World’s oldest operating motor vehicle to highlight RM’s Hershey auction

World’s oldest operating motor vehicle to highlight RM’s Hershey au...

1884 De Dion Bouton Et Trepardoux Dos-A-Dos runabout. Images courtesy RM Auctions.

As the month of October nears, it means one thing for generations of of collector-car enthusiasts: Hershey Week! By now, we’re all aware that technically it’s called the AACA Eastern Fall Meet, which transforms the grounds of Pennsylvania’s Hershey Park into one of the world’s largest four-day swap meet and car corral gatherings (five, if you include vendor setup day), anchored by a dazzling one-day car show; the dates for this year’s event are October 5-8.

Veteran attendees are also aware of the annual Vintage Motor Cars of Hershey sale hosted by RM Auctions. The two-day auction, scheduled for the evenings of October 6-7, will once again take place at the renowned Hershey Lodge, located on the western edge of downtown Hershey. RM’s catalog is packed full of vintage gems, perhaps the most intriguing being the steam car pictured above: an 1884 De Dion Bouton Et Trepardoux Dos-A-Dos runabout, offered from the estate of noted collector John O’Quinn.

The De Dion, at 127 years of age, is claimed to be the oldest running motorized vehicle in the world, its twin compound steam engines capable of propelling the vehicle to 38 MPH, with a range of up to 20 miles on a tank of water. The French vehicle also touts just four owners – including single family ownership for 81 years – since it was constructed. RM estimates that the De Dion will sell between $2 million – $2.5 million on the evening of October 7.

From RM’s description:

Dubbed “La Marquise,” after the Count de Dion’s mother, this quadricycle is much more compact, steering with its front wheels and driving the back wheels through connecting rods, rather like a locomotive.

De Dion’s little quadricycle can claim to be the first family car, despite its arcane power source. What makes it different from road-going locomotives dating back to Cugnot’s 1770 tractor is its sophisticated boiler, which can be steamed in 45 minutes. It is also compact at only nine feet long and relatively light at 2,100 pounds. But, it has four wheels, seats four, and can be driven by one person – like a modern car.

Writer David Burgess-Wise examined “La Marquise” closely for Automobile Quarterly in 1995. He pointed out that it is both De Dion’s prototype quadricycle and the oldest running real car in private hands, so its credentials are unmatched.

“The only older functioning vehicle is the 1875 Grenville,” (basically a powered gun carriage), he said. “Amedee Bollee’s ‘L’Obesissant’ of 1872, now in the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers in Paris, was working in 1923 and presumably could be got working again, but the museum doesn’t normally run its exhibits. There’s the chassis of the 1830 Gurney Drag in the Glasgow Museum, and the 1854 Bordino steam coach in the Turn museum is apparently complete, but neither is likely to run again.”

The mechanical breakthrough, which led to the building of La Marquise, was a new boiler design. The vertical boiler was much shorter and consisted of concentric rings, rather like Russian dolls. The two engines beneath the floor drove close-set back wheels via locomotive cranks. Water was carried in a tank under the seat, coke or coal in a square bunker surrounding the boiler. Coke was withdrawn via drawers at the bottom and poured down a pipe in the center of the boiler onto the fire beneath.

Driving “La Marquise,” Bouton participated in the first motor car race in 1887 (he was the only car to show up), averaging 16 MPH for the 20 miles from Paris to Versailles and back and hitting 37 MPH on the straights, according to an observer who timed him. The next year, De Dion in “La Marquise” beat Bouton on a three-wheeler, at an average of 18 MPH.

Only about 30 De Dion steamers were made: 20 tricycles, four or five quadricycles, and a few larger carts and carriages, according to the world’s first automobile magazine, La France Automobile, in 1894. Two quadricycles remain and six tricycles are known, but none of those are operable.

“La Marquise” was built in De Dion’s new factory across the River Seine in the Rue de Pavillons at Puteaux, to which the company moved in 1884, when it outgrew its original premises.

The new steamer seated four people in pairs and back-to-back “dos-a-dos” as it was known. The seats were located on top of the steel tank, which held 40 gallons of water, good for about 20 miles. The vertical boiler was ahead of the driver and surrounded by a bunker, which kept the fire fed with coal or coke through hoppers at the bottom, eliminating the need for stoking. A manual pump supplied water to the boiler initially, and when pressure was up to the operating level of 170 PSI, donkey engines began working and water was supplied automatically.

Count De Dion kept “La Marquise” until 1906, finally selling it to French army officer Henri Doriol. The Doriol family owned it for 81 years, but never had it running, since it had lost brass and copper fittings to the war effort in 1914. Doriol displayed “La Marquise” at the Grand Exhibition at Grenoble, Switzerland, in 1925 and was awarded a special Diplome d’Honneur.

Doriol and his son attempted to restore the quadricycle in later years, but finally gave up and put it up for auction at a Poulain sale in Paris in 1987. Incomplete and non-running, it was bought by Tim Moore, a British Veteran Car Club Member. Another museum at Le Mans in France had an 1890 model, so Moore went to work copying the missing pieces on his car and had it running inside a year. Despite being a steam novice, he recreated the rear foot platform and wooden seat bottom, remanufactured brass fittings and pipes that had been sacrificed to the 1914 war effort, and re-tubed the boiler in 1993 at a cost of $20,000. He also replaced incorrect wooden, iron-tired wheels with correct spoked wheels and hard rubber tires.

The existence of the 1890 car, which differs in numerous details, enabled Moore to be absolutely certain that “La Marquise” was indeed De Dion’s prototype. Close examination of ancient photographs showed that one of the brackets holding the water tank to the frame had been extensively re-cut to clear a frame lug. Other unique features include the absence of “dumb irons” for the front springs; it’s the only car made with four-leaf springs all round and the only one with single acting brakes – the others all have extra brake pads at the rear. It also has unique sliding latches on the side vents on top of the boiler. More obvious evidence is the car’s original brass plate attached to the boiler, which records mandatory five-year boiler inspections in 1889, 1894 and 1899, after which it was probably retired.

After getting “La Marquise” back on the road, Moore campaigned her enthusiastically. He competed in four London-to-Brighton runs, at which he was always the first car away as the oldest entry, and successfully completed the trip at the 1996 Centennial, which attracted 661 of the 850 pre-1905 cars remaining in the world. Awards won by “La Marquise” include the 1991 UK National Steam Heritage Premier Award for Restoration and Preservation, a double award at Pebble Beach in 1997, winning the U1 steam class and the Automobile Quarterly Historian’s Trophy, class winner of Pre-Century Steam Cars at Goodwood in 1999, and honored at the 1996 Louis Vuitton Concours at the Royal Hurlingham Club in London in 1996.

With impeccable provenance, fully documented history, and the certainty that this is the oldest running family car in the world, “La Marquise” represents an unrepeatable opportunity for the most discriminating collector. It is unquestionably and quite simply one of the most important motor cars in the world.

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