There’s a few other pioneering firsts that go along with the De Dion-Bouton motor trike, one of the most important early internal combustion vehicles. But this wonderful ad, one of the oldest in the industry, tells quite a story. As the bicycle had largely replaced the horse as personal transportation, so the the De Dion-Bouton now threatened to upset its dominance. And as with any new disruptive high-tech device, the early adopters were shown to be young, sexy, and irreverent. The world of personal transport was never going to be the same, and the 1897 De Dion-Bouton led the charge into the new century.
Jules-Albert de Dion, the engineer Georges Bouton and his brother-in-law, Charles-Armand Trépardoux, founded the firm De Dion-Bouton near Paris in 1882. They started with steam boilers, but soon caught the self-propelled bug, and started building steam-powered vehicles. In 1884, the built this steam trike, which was remarkably successful technically, as well as quick. It won the world’s first race for self-propelled vehicles, with a a average speed of 16 mph, and allegedly hitting a top speed of 37 mph. It was on the larger four-wheel De Dion-Bouton steamers that the eponymous rear axle design was first used, with a solid beam axle carrying the load, but power transmitted to the wheels independently.
De-Dion-Bouton steam trikes soon became the hot new thing for rich playboys, which probably helps explain the ad for the later motor trike. During this era, De Dion-Bouton was the world’s largest manufacturer of self-propelled vehicles.
Having seen Gottlieb Daimler’s gasoline engine at the Paris Exposition in 1889, De Dion and Bouton decided that was the future. They decided to build a small engine, one that could be used to power a bicycle. As it turned out, they felt that the engine was too heavy for two wheels and went with a tricycle configuration, which means that technically, it’s not the world’s first motorcycle; that honor goes to the 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller. But in reality, the De Dion-Bouton was vastly more advanced and successful, as it had the world’s first high-speed internal combustion engine. It legitimately is the first successful motorized bike/trike.
The initial single cylinder engine had only 133cc, but because it was able to run at the then-unheard of speed of 1500-1800 rpm (the 1894 Hildebrand & Wolfmüller managed all of 240 rpm, and the Daimler “Reitwagen”750 rpm), its power output was a very respectable 0.5 hp. Later version were larger and considerably faster; by 1904, it had 995 cc and 8hp. A De Dion-Bouton trike set a land speed record on April 13, 1902 of 109 kmh (68 mph), with French racer Georges Osmont leaning over the handlebars.
What was the breakthrough that allowed higher engine speeds? Up to that time, ignition was by either a glow plug or gasoline-fired “hot tube”. The De Dion-Bouton had a dry-cell battery-operated high-voltage ignition system, firing a spark plug. With ignition timing now controlled, the engine was able to run much smoother and faster. The battery cells are carried in the box below the top central frame tube. But like most engines of the time, there was no carburetor at all; just a tank in which gasoline vaporized naturally, and that vapor was then fed to the engine. Drive was direct (no clutch), but there was a differential.
Here’s a video of one being started up and driven around some, at the Motorcyclepedia Museum. Now if only they’d left off the music.
The de Dion-Bouton motor trike was a very influential vehicle, due to its technical superiority and light weight. Although it was hardly cheap, it offered better performance than many of the heavy and very expensive early motor cars. With a trailer in tow, it was capable of hauling one’s sweetheart (or mother?), in a more realistic setting than the one from the ad. By 1900, it was the most popular motorized vehicle in France, which then by far was the world’s leader in motorized transport.
In addition to being built for ten years in France, numerous companies in most major countries were licensed to build the de Dion-Bouton motor trike, with some changes. Two companies, Thomas and Orient, built versions in the US. And the De Dion-Bouton inspired the many motorcycle makers that soon sprang up everywhere, as the means of making small engines operate more powerfully was the breakthrough, especially when actual carburetors were added within a few years.
These rugged trikes are still to be seen in vintage events, like this one in the 2008 London to Brighton run. The de Dion-Bouton was the most effective and cheapest way to experience the high of high speed in its time. It didn’t get much sexier than that, on wheels.
A detailed article focusing mainly on the De Dion-Bouton steam vehicles is here