Three owners from new, ex Ben Moser
1901 De Dion Bouton Motorette
Chassis no. 126
Engine no. 2822
The European car industry was steaming along by the turn of the 19th Century, like internet 'start-ups', thousands of individuals turned any aspect of their business to focus on the lucrative potential that the automobile offered. While those searched for a foot-hold in the market, or pioneered different ideas to theories that were fast becoming the norm, more established manufacturers looked for growth markets for their increasingly reliable products. One market that proved to have the largest barrier to entry was the market here in the U.S. owing to the large fees that were sanctioned on imported automobiles.
But it was not only those East of the Atlantic that searched for solutions to being literally priced out of the American market, enterprising Americans recognized that the Selden patent situation among other reasons had put them on the back foot as far as the automobile was concerned. A number of Americans, impressed by the quality and performance of the European Mercedes, Benz, Panhards and the like looked for ways to commercially market them at home. The solution invariably came through licensing, seeking licenses to build an American equivalent of the coveted European brand here in the U.S. Some of the cars would be imported and assembled here, others seemingly built the majority of the product here.
By 1901, De Dion Bouton was one of the largest volume manufacturers of automobiles, nearing 20 years since the Count Albert De Dion had commissioned Georges Bouton and Charles Trepardoux, brothers-in-law and jobbing engineers to build light steam carriages for him. Latterly they had turned their attention from steam power to the internal combustion engine, first attaching them to tricycles and quadricyles, before marketing a full-fledged voiturette or small automobile in 1899. Owing to its center facing seating arrangement for its passengers, that voiturette quickly became known as a 'vis-à-vis' a name which has stuck to this day. A light four wheeled automobile, with high-revving single cylinder motor of roughly 3 ½ horsepower, these machines were good for 20-25 mph. Tucked at the back of the voiturette was an invention that ensured that De Dion's name remains relevant to this day, being the way in which the power from the motor was transferred to the road through 'universal' type joints with carden shafts allowing constant drive to the rear wheels, while the engine and gearbox sat rigidly in the chassis frame. It enabled the car more versatility in the terrain that it covered and provided enhanced driver comfort. Naturally as the finance rather than the engineer, this was not actually De Dion's device, but is generally attributed to Trepardoux who had already by then parted company with the organization, now named De Dion Bouton.
Kenneth Skinner was the enterprising man behind the inevitable marketing of a De Dion Bouton inspired product in America. Sensibly he translated the french 'voiture' as motor and marketed the cars as 'Motorettes'. Close inspection of the cars today reveals that with this particular venture a very large percentage of the car was built here, many of the parts being cast with 'NY' next to their part numbers and most of the aluminum castings have 'Motorette' cast into them. Built on Church Street, Brooklyn and sold in Manhattan on West 66th, sadly, that the home appetite was not as strong as that in Europe, and the company seems to have failed within a year.
Despite widespread marketing among contemporary publications, the six month to a year production span wouldn't have supplied the American market with nearly as many as were churned out in Puteaux in Paris, so it is thought that the numbers built must have been hundreds rather than thousands. There are a few survivors dotted around the States, prominent collections such as the Henry Ford Musuem in Dearborn, Michigan, Harrah's Collection in Reno, Nevada and the Seal Cove Auto Museum in Maine, perhaps testifying to the relevance of the De Dion name and its ubiquitous 'floating rear axle' device that in concept has been fitted to millions of automobiles ever since.
Among the few surviving Motorettes, it would be difficult to find a more correct and seemingly original example than this car. The principal reason for its originality is its succinct history, the car having remained in its first ownership for the majority of its life. Pictured on these pages is a photo of the original owner using the Motorette in the early 1900s. Ace car sleuth Ben Moser purchased it from this gentleman in the 1960s, as the most original example that he could find of the cars. The car has in fact never been publicly offered for sale, since it was acquired from Moser's estate by his accountant, prior to the prominent Sotheby's auction in 1993.
When viewing the car today, the extent of that originality and indeed the good overall condition despite its age is immediately evident. Moser almost certainly freshened the paint and brightwork, but the black leather upholstery remains in good order, as do the seat squabs and the hanging leather valances even retain their metal weights. Perhaps most surprisingly, the floor rubber floor mat, although brittle, is firmly in place and not over worn, a particularly nice detail is a De Dion/Motorette logo embossed in its center.
Complete with a parasol, which is also believed to have been an original feature, the car comes with a plethora or paperwork from 'as found' photos in the 1960s, even to the original owner's driving cap now framed. The car is in good running order and has participated on the London to Brighton previously.
An amazing timewarp early American automobile, succinct in its ownership, correct and original in its presentation and arguably iconic in terms of its design.