Jules Goux: The Forgotten Rebel, Racer, and Innovator

January 31, 2022

Ever heard the name Jules Goux before? I’m guessing not. Here are three facts about Goux: 1) He won the 1913 Indy 500 by 13 minutes (still the record), 2) He drank four bottles of champagne during that race, and 3) This innovative French rebel played a key role in radically transforming how car engines were designed. His legacy endures to this day in the double-overhead cam (DOHC) engine. 

First off, a hat tip to Keith Martin for sharing Peter Brock's scholarly article from Classic Motorsports, May 2021. It started me down this incredibly interesting rabbit hole. 

It’s time to learn more about this important character in automotive history. Ready, set, Goux! 

In The Beginning

The first automobile race took place in France in 1894. At that time, autos were little more than motorized carriages, but the technology evolved rapidly around the turn of the 20th century. You wouldn’t know it today, but the French were leaders in automotive innovation at that time. The country had more manufacturers than the rest of the world combined, with many of the best engineers, factories, and roads. 

As competitive events grew, Grand Prix racing emerged as the premier class. The “arms race” of the day was to build more powerful engines, and the only answers at that time were engines with humongous displacement. One of the more famous examples was FIAT’s S76 “Beast of Turin” built in 1910 with a 28.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Each piston displaced 1.9 gallons -- close to the size of two paint cans -- but it redlined only at 1,400 rpm due to the stresses of rotating so much mass. 

Peugeot, which was founded as a steel foundry one hundred years earlier, was starting to grow in stature as an early auto builder, having produced its first car in 1890. The Sochaux-based company started a small race team, but opted to compete with their production cars in the less powerful Voiturette class. Peugeot's car engines used only a single cylinder, but they were light and revved much higher. They didn’t win often, because other cars used four-cylinder engines, but it coalesced a group of young, ambitious drivers who wanted to move up to the big leagues and take Peugeot Grand Prix racing. 

‘Les Charlatans’

Jules Goux

Enter Jules Goux. (Pronounced "goo" and rhymes with "roux" for the cooks out there.) His father was a factory supervisor for Peugeot, so he grew up around the company. In his twenties, young Jules was brought on to be a race driver and mechanic. His fellow teammates were Paolo Zuccarelli and Georges Boillot, who collectively surmised that a lighter, higher-revving engine was the path to victory. 

Goux, who had the ear of company president Robert Peugeot, persuaded him to fund the venture and, crucially, let them do it as a “skunkworks” project away from Peugeot's engineering team. (When the effort was later discovered, it created quite the scandal within the company.)

They were nicknamed Les Charlatans and they set up shop in 1912 away from the main factory. The team was not formally trained in engineering so they thought differently and were ambitious. The young men built their car, complete with a new engine of their own design, in only a matter of months. The innovative power plant was a 7.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine, dubbed the “L76," and was housed in a lightweight chassis.

Peugeot L76 Engine

It was a tour de force of “out of the box” ideas. The most notable invention was the use of dual-overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, with a central spark plug and domed cylinder heads. The combination of a smaller rotational mass and the dramatically improved fuel/air delivery set a new standard for power-to-weight ratio. In addition, it featured a dry-sump and fixed cylinder head -- both of which were key to delivering reliability.

The L76 worked like a charm in its first race. Boillot won overall at the 1912 French Grand Prix,then a 1,000-mile test, besting46 other competitors. The Charlatans' Peugeot dominated the earth-shaking FIATs, which were powered by15L engines, and created a sensation. 

Off to the Indy 500

The surprising success attracted attention, and soon a representative from Indianapolis came calling. He offered the team an entry to the 1913 race and, crucially, provided financial support. The funding was used to build two race cars that would meet the rules of that race. The main adjustment was that the engines needed to be less than 450 cu. in., about 7.3 liters, which was slightly smaller than the first engines. New to the race, the organizers were helpful in providing technical support since racing on a brick-surfaced track had its own challenges.

Goux qualified seventh and Zuccarelli was 26th at the start. The Italian ran too hard early, so his car only lasted 18 laps. Goux took a more measured approach with his blue and white #16 Peugeot. He ended up leading 138 laps, and averaged 76 mph on his way to a dominant victory by 13 minutes. (All finishers had to complete the entire distance in the early days.) Notably, he made history as the first non-American to win the Indianapolis 500. As previously mentioned, he and his riding mechanic Emil Begin, drank four bottles of bubbly on the way to victory. (For the record, the bottles were only about a pint and the two shared them over the course of a six-and-a-half-hour race.)

The innovative philosophy of a lightweight, high-revving engine was a revelation. So much so, that the very next year all of the competition in the U.S. and Europe had flat-out copied the design. It wasn’t hard: Peugeot sold off its old race cars, so the competition just bought them and made castings to produce their own versions. While not ideal from a commercial perspective, the near-instantaneous ubiquity of this new engine configuration does earn the Peugeot L76 the title of the first modern racing engine. 

The next year, Goux returned to Indy, but his teammate Zuccarelli did not. Sadly, he had perished in a racing accident. By 1914, all of the other top entrants were using the same design, and Goux only managed to lead a single lap and ended in fourth place 

Epilogue

When the Great War broke out, Goux joined the French Army and served unscathed. He resumed his racing career, including placing third in the 1919 and 1921 Indy 500s. In 1921, he further etched his name in the history books, by winning the inaugural Italian Grand Prix. He retired from racing in 1926 after winning the French Grand Prix in a Bugatti. Goux continued to work for Bugatti and Peugeot until 1954. He died in 1965, exactly one month shy of his 80th birthday.

Goux’s role in automotive history is indelible, yet he is virtually unknown. (Admittedly, I had never heard of him before this research!) He was a true pioneer whose clever idea and collaboration with his fellow Charlatans made their mark on cars even to this day. 

References


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