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Driving an early 1920s Grand Prix machine on authentic loose roads has long been one of my ambitions.
Powered by Ernest Henry’s 3-litre twin-cam masterpiece, these blue beauties were expected to dominate at the long-awaited post-war revival of the French Grand Prix in 1921.
But when the dream team was trounced by an American underdog at Le Mans, several fascinating factors played against a local victory. Le Patron Ernest Ballot, his team and the French spectators found the shocking situation difficult to accept.
The story of this dramatic race has always enthralled me, an interest fired by the vivid racing photographs of Henri Meurisse.
Despite using a hefty tripod, impractical box camera and slow glass-plate negatives, Meurisse brilliantly captured that four-hour battle between Ballot and Duesenberg on Monday 25 July.
Even before you lift the Ballot’s bonnet to reveal that long engine set low in the chassis, the French challenger is one of the most arresting racing cars from this golden era of two-seaters.
From the low, cowled radiator set well behind the forged front axle, the bonnet line eventually sweeps up to the high scuttle, the sole protection for the exposed riding mechanic. Only the driver had a fold-down mesh ’screen.
The deeply cutaway cockpit sides mould into along, pointed tail that houses the novel parallel spare wheel, its clean profile with full undertray as streamlined as any racer of the early 1920s.
Only the outside handbrake and long, straight exhaust interrupt the magnificent shape.
Just behind the staggered seating, the cockpit’s rear deck was considerately shaped to give extra comfort for the mechanic, with a grab hole cut into the tail.
With tall, spoked wheels and pale, gum-dipped tyres, the Ballot looked every inch the winner it should have been at Le Mans.
Four of these magnificent Ballots were built, but before the great race one had already been destroyed in testing after a fatal accident on the streets of Paris when Fernand Renard hit a truck. Amazingly, the other team cars all survive.
One is a much-modified non-runner in the Schlumpf Collection, while another with a replica engine is the pride of George Wingard’s remarkable set of early racing titans in Oregon.
The splendid chassis 1006, featured here, remained in England for more than 90 years before its recent sale to Austrian Alexander Schaufler. When it reappeared at events, its ‘fauxtina’ didn’t do justice to this very historic race car, but last summer the bodywork’s distressed style was wiped clean and it is now presented in a fresher, more natural finish.
The repainted number 11 recalls Ballot’s only major victory, at the first Italian Grand Prix that came four weeks after the Le Mans defeat.
As with most two-seater race cars, the easiest route to the driver’s seat is stepping up into the passenger side before sliding under the broad, wood-rimmed four-spoke steering wheel.
The low, separate seats are well shaped for support, and with a mechanic squeezed in it would be a very snug affair.
The top of the wheel is well above the scuttle with, for me, the eyeline level with the rim. Little wonder that when this Ballot raced at Brooklands an aeroscreen was fitted by its first owner, Malcolm Campbell.
The upright aluminium dash has basic fittings, the Jaeger rev counter boldest with pressure gauges for oil and fuel, plus a brass lap counter and levers for advance/retard and hand throttle.
Period dashboard shots don’t exist, but its original finish was definitely engine-turned.
To the right of the driver’s leg, inside the bodywork, is a tall gearlever that works remotely through a conventional four-speed H-gate, but with an innovative hook at the top to lock engagement in fourth.
This was probably for the Indy 500 to prevent drivers miss-selecting or to simply hold the gear around bumpy road courses at speeds of 100mph-plus.
Ralph DePalma, the dashing American star of the Ballot squad, had other ideas and modified the gearbox to a conventional direct centre shift that his mechanic could operate while the driver kept both hands to steer, in a technique similar to a preselector.
Owner Schaufler enjoys driving all the cars in his collection, particularly around the great roads close to his Vienna home, so for practicality he’s had a starter discreetly fitted.
Once the tank is pressurised, the ignition retarded and the twin Claudel carburettors primed, the straight-eight fires willingly with a gruff blat through its side exhaust, the large silencer taking a slight edge off its strident bark.
Power peaks at around 100bhp at 4000rpm and the 3-litre likes to rev once you’re through an initial flat spot.
Such a responsive engine must have been a revelation after the age of torquey chain-drive leviathans, and heralded a new era of race-car development.
At low speeds the steering feels leaden, but once rolling the response is super direct.
On the loose, the sharp action is ideal for correcting corner approach and exit on the gravel when the narrow tyres break traction and the back steps out.
With that engine set low and well back, the remote gearbox and petrol tank, plus heavy spare over the rear, the 900kg Ballot feels impressively neutral.
