Historic Car Brands
De Dion-Bouton was one of those rare companies that made huge technological advancements, was a one-time world-leading car maker and then faded away. Founded in Paris in 1883, the company did its best work before 1911.
Bothers-in-law Georges Bouton and Charles Trepardoux were scientific toymakers until they met a customer, Marquis Jules-Albert de Dion, who encouraged their dream to build full-sized ‘toys’ – steam engines.
1894 Paris-Rouen Race – De Dion-Bouton steam tractor finished first, but was ruled ineligible, because it carried a stoker.
Within a year the company was producing steam vehicles, from tricycles to tractors. Several De Dion-Bouton steam vehicles survive to this day and one car is a regular competitor in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.
1907 Saint Saens tricycle – Musica
Trepardoux’s most significant contribution was the so-called De Dion rear axle that was originally designed for the company’s tractors. The weight of the vehicle was carried by a transverse axle tube and leaf springs, but the drive half-shafts carried no weight and were connected to the drive wheels by flexible joints.
De Dion axle – Elmar Eye
The company eventually dropped this axle from production, because of its cost and complexity, but the design resurfaced in the 1930s as the main rear suspension in high-performance sports cars and racing cars – a position it held until the late 1950s. The all-conquering pre-War Silver Arrows and post-War Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari racing cars used De Dion rear ends.
However, Trepardoux didn’t have perfect foresight, because he refused to go along with the decision to move into internal combustion engines and left the company, to continue pursuing steam propulsion.
William Govett driving a 1905 De Dion Bouton ‘Populaire’ on an unsealed road in Australia, wearing a jacket and cap with a blanket over his knees. Note the Aussie-style post-and-rail fence in the background.
Bouton developed a series of tiny engines that suited tracers, with power outputs from1.25hp up to 2.75hp and racing models had 8hp! Four-wheelers followed and De Dion-Bouton pioneered the column-mounted gearshift.
By 1900, De Dion-Bouton was the world’s top-volume car maker and its engine designs were licensed to more than 150 vehicle makers. In 1901 a short-lived deal was done to build cars in New York. By 1904 the company had produced or licensed some 40,000 engines.
De Dion-Bouton 8hp – Tony Harrison
Post-1904 De Dion-Boutons had front-mounted engines, rather than underfloor, but the gear selector reverted to pedal. In 1908, De Dion-Bouton had its peak year and from there, sadly, it was all downhill.
The 1910 V8 engine release was a series-production global first. There had been one-off V8 engines, including a 1905 effort by Rolls Royce, but no series production ‘bent-eights’.
1912 De Dion-Bouton Flandrau Roadster – Craig Howell
Initially with 35hp, 6.1-litre displacement, the De Dion-Bouton engine grew to 7.8 litres and even 14.7 litres. A downsized 3.5-litre V8 was also produced.
The UK car magazine Autocar reviewed the V8 vehicle in 1913 and concluded:
“The great advantages of the eight-cylinder engine are its small size, light weight, excellent torque, perfect balance and good carburation, in all of which points it is equalled by no other type of engine at present applied to motor car production.”
1915 De Dion Bouton at Lytton training camp – State Library of Queensland.
During World War I, De Dion-Bouton produced armaments, guns, aircraft engines as well as cars and trucks.
1927 De Dion-Bouton sedan
Postwar recession hit the company hard and it never recovered, even closing a for almost a year in 1927. Despite releasing an advanced, four-cylinder, overhead-valve, aluminium-piston, two-litre engine and a 2.5-litre straight-eight in1928 the company’s sales were poor and car production ceased in 1932.