The plan made perfect sense. Take a company that had never built a car before and in 102 days make four examples of the most sophisticated and fastest racing cars the world had ever seen. Then, never having raced before, win the world’s richest race, the 1919 Indy 500.
With the war’s end, the aero engine contracts that had kept Etablissements Ballot of Paris so lucratively busy would be over. Prewar, Ballot had supplied engines to auto makers like Delage, so producing an automobile seemed a natural step. History had demonstrated the power of racing to promote new cars and Ernest Henry, (designer of the revolutionary Peugeot prewar Indy winners) was at liberty, along with race driver, René Thomas, (1914 Indy winner for Delage), to create a new potential Indy winner.
In complete secrecy, four cars closely based on the 1914 Peugeot Voiturette were built for the 500. The Henry-designed straight-eight, double overhead cam, four valves per cylinder engine, was destined to be a milestone.
After switching to a new American low-pressure straight side tire and wheel for better grip around the notoriously bumpy track, practice runs showed that the Ballots were easily the fastest. Thomas qualified at 104.7 mph breaking the previous qualifying record by nearly 5 mph.
In the race, all was going well until the new wheels began to break under the strain. Louis Wagner crashed out on lap 44, and Jean Chassagne on lap 63, both drivers escaping serious injury. The two remaining Ballots switched back to their original, high-pressure beaded edge tires and wheels. Thomas finished the race in 10th place and Albert Guyot in fourth, hardly the stuff of Ballot’s dreams.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
Briggs Cunningham imported the first Ferrari to race in the US and you can see it in the museum. Learn more