Racing the Bébé Peugeot

Down the years we have published quite a lot of complimentary articles about the pre-1915 Ettore Bugatti-designed Bébé Peugeots. They were excellent little motor cars and the forerunner of later baby cars. But with a T-head 856-c.c. engine and, in their earlier form, only two forward speeds, one would hardly contemplate racing them. Indeed, Kent Karslake, who used to own one of these small Peugeots and even went touring on the Continent in it, put their maximum speed at about 35 m.p.h. in open form, although admitting that his Peugeot once attained a full 40 m.p.h.—with a strong wind behind it. Karslake, discussing the coupe-bodied Bébé Peugeot owned by Peter Hampton, put the top pace of this one as 27 m.p.h., although Hampton has recently told me that it now gallops along at 33 m.p.h. on occasions. Not, however, a car that one would wish to race!

Yet these little Peugeots were raced, in their native country. One of them was raced also in this country, and the other day I found it no hardship to drive down to the South Coast in that excellent car, the B.M.W. 2002, to chat with the person who did this, none other than John Leno, son of Dan Leno, the great Edwardian music-hall comedian.

Leno’s story is interesting. He entered the Motor Trade as a premium apprentice of the Premier Motor Co. of Aston, Birmingham, in 1907. Ex-cycle makers, they were experimenting with motorcycles and Leno rode their 3½-h.p. belt-drive Premo, prepared by chief mechanic Briant, in the 1909 T.T. The story is that its two-stroke engine had been given ports the size of those found on a Triumph four-stroke of equivalent horse power. Consequently it refused to throttle down. A few were sold but it was the Levis cycle shop down the road that reaped the benefit, by copying the Premo engine on a smaller scale, which was eminently successful.

After three years with Premier Leno joined Rose & Hollibone in Frith Street, Soho, as a mechanic. They mere agents for the French Le Gui and the Italian Diatto, the former using a Chapuis-Dornier engine and a proprietary gearbox. He gained his first experience of Brooklands, working on racing versions of these cars for the Manager, Billy Meyer, one of them a 1909 single-cylinder Coupe des Voiturettes Le Gui. Leno’s next move was to apply for the post of Sales Manager and Demonstrator to Peugeot (England) Ltd., at 10, Brompton Road, Knightsbridge. At this time the English firm was a branch of the famous French Company and apart from Leno they employed only one other Englishman, all the other personnel being from France under the General Manager, H. Boissy. At this time, 1910, they were making a range of much-respected touring cars and at Olympia that year showed a 10/14 demonstration chassis, a 12/15 Million-Ginet torpedo tourer, an 18/24 Windover limousine-landaulette priced at £800, and a vee-twin 16-h.p. Lion-Peugeot two-seater which you could have bought for £290.

The Bébé was introduced here in 1912 and it was Leno’s task to bring it to the notice of British motorists. He had a strenuous time doing this, competing in various events from speed trials to Scottish Six-Day Trials. For one of the latter a Bébé with an enormous windscreen was borrowed from the Wadham brothers, trading at Waterlooville, after tests up S. Harting hill. Leno took the car by train to Edinburgh, rebuilt its clutch, and somehow coaxed the underpowered 10-b.h.p. Peugeot round the route.

When the Brooklands authorities announced their first Sidecar and Cyclecar Handicap, to take place at the 1913 Easter B.A.R.C. Meeting, this was regarded as an essential public appearance for the smallest Peugeot, slow though it was, and Boissy entered Leno for the race. He got round at 43 m.p.h. The First Cyclecar Handicap followed at Whitsun and again Leno ran, now lapping at 44.07 m.p.h., which was no match for the G.N.s and slower than the one-pot Chota, but handsomely quicker than the speed of the twin-cylinder Arden! Perhaps this discouraged Mon. Boissy, or more likely he did not wish the Bébé Peugeot with its 55 x 90-mm. 4-cylinder engine to be classed as a cyclecar; at all events, the Bébé wasn’t entered for the Second Cyclecar Handicap.

