Apart from the restored and resuscitated veteran cars which regale the Brighton Road each November, it is nice to recall vehicles which were a sensation before the Emancipation re-enactment was thought of.
One such true veteran was the 1873 Bollee steamer named l’Obeissante. It had been brought out in 1923, when it was claimed to be 50 years old, by Amedee Bollee, who remembered how his father, mother and grandfather talked of the steam car under construction in his father’s bellmaking workshop, where some 40 people were employed. Much of the building was done at night by father Bailee after the busy factory had ceased its 12-hour day.
All the parts required were made at the factory in Le Mans. On its first trial run of about a mile the boiler was Found to be too small; a larger one was substituted and a second test made over a ten-mile route. The vehicle proved satisfactory and easy to steer, far more so than the then-current traction engines, which were also slower. But, even in progressive France, permission to use l’Obeissante was refused. After some delay, however, Bollee was allowed to drive his steamer over the roads.
So here was a practical means of travel. The machine had a centre-pivoted front axle coupled to a vertical steering column by chain, a mar-mounted boiler and four cylinders in vee-formation driving through a sliding-pinion gearbox to chain-driven rear wheels. Top speed was 18mph. The Bollee was used for Sunday outings, when its 12 seats must have been useful. This was no plaything: in 1875 it was driven the 125 miles from Le Mans to Paris, at just less than 6.7mph overall. In Paris the Chief of Police was taken for a ride and gave the steamer right of passage.
In 1923 it did a lap of the Le Mans circuit at the time of the first 24-hour race there and was photographed with one of the 1 1/2-litre Talbots with which Divo and Monceau dominated the voiturette race. Bollee went on to build some more steamers, of which the second one drove the factory machinery for two years of the 1914/18 war. But l’Obeissante was what sparked it off.