Goodwood, although some MG folk can be just as arcane about originality. The immaculate 1964 MGB had a notice in the window detailing its restoration to correctitude strictly in accordance with Anders Clausager’s Original MG book. It was apparently one of the last in the series with original recessed door handles and a 36-rivet grille where all the uprights were individually attached to the chrome surround. Now, there’s detailing.

A passing spectator wondered if its light blue was the best colour for a B and I tried to remember the colour of the first MGB I drove. This was a press car 523 CBL for the first official road test published in The Motor on 24 October 1962. I drove it from London to Charterhall, the Scottish Borders track, the weekend before the test was published, the badges taped over because it was still officially “secret”. Jackie Stewart was racing, probably FSN1 the Dumbuck Jaguar E-type and I parked the MG in a quiet corner of the paddock where it immediately became a focus of interest.

I’m not good with colours; I seem to recall it was blue. I had had an MGA, which a B could never match for precision and the 1962 test that I compiled (it was essentially a committee job by road test staff under Charles Bulmer and Joe Lowrey) now seems a little uncertain about the handling. It makes a lot of the ride and the stiffness (we’d now say over-engineering) of the body shell. “The rack-and-pinion steering has been freed from kick-back without flexibility or much frictional damping being perceptible, yet feel of the road is retained.” Faint praise I think.

Another car at the concours was MG 1199 (below left), an 18/80 looking like the twin of the late Roger Stanbury’s splendid open 4-seater MG1200 in which I suffered many happy adventures. The wind in Roger’s 18/80 not only blew in your hair, it also blew up through holes in the floor, a legacy owed to neglect of a car he bought as a student.

My affection for MGs began when, like many an 11-year old, I read about it in Circuit Dust and Combat, borrowed from the public library. Romantic and colourful, these tomes by Alfred Edgar Frederick Higgs, or Barré Lyndon as he preferred to be known fired the imagination. It was entirely fitting that Lyndon made his name as a Hollywood scriptwriter after lending MGs a dramatic quality and a legacy of myth and legend beyond the realms of anything so prosaic as a car.



Like buses, you wait sixty years for an anniversary and two come along at once. Three if you count the British Empire Trophy and the Scottish Rally in last week’s blog. The third is the 1955 British Grand Prix at Aintree, the first grand prix I watched and the first that Stirling Moss won. Kept the programme. I kept the programmes of almost all the hundred or so grands prix, as well as Le Mans, sports car races, rallies and other events I covered as a journalist. Some still have scribbled lap charts – not all accurate or even complete. Press rooms – if there were any - weren’t spoon-fed from television links.

The Aintree jacket looks quaint, with its wingless front-engined 250F Maserati and Daily Telegraph sponsorship. An early car, this was 2509, bought by Alfred Owen to gain experience of Formula 1 while BRM was in disarray. It only produced 208bhp instead of the claimed 240, and had Dunlop die-cast aluminium wheels when photographed at the Daily Express Silverstone with Peter Collins. There were four works and four private Maseratis in the grand prix, very nearly as quick as the Mercedes-BenzW196s, Collins was quickest of them but six retired. The Ferraris were outclassed. One finished three laps in arrears.

Mercedes-Benz filled the first four places in the race round the Grand National course, without the jumps; the road (built by Tarmac Ltd the greatest name in road construction according to the programme) I suppose now used by camera cars covering the horse racing. Karl Kling and Piero Taruffi drove the other Mercedes behind Moss and Fangio. A couple of times during the 90laps Fangio passed Moss but the 25 year old held the lead to the end, when Fangio closed up almost level when they took the chequered flag. That was what we had come to see. Moss fresh from his triumph in the Mille Miglia, Mercedes-Benz under Alfred Neubauer the best motor racing team in the world. The winner got £500 and the Daily Telegraph Trophy (value £100). Bonus thrill at Aintree. We SAW the Mercedes-Benz racing car transporter (below with Fangio) while we were trying to chat up some girls. The transporter was far more interesting. We were geeky.

Race day was hot. The race took three hours and we watched from the Steeplechase Enclosure furthest from the pits and grandstand, where standing room cost five shillings (25p) although my guess is that three of us in Ronnie Abbott’s TR2 got in on the combined admission and on-the-course parking for £1.10.0 (£1.50). Moss was on pole with a practice lap of 2.00.4 while right at the back of the grid alongside Collins in the Maserati Jack Brabham qualified his Cooper-Bristol mid-engined converted sports car on 2.27.4. Overtaken by the Mercedes’ within six laps, it took Brabham four years to become World Champion.