Locked in top down the longer straights, the 3/8 runs arrow-like with little noticeable chassis flex, the bumps and ruts rarely unsettling its impressive pace thanks to paired friction dampers at the back.
But at 100mph with a full fuel load on a rock-strewn Mulsanne, following in the dusty wake of a rival Duesenberg, it must have been a different story and demanded high levels of the ‘right stuff ’.
The brakes require care and progressive feel on the loose to avoid locking, but thankfully on our loop there are no rocks to avoid.
Fatigued after hours at the wheel, those Perrot-operated narrow drums must have been unpredictable, particularly with a chasing Duesenberg suddenly cutting past thanks to its superior Wagner-type hydraulics.
But the biggest frustration is that locking device for top gear, which proves really challenging when changing down and trying to double-declutch cleanly while releasing the hook on the lever.
Little wonder DePalma was so demoralised after Ballot demanded his modification be reversed.
Driving this legendary Ballot around the dusty routes on a deserted Sussex country estate is a priceless motoring experience, perfectly conjuring fantasies of those epic early 1920s battles.
Feeling the smooth delivery of designer Henry’s gem, with clouds of dust kicking up from the open wheels, raises my regard for Ballot’s team and the other entrants at Le Mans.
It’s believed that this 3/8 LC was Jean Chassagne’s car, which led much of the French Grand Prix until the petrol tank collapsed.
With his 40th birthday just a day after the big race, Chassagne was the eldest team driver with a vast pioneering experience of aircraft and submarines as well as the fastest race cars, not to mention his expertise as an engineer.
Having started racing in 1906, Chassagne appreciated the Ballot’s advanced design and superior performance like few others, but not even this veteran could have imagined the hellishly rough Le Mans course, which looked more like a World Rally stage.
The Ballot’s brilliance is confirmed by fellow owner Wingard, who has a wide experience and knowledge of early racing giants including his fabulous 1914 Grand Prix Mercedes, but now rates his Ballot 3/8 LC the finest of all.
“It feels much more sophisticated and has fantastic handling, the chassis letting you know exactly what it’s doing,” enthuses Wingard, who has braved Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew in his Ballot.
“The power is really progressive and, with lighter engine internals, mine will rev to 4000rpm. The steering is superbly weighted and direct, but the gearbox can be a bitch and requires precise adjustment, particularly to the cone clutch.”
A lifelong fan of Henry’s genius, Wingard is writing a new book on the grandfather of the twin-cam straight-eight: “As a draughtsman, Henry was the leading light among the driver-engineers who developed the twin-cam.”
After my privileged drive, the great Ballot is parked under an old oak tree to shelter it from a heavy shower.
At that tranquil moment, admiring its taut form, my imagination flashes to Le Mans and those Meurisse photographs.
Following days of perilous practice avoiding unobservant locals who strayed on to the course with hay wagons and livestock, the big day finally arrived misty with a threat of rain.
It cleared for the 9am start, when 13 cars were waved off in pairs at 30-second intervals.
First away was DePalma’s Ballot alongside the sluggish Émile Mathis, while down the grid patriotic blues contrasted with the dashing white American machines.
Chassagne in ‘our’ car and Albert Guyot’s Duesenberg were second and third away, followed by Jimmy Murphy – his torso strapped because of injury in a practice shunt avoiding a horse – and young Henry Segrave’s Talbot.
The Duesenbergs set a lightning pace from the moment Commission Sportive Internationale president Chevalier René de Knyff dropped the flag, and by the second lap Murphy had taken the lead with teammate Joe Boyer in second.
The Ballots were chasing hard, headed by Chassagne and a downbeat DePalma. The leading Duesenberg’s speed was mighty, as Murphy set a 7mins 46 secs lap, but his pitstop to change rear tyres dropped him behind Chassagne, the quickest Ballot setting a strong pace.
The French team had chosen straight-sided Pirelli tyres, which ran the full distance without problems, while others lost time with pitstops.
With a French car and driver now out in front, the huge crowd was greatly relieved and cheered Chassagne around the sandy course, while down in sixth DePalma struggled with carburettor problems and lost 5 mins to his teammate.
By half distance all French hopes were focused on Chassagne in car number eight, the tension mounting when Murphy regained the lead only to drop back after more pitstops to leave Boyer giving chase.
With each lap the lead varied between 19 and 30 secs, as Boyer pushed harder to catch the leading Ballot, but with every advantage gained Chassagne responded.
Then, on lap 18, a deep sigh was heard all along the packed pit straight as the leading Ballot slowed into its box with petrol pouring from beneath the car.
After the high-speed pounding, the tank mounts had fractured and dropped it on to the driveshaft, creating a hole and rapid fuel loss.
The crowd was stunned that the Ballot was out when the news came through that Boyer had also stopped with a broken engine.
With 12 laps to go, Murphy found himself back in the lead with teammate Guyot close behind. Ballot’s hopes rested only with DePalma, by then 8 mins further back behind the Duesenbergs.
As Murphy set a regular pace at the front, the drama played out behind in the chasing pack.
Guyot was now plagued with tyre problems, made worse when a piece of flying rubber knocked his riding mechanic unconscious.
Once back in the pits, the stunned passenger was lifted out and a team supporter, still in casual clothes and without protective goggles, stepped in for the remainder of the race.
The shocking state of the track was best highlighted by an incident with Segrave’s car. As the frustrated Talbot pit crew resorted to borrowing tyres from rival teams, the valiant young Englishman battled on.
When leader Murphy roared past, the Duesenberg’s rear wheels spattered the Talbot with more stones.
One large rock bounced off the scuttle and ricocheted off his mechanic Jules Moriceau’s forehead, gashing his temple and knocking him out.
Segrave motored on, determined to finish, for five miles unaware of his mechanic’s unconscious state.
Only when he next pitted and the roused Moriceau wiped his face of blood did Segrave discover the plight of the plucky Frenchman, who insisted they continue.
“You call this bunk a road race,” exclaimed charismatic Duesenberg ace Boyer, who had retired with a broken conrod. “I call it a damn rock-hewing contest!”
Amazingly, by two-thirds distance 10 cars were still running and the crowd was gripped by the drama.
The pits were continually full of incident, with repairs and tyre changes, but the leaderboard showed the American team well clear – Murphy leading teammate Guyot, with DePalma in the Ballot more than 14 mins behind in third.
Just as everyone thought the result was set, Murphy’s Duesenberg arrived in the pits on the penultimate lap with a flat tyre and a dry radiator after a rock had smashed the core.
The American team had chosen not to carry a spare because Murphy maintained it was safer to limp back than to attempt to change a tyre on the course, not to mention the weight saving.
The Ballot team’s hopes were briefly raised by DePalma running fastest of all, but his challenge came too late.
On the final lap, Murphy nursed his boiling Duesenberg home, 3 mins slower than his previous pace.
At the flag he was still 15 mins clear of DePalma, with Goux’s 2-litre, four-cylinder Ballot finishing an impressive third.
Segrave, after changing tyres 14 times through his five-hour endurance run, finished ninth and last, an hour after winner Murphy.
The disappointed spectators didn’t applaud Murphy and showed little emotion for the US hero’s remarkable performance.
No national anthem was played and that evening the first toast was for Goux in third. Not until the awards dinner in Paris were the Duesenbergs honoured.
As reports were transmitted around the world about the great American victory, none showed less sporting spirit than Ernest Ballot, who in the evening related to a crowd how his team was cheated.
Story has it a soapbox was provided and in the Le Mans main square he ranted to listeners, proclaiming that the American cars had been reduced to junk while his racers were ready to start another 30 laps. “Let’s do it again,” Ballot bellowed, “and we’ll see who wins.”
Later in the year the 3-litre Ballots would finally win a major event, the first Italian Grand Prix, with a 1-2 over the Fiat 802 team around the fast Brescia road course.
After a third place at the 1922 Indianapolis 500, the three magnificent Grand Prix cars became redundant as Ballot focused on producing a new sports car, the fabulous twin-cam 2LS.
The GP cars were sold off to privateers, with chassis 1006 coming to England to become a regular at Brooklands in the hands of Campbell, ‘Bentley Boy’ Jack Dunfee and Australian racer Joan Richmond.
With the formation of the Vintage Sports-Car Club, the Ballot was preserved by a succession of eminent enthusiasts including Cecil Clutton and Humphrey Milling.
The 3/8 was little seen in recent decades before Schaufler brought it out of hiding and refreshed it for selected outings.
His dream is to demonstrate the Ballot at the centenary of the Italian Grand Prix: driving the vintage straight-eight around Monza cheered on by the tifosi will be a huge moment.
A reunion with the winning Duesenberg from the Indy museum at the Le Mans Classic would perhaps be more appropriate, but for me a run in the legendary Ballot around a dusty, deserted country estate is as good as it gets.
Images: Luc Lacey
Ballot, by Daniel Cabart and Gautam Sen, is priced at $350 from Dalton Watson