Here’s a fun fact: Peugeot is the oldest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, since 1898. Sorry Harley, sorry Indian, the French got there first…but you knew that, right?  Most American factories based their early engines on a French design – the DeDion motor – whether copied or licensed (except for Pierce, who copied a Belgian design, the FN four!).   But Peugeot’s heyday as the world’s preeminent force in two- and four-wheel racing was so long ago it’s nearly forgotten today. 

Italian racer Giosue Giuppone was a pioneer professional rider on the Peugeot team, racing both cars and motorcycles.  Here he rides a 1.7liter track-racing ‘Monster’ c.1906 [Aldo Carrer]
Over a century ago, Peugeot seemed to be ‘first’ at everything important in racing, even in the English-speaking world.  The first Isle of Man TT in 1907 (multi-cylinder class) was won with a Peugeot motor (Rem Fowler’s Norton-Peugeot), and the first motorcycle race at Brooklands was too (the NLG-Peugeot).  The company also produced fearsome track specials at the dawn of motorcycle competition, with heroes like Henri CissacGiosue Giuppone, and Paul Péan riding monsters with 2-liter motors, weighing under 110lbs to comply with early rules restricting weight (not capacity!), riding on the makeshift bicycle tracks before the first purpose-built racing circuits existed. 

Henri Cissac on a 1.7Liter Peugeot track-racing v-twin c.1906; weight 110lbs! [Jean Bourdache]

Les Charlatans

While Peugeot’s early v-twins (as used by Norton et al) were reliable and reasonably fast in the ‘Noughts, in the 1910s Peugeot débuted the most technically sophisticated engine designs in the world, first for automobile racing in the burgeoning Grand Prix series, then in a series of remarkable motorcycles. In 1911, Swiss engineer Ernst Henry was commissioned by ‘Les Charlatans’ (Peugeot racing team members Jules GouxGeorges Boillot, and Paul Zuccarelli to draw up a new four-cylinder racing engine from ideas they’d discussed. Henry wasn’t a ‘qualified engineer’ but a draughtsman, with enough experience in motor design already (for boats and cars) to have caught the attention of the Peugeot team drivers. 

Swiss draughtsman Ernest Henry at the drawing board.[Bibliotheque Nationale de France]
Racing men were no prima donnas back then, but skilled mechanics too, savvy enough to make the models for their dream engine’s foundry castings, as well as machine components from raw metal.  The team of Henry and Les Charlatans worked independently of the Peugeot brass (apparently over the usual disagreement – investment in racing vs production), camping out in the Rossel-Peugeot factory in Suresnes (a Paris suburb), where their aircraft engines were tested.  Paris was a hotbed of the burgeoning aircraft industry, so most of the car’s engine castings came from local aircraft subcontractors, even though it appears all the design work and pattern making was done by the Charlatans themselves.

The 1912 Peugeot L3 ‘Lion 3Liter’ racer with Essai driving and Thomas as mechanic. [The Automobile]
What the Charlatans proposed was revolutionary; the first automobile engine with double overhead camshafts, and four valves per cylinder. The result of Henry’s design work was the legendary Peugeot Grand Prix EX1 or L76 (‘L’ for ‘Lion’, Peugeot’s symbol, and 7.6-liter) and L3 (3-liter) four-cylinder racing engines.  The overhead camshafts were driven by a shaft-and-bevel arrangement at the front of the engine block, and the engine was water-cooled of course. They were raced from 1912 onwards, and literally won everything they entered, including the Indianapolis 500! 

1913 Indianapolis 500 winning Peugeot with Jules Goux driving.  Goux drove the entire 500 miles without a co-driver, the first driver to do so (1913 was the 3rd running of Indy).  The Peugeot L76 was the first wire-wheel car to run Indy (previously ‘military’ spoked wheels were the norm), and finished 13 minutes ahead of the second car, and averaged 76mph in the race. [The Automobile]
The Peugeot racers even won the Vanderbilt Cup and Grand Prize in 1915 at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific Exposition, driven by ‘Dolly’ Resta.  American driver Bob Burman purchased a Peugeot racer that year, and sent it to designer Harry Miller and machinist Fred Offenhauser to ‘shrink’ the motor to the new 5-liter limit for the Indy 500.  Burman spent $2000 transforming the Peugeot with Miller-designed light alloy cylinder/heads, tubular rods, a pressurized oiling system, stronger crank, and 293 cu” displacement…which coincidentally founded the Miller/Offenhauser engine dynasty.  It would not be far wrong to say Ernest Henry’s 1911 design last raced at Indianapolis in 1976…or at least, its direct offspring, bearing a striking resemblance to the original.

