1908 De Dion-Bouton type de cours

Marquis Albert De Dion.
Marquis Albert De Dion
Single Cylinder, Engine Number 23,717. Bore 100mm, stroke 160mm, 1.25L, 12hp nom. (16hp actual)
De Dion-Bouton made their first internal combustion engine'd car in 1898 following the huge success of their motorised tricycle of 1895 and motorcycle of 1898. They quickly became the world's dominant motor vehicle manufacturer and held this position until Henry Ford came out with the Model T in 1909.
During the 1900 to 1910 period De Dion-Bouton were the world's largest car manufacturers.
Count Albert de Dion was a French aristocrat while his partner, George Bouton was a practical engineer, but any assumption that Albert provided the money and influence while George designed and built the cars is incorrect. Albert was a remarkable engineer and a visionary. Sadly, his enormous contributions to the automobile age are largely forgotten- perhaps pre-judged by our prejudice against inherited status.
Albert believed in the future of the automobile before any existed, he built his first, a steam car in 1883. His partners in this enterprise were brother's in law, George Bouton and Charles Trepardoux, but when Albert finally became convinced that the future lay with internal combustion- from seeing Benz and Daimler's offerings at the Paris Exposition in 1889, Bouton accepted this direction change while M. Trepardoux refused to sully his reputation by involvement with 'explosion' engines and resigned to continue with steam power.
De Dion and Bouton invented more useful bits of the motor car than anyone else, possibly more than everyone else, with 394 patents between 1883 and 1926: the De Dion axle (1893), breaker points ignition (1894), full pressure lubrication (1902), the single plate clutch (1904), the gear oil pump (1904), rubber engine mounts (1904) and, later, the automatic transmission. In 1889, Count de Dion also invented the first radial and the first rotary IC engines which later became crucially important for the development of flight.

De Dion-Bouton Type IE Skiff Aubertin #3580- 1921.
De Dion-Bouton Type IE Skiff Aubertin #3580- 1921

Their most significant contribution however was the legendary "Mono" engine; developed from 1893 and reaching it's highest point in this car's engine (1908). Built in air cooled and water cooled versions and in many different sizes, it's key mechanical features are twin internal flywheels joined by the crank pin, vertically split aluminium crank cases, a light weight piston and it's revolutionary ignition timing.
Before Le Mono, Benz engines made a virtue of 400rpm and Daimler claimed high speed at 600rpm.
Le Mono's developed their maximum power at an unheard of 1800rpm in standard form and could rev to 4000 without distress by 1900. In consequence they were much more powerful, size for size, than anything previously known. Because of quality engineering they were also impressively reliable. This engine not only revolutionised the motor car but also became the starting point for the majority of the world's airplane and motorcycle engines. Its influence is still obvious in engines being built more than 100 years later.
Two things enabled Le Mono's performance leap. The first was in exploiting the canceling of explosion forces by inertial forces that occurs in the 1000rpm to 2000-rpm range for engines in this size range. In effect, they encounter no higher material stresses until above 2000rpm than they are subject to at 500rpm. The second was their 1894 development of the cam controlled contact breaker for ignition. We take this for granted now- it's a standard feature of every pre-electronic ignition system- including those using magnetos- but it did not exist until de Dion and Bouton invented it.
De Dion, Bob Lynn, June '06.
De Dion, Bob Lynn, June '06.
Consider the performance of this car: 80km/hr maximum speed, 'modern' gearbox, good handling (de Dion axle), and inexpensive enough for the emerging mass market- dependable economical motoring 100 years ago. Wright Stephenson's ran a fleet of the 8hp version for their stock agents from 1907.
The winds of change were blowing hard by 1908 however, and de Dion-Bouton made a wrong choice- which Albert and George later regretted. They turned away from the mass market to chase the luxury end. Henry Ford moved the other way and the rest is history. Beset by quality problems in the aftermath of WW1, De Dion- Bouton restructured in 1926 and finally failed in 1932. George died 'in modest circumstances' in 1938, aged 91, Albert in1946 aged 90 largely forgotten- as he still is. Along the way Albert started Guide Michelin, founded what became the most popular newspaper in France (which now runs the tour de France), was a founder of the Automobile Club de France and the Aero Club de France, and was for many years a hugely popular politician, credited with improving France's previously reviled roads. With George Bouton, he is more than anyone else responsible for the development of the car in the key period after Benz and Daimler had first shown it was possible through to when Henry Ford took up the baton for the masses.

Peter Lynn, Ashburton , New Zealand, May 2010

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