Ernest Sylvain Bollee, born in 1814 brought his family to Le Mans in 1842, where he established a foundry for the production of bells. During the 1860s his health deteriorated and he was forced to turn the day-to-day running of his expanding businesses to his three sons. Amédée-Ernest, his oldest was given charge of the bell foundry, while Ernest-Jules (1846–1922) supervised the hydraulic ram business and the youngest son, Auguste-Sylvain Bollée (1847–1906) assumed control of the Éolienne Bollée wind-turbine factory.
While others developed steam engines to power locomotives or factories Earnest’ oldest son Amédée père (father) was fascinated by the potential of steam as a source for personal vehicle propulsion. In 1873 Amédée père manufactured his first steam vehicle and two years later his L’Obéissante (“The Obedient”) made the first road trip between Le Mans and Paris in 18 hours. L’Obéissante carried 12 passengers and had a cruising speed of 30 km/h (19 mph) and a top speed of 40 km/h (25 mph). It was driven by two V-twin steam engines, one for each rear wheel. In 1878, Amédée père designed the the first automobile to be put into series production, La Mancelle. His son in turn, Amédée Bollée fils (son) would continue his work with steam powered cars while his other son Léon would concentrate on petrol engines.
Léon Bollée, son of Amédée père and grandson of Ernest Sylvain Bollee, was born on April 1st, 1870, the last of three boys in Le Mans, France. He was born into a family of inventors and at the age of seventeen he began work on mechanical calculating machines, the forerunners of modern day computers. These calculators were used for the calculations required in the making of church bells. His Direct Multiplier, won a gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1889 that resulted in an offer by Thomas Edison to hire Bollée in the United States, which he, perhaps wisely declined.
Bollée founded the company Léon Bollée Automobiles in 1895 in Le Mans. In 1896 he patented and began manufacturing the three-wheeled vehicles he had invented in 1895 which he called the Voiturette. Powered by horizontal air-cooled, single cylinder 650cc (3hp) engine and using hot-tube ignition and three forward gears, the Voiturette was at the time the fastest petrol-engined vehicle on the road. The vehicle had a tubular frame with a steel foot well at the front to protect passengers feet from puddles on the road, the driver sat at the rear. The driver steered with his right hand, while his left operated a versatile lever that changed gears, applied the brake or engaged the driving belt.
Both Léon Bollée and his brother for that matter preferred working on their inventions rather than building large manufacturing companies so after exhibiting his new Voiturette in October he sold the English rights to Harry Lawson for 500,000 francs. The French manufacturing rights went to the Société des Voiturettes Automobiles, managed by Gustave Chauveau. The contract allowed Bollée to concentrate only on prototypes and racing cycles while their commercial manufacture took place at shops near Le Harve. Diligeon et Cie who prior to this had built sewing machines and other machine tools would handle the actual work.
The hot-tube ignition ignition lacked the general reliability of De Dion-Bouton’s electric ignition while their price at around 2,750 francs nearly doubled their French rival. One reason why they were marketed for experience riders only in England, in French the vehicle’s nickname was “Le tue belle-mère” (The stepmother kills). The Red Flag law requiring self-propelled vehicles to be led by a pedestrian waving a red flag on public roads in Britain was repealed in 1896 and in November of that year a ‘race’ was held in celebration from London to Brighton, which saw a ‘one-two’ for the Bollée brothers in their Bollée tricycles. A new even faster model with many modifications was brought to the 1897 Paris-Dieppe race, and later the Paris-Trouville race and were driven by Paul Jamin who scored class/overall wins in both events with respective speeds of 24 mph (39 km/h) and 28 mph (45 km/h). The Voiturette reached a top speed of almost 100 km/h.
By 1903, Bollée had started producing larger vehicles and soon gained a good reputation for quality. Its engine was used by Darracq, in several of their own models. By 1911 they were making 600 cars a year.
Bollée was also interested in aviation and aeronautics, taking a lively interest in the dirigible balloon inventions of several french inventors. In 1908 during which time he was President of the Aero Club of Sarthe, he invited the Wright brothers, the inventors of the world’s first successful airplane, to use his factory at Le Mans on the occasion of their visit to France, but more than that he became a close friend and strong supporter of Wilbur Wright in France and the rest of Europe who were at first skeptical of the Americans. Léon Bollée was injured in a flying accident in 1911 and never really fully recovered. This and a pre-existing heart problem led to a fatal heart attack in Paris on the 16th of December, 1913.