The world’s oldest running car, an 1884 De Dion Bouton et Trepardoux Dos-a-Dos Steam Runabout, sold at RM Auctions‘ Hershey, Pennsylvania, sale on October 7th for a world record $4,620,000. There are a couple of older motorized vehicles that might vie for the title of oldest car (depending on how you define car), but they are in museums and are not in running condition. This particular car is not only 127 years old and still running, but it’s also street-legal, an impressive achievement considering it runs on steam generated by a coal-fed boiler.
In 1881 the dashing young Comte de Dion, a roguish fellow famed for his skill with the dueling pistol and the ladies, encountered an impressive model steam engine in a toy shop in Paris. The engine was built by Georges Bouton and Charles-Armand Trepardoux who were earning meager ducats creating toy models and scientific instruments. De Dion hired them on the spot to build him a steam engine big enough to power a carriage, but compact enough to allow passengers besides just the driver.
Bouton and Trepardoux, after an initial failed attempt, came up with a relatively compact car — nine feet long weighing 2,100 pounds — that ran off of twin compound steam engines fueled by coal that was fed automatically through a hopper. The “spade handle” steering controlled the front wheels which in turn drove the back wheels through a connecting rod motion, like a locomotive. It seated four people, back to back (hence the dos-as-dos in the name), and was driven by one driver, so despite its train-like engine and wheel arrangement, it really is a fully recognizable family sedan as we know them today.
De Dion called the prototype “La Marquise” after his mother (who PS, thought he was crazy) and by 1886 he had sales materials and a small production line including a three-wheel model, a dog-cart, even an 18-seat bus. Of course, these were extremely pricey (a new quadricycle went for 4,400 francs ($850) in 1889) so few were ordered and made. As far as we know, De Dion sold a total of 30 of his steam vehicles, 20 tricycles, four or five quadricycles, and a handful of the larger carriages. Only two other quadricycles and six tricycles are known to exist today, but none of them run.
This particular “La Marquise” wasn’t one of the ones sold. It was the prototype, the first one ever made, and it bears clear marks to that effect. You can see that the brackets which hold the water tank to the frame were re-cut to clear a lug and it has the original brass plate attached to the boiler on which the mandatory 5 year inspections of the boiler were recorded. The first one was in 1889.
Another claim to fame of this vehicle is that it was driven in the first official car race in 1887. Georges Bouton drove this prototype from Paris to Versailles and was clocked at a top speed of 37 miles per hour.
“La Marquise” stayed in De Dion’s hands until 1906 when he sold it to French army officer Henri Doriol. It remained in the Doriol family for 81 years, but they never drove it because in 1914 its brass and copper fittings had been extensively cannibalized for the French government’s war effort. For decades Doriol and his son tried to restore it but were unable. They sold it in 1987 to Tim Moore, an enthusiast who tracked down an 1890 model at the museum in Le Mans and copied the missing fittings. He had it up and running within a year. Moore sold it to collector John O’Quinn in 2007 and it is O’Quinn’s estate that put it up for auction Friday.
Behold its steam chugging greatness in action: