During the 1950s, the Peugeot 203 won many top competitions such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monte Carlo Rally.

From its launch in January 1949, the Peugeot 203 aroused sporting aspirations and many tuners used it as the basis for their creations. Alongside the best known, the Darl'Mat Sport, there were models by Alexis Constantin, but also the Barbier and Calès barquettes, as well as the coaches designed by Dubois, Martin and Frua. On the engine side, some sport mechanics workshops will make a good reputation by improving the performance of the small four cylinders.

Thus, many tuners looked at ways to increase the power of the Peugeot 203 engine. This involved modifying the fuel supply (intake manifolds ensuring better filling, larger or double carburettors), but also the cylinder head, in order to increase the compression ratio (polishing of the chambers, enlargement of the valve seats, better performing springs) as well as the exhaust thanks to special manifolds. The specialists in these transformations are Autobleu, Speed, Nardi, Iandelli or Darl'Mat. Others, such as Eugène Martin, intervened on the internal mechanics of the engine, not hesitating to increase the cylinder capacity and to replace the pistons and the original connecting rod by special alloy parts.

Half a century after its release, the 203 seduces fans of historic racing vehicles, like this 1955 203 C seen at Goodwood in 2006. © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo © Dominique Pascal / Archives et collections

Return to Le Mans with Constantin

In 1952, after an absence of 15 years, Peugeot returned to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Since 1938, the manufacturer from Sochaux had not officially entered the event in Le Mans, preferring to let private tuners enter its models in this renowned endurance race. In 1952 and 1953, the only Peugeot to take part was a 203 coupé modified by Constantin. Alexis Constantin is best known for his compressor, which he originally designed for the 203, but which he later adapted to other French cars. The Alexis Constantin workshops, based in Montreuil, near Paris, took part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans from 1951 to 1955. In its first participation, Constantin withdrew before the start. The car entered was a derivative of the Peugeot 203 Coupé, whose engine was fitted with the famous compressor of his own design. The same model was entered in 1952, but he retired at the 15th hour (accident). The following year, Constantin entered a small car built on a 203 Peugeot base which finished 25th overall. The Peugeot 203 Constantin of the 1952 24 Hours of Le Mans is a low-slung coupé with the grille of the Darl'Mat coupé. For 1953, it was the same model, but with some bodywork modifications. The chassis was little changed, it still had a self-supporting steel body that was reinforced. The front suspension is independent, while at the rear there is a rigid axle. The brakes are drum brakes on all four wheels. As for the engine, Constantin increased the displacement to 1,425 cc (from the original 1,290 cc) by changing the stroke and bore. The original block was made of cast iron, with a light alloy (Alpax) cylinder head with hemispherical combustion chambers. With the adoption of the famous Constantin compressor, which blows at low pressure (flow rate of 0.3 kg), power is doubled. This allows the Constantin coupe to reach a top speed of 160 km/h (115 km/h on the production model).

Despite its good performance, the 203 Darl'Mat was rarely raced because of its high price, with amateur drivers preferring a production sedan prepared by themselves. © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo © Dominique Pascal / Archives et collections

Darl'Mat the Lion's Wizard

The name of Émile Darl'Mat is deeply associated with Peugeot in the field of competition. Like Amédée Gordini for Renault, he enchanted the production models of the Sochaux-based manufacturer. He also produced record-breaking cars such as the 203 coupé profilé of 1953. A Peugeot dealer in Paris since 1923, he designed sports versions of the 302 and 402 models before the war. In 1949, he began designing a racing version of the quiet family saloon 203 by carrying out a real redesign of the production model. The mechanics were reworked in the Parisian workshops of the tuner and thanks to a planing of the cylinder head, the adoption of more direct intake and exhaust pipes, as well as a second Solex carburettor, the power of this 203 "Special Darl'Mat" increased from 42 bhp to 50 bhp allowing a top speed of 140 km/h. Externally, the modified bodywork was distinguished by a 14 cm lower height. In 1953, Darl'Mat increased the engine capacity to 1,425 cm3 and the power output to 60 hp. Emile Darl'Mat's idea was then to build a streamlined prototype for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and also to enter it in world record attempts, as he had previously done successfully with a 402 Roadster in 1939 and a 202 Coupé in 1947 at the Autodrome de Montlhéry. It was initially planned to build three examples of this prototype for the 1953 Le Mans 24 Hours, but for unknown reasons only one was completed. 

On the 203 competition cars, the interior is spartan and the dashboard is devoid of superfluous elements. © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo © Archives & Collections