The Henry Affair

An investigation into a significant motoring mystery

Since 1912 It Has Been Generally Accepted that the Peugeot Twin-Cam Racing Engine Set a Significant Fashion, one followed Ever Since for High-Performance Power Units, as The Work of Ernest Henry, Goux, Boillot and Zuccarelli. The Unsolved Question is whether Henry was the Engineer Responsible, or just a Skilled Draughtsman. In Probing this Mystery an American Writer has Discovered that Several Prominent Present-day Historians Suggest that Henry was Neither. Instead, They Represent Him As a Cheap Industrial Thief, who Stole Hispano-Suiza Drawings and Sold Them to Peugeot. The Editor Investigates.

Most students of motor racing accept that twin-overhead-camshafts actuating multiple o.h. valves were pioneered by Peugeot for their successful 1912 GP car and developed equally successfully by them for their 1913 3-litre racing cars. It is historically important to establish this, in view of the almost universal subsequent use made of twin-cam engines for racing and high-performance production cars, and the fact that such engines, with four valves-per-cylinder as used by Peugeot’s Racing Department over sixty years ago, are still a current El design. Until recently there seemed no reason to doubt the identity of the persons responsible for the origin of this classic Peugeot engine, because ever since Georges Boillot won the 1912 French GP for the French Company it had been accepted that these cars were the product of a separate Peugeot Racing Department, Whose design team consisted of the great racing driver himself, his team-mate Jules Goux, Paul Zuccarelli (who had driven voiturette racing cars for Hispano-Suiza so effectively that he had beaten the Lion-Peugeots and then been asked to join the French concern) and the enigmatic Swiss, Ernest Henry. It was obvious that the design was a joint effort, but one of the team presumably headed the project. Was it Henry, or was he the team’s draughtsman?

In recent times the initiative for writing motoring history, once a European preserve, has blossomed in America. Thus Griffith Borgeson wrote his book about the Golden Age of American racing and, not satisfied that he had cast Henry in the correct role, decided to probe further. This in itself was historically interesting. What he has dug up is devastating.

His researches made Borgeson realise the depth of the Henry affair, probing the mystery of which involved him not only in voluminous correspondence but in undertaking long journeys from his home in Campagne Mirail to Paris and elsewhere. His investigations reveal that it is not just Henry’s career and Status in the Peugeot racing-shops that is in question. The validity of Peugeot as the pioneer of the twin-cam, multi-valve, dual-ignition racing engine is in jeopardy and the memory of the long-dead Swiss is sullied by the astonishing suggestion that, far from designing or drawing the 1912 7.6-litre Peugeot power unit, he was merely a cheap Industrial thief who made-off with Hispano-Suiza plans for just such an engine, selling them to Peugeot.

Having, like many others, been educated, as it were, at W. F. Bradley’s knee, with Laurence Pomeroy’s Grand Prix tome as my bible, I never had any doubts about Henry being a respected member Of the engineering-team that originated this classic and significant Peugeot. So my eyes opened very wide when I read what the industrious and painstaking American had to say on the subject, in an article in the excellent New York-published Automobile Quarterly edited by that charming girl Beverly Rae Kimes, who surely has a better grip of the motoring past than any other writer of her sex. This article, from which I quote freely with Borgeson’s generous permission, appeared in the third quarter of last year (Vol. XI, No. 3).

Borgeson’s initial investigation, as to whether Henry was brilliant engineer or the draughtsman in the Peugeot team—a team he calls Les Charlatans, a Bradley-inspired title which has always made the wince—has so far not reached a conclusion. It is known that Henry, was born in Geneva in 1885 and that he died, it is said in poverty, in Paris in 1950. His death gave rise to a garbled, quite brief article in L’Automobile, which according to Borgeson was used over the name of Paul Etere in our Motor. Apart from this, Henry remained an enigma until Borgeson’s recent writings. Like most of us, Borgeson had his attention drawn to Henry’s Peugeot association by the late Laurence Pomeroy, who wrote, in war-time issues of Motor, and in his monumental book, “The Grand Prix Car”, that Henri (as Pont insisted on spelling the name) was the designer, the engineer, responsible for “the classical prototypes of the modern racing cars”, i.e., the 1912/13 Peugeots. That was in 1949. By 1956 Pomeroy had begun to play down a little Henry’s work for Peugeot and just before he died in 1966, by which time he had come to accept his friend Kent Karslake’s correct spelling of Henry’s name, Pomeroy had transferred credit for the Peugeot racing engines to Zuccarelli, whom, he explained, Boillot and Goux had persuaded M. Robert Peugeot to engage. Pomeroy, leading authority, had relegated Henry to the role of draughtsman.

