Léon-Bollée

The birth of the Léon-Bollée goes back to days which are now almost impossible to visualise, so far distant are they. You have to go back to the 1870s, when Amedée Bollée started making his steam vehicles at Le Mans, long before the name of that town became immortalised in motor-racing history, starting with the French Grand Prix of 1906 and a Renault victory.

From the dim recesses of history one has to recall Amedée Bollée, son of a Le Mans bell-founder, building his first steam vehicle in 1873, using independent front suspension and Akermann steering on this light road locomotive, which he called l'Obeisante. From those advanced and historically significant beginnings Bollée père went on to build steam coaches of many sizes, from the series-produced La Mancell to the 4WD six-wheeled 20-ton Anne-Marie. Pa Bollée was at heart wedded to steam propulsion and in 1885 one of his three sons, Léon, built himself, for his private use, a light steam car. His father had for his personal transport a ten-seater brake built in 1880 and referred to as La Nouvelle. Bollée's later steam carriages, run over the scarcely developed French roads of this now dusty antiquity, were satisfactory. They were also raced, La Nouvelle being entered for the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris thrash when it was 15 years old — there was a kind of vintage participation even at the dawn of automobilism! This seemed a promising ploy, because Bollée could get 28 mph out of his steamer, whereas Emile Levassor was flat-out at 18 mph in his 3-1/2 hp Panhard petrol car. In the event, one of the steamer's big-ends overheated and while its crew of seven replenished the coke and the water, its driver applied wet rags to the offending bearing, in true steam-tactics style. Alas, he forgot to remove them and on resuming the race they were drawn into the machinery, cracking an eccentric casting and bending a con-rod. This was rectified but the jury-rigged repair did not permit of full speed and Bollée, with all his sons on board, finished ninth, after 90 hr 3 mins, the first steam vehicle to complete the 732-mile course. Here, a pause in the main story to recall that Levassor drove this race without a co-driver, being at the tiller for 48hr 48mins — and how much would today's F1 aces ask if each of their appearances lasted as long as that?

It is to father Bollée's credit that he was sufficiently unbiased to see that it was the petrol car which had a future, and when Léon turned in that direction, building his first internal-combustion-engined vehicle in 1895, he received parental help and advice.

And the use of the Le Mans factory in which to conduct his experiments, although because casting church bells did not lie well with the horrid new-fangled horseless carriages, production was done in Paris, at 163 Avenue Victor Hugo, and Le Harve. His first venture was a motor-tricycle and a very exciting proposition it was. Critics have described it as rough and noisy. But at the time of their conception most motor vehicles were empirical and used for fun or experiment, so this could not have mattered all that much. What Léon Bollée had done was to make a three-wheeler with a single back wheel and a very abbreviated wheelbase. He called this a voiturette, a name which was to pass into the language for all the smaller motors.

Power was provided by a horizontal single-cylinder engine hung beside the back wheel on the near-side. It was air-cooled, with square fins, and had a bore and stroke of 85 x 145 mm. Suction-opened inlet valves and mechanical exhaust valves were used. Bronze bearings served, the big-end splash lubricated, the mains greased by hand. The con-rod was tubular and ignition by hot-tube. A single-jet carburettor sufficed and it has been said that so close to the float chamber was the burner that fires were not uncommon. The engine had a big flywheel. Transmission was by three virtually unlubricated gears on the crankshaft extension, which could be meshed with three gears on a layshaft, from which a flat belt, as seen in workshops driving batteries of lathes, drove the back wheel. There was no clutch, movement of the back wheel tightening or loosening the driving belt, as on the later Zenith Gradua motorcycles, so that drive was achieved or neutral obtained. Full forward movement of the back wheel applied the belt rim to a stationary brake block. There was another brake on the flywheel, of band type, but to stop the engine when the hot tube had enough heat left to still ignite the mixture after the burner had been doused, not to retard the Bollée.

Because it was powerful for its size and light, the original Léon Bollée had a good performance for its time, and its low build ensured good stability, until slippery roads were encountered, when a full-circle spin was all too often experienced. But this 3 hp trike must have endeared itself to many dashing young Frenchmen, who from the seat over the back wheel and their madamoiselle in the coal-scuttle perch ahead of them, no doubt showed off as most young men in sports cars have done to their girls ever since... The early cars had a 2hp engine of 75 mm bore, but these could be exchanged for the 3hp version, for a fee. Driving a Bollée was a many-handed task, however. Steering, although the ratio was reduced, by a rack-and-pinion, was done with a tiny wheel possessing a handle familiar to traction-engine drivers, turned with the right hand. The left hand was occupied with easing the gear stick back and forth, to engage the drive or free it and, by turning the spade grip at its top extremity, to engage a gear. To stop, this lever had to be hastily pulled backwards. That apart, starting the engine involved cranking it anti-clockwise, and a wrist-breaking back-fire was a strong possibility, as there was no "retard" with a hot-tube. Once started, any free hand had to be used for adjusting the air control, throttle and governor. By 1900 most owners had converted to battery and trembler-coil ignition, which made for a safer crank-up.

