The De Dion Bouton can hardly be classed as forgotten – are there not more veterans of this make in the R.A.C. Brighton Run than any other ? – but I am including it in this feature, not from the viewpoint of the French automobile that won the first motor race of all in 1894 and pioneered the high-speed i.c. engine, but from the aspect of the Concessionaires who (as David Citroën did with the Minerva, John Lenanton with the Mathis, F. W. Stiles with Alfa Romeo and L. C. Rawlence with O.M.) sold cars bearing this famous name in this country in the nineteen-twenties. There is still much to write of this fascinating and little chronicled period when so many foreign marques were competing for home sales with British products, an era when the number of different makes available ran into hundreds.
The De Dion Bouton was introduced to post-Armistice Britain by H. W. Hillman, the half-brother of Mr. P. S. Kempster, who kindly provided most of what follows.
Mr. Hillman had been closely associated with the De Dion Bouton Co. before the 1914/18 War, when the lavish catalogues of the English Concessionaire, De Dion Bouton (1907) Limited, referred to these cars as “Motor Carriages.” By 1910 the French factory at Puteaux was turning out one complete chassis an hour, and employed some 3,000 people. The models manufactured ranged from the model CD and CL 8 and 10-h.p. single-cylinder chassis to the CG 14-h.p., CH 18-h.p., CI 25-h.p. and CJ 35-h.p. cars, the last-named being the famous V8 model and all having the De Dion back axle recently re-adopted by Rover. The V8 chassis cost £860, or £1060 with landaulette body.
The model designations altered annually, in 1911 becoming, respectively, CP, CR, CS, CT, CU, and CY for the V8, an additional model being the CR, of 12 h.p. A convex-sided Type-Course 2-seater body for chassis having a raked steering column, cost £55. The factory staff had increased to 3,500, in a fully equipped works with chemical laboratory, microscope test-room, tensile and hardness-testing machinery; etc. They even made their own sparking-plugs, but I have yet to include one in my collection!
By 1912 all the models were known by a “D” prefix, and the lavish catalogues, some of which Mr. J. Harvey of Luton has kindly sent me, referred to the licence fees as “Inland Revenue Tax”! The St. Pancras Garage Co. Ltd. ran a fleet of fifty De Dion taxicabs and in an average mileage of 22,000, not a single bearing had required renewing.
The model numbering changed again by 1913, when the 6-h.p. car was dropped, and there were now 4,500 workers regularly employed at Puteaux. In England the showroom was at No.10, Gt. Marlborough Street and a high school had been transformed into a 2-storey depot at 339, Finchley Road, London, N.W., which was used as a garage, showroom and hire depot. There was, in addition, a repair works, accommodating 100 cars, at Waterloo Terrace, Upper Street, in North London. During the war the Brewery Road, N.7, and Woodside Works were used for the manufacture of shells, but they were used again after the Armistice. Mr. Hillman went to America in 1915 and used a Hudson Six tourer. He could have taken the agency for this make, but deemed it too big for the English market, and although he was sent blueprints of the 4-cylinder Essex in 1916 he considered this was also unsuitable. So he became Managing Director of the English De Dion Bouton Company. Incidentally, he had for his own enjoyment a 1914 model EL 14-h.p. tourer, tastefully finished in parma-violet, with black lining.
The showrooms remained at 10, Gt. Marlborough Street, in the West End, there was a service depot behind Albion Hall, at Bourdon Street, and the Woodside Works at North Finchley, very spacious, as the illustration shows, were also extremely modern, with overhead hot-air heating and a completely self-contained workshop. They also incorporated a body-building shop with draughtsmen’s office, wood mills, paint-shop, trimming department, etc. Today this works is divided up amongst a number of different concerns.
The first post-Armistice model was a solitary 18-h.p. chassis, but soon this was joined by a smaller 12/14-h.p. and the 25-h.p. V8. By 1923 the popular De Dion Bouton was the side-valve 12/24, available with push-rod o.h. valves as the 12/28. It had a handsome and elaborate vee-radiator and the bigger 15/43 and 20/25-h.p. models were of similar appearance. It is interesting to note that the V8, made in 26-h.p. and 50-h.p. versions pre-war, re-appeared in 18/20 and 25-h.p. forms for 1921/22, the latter, as the 25/50 model IR, surviving to 1923.
After this the range comprised the 12/24, 12/28, 15/43 and 22/65, the last-named 4-litre model being abandoned after 1925, when the 9.5-h.p. 10/20 was introduced, the 12/28 being restyled the 13/30.
These vintage De Dion Boutons were rather pedestrian and their appeal seems to have lain in the care with which they were prepared and the beautifully-made coachwork with which they were fitted. They arrived from France as chassis, with tyres but sans bodies. It is significant that, after Mr. Hillman had decided that whereas French motorists would put up with noise, for this country quiet running was desirable, he employed a well-paid tester at the parent factory, who spent his time hand-picking chassis for dispatch to England. Out of a dozen, he might deem only one sufficiently quiet, and he was known to ask for a particular axle to be fitted to the chassis with the least noisy engine, and so on. Then when the chassis arrived at Finchley, it was given a thorough check-over and a road-test of 50 to 100 miles with test body. Mr. Kempster did a lot of this test driving; Brockley Hill was a favourite test hill. He also recalls that the pre-1914 V8 engines had no means of tappet adjustment, other than grinding down or building up the valve stems – if clearance was too great the valve was cut down, dove-tailed and a new stem silver-soldered to the required length. Tappets were lapped to their guides and piston clearances meticulously checked.
