Building vehicles wasn't his only venture, but it was his most successful
Without question, Armand Peugeot was born into the right family. In the history of manufacturing, few bloodlines have had as much direct influence on the way we live our lives as the Peugeots. Nestled in the “Doubs” district of eastern France, they were industrialists who began their own revolution; they were mass producers before the 20th century production cycle had firmly taken shape. From coffee grinders to sewing machines, roasting spits to garden furniture, the Peugeots took an idea and made it an assembly line.
Without question, Armand Peugeot was born into the right family.
In the history of manufacturing, few bloodlines have had as much direct influence on the way we live our lives as the Peugeots.
Nestled in the “Doubs” district of eastern France, they were industrialists who began their own revolution; they were mass producers before the 20th century production cycle had firmly taken shape.
From coffee grinders to sewing machines, roasting spits to garden furniture, the Peugeots took an idea and made it an assembly line.
So, in the late 19th century, when several businesses began exploring the potential of fourwheeled rolling boxes powered by steam or oil, it was natural that the Peugeots were already knee-deep in the industry. One family member would make the biggest impact, even if he couldn’t get along with the family.
Before Fiat or Ford, Armand Peugeot was leading the way.
Born in 1849, Peugeot took his family’s rich history and turned it into one of the most powerful industrial empires in Europe. His vision for the future was 20/20.
After graduating from an engineering school in Paris, Armand visited the heart of the British manufacturing industry in Leeds and returned convinced that transportation would forever change. Horses were the way of the past, he told family members. They didn’t immediately agree.
Armand had faith and after a decade working within the family business perfecting tricycles and bicycles — some with chain-controlled gear systems — he would finally move in that direction.
The year he turned 40, Armand produced the first vehicle, a steam-driven three-wheel machine that made its debut at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. A year later, in the new Peugeot company called Les Fils de Peugeot Freres, he made his first gas-powered car, a fourwheeler that used an engine built by Gottlieb Daimler.
In 1894, he fielded several cars in France’s first motor race, the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris contest. His cars took three of the top four spots.
The Peugeot cars were like a bolt of lightning. The public wanted more. His family finally bought in.
Armand’s cars were quick, efficient and rode on revolutionary inflatable tires.
Over the next few years, he took his idea to another level, building an in-house engine developed by a Peugeot engineer, Gratien Michaux. Armand’s cousin, Eugene, didn’t like the idea and had the project stopped. So Armand created “Societe Anonyme des Automobiles Peugeot,” branching off into his own company and recruiting shareholders and other industrialists.
A poster designed by French artist G de Burgill announced the company’s official opening on April 2, 1896. In the ad, a couple sat in their Peugeot car wrapped in coats as the trail of smoke behind them spelled out the company’s name.
Working out of a new plant in eastern France, Armand began his operation with 125 workers producing one car a week. A year later the plant was making three cars a week. A year later they were doing 10.
Some of his refinements were revolutionary. In 1897, Armand replaced the Daimler two-cylinder engine with the Peugeot two-cylinder horizontal model, which he placed in the rear of the car, creating an original and unseen shape.
But, being a Peugeot, Armand was never happy with one project. He, too, fell into that trap.
Restless, Armand tinkered with other businesses, building engines for boats and creating a delivery-car rental company, thought to be the first of its kind.
His alternate ventures were not particularly successful and Armand heavily leaned on the production of his cars to save the company. When Peugeot unveiled the lightweight Bebe model in 1905, a two-seater with a six-horsepower engine, the company was saved from its financial struggles.
In 1910, after years of dispute, Peugeot eventually made up with his relatives and merged his company with Les Fils de Peugeot Freres.
His story was not without a happy ending.
When Armand stepped down in 1913, Peugeot was building nearly 10,000 units a year and had become France’s largest carmaker with a market share of 20 percent.
But when Armand gave up his company, he gave up a little on life as well. Two years later, he was dead at age 66.
In the process of producing cars, he did more for his family than he could have ever known.
The history of Peugeot is not simply the story of cars. However, it was Armand’s venture into the motor car that made Peugeot famous and allowed it to carve out an international reputation for itself in all areas.
For the ambitious family of industrialists who, at times, couldn’t see things the same way, their legacy was never more secure.
Armand was a good reason why.
Steven Reive is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. Wheel base is a world-wide supplier of automobile news, reviews and features.