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THE PEUGEOT Type BP1 Bébé was designed by no less than Ettore Bugatti. Though not officially the first Bugatti, nor the first of Peugeot’s cyclecars, the Bugatti-designed Bébé built between 1913 and 1916 is fascinating in its engineering and charming in its execution.
In 1907, Peugeot’s first cyclecar, the earlier Type 69 Bébé, was one of the first two motor vehicles to enter Tibet; it was later given as a gift to the ninth Panchen Lama. (Do I sense a Tibet automotive tidbit in the works?)
Ettore Bugatti designed the Peugeot Type BP1 Bébé in 1911, identified as his Type 19. Some sources say a first licensee was German automaker Wanderer, (one of the four rings of the Auto Union logo, the others being Audi, DKW, and Horch). According to Hugh Conway’s authoritative Bugatti Magnum, Motorbooks International, 1989, “In August 1911, Bugatti signed a contract with Robert Peugeot to design a small 2-place car…. The ‘Baby Peugeot’ as it was called was a great success….”
The Peugeot BP1’s production run of 3095 examples set a record for this French automaker. (This also qualifies as the highest production number for any Bugatti-designed model.) And the Bébé was certainly diminutive: Its wheelbase was 72 in.; its overall length, 110 in. Bodywork width was evidently chosen to accommodate two abreast (many cyclecars of the era were given less amiable tandem seating). The Bébé’s weight was 770 lbs. Its 855-cc inline-four produced a modest 10–12 hp at 2000 rpm.
Yet the design sparkled with Ettore Bugatti’s ingenuity. Its steel chassis incorporated a bellypan on which the engine resided. Front suspension had traditional half-elliptic leaf springs; at the rear, the Bébé was the first to feature what became Bugatti-ubiquitous reversed quarter-elliptics.
The Bébé’s inline-four was long-stroked, typical of the era, with a 55-mm bore and 90-mm stroke. Its T-head was integral with the rest of the block. Each cylinder top of the T was sealed by a valve locked in place with two nuts.
Inverted intake and exhaust valves were actuated by what today might be called “dual underhead camshafts.” The crankshaft rotated on the bare minimum of two bearings. A magneto provided ignition.
The Molsheim prototype had the peculiarity of two forward speeds, achieved not by a gearbox, but rather by twin concentric propeller shafts driving a pair of different-size bevel gears in the rear axle. Selection of one or the other was aided by a leather-face dog clutch. On BP1 production cars, Peugeot fitted a conventional three-speed gearbox.
In the August 1969 R&T “Salon” of the Bébé, Warren Fitzgerald cited comments about the car’s roadability from Kent Karslake’s book From Veteran to Vintage: “The car has no directional stability whatsoever and one holds it on a straight line by main force and ceaseless vigilance….”
Fortunately this motoring excitement occurred at no more than perhaps 35 mph.
The Bébé’s racing career wasn’t hampered by this less than stunning behavior. In 1913, Peugeot entered a team of them in a cyclecar race preceding a feature event at the Le Mans circuit. There, they finished third, fifth, and sixth. Similar Bébés were one-two at the Mont Ventoux cyclecar hillclimb that year. The year before, a Bugatti Type 16 also had a win in its class at Mont Ventoux, the driver le Patron Ettore Bugatti himself.
For both Bugatti and Peugeot, it was ”En piste dimanche, vend lundi.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018