Paul Péan on the 1915 Peugeot 500M on an advertisement for its successes. [Francois-Marie Dumas]
It’s not known who or what prompted Ernest Henry to adapt his ‘L76’ engine design to a motorcycle, but in 1913 he drew up a totally new 500cc engine as a straight-twin or ‘vertical twin’, in the configuration first used by Werner in 1903 (and in ‘laid down’ form by Hildebrand&Wolfmuller in 1894!).   The cylinders and heads were one-piece in cast iron, and included four inclined valves per cylinder, actuated by twin overhead camshafts, driven by a train of gears between and behind the cylinders from the center of the crankshaft, running in angled aluminum cases.  The Peugeot 500M introduced in 1913 was the first DOHC motorcycle in the world. 

Paul Péan at the Parc de Fontainebleau, at its second race in June 1914. [RAD magazine]
In comparison to what the industry was then building – single-speed, single-cylinder or v-twin sidevalves and F-heads – it might as well have landed from outer space.  And as with most engineering ‘firsts’, the DOHC motor was the culmination of very rapid development of the gasoline engine; the first inclined valves in 1904 (Bayard-Clément), the first overhead camshaft operating inclined valves in 1905 (Welch, Premier), the first four-inclined-valves pushrod motor in 1910 (Mercedes-Benz), the first OHC four-inclined-valve motor in 1911 (Rolland-Pillain).  There were other engines with two camshafts up top before the Henry motor, but they used vertical valves and rocker arms, or were two-stroke diesels using louvers rather than exhaust valves, and more importantly, they were obscure, and usually only drawings or prototypes, and did not exploit the huge power advantage possible with direct valve actuation.  It seems fair to say the Peugeot was indeed the first proper DOHC motor as we know it today.

Driveline details of the Henry Peugeot, with direct belt drive to the rear wheel, and no clutch.  Note the use of a countershaft for the final drive, which also drives the cascade of gears to the cylinder head. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The Peugeot 500M was first raced by Lucien Desvaux on April 5, 1914 on a very muddy Rambouillet circuit; his was the only 500cc machine to finish the race!  On June 14th, during the Automobile Club de France’s ‘Records Day’ in the forest of Fontainebleau, the 500M exceeded 122kmh (75mph) over a measured kilometer and 121kmh (74mph) over the measured mile.  While the 500M was clearly fast, the Collier brothers at Matchless recorded a timed 92mph (147km/h) with a 1000cc sidevalve v-twin that year, and board track Cyclones and Indian 8-valves were pushing 100mph.

Paul Péan with the third version of the 500M, designed by Gremillon, with right-side cam drive by a cascade of gears, and a clutch. [Bibliotheque Nationale de France]
Clearly the translation from a water-cooled 4-cylinder version of Henry’s auto engine to an air-cooled parallel twin required further development.  Unfortunately, two weeks after the 500M’s first speed tests, the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, and 6 weeks later France was at war; Peugeot suddenly had bigger fish to fry, and the 500M was abandoned. Ernest Henry was not retained by Peugeot during WW1… he took his engine design first to Ballot, then Sunbeam/Talbot/Darracq, all of whom subsequently won a lot of races! 

 Post WW1

In 1919, the Peugeot OHC motorcycle project was revived by a new engineer, Marcel Gremillon, who added a clutch and 3-speed gearbox with all-chain drive.  Henry’s original 500M was a nightmare for even simple maintenance, with its one-piece casting for both cylinders/heads and 8 valves, so even simple tasks like valve adjustment and decoke required a total engine strip.  

The Gremillon Peugeot 500M, with the cascade of gears on the right side of the engine, as was common in the 1950s in Italian racing singles!  This is the first iteration, with a 3-speed gearbox. [Bibliotheque Nationale de France]
In 1920, Gremillon totally redesigned the motor with the cascade of gears on the right side, rather than between the cylinders as originally; the layout will be familiar to any fan of Italian race engineering of the 1950s.  The clutch was redesigned as well, with multiple discs for greater resilience; the clutch was housed in a distinctive open cage, and looks very robust! With each succeeding improvement of Henry’s design, the Peugeot was increasingly successful on the track, but it was the final, simplest layout that proved best of all for reliability and top speed.  Sadly, it required abandoning the two cam/four valve formula to achieve greatest success, which speaks to the metallurgy and lubrication of the day, rather than the original concept, which is absolutely standard today.

The Peugeot racing team with 3 Gremillon-modified 500Ms c.1921. [Bibliotheque Nationale de France]
In 1922, a Romanian engineer, Lessman Antonesco, replaced Gremillon on the project. Antonesco totally redesigned the motor with a single OHC, driven by a shaft-and-bevel system, and utilized only two valves per cylinder, which created both a more powerful and more reliable engine. This 4th-generation Peugeot 500M began winning races in 1923, and was campaigned for two more seasons, before Peugeot’s motorcycle Grand Prix project was abandoned altogether, after Peugeot split its motorcycle and automotive branches. 