But fast these Bollées were, although they were devoid of road springs, relying on pneumatic tyres and a C-sprung seat to provide a modicum of comfort. In the early motor races they dominated their class. Thus, in the race from Paris to Mantes and back, in 1896, in the class outside the car and motor cycle categories, Bollées occupied the first four places, one driven by Amedée's brother, and the following year the Vicomte de Soulier's Bollé was third in the motorcycle class behind two De Dions, only 0.7 mph slower over the 149 miles from Marseilles to La Turbie than the winner, whose machine weighed 75 kg to the Bollée's 120 kg. And when a voiturette class divided Léon's tricycles from the lighter ones made by De Dion, they dominated this class of the 1897 Paris-Dieppe race, Jamin winning at a pace 0.6 mph quicker than the best car could manage. Jamin then won the Cycles division of Paris-Trouville, beating the average speed of the quickest 6 hp Panhard by 3 mph, he and Pean beating 13 1-1/4 hp De Dion tricycles and a steam trike of that make. In fact Léon dealt only with racing and development. Diligent et Cie had manufacturing rights, and made perhaps 750 Bollées from 1896 but went into liquidation by 1906.

By 1899 four-wheeled Bollées of gradually increasing power took over in racing and the trikes faded out from the town-to-town racing scene. But they had proved their worth. Production Bollées soon became cars with four wheels but the three-wheeler patents had caused the Coventry-Motette version to be made in England, recognisable by its round instead of square cylinder fins, which were longitudinal, and tiller in place of wheel steering. Darracq also made a copy, but it was a failure. But by 1903 the Bollée car had emerged as a satisfactory production; the late St John Nixon, who was there at the time, says that it was "silent" compared to the tricycle. British and American finance had poured into the Bollées' hands, enabling them to embark on full scale production of rather good automobiles.

These took the form of 4.6-litre 28 hp and 6-litre 45 hp four-cylinder cars with chain drive, followed in 1907 by a big 11.9-litre six-cylinder chassis. Later small Bollées appeared, such as the 10/14 hp model, but a wide selection went up to the 10-litre cars of 1910 onwards. In England a depot was established in Long Acre, in London, made fashionable by Mercedes, and its proximity to the newspaper world may have activated the sale in 1912 of the twelve Leon Bollées which were purchased by the Daily News Ltd. They proved very reliable on newspaper delivery rounds, although they had to be hand-cranked. As late as 1929, a 1913 Léon-Bollée was giving good service on a tour of England and Scotland, returning 30 mpg and giving no trouble in 2200 miles. After the war the make was represented at the London Motor Show from 1919 until 1924, at first as 17.9 hp 2.9-litre and 22 hp 3.5-litre cars, both with a stroke of 130 mm for their four-cylinder side-valve engines, but with bores of 85 and 95 mm, respectively. These were pre-war confections revised by giving them chain instead of gear drive for the camshaft and engine auxiliaries, but retaining the leather cone clutch and separate four-speed gearboxes. With wire wheels and the traditional radiator with its slightly scalloped form these were quite smart cars and they had CAV electrics, this kind of lighting having been adopted from 1913. A period touch was the brass finish on one of the 1920 models, although nickel plating was also used.

After the war a move to erect at Le Mans a memorial to Léon Bollée took impetus again; I believe it has survived. From 1920 the Motor Show appearances here of the now long-established make were handled by The Connaught Motor & Carriage Company Ltd, also of Long Acre, but in the Coachwork Section at Olympia they showed their work on Armstrong-Siddeley, Daimler and Minerva chassis, so the arrangement was presumably to have an outlet for advertising and hopefully selling Léon Bollée cars shipped here, and bodied when necessary by Connaught. Certainly English bodies (with sliding front seats, not so universal then) were supplied to the now ageing 17.9 hp chassis and hire-car folk could pick up pre-war and war-made earlier models with very suitable bodywork and demeanour, very cheaply. In 1921 the Daily News Ltd ordered a fleet of six delivery vans for the News Chronicle and Star, of which they were able to get quick delivery, after the Transport Manager L G Sewell, had placed the order. The van bodies were built on the passenger-car chassis (price £900) by Elliotts of Vauxhall, London. The van drivers now had the luxury of electric starters and their front mudguards were protected by Firmax tubular spring-bumpers... The fleet was registered XL-9481/6.