Bergeson Wowed Pomeray’s later theory in writing his book, “The Golden Age of the American Racing Car”, but with a most commendable conscience-pricking with which other historians are all too seldom .atilicted, he wished to correct -any possible errors about Henry therein perpetuated. As he had been influenced not only by Pomeroy hut by the famous English correspondent who was based in France, W. F. Bradley, Bergeson first interviewed this gentleman, then aged 90. Bradley was hardly brief, but certainly to the point. Henry, he said, was a draughtsman without ideas, hired by Peugeot to get the team’s designs down on paper. This conflicts strangely with Bradley’s earlier comments. For example, in The Autocar in 1921 he wrote that “the Peugeot racing cars of 1912, 1913 and 1914, which continued their successes in America in the first two war years”, were “the product of Henry”. In the same article Bradley calls Henry “one of the most brilliant engineers in Europe”, the man “whose work has been most closely watched and copied by racing engineers since he burst forth with the wonderful Peugeot racers of 1912.” In his book “Targa Florio” Bradley describes Henry as “the Swiss engineer”. Like Pomeroy, however, he later changes his tune. In 1960, in –.”Motor Racing Memories”, Bradley goes out of his way to emphasise that in 1912 Henry was but a draughtsman, that the 1912 Peugeot was inspired by Zuccarelli, and that it Wasn’t until 1919 that Henry designed an engine,—the straight-8 Indianapolis Ballot. Were advancing years, or other reasons, the cause of Bradley’s blatant about-face; and was Pomeroy influenced by these views?

Unable to obtain a solution of the enigma from the aged Bradley, Bergeson took his researches further. He honestly admitted “all its inevitable imperfections” when quoting his own book, remarked that “writing history is a hopeless task”.., but relentlessly set about trying to discover “What Really Happened”.

This took him to Rene Thomas, the retired racing driver, at the “Villa Indianapolis” At Colombe. Thomas told Borgeson that Henry was the engineer responsible for the d.o.h.c. Peugeots and accused Bradley of belittling the memory of the dead man. Next, the American writer saw Paul Yvelin, who had retired from Peugeot’s in 1971 and who has written a book about the Peugeot cars Of 1889-1928. This authority said: “of course Henry was the 1912 racing engineer of the Company”. This sent Borgeson back to Bradley. Confronted with Thomas’ story, Bradley spun a yarn to show why the old Peugeot and Dclage driver had deep personal reasons for wanting to give Henry all the engineering credit and play down the part taken in Peugeot design affairs by his fellow racing drivers. To endorse this, Bradley apparently told his interviewer that Thomas was fourth man in a three-man team and never got a drive in a Peugeot that had any chance of winning”, hence his distaste for the other drivers. Borgeson contradicts this (although he was gentleman enough not to do so to Bradley’s face) by saying that in 1912 the 3-litre GP Peugeots ran in four races, of which Thomas won two and Zuccarelli one. This knocks flat Bradley’s explanation; but I confess I would feel happier if I knew which races Borgeson has in mind.

Be that as it may, Borgeson was next introduced to some evidence supplied to Yvelin by Pilleverdier, then 91 years of age, who was apparently Manager of the Peugeot Racing Department from 1911-1914. He confirmed that Henry was definitely an engineer and had certainly created “the combustion chamber and valve train peculiarities of the Peugeot racing engines”, by which he presumably meant the revolutionary 16-valve head and twin o.h.c. valve-gear, which used a vertical shaft and bevels drive in 1912, a train of pinions for the smaller 1913 engine.

Borgeson had another Henry link when he came upon a Peugeot V8 twin-cam aero-engine in the Musee de l’ Air in Paris, which had been designed by Chamuseau, Gainque, and Gremillon, the later Peugeot design-team. This was so similar to an unsuccessful aero-engine said to have been designed by Henry that it seemed to tie-in with Henry’s engineering reputation and his Peugeot associations. (It is an instance of the complexities of the chase that Borgeson had found this engine described in an American Aero-Engine Directory, a copy of which Raymond Mays had given to Ettore Bugatti in 1924 and which Roland Bugatti had later passed on to Borgeson, no doubt when he was in Molsheim checking Bugatti’s connections with Miller.) Curiously, Yvelin had never heard of this Peugeot engine.