Up to this time drivers at the Track had worn jockey’s silks (Leno was allocated dark and light blue, halved) but when colours of the cars themselves were declared, in 1914, Leno hit upon the idea of painting his little Peugeot yellow, perhaps realising the need to court publicity when racing at his not very exciting speeds. At Whitsun the 8.3-h.p. Baby Peugeot appeared with its engine enlarged to 58 x 90 mm. (951 c.c.), which increased the lap speed to 52.89 m.p.h.—but Leno needed his start of 122 sec., for Haywood’s Singer Ten could lap at nearly 74½ m.p.h. However, with an engine of 60 x 90 mm. (1,018 c.c.) Leno assayed a 75-m.p.h. Short Handicap—lap speed, 53.21 m.p.h.—before war broke out and immediately disbanded the Peugeot staff. He and Leadbetter tried to cope with running things for a time, the Admiralty having shown a liking for the 20/30 Peugeot chassis, but in the end Cpl. Leno found himself in France with a corps of Rolls-Royce armoured cars, which, because of the mud, stayed in one place for something like a year.

While he had been at Peugeot’s he had met most of the well-known racing drivers, going to the Track with ace Georges Boillot and aristocrat Jules Goux, and being driven down from Carlisle Place to Brooklands by André Boillot in the 1912 Coupe de l’Auto Peugeot. He was asked by the Directors to produce a publicity booklet about Peugeot racing successes, which covers the cars mentioned in our recent articles “Where Have All The Peugeots Gone?”. It was not only the Bébé that Leno demonstrated. He remembers the great 40/50 120 x 200 mm. 16½-litre Peugeot, a car able, under favourable conditions, to do 90 m.p.h., and of how Lord Exmouth expressed an interest in it. A run against his Alpine Eagle Rolls-Royce was duly arranged, from the foot of Fitzjohn’s Avenue to the gates of Hatfield House. The Peugeot arrived first, but his Lordship remained faithful to the British make.

Incidentally, a staunch customer prior to the war had been Mr. W. J. Menzies, father of Mrs. Stewart-Menzies who afterwards raced a 1913 G.P. Peugeot. He lived at Liss and had bought five Peugeots between 1911 and 1913. Towards the end of the 1914/18 war Leno found himself in Scotland in charge of all the canteen lorries, with a fine Cadillac tourer as his personal transport.

William Morris, searching for agents for his small car, had come to Stewart & Arden Ltd. Stewart was keen, Arden thought the agency suicide and left the firm. After the Armistice Leno became one of the staff but found it required no initiative to sell Morris cars in those motor-impoverished days. Upstairs “the Directors were in their shirt-sleeves, cashing the cheques”! He was encouraged momentarily when a lady customer couldn’t decide between a Morris coupe and a Talbot 8/18 coupé in Warwick Wright’s showrooms down the road. He persuaded her to have the Morris but she later asked for her cheque back, which to Leno was the last straw. He left and went to Stroud to sell Hamptons, which Bill Milward from the London Motor Garage (Charron) had been called in to re-design. For a time all went well, cars being supplied to the individual requirements of professional people, at the rate of some 300 a year. But the slump killed off the more expensive small cars and, almost overnight, Hampton folded up. Leno never re-entered the Motor Trade. Peugeot had not attracted him after leaving in 1923, because after the war the English Company was no longer a branch of the parent factory, being simply an agency run for a time by Tom Knowles, as it remains to this day. Down the years Mr. Leno has owned some interesting cars, commencing with a Sizaire-Naudin, and including quite recently a sleeve-valve Willys-Knight and big Vauxhall; he now runs an Issigonis Wolseley Hornet.

But the racing story of the Bébé is not quite over. After the Armistice Leno sold the pre-war racing two-seater to Percy Topping. He entered it for the 1921 J.C.C. 200-Mile Race, Leno going as mechanic, both attired in yellow overalls. All was well for 43 laps, when a big-end parted and the power unit was completely wrecked, not even the clutch escaping. The little car was never rebuilt. . . .—W. B.