At least one of these Léon Bollée vans was used by The Star until 1933, after which it was sold to the Daily News Sports Club for £2. The company carpenter cut the body down to form a pick—up truck and the mechanics designed rollers to replace the back wheels for towing a garden roller and spiked rims for use when trailing the gang-mower. The front wheels were replaced with disc wheels possibly from a current Ford shod with 6.00 x 15 tyres. In this form the 1921 Bollée stayed at the sports ground until 1960. The two newspapers then closed down and the Leon Bollée went to perform its same duties at a girls' school. When a tractor replaced it no-one wanted to remove it and, the head-mistress regarding it as an eye-sore, it was put behind a shed. Fortunately, a small boy, who had gone to his sister's sportsday and become bored, wandered off and encounteted the derelict vehicle. Being an intelligent lad he wrote a postcard to Motor Sport about it. Permission was obtained for its removal, the school groundsman accepting fifty Player's in payment. Thus was one of these chassis saved from the scrapman...

For 1922 there was an attempt to modernise the make, the 16/20 hp car being given en bloc cylinders (of 80 x 85 mm) whereas previously this engine had paired pots, the petrol tank was now at the back, with vacuum feed, the cone clutch had given place to a leather-lined disc clutch and the prop-shaft universal joints and the steering gear had been redesigned. I think that by now a rather odd feature, of the pedals pushing straight downwards instead of bring angled, had been lost, to the detriment, perhaps, of shoe-repairers employed by Bollée owners... The chassis cost £550, which must have restricted sales, but there was a further advance for 1923, with a new push-rod overhead-valve 72 x I 20 mm (1954 cc) model having a three-bearing crankshaft, pump cooling, a central gear lever and Perrot FWB. With SEV electrics it too cost £550 in chassis form. This car had a neat square-outline cylinder block.

Although the two smaller models were shown at Olympia for the next three years, I doubt whether many Englishmen were using new Léon Bollées in the 1920s. For Olympia in 1923 a lhd 12/35 hp chassis was brought over from the Paris Salon and in 1923 a wide range of body styles adorned the Stand, including a quite modern-looking 2/3seater 12/35 hp car, its chassis price reduced to £385. After which Connaught had had enough apparently; on their own stand they resolutely ignored the make, showing their wares on a Fiat and the top British chassis, as they were to do for many more years.

It is now, with the French factory in trouble, that the ever-resourceful Sir William Morris (Lord Nuffield) comes into the story. He took over the Le Mans factory to avoid tariff duties on imported Morris cars. From then on, the Morris Léon-Bollées were nothing more than offshoots of Cowley designs, with more dashing bodywork. The first of these newcomers to the Gallic motoring scene looked little different from its forebears, the radiator unchanged and a 12cv Hotchkiss power unit under its bonnet. But soon the Oxfordshire theme penetrated, even to a 3-litre straight-eight in 1928 which had the Wolseley-based overhead-camshaft engine with the cylinder blocks in pairs with the camshaft-drive rising between them. There followed a 15cv Six, that aped the Morris Six, although chassis and body production were carried out in France, where four-speed gearboxes were fitted.

For a time it looked a winner and friendly help was extended willingly by this British-financed factory to those in trouble with British cars before the 24-hour Le Mans race. But the depression of 1929/30 killed off the prospects and Sir William sagely closed his link with Léon Bollée.

From 1931 to 1933 the Stè Léon Bollée tried to revive these once-proud cars, in vain. So ended a make which had been at its prime at the turn of the century, with pioneer transverse-spring ifs, and quiet-running engines long before the appearance of the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and the Noiseless Napier or the advent of the Knight double-sleeve-valve power-unit intended to chase the clattering poppet valves away. It was all a long way from the pioneer era when the Michelin Tyre Co had ordered 200 Bollée voiturettes in 1896 and the Hon Charles Rolls ran one in 1897. But the name was not entirely forgotten. Sammy Davis, Sports Editor of The Autocar, having tasted the fascination of the Veteran Car Run to Brighton with a borrowed 3-1/2 hp Benz, bought in 1929 for 300 francs in France an 1897 Bollée tri-car with which he was to have great annual adventures on the Run, earning a rebuff one year when he and his racing mechanic Head pushed "Beelzebub" 12 miles to the finish, which might have ruined forever the leg Davis had injured in the Invicta crash at Brooklands. Davis was doing this into the 1960s, with the intrepid front-seat passenger his racing-driver son Colin, his wife Susy, aviator Jean Batten and others of similar brave demeanour. Davis also got 19 mph on the car in various car races at Brooklands. Capt Benbough also drove one in the Run, until he disagreed with the VCC Dating Committee's view of its age by a year, and withdrew...

Ah, the Léon Bollée! The name lives on, even if the cars have gone. W B