Forgotten Pioneer

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Bill Boddy

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Motor agent, promoter, early racing reported and journalist, Henry Osbaldeston Duncan was a central figure in establishing the car as a practicable means of transport, as Bill Boddy recall.

Those pioneers who were associated with motor cars at the very birth of the automobile industry deserve to be remembered, and Herbert Osbaldeston Duncan was one. Born in 1862, the cycling world occupied him first, and he became a racing bicyclist of world renown. Whatever the origins of the ‘safety’ as distinct to the ‘penny-farthing’ bicycle, the heavily-built, moustachioed Duncan is credited with having introduced the chain-driven bicycle to the French. The enormous front wheels of the ‘penny farthings’ were, of course, needed to get the ratio required for pedal operation, which both chain and sprockets provided, in infinite variety, with wheels of smaller ‘safety’ diameter.

Duncan’s links with the early motor industry followed his bicycle agencies for Humber and Rudge and he was to have firm associations with the great De Dion Bouton Company, as its MD in France and the Chairman of the London branch. In addition, he was a prolific motoring writer from the earliest days, contributing to The Autocar and The Motor, and writing the long history of cycling and motoring A World on Wheels, published in 1926 from Paris, where Duncan was domiciled. Indeed he was also the founder of several cycling and motoring magazines. (I had the two volumes of his work but exchanged them before the war with R G Nash who had amassed some historic bicycles for his Brooklands Collection, which also included historic aeroplanes, because he wanted reliable data on the cycles. He gave me in exchange, a few of the surviving BARC press cuttings books started in 1906, with meticulous entries from all manner of newspapers and journals; had all these survived, what a wealth of Brooldands racing history they would have provided!) I see the two Duncan volumes are today valued at £190.

That HOD can be classed as a true pioneer is confirmed by the fact that he took part in the 1896 London to Brighton Emancipation Run, which was staged to show that the motor car was a practical means of transport. Duncan had been approached to try to get as many French drivers as possible to come over for this British ‘coming out’, to make this into a miniature of the Paris-Marseilles race. So Duncan went first to Le Mans and persuaded Leon and Camille Bollee to bring their two racing Bollee three-wheelers and to lend him a standard one. M Levassor agreed to let racing driver Mayade take the Paris-Marseilles-Pariswinning Panhard No 6, and No 5 and No 8 as well, but the Count de Dion was so annoyed for having accepted 10,000 useless shares in Lawson’s Motor Syndicate in exchange for a half-share in the British De Dion patents that he refused to take part.

The three Ballees came to England two days before the Emancipation Run, with petrol tanks emptied at Boulogne. Duncan eventually managed to buy enough benzine at a chemist’s, which Leon Bollee tested with his hydrometer. After a police inspector had refused to let them drive to the starting point in spite of the new Act having been passed, they had to find horses to tow the vehicles to the Holbom skating-rink. Ten miles from Brighton the horse pulling a lady’s wagonette shied and in trying to pass it Duncan ditched the Bollee and had to retire, but the two racing Bollees arrived first. After the Run the Bollees were driven to Newhaven, to sail back to France.

In September 1896 Duncan had been with HJ Lawson when he required a car on which to drive out to see the start of the Paris-Marseilles race. Levassor did not want to sell Panhard No 5 on which he had won Paris-Bordeaux in 1895 but did so in the end for £1200. But Lawson and Turrell, his secretary, used a horse and trap to drive out to see the racers; Panhards finished 1,2 and 3, the new No.5 last of the winning trio. In 1898 Duncan was living in Kensington but had to go to Paris monthly to attend Lawson’s British Motor Syndicate; he and his French wife then agreed to take a cut in salary and live in Paris. Here he got to know most of the famous people in the budding Motor Industry.

Obviously he was closely in touch with the massive Count de Dion and his diminutive partner Bouton and the great variety of cars they were soon producing and selling in considerable numbers. He was aware, too, of Pierre Giffard, editor of Le Velo and LePeliyournal, who had organised the first Paris-Rouen race in 1894. Giffard had attacked the Count for being both motor manufacturer and member of Parliament. Giffard, too, wanted to become a Parliamentarian and he stood for the position of Deputy in the province of Yvetot The Count formed his own daily paper to fight Gifford called L’Auto-Velo. Giffard successfully sued to get the Velo part of the title dropped, but legal fees ruined him and his paper. The new paper then became simply L’iluto, famous to this day. Around this period the Count de Dion was twice arrested, first in 1899 when he had joined a protest against the President who was anti the aristocracy. The Count, a strong man, had fought the police strongly before being removed in the prison van from the race course at Auteuil where a competition for electric cabs was in progress. “Had the prison van not been horsedrawn,” observed Duncan, “the indignity might have been less painful to the Count!” The new Marquis de Dion was later hand-cuffed during a demonstration against the church being separated from the state, a curious happening to one who was a Deputy and who had been awarded the Legion d’ Honneur in 1901.

