THE MOLE

The history of Peugeot

Back in the days when the Peugeot Family made only pepperpots and saw blades, there was no need for marketing men with coloured plastic spectacles and pig-tails. There was a lion logo and the products worked. When the automobile came along Peugeot immediately began winning races. But ambition is a funny thing and after a while Peugeot decided to make lots of money building big, boring cars. Eventually this led to a family disagreement and wild youngster Robert Peugeot set up an independent automobile company producing light and zippy cars.

Eventually peace was made and Robert was put in charge of Automobiles Peugeot and immediately embarked on a programme to go Grand Prix racing, using a gang of miscreants called The Charlatans, led by the dashing Georges Boillot. They "borrowed" the design of a Hispano-Suiza Grand Prix car and dominated the racing scene until Mercedes-Benz came along in 1914 and trounced them. Boillot continued his fight with the Germans during World War I but sadly went down in flames while dog-fighting over Verdun in 1916.

With Boillot gone, Peugeot's ambition disappeared and for the next 60 years it was simply a huge industrial company churning out dull cars for the French middle classes. The only sporting interest was provided by a few privately-modified cars which were raced in the Spa 24 Hours, at Le Mans and on the African rallies. Nothing much changed until the late 1970s when Peugeot decided to turn itself into a global player as a European version of General Motors. It began buying rival car companies, including Citroen and the European assets of Chrysler.

The early pig-tailed marketeers said that Peugeot should dump the Chrysler name and use "Talbot", a much sportier brand with a noble heritage. Following the examples of the Mini-Cooper and the Lotus Cortina, Peugeot went to an F1-related company to develop a car for competition. The result was the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus, a car which was good enough to win the World Rally Championship in 1981.

Then a public relations company informed Talbot that the next thing to do would be to enter F1 and so the company bought into the Ligier team, revived some age-old Matra engines and went racing. By that time, however, the Peugeot bosses had realised that it made no sense to run Peugeot and Talbot as independent companies. The two were merged and the F1 programme was axed (mercifully - for it was not a big success) but the idea of using the sport to sell cars had taken root in the minds of the Peugeot management and so it was decided to make Peugeot a little bit more sporty. A ruthless little Frenchman called Jean Todt was taken on to run a new organisation called Peugeot Talbot Sport and the resulting team dominated rallying in the early 1980s, raid-rallying in the middle of the decade and sports car racing in the early 1990s. There was not much left to do after that apart from going into F1 and so Todt suggested it. His recommendation was rejected and so, feeling unloved, he moved to Ferrari. Peugeot Sport (Talbot having by now been axed) passed into the hands of former Renault F1 driver Jean-Pierre Jelly-Baby (his real name was Jabouille but the F1 paddock always preferred "Jelly-Baby") and Peugeot went into F1 racing as an engine supplier to McLaren in 1994.

It was not a match made in heaven. McLaren's Ron Dennis had a fairly good idea how to win in F1 after success with TAG and Honda engines and quickly realised that the attitudes at Peugeot Sport would never be successful in the F1 environment and impolitely (but using nice words) terminated the contract after just a few months. He went off to be successful with Mercedes-Benz instead. Jelly-Baby was booted out and later complained that he had been the victim of "worthless people who lick everyone's boots and get promoted".

Peugeot's new relationship with Jordan was spoiled by the fact that Peugeot engineers went on holiday too much and there followed a ghastly period when Prost and Peugeot were partners with knives in their hands. At the end of 2000, embarrassed and humiliated, Peugeot Sport sold off the F1 engine programme and ran back to rallying, where things are easier. The company won the World Rally Championship in 2000 and 2001 and will do the same again this year, unless something ridiculous happens.

Winning is great but there comes a point at which the men with pigtails will begin to say that it is time to stop because of the law of diminishing returns. Now is the time for Peugeot to be considering the future. Sister company Citroen is poised to take over winning in the World Rally Championship (which makes a lot of sense). It is fair to say that the right moment for Peugeot to leave rallying would be at the end of 2003.

What should Peugeot Sport do in 2004?

When the company left Formula 1 two years ago Corrado Provera, the man in charge, said that it was impossible to compete in F1 unless you were with Ferrari and McLaren (the irony was missed) and used this as the excuse to pull out. In recent weeks he has started saying that the problems were caused by Peugeot's F1 partners. Could it be that Peugeot's aim is to follow Toyota and Renault into F1 with its own team? It may be that Peugeot can do well in Formula 1 in the future but for that to happen attitudes are going to have to change. Renault made a horrible mess of F1 in the late 1970s and early 1980s with its own team but learned from those mistakes to come back as the dominant the engine-supplier of the 1990s.

Perhaps Peugeot can do the same thing in reverse.

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