A Peugeot poster from 1925, by Geo Ham. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
It’s estimated by Peugeot that 14 of these special racers were built in total between 1914 and 1925, and only 3 in that first DOHC configuration of 1913/14.  No surviving first-generation 500M has been seen since the 1920s, and only a single last-generation ‘Antonescu’ 500cc OHC machine exists.  Its engine was installed by the legendary Jean Nougier into the frame of Peugeot P104 roadster. One more GP Peugeot exists, with a 350cc Antonescu motor, that shows up regularly at French vintage races. 

The robust shaft-and-bevel camshaft drive of the Antonescu Peugeot; note enclosed clutch/gearbox assembly (unit construction) and direct oil feed to the upper bevel drive.  A purposeful motor! [Francois-Marie Dumas]

The Recreation of a 500M

One of two suriviing Peugeot 500Ms, an Antonescu model built by Jean Nougier into a Peugeot 104 chassis, shown here with Bernard Salvat at the 2010 Rétromobile show in Paris [Yves J. Hayat]
The absence of the ‘world’s first’ DOHC Peugeot, barring photographs and stories from the period, is a tremendous loss to French heritage.  Several of the original ‘Lion’ automobile racers survive, but none of the 500M racing motorcycles built from 1913-1923.  But in the mid-1990s Emile Jacquinot, an archivist for Peugeot, discovered the original blueprints for the 1914 Peugeot 500M at the Peugeot family home in Valentingy.  They now reside in the Peugeot Museum in Sochaux, France.  Jacquinot told his friend Jean Boulicot about the drawings in 1998 during the Coupes Moto Legende event at the Montlhéry autodrome (before it moved to Dijon), and a spark was struck. Boulicot is well known in the French vintage bike scene, both as a restorer and officer of the Retro Motos Cycles de l’Est, one of the biggest vintage motorcycle clubs in France. During a mountain hike Jean Boulicot was inspired to recreate the 1914 500GP from the newly discovered plans. He reasoned that replicas of racing Moto Guzzi V8s, Benelli 4s, and Honda 6s had already been built, so why not a replica of the Peugeot, which is no less legendary? 

French moto-historian extraordinaire Bernard Salvat with the recreation of the 1914 Peugeot 500M, at the 2012 Rétromobile show. [Paul d’Orléans]
After going over the plans with the Peugeot Museum, the reconstruction began in the basement of Boulicot’s family home in Evette-Salbert, Territoire-de-Belfort, France. An inventory of the plans showed a complete set of engine drawings, but the chassis drawings were incomplete. It was necessary to scale up frame drawings from period photos to supplement the plans.  Even the ‘complete’ engine plans, dated 1913, had only raw dimensions, without built-in tolerances accounting for heat expansion, or normal running tolerances.  The plans needed to be recalculated and drawn afresh with those constraints accounted for. Then Boulicot’s home lathe and milling machine were put to work making almost all the moving parts; sprockets, shafts, axles, etc. The connecting rods and the crankshaft were created from raw steel chunks.

A close look at the aluminum camshaft housing and open valves for the 8-valve motor, with central spark plugs. [Yves J. Hayat]
Recreation of the crankcases and cylinder block/heads were handled by a friend of Jean’s, a retired expert model maker. He hand-built (no 3D printing!) wax models of each part, then used resin to create the molds. For complicated parts, several “cores” were needed to create one piece; for example, the cylinder/head casting (as this was one large piece) required eight cores of cast iron. Jean machined and finished the raw castings himself. The cycle parts were fabricated by Peugeot specialist Dominique Lafay, who built the fuel tank in brass, and the frame from steel tubing. 

Where it all happens! Jean Boulicot in his workshop. [Yves J. Hayat]
The fork began as a Peugeot 175 ‘cyclomoto’ item that Jean cleverly modified, by attaching extra bracing of the correct dimensions. He hand-formed the mudguards using an English wheel roller built for the project. A few parts, such as the wheel hubs or the rear crownwheel, were machined up from solid. The reconstruction of this magnificent motorcycle required over 15,000 hours of work, spread over a period of 10 years. It was reborn almost a century after it was born, and made its first public appearance at the 2010 Coupes Moto Legende event in Dijon. It was fitting the project was revealed at the same event the seed was planted 12 years prior, and Jean Boulicot now demonstrates his remarkable machine at events like Vintage Revival Montlhéry. It’s certainly worth a close look!

The cam drive housing is clearly seen between the forked induction tube to the Zenith carburetor. [Yves J. Hayat]
Sources and Thanks:

– ‘Motos Peugeot, 1898-1998; 100 ans d’Histoire’, Bernard Salvat / Didier Ganneau, 1998, EBS

– The Automobile, ‘Peugeot Racing Engineers: Ernest Henry’, Sébastien Faurès Fustel de Coulanges, 2012

– RAD magazine, ‘Résurrection d’Une Peugeot 500 DOHC’, Alain Jardy / Fabrice Leschuitta (photos)

– ‘La Motocyclette En France; 1894 – 1914′, Jean Bourdache, 1989, Edifree

– Bibliothéque Nationale de France digital archives

– Aldo Carrer archives

– Yves J. Hayat/ NewYorkParis

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