Most of the other leading pioneers were known personally to HOD, induding T C Pullinger, who had designed a water-cooled cylinder head which solved overheating problems on early engines and which he supplied to de Dion Bouton. Other friends of HOD’s numbered Sir Herbert Austin, F W Lanchester, the Hon C S Rolls, Louis Coatalen, Sir William Malesbury Letts and John William Stocks, both the last two having De Dion links in later times.

In France HOD had been friends with both Chenard and Walcker, who survived troubled times when making their cars, but whose 6hp car did well in the 1900 Suresnes-Corbiel economy contest; with Louis Delage, who began with three workmen in a small factory costing a mere 1,1400 before he moved in 1906 to a bigger one and lasting fame in production cars and racing; and with Adolphe Clement, whose primary interest was in motor racing. Nor was HOD any stranger to the sport. He reported and photographed the great town to town contests, driving his little de Dion to Reims to watch the 744-mile ParisBerlin race won by that great driver Fournier on a Mors. Going to the start of the 1905 Gordon Bennett race at Clermont-Ferrand they were delayed because the engine of the 14hp de Dion had been overfilled with oil, and after a miserable five hours it had to be dismantled at the agents in Fontainebleau so that the rest of the journey had to be completed at night, using only the paraffin lamps. Duncan reported the 1901 Paris-Bordeaux event for The Autocar but on that occasion went to Tours by train. He won a 20-franc bet with Charles Jarrott and Cecil Edge that a Mors would be the first into the Tours Control. Levegh arrived ahead of the rest, so that his car was but lightly coated with dust, and he calmly raised his goggles and enquired how long the Control lasted. Twenty minutes later the more excitable Fournier, on another Mors, arrived; HOD shook his hand, telling him how far behind Levegh he was, to which Foumier said “I shall soon be with him” and, of course, went on to win.

In 1918 HOD went to America to study the great automobile industry there, at a time when, after less turmoil than Europe had endured, there were 58 US makes, from Ajax to Willys-Knight, by 1926, and Henry Ford was making some 7000 cars and onetonners every day. Duncan then set off in 1925 to France and Germany, to examine car factories there. He was intrigued to find the little Opel ‘Frog’ was a direct copy of the 5CV Citroen, except for a Germanmade Solex carburetter and a Bosch magneto. Opel were making one every 4min 50sec and claimed no

imported components were used, although Duncan had heard a rumour Citroen were suing — perhaps the Citroen CC can help me here? Opel had had its own test track from 1917. In 1925 Duncan took a long journey in a 10/12hp de Dion tourer from Paris to Prague and into Czechoslovakia. Apart from a new set of plugs at the Bosch works, no troubles were reported. At the Skoda works, where the Sig Bertha’ guns that shelled Paris from a range of 50 miles had been made, Hispano-Suiza chassis were being built under license. In Munich an historical `Korso’ had brought out 1894 Hildebrand &Wolfmueller and 1885 Daimler motorcycles, and Karl Benz himself was on the 1885 Benz car, with Fritz Opel driving a 1900 Opel. HOD had a three-hour interview with William Kleyer, who had made Dunlop tyres under license in Germany and by 1900 was making his own cars under the Adler name, of from 6 to 24hp.

Duncan was indeed a formidable figure, who knew the real pioneers, saw most of the great if primitive motor races that went from town to town, was conversant with the intricacies of Lawson’s Motor Syndicate, saw through the charlatan E J Pennington’s flying motorcycles with ‘long mingling spark’ and knew of how Louis Renault charged a 1,1 royalty per car to any maker copying his direct drive top gear until the legality of the patent was declared invalid. He was driving his De Dion Bouton in the vintage era when these were rather staid but well made cars with a wide variety of bodywork, as MOTOR SPORT explained in March 1964. Of how many of the famous racing cyclists could this still be said in the 1920s? Let’s not forget such pioneers as H O Duncan.

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