By “Baladeur”

“I am able to present my readers this month with a genuine curiosity of motoring.”  Thus wrote a contributor to World’s Work in December 1903, and I agree so thoroughly with his description of his contribution that it seems that the “genuine curiosity” is worth reproducing, nearly half-a-century later.

Unfortunately, I do not know the identity of the contributor and so can make no more adequate acknowledgment of my indebtedness to him. But as his “genuine curiosity” was in itself a quotation from an anonymous writer, perhaps he will forgive me.

Some time during 1903, it seems, an Englishman bought an 8-h.p. de Dion Bouton in Paris, for delivery in England, and its operation, as explained verbally to him by the makers, seemed so simple that “he determined to take care of the car himself, with only a boy to wash and clean it.”  As a precaution, however, he asked the makers to send him full written instructions for its operation and shortly afterwards received the document which constituted the “genuine curiosity.” It was in fact the early equivalent of an instruction book, in English; but it was the nature of the English that was genuinely curious. The contributor to World’s Work reproduced it almost without comment, and like this it is not only curious but extremely funny.  However, as these articles of mine are, of course, essentially serious, and as I found considerable difficulty in understanding large slices of the original text at a first reading, I propose to add a few glosses with a view to a possible better understanding of early and current French and English motoring terms.


“When you received it, put some water in the tank of water which is placed under the capot, see if there is some oil in the mover; put in it one measure with the graisseur of the pump which is fixed at the plank before the capot, inhale with the pump one measure of oil and drive back while you move the pump round with the arrow on mover. See essence, tank under the coachman’s box, open the cock.”

I do not know why, in the first place, it has never been possible in English to call a motor car a “carriage” unless the original prohibition arose from jealousy on the part of users of horse-drawn vehicles. In French it is still possible to speak of a voiture de course, but in English “a racing carriage” is absurd. Why this should be so when the alternative “car” can also mean an Irish jaunting ditto or a Juggernaut’s outfit I do not know.

I don’t know either why the writer should have thought that there was an English word capot. As a matter of fact there is, but it means to win all the tricks at piquet. What the writer meant on the other hand was  “bonnet,” an absurd word which, however, had found its way into mechanics long before the advent of the motor car, and meant, among other things, those wonderful wire erections on the tops of the funnel of wood-burning American locomotives, a few which, I am happy to think, must be preserved in Hollywood for use in “Westerns. “Mover,” of course, is merely moteur  or engine, and “plank” is plancher or floor-board. I don’t wonder that he stuck to essence for petrol, because in those days at least if you asked for petrole in France you were apt to get paraffin, which was not so good. But to return to our instruction book:

” For making the mover walking.

1°  Lean on the pointeau of the carburateur, till the essence unbordes.

2°  Put the first manette (Advance of the lighter) close to the tube of direction, that is to say at the left of the late.

3°  Put, the second manette (Admittance of air) completely at the right, that is to say, the contrary of the advance to the lighter.

4°  Push thoroughly the handle on, and hurl the mover till his starting.

5°  Increase the advance to the lighter with an eighth of lathe forward at the right; then, take sensibly back at left backward the second manette with a fifth of lathe; just at this moment, the mover must goes regurlarly with 1,500 lathes; for making it slacken without touching the 2 first manettes, put the big manette of the moderator at the last but one notch going at left.”

GLOSSARY: Pointeau = needle; “Unhordes” – deborde = overflows; Manette = hand-lever; “Lighter” = allumage = spark, ignition;  “Tube of direction” = of course, steering column;  “Lathe”  This, I must admit, had me guessing, until it occurred to me that tour, meaning a revolution, was also the French for a lathe. All the same, the writer must have had a remarkable dictionary if it gave “lathe” as the first meaning of tour. Perhaps, however, he was a conservative who did not like to mention revolutions. The “moderator,” which sounds reminiscent of the mathematical tripos at Cambridge, was really, I imagine, merely the regulateur or governor, operating on the exhaust-valve.

“For making the carriage walking at time first speed.

1°  Take back the drag of the wheel backward, crow-bar of the right.

2°  Lean on the pedal, so that the mover turns slowly round and take back the big manette of the moderator, at the right.

3°  Raise up again the pedal with 3/4 and take completely and progressively back the crow-bar of embrayage to you, while you keep the direction with your right hand and the crow-bar with the left hand.”