The Woodside Works employed some 800 people and all the English De Dion bodies, known as HHH coachwork, were built therein. The customer could have seats and squabs made to measure, seasoned timber was used, and panelling was of hand-beaten aluminium, welded so that no joints were visible. Upholstery was in Bedford cord or Connolly hide, to choice, using the company’s own type of copper-coil mattress. Body and dashboard were rubber-insulated from the chassis and Mr. Hillman preferred to supply separately-adjustable double-sliding seats to bucket front seats. Much use was made of felt-padding.
The range of coachwork was formidable. For example, the 1925 range embraced an all-weather torpedo, in dickey-seat and tourer form, a wood-pillar coupé, an all-enclosed coupé, a saloon-landaulette, a 4-door saloon, a limousine-landaulette. a saloon-cabriolet, a pullman saloon and a pullman-landaulette. Prices ranged from £530 for a 12/24 IS 2-seater to £1050 for a 22/+65 JK pullman-landaulette. It must have kept the salesmen, Cull-Thelke and W. Picker, fully occupied.
The larger De Dions had occasional seats that would collapse and slide under the front seats. Most models had Rudge wire wheels but for the more imposing models wood-spoke artillery wheels were thought more dignified. Front-wheel-brakes, of Perrot-type, came early, standard on the larger chassis, £20 extra on the smaller ones. The hand-brake worked on the transmission, and all models had long cantilever back springs. Early tourers, circa 1921, had been given side-curtains with many small celluloid portholes, fashioned on those used by Hudson at that time.
Although high-performance was not associated with these De Dion Boutons, they listed a folding-head Sportsman’s Coupé. It had small occasional seats behind the main seat, on which two passengers could be carried, facing one another. When out of use these little seats folded and slid back into recesses in the sides of the dickey. The name applied to the ease with which golf-clubs, fishing-rods, etc., could be stowed, rather than to performance !
At the time of which I write, H.O. Duncan and Herbert Hurd Rodwell were associated with the Company, W. T. Botten was the Chief Accountant, Mr. Miller the Assistant Secretary, and J. Keen the Works Manager. Mr. Hillman, who had been associated with De Dion cars since 1903, made frequent visits to Puteaux. His contract bade him go by boat, but spares were flown in to Croydon.
I asked whether any old pre-1914 models survived as works lorries but, apart from an early 9-h.p. chassis converted into a van and known as “9 a.m.,” this wasn’t necessary, because De Dion Bouton made their own commercial chassis, at first with solid tyres, later with disc wheels, shod with pneumatics, dual at the rear. In 1923, for instance, this commercial range embraced 20.1, 24.8 and 30-h.p. chassis, the last-named with a 110×150 mm. engine, supplied as a 5-tonner or a 35-seater coach. So the Company used these. They used to sell them as well, fetching them from the docks by London Bridge and driving the chassis to Finchley. The 22-h.p. car chassis was used for coachbodies. A.1 Dairies in N.20 owned a fleet of the round-radiator De Dion lorries, with phosphor-bronze bearings throughout.
Mr. Kempster recalls overhauling the last VS in the summer of 1926. The EQ version was the best of these, the 2-bearing lB version suffering from crankshaft thump, not evident in the later 3-bearing V8 De Dion engine. For a long time a huge 50-h.p. V8 De Dion was an imposing exhibit in the West End showrooms.
There was excellent co-operation between the French and English companies. For example, Mr. Kempster helped to cure timing-gear rattle on the model-IM 15/43 engine with a simple form of brake on the magneto-drive and subsequently this was perfected in France. He also recalls that the model-ID 12/14 De Dion Bouton suffered from knocking when the clutch was out. By making up cups to cover the collars of the withdrawal mechanism the trouble was cured and De Dions themselves then used three long steady-pins to achieve the same result.
It was not then customary to rebore worn cylinders. The first time this was done, on a doctor’s car, the job was given to Specialloid. Until the correct piston clearances had been determined by reference to De Dion, bad piston knock intruded. The fact is that early light-alloy pistons called for much greater clearances than are required today. Zephyr pistons were later tried in a 15/43 engine but three different sets of rings had to be supplied before Mr. Kempster was satisfied.
In 1925, to boost sales which were feeling the draught of competition from low-priced, mass-produced cars, it was decided to enter for Brooklands races, Dr. J. D. Benjafield, then a famous. “Bentley-boy,” being signed-on as the driver. A 12/28 IW chassis with higher axle-ratio, etc., was sent over from France and a light blue racing 2-seater body made for it at Finchley. Unfortunately a misunderstanding about piston clearances never gave the car a chance, its best race lap speed being 73.24 m.p.h.
After this the demand for quality cars with hand-built bodywork waned and Mr. Kempster left in 1926 to join Gt. Northern Motors (London) Ltd., later purchased by H. A. Saunders Ltd. of Whetstone, where today; as Works Manager, his long experience of the great care taken in fitting, assembling and testing of De Dion Boutons stands him in good stead when servicing customers’ B.M.C. products. He still recalls the care taken to line-up correctly the pinion-shaft of the worm-drive rear axles of the pre-war V8 and 25-h.p. De Dion Boutons. For a time Mr. Botten took over De Dion affairs and seems to have re-introduced the 4-litre model, but after 1932 this great make faded from the market.
Since the war I have encountered a 12/28 Sportsman’s Coupé and a tourer, and a rather sorry 2-seater was found in Berkshire last year. It would be interesting to know how many vintage De Dions survive. – W. B.