How Henry spent the war years, apart from designing aero-engines, is a mystery within a mystery. However, everyone concerned seems to agree that afterwards he designed the 1919 Ballot racing cars. Borgeson thinks Thomas induced him to do this and says he put pen to paper in a Paris bed-sitter and 33 days later the first racing Ballot was running. However, I can never swallow these tales of such rapid work! And anyway, W. F. Bradley says they took 90 days and elsewhere 101 days are mentioned….

If we accept for a moment that Henry did openly and straight-forwardly design the exciting Peugeot racing cars, where was the now-historically-significant depot situated, where they were built ? I remember being in France some years ago and finding myself going from Paris to Sochaux to meet a Peugeot representative who was actually in the Capital all the time! Fortunately, the journey was pleasant, but my hopes of finding the place where Lion-Peugeots and GP Peugeots had been constructed proved frustrating. Later 1 was informed, I cannot remember by whom but it could have been by Yvelin himself, that had I stood on a balcony surrounding the Peugeot spares-depot after my return to Paris I could have looked down into the very courtyard where the racing cars were run-up after assembly, all those long years ago. This seems to add-up, for Zuccarelli was killed near Nonancourt while testing a racing Peugeot and Nonancourt is the road you might expect him to take out of Paris. It is certainly nowhere near Sochaux. (Incidentally, Borgeson is wrong in thinking that this sad accident happened while Zuccarelli was practising for the GP de France. It occurred in June 1911, whereas the race wasn’t run until the August. He also calls Zuccarelli “a great Italian racing driver”, whereas Karslake says he was a Spaniard.)

The twin-cam Peugeots were widely copied, by Sunbeam, Humber, Premier and Monroe, etc. I find myself wondering, as these copies arrived so soon after the advent of the Peugeots, whether in fact Henry and his racing associates ran a design office which sold designs to others, perhaps with Peugeot as the intermediary ? Louis Coatalen may have pinched a complete Peugeot from which to crib, before building the 1914 TT Sunbeams. But it seems possible 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. There is also the controversy as to whether Henry ever came to Wolverhampton to work for the STD Experimental Department. His son, whom Borgeson cleverly traced, thanks to Anthony Heal, and interviewed, maintains that he never did, and that he was very bitter because Coatalen stole his designs. But Ian Nichols, who wrote the Sunbeam section of “Motoring Entente”, claims that after Ballot abandoned racing Henry was transferred to Sunbeam’s, “for whom he had in effect been designing since the 1914 TT”. He refers to a Henry-like war time Sunbeam aero-engine but thinks “there is no need to suppose that actual racing-car drawings were obtained from Henry before he left Ballot, as is sometimes suggested”. This, and the fact that when Count L. Zborowski wanted a racing engine for his Aston-Martins he sent his manager, Clive Gallop, to France, where a Peugeot engineer in effect “tore in halves an 8-cylinder drawing”, lends weight to my idea that Henry and Peugeot sold their designs to others.

As to whether Henry actually worked at Sunbeam’s, Thomas, Yvelin and Henry’s son deny it. But John Wyer says he “certainly worked for them and was responsible for the 1922 4-cylinder Strasbourg GP cars”. All this, fascinating as it is, seems to be getting us nowhere. But now comes the crunch.

The Kernel of the Matter

Being determined to leave no stone unturned in his quest for the truth, Borgeson read “Automobile Designers and their Work”. in this book, published in 1970 by David and Charles, he found an incredible indictment against Henry. In the chapter about Marc Birkigt, by Michael Sedgwick and Jose Manual Rodriguez de la Vina, appears the theory that, far from Henry having designed the pioneering Peugeot, this was the work of Birkigt, who had Zucarelli (sic) and Henry working for him. The story is that the trio got out a twin-cam, dual ignition engine to replace the then-ageing T-head Alfonso Hispano-Suiza. This car is said to have been completed by December 1911 and so pleased the King of Spain that he said it must be called the Espana model. Whereupon, the Spaniard and the Swiss, so Sedgwick and Vina aver, became cheap Industrial thieves and went hot-foot to France, where they sold Peugeot the design. A GP Peugeot based on these drawings is supposed to have been running by March 1912. More rapid manufactury!

This is a devastating pronouncement! It not only reverses all previously-held views about who pioneered the twin-cam engine but puts Zuccarelli and Henry in a very shabby light. But there it is, and one has to accept that not only noted British and Spanish historians believe it, but that so apparently do Ronald Barker and Anthony Harding, the book’s joint Editors, because a reprint of the book has been issued recently, without any amendment. Another authority, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, in his “European Lost Causes”, also says that Birkigt was responsible for what Peugeot stole and it appears also in the “Encyclopaedia of Motor Sport”.