Did you ever see a Dion walking ? Even armed with the knowledge that “embrayage” means a clutch and that “crow-bar” is evidently the writer’s rather violent word for a brake or gear-lever, it might still be rather difficult, I think, to get the carriage walking at the first speed, even in imagination, without knowing how the controls of a 1903 de Dion Bouton worked. There was, in fact, a pedal which, when pressed down, operated the exhaust-valve control and slowed the engine, this governor being also operated by a hand-lever on the steering column. The two speeds were provided by constant-mesh gears, either of which could be brought into operation by expanding clutches, which were operated by a hand-lever or “crowbar of embrayage.” What, therefore, the writer really meant to tell the would-be driver was to take off the brake, press the pedal so as to slow the engine and at the same time set the hand-lever of the governor to the all-out position; speed up the engine by means of letting the pedal up through three-quarters of its travel, and then ease the first-speed clutch in with the lever. Now I think we are away ?

” For getting from the first speed to the second one.

” The carriage beeing drawing along at a superior speed of 10 kilometers, for taking the second speed, push rapidly the crow-bar forward without brutality and take care that the pedal must be raised up again after the embrayage of the first speed which changes between 18 and 45 kilometers, according to the speed of the mover. The mover must be regulated from the pedal of the moderator. When the mover is engaged thoroughly, it turns round slowly: when it is raised up again, it gaves all his strength.”

I find this paragraph very confusing and I think, frankly, that the author has got a bit tied-up, too. His opening phrase is clear enough to the effect that once the car is travelling at not less than 10 kilometres an hour you can engage the second speed—although I must say that pushing a crow-bar rapidly forward without brutality sounds rather like a contradiction in terms. But when he goes on to tell you to take care that the pedal must be raised up again after the embrayage of the first speed which changes between 18 and 45 kilometres according to the speed of the mover, I think he is being confusing. In the first place we have finished with the first speed by now, and anyhow we had the pedal three-quarters of the way up when we engaged it, so there is no occasion for us to be told to raise it up again. Secondly, I assume that “which changes between 18 and 45 kilometres” means which has a range of from 18 to 45 k.p.h. and I don’t believe that a 1903 8 h.p. de Dion Bouton could do 45 k.p.h. on its first speed. In fact, I think he really means “the pedal must be raised up again after the embrayage of the second speed, etc.,” which at least makes sense.

In the last sentence of the paragraph, too, I think he has got into a muddle over the mover and the pedal, and made nonsense of the whole thing in consequence. I think this part should read : “The mover must be regulated from the pedal of the moderator. When it  (i.e. the pedal) is engaged thoroughly (i.e. pushed right down), it (i.e. the mover) turns round slowly; when it (i.e. the pedal) is raised up again, it (i.e. the mover) gaves all his strength.”  Which makes everything crystal clear.  After which we can return to the text.

” For making the carriage slacken and making it stopping.

” When you are embrayé with the second speed with the advance to the lighter completely at right, and admittance of air completely at left, you must go at 50 kilometres in a hour.

“For slacken at 15 kilometres in a hour, engage the pedal almost thoroughly without making drag and take the manette of advance of the lighter at half back.

” For making the carriage completely stopped, when it goes at 15 kilometres in a hour, take abruptly the crow-bar of embrayage back in the middle ant tighten thoroughly the pedal and so, you must stop in 5 yards.

” When you are in first speed push the crow-bar forward at the debrayage and make drag with the pedal.”

Now that we know the language, this is all pretty plain sailing. But it gets much more difficult when we try to reverse.

” For going backward.

” When you are at the thoroughly debrayage push the pedal of backward step with your right wheel and push completely forward the crow-bar of embrayage.

” For the backward step, take back the crow-bar in little speed and in debrayage if you will stopped.”

This is, frankly, an awful muddle. How could you “push the pedal of backward step with your right wheel “?  What you actually did, I think, was to engage reverse by turning a small crank-lever on the riser of the seat and on the right-hand side of the driver. This crank would doubtless be called a manivelle in French and I think that the writer assumed that anything which turned was called a wheel in English. What is curious, on the other hand, is that he got it quite right earlier, when he told us to “push thoroughly the handle on, and hurl the mover till his starting,” because handle here must have been manivelle too. But, perhaps, he was not trying so hard by the time he came to the end of his instructions, on the well-founded assumption that if they were sufficient to enable the owner to get his car going forwards he would be able to learn how to reverse it by the light of nature.