Marquis Jules Félix Philippe Albert de Dion de Wandonne was born on the 9th of March in 1856 the heir of a leading French noble family, in 1901 succeeding his father Louis Albert William Joseph de Dion de Wandonne as Comte (Count) and later Marquis. A man about town he could have lived his life quite comfortably, dabbling in politics when he found himself on the opposite side of the current president of France during the Dreyfus Affair. Options got so heated that at the Auteuil horse-race course in Paris the President of France Émile Loubet was struck on the head by a walking stick wielded by de Dion. For this gross attack on the body politic he would serve 15 days in jail and fined 100 francs.
But beyond a temper and a flair for the dramatic, he was accused of being a serial duelist, De Dion had a passion for anything mechanical. He had already built a model of a steam engine when in 1881, he saw an example that he especially liked in a store window at a shop in Léon. It was a toy upon which there would be built a legend. Georges Bouton was the son of a painter and learned at Honfleur and Paris. In 1881, having finished his training, he joined his brother-in-law, Charles Trépardoux, to open a workshop in rue de la Chapelle for the construction of steam engines used in Scientific toys. Trépardoux dreamed of moving beyond toys and building a steam engine that would propel one of the new automobiles but needed someone with sufficient funds to make that dream a reality.
De Dion enquired at the store and was introduced to the two men who would later join him in his new company, De Dion, Bouton et Trépardoux, formed in Paris in 1883. De Dion’s father, protesting against his son’s investing family money in such a foolish venture, took the matter to the French courts. Fortunately, the courts were a bit more farsighted, and De Dion and Bouton were allowed to go on with their business.
Later that year they produced their first quadricycle and in 1887 their first steam tricycle. Comte de Dion entered one in a 1887 trial, “Europe’s first motoring competition”, the brainchild of M. Paul Faussier of cycling magazine Le Vélocipède Illustré. Evidently, the promotion was insufficient to garner much interest, for the de Dion was the sole entrant, but with all eyes on him he completed the course.
In 1888 De Dion built steam launches and over the next several several years tried to interest the French Navy in the idea of steam torpedo boats. Finally abandoning the idea and returning to cars where his company tried a new concept that involved building a tractor that would pull a carriage of the owner’s choice. A feature of the tractor was the De Dion axle.
The new form of rear axle design was initially developed for the company’s heavier steam cars and used universal joints at both the wheel hubs and differential. A solid tubular beam is used to hold the opposite wheels in parallel. Because it plays no part in transmitting power to the drive wheels, it is sometimes called a “dead axle”. It is believed that the de Dion tube (or ‘dead axle’) was actually invented by steam advocate Trépardoux. It soon found it’s way to De Dion’s petrol cars.
It was however the concept of the new “Otto Cycle” four stroke petrol internal combustion engine which the Count instinctively saw as the way forward, and he and Bouton parted company with Trépardoux who was still a strong proponent of steam to form the new Company of “De Dion Bouton et Cie”, based in larger premises but still in Paris. Unfortunately the separation was not amiable.
Georges Bouton was the brilliant engineer behind a raft of innovations – an ingenious small horse power high speed engine, which revolved at twice the speed of competing firms’ products; a unique electric ignition system, and a simple gearbox which made the early motor vehicles relatively simple to operate. In 1895 Bouton developed a reliable 1.75-horsepower, 40-pound engine that operated at 1500 rpm as compared to Daimler’s engine which was limited to 800 rpm. The tricycle to which this was fitted became the most popular early low-priced “car” in both France and England. Between 1895 and 1901 about 15,000 were sold, making it the first car to be sold in significant volume, helped by a large order from the French military. The production of the tricycle involved some controversy and demonstrated that De Dion cold be quite ruthless in his business practices. Deccauville, the French company that focused on narrow gauge and potable railways for mines and taken over by Louis Ravenez after bankruptcy made the frames for the tricycle and when De Dion cancelled this arrangement, they claimed that a fire at the Deccauville factory would make them unable to satisfy their contract. Deccauville not wanting to suffer a repeat of their past economic difficulties promptly sued and won a judgment of 72,000 francs against the company. Future frames for the tricycle would come from Clément, a French bicycle maker.
