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MASTERS of delicacy and deftness in society, proponents of the M subtle and suave in foods, exponents of the graceful and intricate in the arts; all of these typical French qualities somehow were transformed into engineering and found their way into the first important French car the Peugeot. While other early manufacturers in Europe entered races with huge ponderous tanks of automobiles equipped with massive slow-turning brutes of engines, Peugeot quietly arrived with a tiny light-weight machine powered with a four-cylinder fast revving engine. It was intricate four valves for each cylinder with individual overhead camshafts, and hemispherical combustion chambers. A four-speed gear box was another step forward. This small lithe car stunned the racing world and proved that a little car, properly designed, could outspeed and outmaneuver bigger machines. For a modern example, check the racing record of the 1959 Cooper in competition against all the high powered machinery of its time.
The Peugeots stormed the race tracks of the world in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1913, 1916, and 1919 they overpowered everyone else at Indianapolis and won the Vanderbilt Cup contests in 1915 and 1916. Whenever they did not come in first the Peugeots were likely to be seen in second or third place. They were just as potent on the continent, and their example started a trend away from the big ponderous engines. The small, high-rpm, four-cylinder engine on the Peugeot became a prototype for most future facing cars. It was a revolution that changed the course of automotive history.
Armand Peugeot was in at the very beginnings of the automobile. The descendant of a long line of engineers who pioneered steel processing, he started his career as a bicycle maker and then built a steam car in 1889. When Daimler finally offered his internal combustion engine for sale, Peugeot installed one in a new type of machine. He used a tubular steel chassis instead of a heavy frame and chose light bicycle wheels in preference to the usual carriage wheels. Even in 1890 he was tending toward a light maneuverable car. In 1894 the Peugeot tied for first place with Panhard-Levassor, France's other great pioneering firm, in the Paris-to-Rouen contest, one of the early reliability runs. Then in 1895 Peugeot captured the prize in the first real automobile race in the world - Paris-to-Bordeaux race.
Soon the Peugeot factory began making its own engine under the direction of Armand's brother, Robert. He engaged Ernest Henri as chief engineer who designed the light, fast power plant that startled the world. But it was not only in the field of racing that the Peugeot penchant for small deft cars showed. In 1912 the company produced one of the first four-cylinder economy machines - the Bebe Peugeot. It was designed by the master of artistic engineering, Ettore Bugatti.
The present day 403 Peugeot is one of the finest of the compact imports. It handles with the ease of a sports car and supplies the comfort of a much larger car. It is neither the most powerful nor the fastest car in its class but that is not the purpose of its design. Incidentally 403 is the only designation to be seen on the car. The name Peugeot appears only on the inside and in the engine compartment. With what seems to be an inverted sense of advertising the Peugeot executives believe that one should recognize their car by appearance alone. That isn't hard. It is one of the neatest imported machines to be seen. The pioneering spirit that led to the fantastic racing cars has also provided some admirable features on the modern Peugeots. A great amount of aluminum is used for the mechanical components and stainless steel replaces the more fragile chrome plating on the bumpers and exterior trim. With an eye to consumer economy Peugeot supplies a purchaser with almost every device listed as an option on many other cars. The all-inclusive price tag includes everything except a radio.
Peugeot uses one of the most thorough testing procedures to be found in the automotive-industry. In addition to assembly-line inspection, each week one car is driven over 300 miles and then stripped to the last nut and bolt to check the quality of the parts.
Sports-car and racing enthusiasts regret Peugeot's absence from competition. Too many years have gone by since their machines showed the world what the light Gallic touch could accomplish. As a matter of fact the most ponderous thing about a Peugeot is the official name of the company La Societe Anonyme des Automobiles Peugeot.
After World War I Peugeot gave up racing and worked studiously at the production of passenger machines and trucks. Again lightness, ease of handling, and economy of operation were the goals for the passenger vehicles, and Peugeot succeeded admirably. The solidly constructed cars that are now seen on the roads of America still demonstrate that purpose.