1901 De Dion-Bouton 4 ½hp Motorette
Chassis no. 159
Engine no. 5638
* 4½ hp single-cylinder
* Jewel-like veteran car, sympathetically restored
* Excellent long-term California provenance
* Long time exhibit in the Flying Lady Museum
* Eligible for the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run
By 1901, De Dion-Bouton was one of the largest volume manufacturers of automobiles, having turned their attention from steam power to the internal combustion engine, and marketing a full-fledged voiturette or small automobile in 1899. Owing to its center facing seating arrangement for its passengers, it 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 3½ horsepower, they 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 cardan 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.
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 despite a variety of prompt revisions including larger motors such as the 4½ hp unit fitted to this car, the company seems to have failed within a year.
Despite widespread marketing among contemporary publications, the six month to a year production span is thought have only numbered a few hundred to be built. There are a few survivors dotted around the States, prominent collections such as the Henry Ford Museum 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.
This is one such surviving example, which is thought to have had very few owners from new. Retaining an original 1905 California license brass disc which dates from the earliest period of motor vehicle licensing in this state, it is thought to have been in California for most of its life. By the 1970s it was certainly still in California and was now the property of Irv Perch, a serial entrepreneur who made his fortune with the Aristocrat Trailer Co. In 1969 he opened a museum devoted to aviation and road transport, called the Flying Lady Museum, which featured a number of icons of transportation including an example of the famed Ford Tri-Motor airplane and the De Dion was certainly on exhibit there.
In July 1983 it was sold by Perch to Ed Morgan of Scotts Valley, California, who would keep the car for the next seventeen years, and in whose custody it received a sympathetic restoration and regular use. It carries many of the hallmark features of the American built De Dions, such as the fold down seat back on its front seat, engraved 'Brooklyn' engine and gearbox oilers, Motorette chassis plate, and on/off switch, and better still has benefited from a thorough cosmetic refurbishment. With new paint and exquisite button back upholstery, highlighted with nickel brightwork, the presentation is extremely good and accurate.
Reportedly in good running order, it is of course eligible for various Horseless Carriage Club events in the U.S.A. as well as the famed London to Brighton Veteran Car Run in the UK.
- Please note that the title for this vehicle is in transit, and we have been advised by the vendor that it will be titled as 1898 and under its engine number.