Model history: In the wake of the Great War, top level racing on the European continent was suspended until 1921. Several European manufacturers, especially the French ones, already turned out new racing cars a few years earlier to compete in the lucrative Indy 500, which had its first post-War running in 1919. Among them was the small Ballot company, which had acquired the services of former Peugeot engineer Ernest Henry.
Established by the brothers Edouard and Maurice, Ballot had originally produced ship and car engines for other manufacturers. Among their many clients was future rival Delage. After the War, the Ballot brothers decided to expand their business and develop complete cars. Racing was chosen as the most effective tool to market the new machines. To ensure the competition Ballots were successful, Ernest Henry was hired. At Peugeot, he had been part of the team that designed the first four-valve per cylinder heads.
Henry joined Ballot early in 1919 and had just over three months to design and build a racing car from scratch. Eventually he just needed 101 days to get the new car ready. Despite the short time available, it was far from run-of-the-mill; it was one of the very first competition cars using a straight eight engine. This was an adoption of the four cylinder engines used to power the earlier Peugeots. The Grand Prix Ballot was, not surprisingly, plagued by problems but valuable lessons were learned for the 1920 edition.
Rule changes restricted the size of the engines to three litre, which meant Henry had to downsize his engine. He achieved this by adopting a 65 mm bore and 112 mm stroke for a total displacement of 2973cc. The design of the valve-gear was significantly improved over the earlier Peugeot 'fours'. No longer were the valve springs exposed but instead they were enclosed in 'cups'. This solution made the valve-train a lot simpler and was adapted in multi-camshaft engines for many decades to come. The 3-litre unit produced a commendable 107 bhp at 3800 rpm.
Mated to a four-speed gearbox, Henry's sophisticated 'eight' was mounted in a conventional steel ladder frame. On both ends solid axles were fitted with semi-elliptic leaf springs and twin friction dampers on each corner. A servo motor was used to apply additional force to the four drum brakes. Similar in design to the system used on Sunbeam Grand Prix cars, the servo was connected to the brake pedal. The cables that actuated the brakes could be adjusted by the riding mechanic. The cutting-edge package was tightly wrapped in an attractive aluminium body.
A three car team was sent to Indianapolis where the biggest rival looked to be the Duesenberg, which also featured a straight eight engine, be it of a slightly simpler design. The Ballots were easily the quickest cars out there but luck was certainly not on the French manufacturer's side. The team's fastest driver, Rene Thomas, crashed heavily in practice and only barely made it to the race. Various problems slowed the Ballots down in the race and eventually the team had to settle for second, fifth and seventh behind the winning car of Louis Chevrolet.
With racing resumed in Europe, Ballot focused on the continental Grands Prix in 1921. In the prestigious French Grand Prix, three-litre Ballots placed second and third. The company's biggest success came a few months later when Jules Goux won the inaugural Italian Grand Prix, held in Brescia. The cars were raced into the 1922 season both no major races were won. A maximum replacement reduction to two litres for the 1923 season was Ballot's cue to abandon Grand Prix racing and turn its full attention to road car production.
Despite competing for less than four seasons, the Ballot Grand Prix cars rank among the finest and most influential ever built. Especially the fully enclosed valve-train designed by Ernest Henry inspired engineers for years to come. The design, for example, was followed closely when Harry A. Miller laid down his legendary eight-cylinder engines. Unfortunately the formidable design was ultimately not matched by the results on the race track. At least two examples have survived for all of us to admire.
Chassis 1007 was one of the Ballots send to the United States to compete in the 1920 Indy 500. In the hands of Rene Thomas, it crashed heavily in practice, virtually destroying one complete side of the car. Few believed that the Ballot could make it to the start but the French mechanics miraculously managed to get the car ready. Even though his machine was not quite as straight as it had been before the shunt, Thomas worked his way up the field and finished a stunning second.
What happened to the car next is not known to us but it eventually passed into the hands of the current owner; a prominent American collector of early Grand Prix cars. The Ballot was complete but in a derelict condition. It was carefully restored to its 1920 Indy 500 configuration. In the process some traces of the mechanics' repair work was found. A good example are the engine covers where new pieces were welded into. Upon completion, the fully restored Ballot 3/8 LC was brought to Pebble Beach, where it won its class and was also awarded with the Phil Hill Cup.