Fragments on forgotten makes. No. 36: The Decauville

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Decauville cars date back to 1898. First, from the works at Corbeil, Seine-et-Oise, emerged a sort of four-wheeled Bollee, originally called a Geudon. More conventional cars followed and on the strength of some literature kindly provided by a reader, we can look at Decauville as it was in 1906.

Founded in 1854 for the manufacture of distilling apparatus, the Company branched out later into the making of light railway locomotives and equipment, which meant substantially enlarging its factory. In time it became famous for Decauville narrow-gauge locomotives and rolling-stock and later made splendidly-equipped coaches and trucks for full-size lines. Motor rail-cars and automobiles came naturally to Decauville. By 1906 they buds factory extending over more than 50 acres, still on the banks of the Seine at Corbeil, together with a works at Dunkirk for export railway orders, and another near Liege in Belgium. The main factory employed more than 1,100 workers, the others a further 500.

The automobile factory’s gear-cutters, lathes, drilling-machines and boring-tools were driven by overhead shafting and belts, as was then, and for a long time afterwards, customary, using electric power from the plant’s own triple dynamos, these being driven by three engines developing a total of 550 h.p. In the first bay of the Decauville factory a visitor suet big battery of different sized steam-hammers, used for shaping the main chassis members. Next, he entered a place where the smaller forgings were fabricated and the hardening of the steel parts was accomplished. Chassis were assembled in a shop where the honeycomb radiators and bonnets were also made. The machine-shop was equipped with automatic lathes, supervised by one man, and in the centre of the factory the detail parts were added to the chassis frames and the section beyond was where the Decauville engines cuts assembled and tested. In the next department the engines were put into the chassis frames and finally, in a well-lighted hall, the bodies were fitted and the finished cars were tuned-up. Decauville bodywork was made in a special joinery and upholstery department, before going to the paintshop. The finished cars were stored in a siding of the PLM railway, awaiting despatch.

In 1906 six Decauville models were in production, the two-cylinder 12/14, the four-cylinder 12/16, 16/20, 24/28 shaft/drive chassis, and the big 30/35 and 45/60 chain-drive cars. From all these vans (some used by Decauville themselves), lorries, rail-cars and motor-boat engines were devised. Decauville were proud of their rigid chrome-steel chassis frames and their very flexible engines, claimed to recently to have been even further improved.

Engine bearings were bronze-lined, the 12/16 h.p. chassis had unit construction of engine and. gearbox, and there was a choice of ignition, by trembler coil or h.t. magneto. Like Rolls-Royce, Decauville made their own carburetters and they had patented their propeller-shaft universal-joint. A cone clutch, quadrant gear-change, and big exposed flywheel in its pit between the united engine and gearbox, were typical of the times. A sprag was still supplied. The main engine bearings were bronze-lined and the water pump of the 12/16 engine delivered 22 gallons of water per minute. Power seems to have been taken at 1,000 r.p.m, at which speed the higher of the quoted horse-powers was developed. The valves were all interchangeable, the gearbox shafts ran on ball bearings, and the back axles were of fully-floating type. The 3-speed and reverse gearboxes had pinions of nickel-steel. The foot-brake operated a differential brake, at the same time withdrawing the clutch, and the hand brake applyed the expanding rear-wheel brakes. The two-cylinder chassis came in two wheelbase lengths and had coil ignition; a magneto cost an extra £25. The 12/16 engine normally had a Simms-Bosch h.t. magneto, coil and accumulators costing £15 extra. The big 35 h.p. car had a 4-speed gearbox, and dual ignition seems to have been standard on the bigger models.

Prices in 1906 ranged from £310 for the long-wheelbase 115 x 115 mm., two-cylinder Decauville chassis on 815 x 105 tyres, to £730 for the 30/35 128 x 130 mm. chassis on 915 x 105 front, 920 X 120 back tyres. A 12/16 landaulette was listed at £550 and English-built bodies for the more powerful chassis cost from £75 to £150. Miss Julie Neilson was the proud owner of a 24/28 Decauville. This suggests a British agent. Indeed, H. M. Hobson, Ltd., with showrooms in Oxford Street, had just moved into new premises at 29, Vauxhall Bridge Road, where their offices, garage and works were situated. The place was between an open space and existing residential quarters with railinged balconies to their first-floor windows, beneath one of which the entrance-arch to the garage was situated. There was a showroom to the three-storey brick building, to which 1906 Decauville chassis were delivered on horse-drawn low-loading drays. Counting the basement, there were three floors to Hobson’s premises, access to them being by means of a Wavgood’s hydraulic lift. The premises provided accommodation for some 50 cars, and space for repairing them. The basement housed not only machine tools, but forges. The ground floor held 16 cars, the second floor the offices and Directors’ rooms, with more car-storage space available, and on the third floor was the tuning-bay, spares-depot, and further car storage space. Jentazy tyres and Pognon plugs were used here. A modern note is struck by the statement that “every Decauville car that leaves the Depot is in perfect running order, a detail which very few makers or agents in this country attend to.” Mechanics time was charged at 2/- ( top) an hour; dismantling a car for examination prior to repairs cost ,£6 (600p).

Decauville agents were being appointed, F. E. Fox & Duffin of West Kent Garage, Sydenham, who also had premises in Beckenham, being one of these. They claimed to be competent “to drive and repair any description of motor vehicle, from one to 100 h.p.” Their 1906 Decauville prices seem to have been slightly higher than those of Hobson’s, up to £1000 for the 45/60 chassis. They could hire-out Decauville cars with competent drivers, and were agents for any make of car on the market. All in all, it would seem that by 1906 the Decauville was a good and thoroughly well-established car. Yet by 1909 it was no more. Why? – W.B.

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