The company would move to a new factory on Quai National along the Seine in Puteaux. In 1899 the firm launched their first petrol driven four wheel “petit voiture” (little car) which was capable of carrying four persons vis-à-vis (facing each other). The engine was located in the rear and the two-speed gearbox was easy to handle. The car was an instant success and at the turn of the 20th Century and some 3,000 of these very popular cars were produced over a four-year period. De Dion Bouton quickly became the largest car manufacturer in the world before being passed by Renault and later Ford in America. From producing motorized tricycles and quadricycles, their ever increasing factory space produced standalone engines for other manufacturers that were sprouting all over France and the continent. They were well know for their reliability as well as having interchangeable parts.
Between 1900 and 1910 the company sold about 200,000 De Dion-Bouton engines to over twenty-four different car manufacturers in France alone. At one time or another the firm supplied engines to Clement, Darracq, Delage, Peugeot, and Renault in France; to Argyll and Humber in England; to Adler and Opel in Germany: and to Packard, Peerless, and Pierce-Arrow in the United States. Its engines were also produced under license in Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States. During this time no firm was more important in the emerging automobile industry and De Dion was its cheerleader. While Bouton handled all engineering matters de Dion was an indefatigable promoter and in 1898 co-founded the Mondial de l’Automobile (Paris Motor Show). The show that year attracted 140,000 attendees who saw cars, parts and accessories from over 300 exhibitors. De Dion is also credited with having conceived of the world’s first road maps and first printed literature for automobile sales. In 1900 de Dion led a group of wealthy anti-Dreyfusards (Pro Catholic/Army) including Édouard Michelin to start a rival daily sports paper, L’Auto-Velo.
In 1901, the De Dion-Bouton Motorette Company began manufacturing De Dion-Bouton automobiles under license in Brooklyn, New York. A small quantity of American De Dion Motorettes were made. These had either 2 seater vis-à-vis or closed coach work and were powered by 3.5 hp American made engines. The cars proved unreliable and rather than ruin the company’s reputation the parent company had second thoughts and the license was revoked after one year.
By 1903 De-Dion-Bouton added petrol powered trucks and buses to their model line and gradually eliminated the steamers. The company’s line of petrol buses did especially well and supplied versions for both London and the Fifth Avenue Coach Company in New York. By 1913 Paris had completely motorized their surface lines and approximately one-third of their 1,000 vehicle fleet were De-Dion-Boutons. In that same year both Bouton and De Dion stepped back from directly running the company and management was turned over to Charles Lecoeur.
Just before the outbreak of WWI the French military built a series of self-propelled canons. One particular model built in 1913 consisted of a 75mm mle 1913/34 gun mounted on the chassis of a De Dion Bouton truck. The fire control system was updated in 1934 but despite their age, they had been well maintained in the army depots during the inter-war years. When thrown into action against the Germans in the summer of 1940, the Autocanon De Dion 75mm performed admirably on the battlefield both as an anti-aircraft gun and as an improvised anti-tank weapon. Over the next 25 years, the company designed and built dozens of models from small single cylinder vehicles, to the world’s first production V8 engine. Producing commercial vehicles, omnibuses, military transport, vans and even rail cars and bicycles.
The name De Dion Bouton was a household word, not just in France, but around the world as there were very few developed countries which they did not export to or have manufacturing licence agreements with. Great Britain was a particularly strong market.
Though the the cars were well built they began to look a bit stodgy when compared to the stylish models being brought out by their competitors. De Dion finally stopped producing private cars by 1932. In 1938 Georges Bouton passes away and by 1946 De Dion had outlived his contemporaries and on August 19th, at the age of 90 he died. Four years later the company he left behind ceased the production of commercial vehicles. After that the company concentrated on servicing automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles. As a lasting testimony to the company, both the world’s oldest running automobile and the oldest running motorcycle in North America are made by De Dion-Bouton.