Any lesser writer than Griffith Borgeson might have given up at this point. Instead, he seemed more intent than ever on clearing Ernest Henry’s name. He wrote to the authors who were the first to call Henry, in effect, a cheap imitator and an Industrial thief. I will spare you chapter and verse. But I would ask you to consider some factors in the defence of Henry. There is supposed to have been a Law Suit against the thieves, which Birkigt is said to have won. But it is like the one alleged to have taken place between Alfa Romeo and Triumph, following the straight-8 Dolomite crib. Plausible, but no-one can find chapter and verse.

Then it seems very odd, if Birkigt had available to him such a great and revolutionary engine that Peugeot were able to use it immediately, in racing form, to win two major Grands Prix, not to mention vanquishing the might of the voituretre world, Hispano-Suiza dropped it like a block of ice. Yet when Birkigt was playing with supercharging, and when he later built some more racing voitureties, they had a single-overhead camshaftand-rockers configuration. Foolish, surely, at a time when Peugeot were driving all before them with what the authorities now say was Birkigt’s own twin-cam sixteen-valve engine ?

Borgeson puts in a firm line of defence of his own. He obtained a description of the Tipo Espana Hispano-Suiza. Far from it being the alleged twin-cam wonder-car, it had what Borgeson calls “a pedestrian s.o.h.c. engine with fan and two-port inlet manifold. I think this is where Motor Sport can come to the American’s aid. When Kent Karslake wrote those articles for us in 1950 on Hispano-Suiza history, which have come to be accepted as authoritative, he sought to discover when Birkigt first adopted his subsequently classic system of direct valve actuation from a single o.h.-camshaft. This involved eliminating all Hispano engines without this feature. One of these was in the Tipo 8 Hispano which had inclined valves operated by a single o.h. camshaft and rockers. and which had a fan. It was known here as the Barcelona model, was current in 1913, and could well have been the same as the one called Espana in Spain (the cylinder dimensions seem to tally). The significant thing is that nowhere did Karslake (who although a stock-broker. not an engineer, was a very thorough historian) or Gallop, or the American researcher Alec Ulmann, who entered into the 1950 discussion, find any evidence of a twin-cam Hispano engine. Apart from which, Vina seems to be unable to distinguish a pent-roof from a hemispherical head. . .. Then there is the established fact, given to Borgeson by Henry’s son, that his father came to Paris in 1909 as an engineer and had no connection with Birkigt, except as a friend. (Incidentally, he said that Henry used a d.o.h.c. not to improve gas flow or to reduce reciprocating weight in the valve gear, but simply to safeguard against valve failure. This may not be so unlikely as it sounds, for broken valve springs were commonplace before 1914 and would not be as serious with double as with single valves.)

Could it be that Henry and Zuccarelli designed a twin-cam, sixteen-valve, dual-ignition engine for Birkigt, that Hispano-Suiza decided against it, and that the quoted Law Suit was from Henry to Hisriaras„ for non-payment of fees ? A lesser affair than one for stolen copyright, and therefore not documented? Henry would then have taken his design to Peugeot, who set him up to design for them and sell designs to others ?

Whatever the truth, it seems that Henry was under no cloud of disgrace after the war, when Ballot and others employed him ; he is said to have designed the Omega Six before losing his money in an unsuccessful pistonfactory venture.

Another item that seems to confirm that Henry was Chief Engineer of the racing set-up at Peugeot is that he lived until 1950, whereas Zuccarelli was killed in 1913—driving a racing car. The engineer is not usually subjected to the risky calling that Zuccarelli. Boillot and Goux followed! This is perhaps rather charmingly endorsed by one of the pictures which illustrates Borgeson’s article. It shows the Peugeot team about to leave from the Gare St. Lazare for Indianapolis in 1914, where Boillot was fastest until tyre failure intervened. He is seen at the station resplendent in a natty bowler-hat and dark suit. Goux and Zuccarelli are wearing loud caps. Henry, a frail shy figure, is standing aloof, in an undistinguished tweed-suit and straw-hat. Could this little man. I found myself wondering, really he the team’s top designer ? Then I reflected that Jackie Stewart might well have overshadowed Ken Tyrrell, for instance, in such a situation and that in this context the picture was no nearer proving whether Henry was great engineer or skilled draughtsman; pioneer racing-engine designer or a cheap thief.

Lord Montagu, Sedgwick, Vina. Barker and Harding contribute to the last-named view of the man. We must hope that eventually, with someone as tenacious as Griffith Borgeson on the scent, the truth will emerge, Then Ernest Henry will either stand forever damned, or, as I hope, his name will be cleared.—W.B.