Until 1912, achieving victory in automobile racing was directly connected to building increasingly larger engines: the more cubic inches, the more checkered flags. Then, three racing car drivers—Georges Boillot, Jules Goux and Paolo Zuccarelli—joined forces with brilliant engineer Ernest Henry to change the sport. They convinced Robert Peugeot that some of Henry’s ideas—such as the use of twin camshafts operating four inclined valves per cylinder—could produce more power from a smaller engine.
Peugeot’s technical staff dubbed the four men “Les Charlatans,” but they proved their ideas by setting up a “skunkworks” in Paris, France, far from Peugeot’s factories in the Eastern part of the country. Boillot, Goux, Zuccarelli and Henry proved that good design, rather than gigantic displacement, worked.
Their testing ground was the 1912 French Grand Prix race. There, the Peugeot racing car with a 7.6-liter engine whooped a 15-liter Fiat. The victory marked the birth of the modern racing car engine and the following year saw 3.0- and 5.6-liter engines setting pace for voiturette and Grand Prix racing, respectively.
Equally memorable for Peugeot was the 1914 Indianapolis 500-Mile Race when Arthur Duray entered a 3.0-liter Peugeot, owned by French chocolate maker Jacques Menier, in the Brickyard Classic.
Duray competed against 5.65-liter Peugeot factory entries and 105-hp Delage engines with horizontal valves. Reporters called Duray’s tiny car a “Baby Peugeot”, but had to change their tune when it broke the previous Indianapolis Motor Speedway lap record at 99.85 mph and finished in second place. The Delage that took first place had an engine more than twice as big as the 3.0-liter Peugeot engine.
Amazingly, the Peugeot 3.0-liter engine was just a tad bigger than a Ford Model T motor. Within a few years, racing car builders worldwide were introducing engines copied from the basic Puegeot design.
The 1913 Peugeot 3.0-liter Coupe de L’Auto that Duray raced featured a 2980cc (183-cid) four-cylinder in-line engine that made 90 hp at 2900 rpm. It had double overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. The 1,990-lb. speed demon rode a small 112-inch wheelbase.
Today the car is part of the Miles Collier Collection at the Revs Institute in Naples, Fla.