The plan made perfect sense. World War 1 had indelibly established the automobile as a practical universal reality. With the war’s end, the aero engine contracts that had kept Etablissements Ballot of Paris – which prewar had supplied engines to auto makers like Delage – so lucratively busy would be over too. Producing an automobile seemed a natural. History had demonstrated the efficiency of racing to promote a new car and, although European competition was not scheduled to resume immediately, the Indianapolis 500 would be back in 1919. Moreover, Ernest Henry, who had designed the revolutionary Peugeot prewar Indy winners, was at liberty – and so was race driver Rene´ Thomas, prewar Indy winner for Delage.
In almost paranoid secrecy, four cars closely based on the 1914 Peugeot Voiturette were built for the 500. The Henry-designed straight-eight d.o.h.c. engine, equipped with bucket cam followers, was destined to be a classic. But great design could not compensate for hapless preparation… the trouble began soon after Thomas and teammates Paul Bablot, Albert Guyot and Louis Wagner arrived in the States. Practice runs proved the Ballots were easily the fastest on the track; Thomas qualified at 104.70 mph, breaking the previous qualifying record (his, from 1914) by nearly 5 mph. But a final drive ratio ill-suited to the Indianapolis oval had been chosen. Inconceivably, despite never having competed at Indy before, Ballot had elected not to send alternative ratios along. To alter the final drive ratio for the race itself, smaller, less substantial wheels were substituted. A broken wheel finished Wagner’s race on the 44th lap; Bablot crashed for the same reason on the 63rd (in the car you see here). Guyot finished 4th, Thomas 10th. Both were in the money, but such an outcome was scarcely the conquest Ernest Ballot had planned.
Bad luck and bad judgment continued to dog the marque. Not until 1921 would Ballot win a worldclass race. That same year the Ballot production car was introduced. It was wonderful, “a fine instrument for lovers of sport and beautiful machinery,” in the words of La Vie Automobile. Ballot survived just a decade. In 1932 the company was taken over by its majority stockholder – Hispano-Suiza.
Briggs Cunningham imported the first Ferrari to race in the US and you can see it in the museum. Learn more