Ex-Alton Walker, M.G.M. Studios 'Excuse my Dust'
1901 De Dion Bouton 5hp Motorette
Chassis no. 128
Engine no. 5222
700cc F-Head Single-Cylinder Engine
Single De Dion Carburetor
2-Speed Epicyclic (Planetary) Transmission
Front Semi-Elliptic Leaf Springs with Transverse Leaf Spring, De Dion Rear Axle with ¾ Elliptic Leaf Springs
Inboard and Outboard Rear Wheel Brakes
*Formerly owned by Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance Founding Chairman Alton Walker
*Ex-MGM Studios featured in the Red Skelton Movie 'Excuse my Dust'
*2012 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance 2nd in Class
*Former cover car for Antique Automobile Club of America and Horseless Carriage Club of America publications
*Right hand tiller steering
De Dion Bouton in America
The European car industry was steaming along by the turn of the 20th century. Like internet 'start-ups', thousands of individuals turned any aspect of their business to focus on the lucrative potential that the automobile offered. Whether searching for a foot-hold in the market or pioneering 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 US, 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 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 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 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, the voiturette quickly became known as the 'vis-à-vis' a name which has stuck to this day. A light four wheeled automobile with a 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 would ensure De Dion's relevance 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. This would allow 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 financier rather than the engineer, this was not actually De Dion's device. It 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 in Brooklyn and sold in Manhattan on West 66th, sadly, the home appetite was not as strong as that in Europe, and the company seems to have failed within a year.
Despite widespread marketing, the six-month to a year production span wouldn't have supplied the American market with nearly as many automobiles 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, belonging to 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.
The Motorcar Offered
This exquisitely restored De Dion appears to be an example of the 'Improved' New York Type Motorette which Skinner offered in response to early criticism of his product, and has a 'beefed up' 5 hp motor. The car's history has been extensively researched back to its earliest days. Much of this was triggered by the discovery that the first Chairman of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, Alton Walker, was a former owner.
Walker, who was in airplane sales and had moved from Kansas to California in the mid 1930s, was a dynamic man. He had owned a Ford Trimotor airplane which he flew around the country, eventually settling in Monterey and becoming an integral part of the community. He ran his Walker Aircraft from the Monterey Peninsula Airport, a familiar venue now known as the home of the McCall Motorworks Party each August.
In the mid-1940s, motorcars became a keen passion of Walker's. As he reported in the bulletins of the HCCA and the AACA, he had discovered the Motorette in a hay loft a literal barn discovery - in Campbell, near San Jose, California.
"He was Doctor W.H. Crothers, formerly of San Francisco, and had purchased the car, used from a party in Philadelphia and had used it several years around the hills of San Francisco and had driven it twice to the Del Monte, Calif, races in 1903 and 1904, 125 miles south of San Francisco." - The Antique Automobile. "...the Doctor used it for about ten years, including valuable service to the city during the earthquake when he rushed medicine all over the hills of the town. The people laughed at him in his car around 1908 to 1910, so he stored it and then retired to Campbell, where it was for 34 years on that second floor" - The Horseless Carriage Gazette.
Along with a full story, there are numerous photos of the car being winched down from the hay loft by Walker's crew of friends along with Dr. Crothers' widow. Both publications chose to feature the car on their cover. The current owner's research has led us to believe that Crothers' original San Francisco address was 2992 Pine Street, where he had lived and or practiced from just after the turn of the 20th century.
Walker subsequently sold the Motorette as well as other cars in his collection to M.G.M. Studios for use in their Red Skelton movie 'Excuse my Dust' a jaunty musical of early 1950s simplicity and humor. By this stage, possibly for theatrical effect, the car had received a quick change to fabric red upholstery. Although not driven by Skelton on screen, a contemporary image sourced by the owner shows him posing with the car.
Whether or not the car was featured in any other films is unknown, but it remained in M.G.M.'s possession until 1970, when the company changed hands. This transition precipitated a massive auction of movie props by David Weisz Co., including the De Dion Bouton.
At this point the car crossed the country into New Jersey ownership, then to a Delaware collector, arriving in its current ownership in 2010. By this time, although running and remaining complete in all major respects, the car was in poor cosmetic order and a decision was made to restore it. Perhaps an indication of a relatively easy life, the car still retained its original inlet and exhaust valves, numbered to correspond with the engine number. Most parts of the bodywork were found to be stamped with the number '128' which is thought to be its car number, showing that it was both original and had always been complete.
When multiple layers of paint were lifted from the body to reveal an original base of dark olive green, a decision was made to return the car to that original color scheme which was matched perfectly. The paintwork was carried out by Don Stewart of Manchester, Connecticut. The upholstery was completed by Interior Motives, also of Manchester. In removing the existing trim, remnants of grained leather upholstery were found and matched with similar leather, and its scheme carefully matched to period patterns for these cars. All nickel was removed and replated. A correct high tension De Dion Bouton coil was sourced so that the ignition would be original. All other work was carried out by Evan Ide or supervised by him, and was finalized in the summer of 2012.
Shortly after its completion the car was exhibited at the 2012 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, where it was awarded with second in class, behind a Harrah-restored Packard. It has not been shown or used since, and can be considered to be 'running in'.
This Motorette is by definition eligible for the famed London-to-Brighton Veteran Car Run, being comfortably within the 1904 boundary of date (there is no evidence of Motorettes being built or sold after early 1902). Combining this desirable aspect with its long and well documented pedigree makes this a very individual and appealing veteran automobile.
- Please note that this vehicle is titled under its engine number and its title is in transit.