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La Marquise

The Oldest Running Car in the World

The Oldest Running Car in the World...

... was Sold at a price of $4,620,000 - The History: When the young Comte de Dion stopped at the Giroux toy shop on Paris’s Boulevard des Italiens in December 1881, he was looking for toys to give as prizes at a ball he was planning. But he was intrigued by the quality of the workmanship of a model steam engine and asked who had built it.

Directed to the workshop out back, he found Georges Bouton and Charles-Armand Trepardoux. They were earning a measly seven francs a day building model boats and steam engines and scientific instruments. De Dion promptly offered them 10 francs a day and asked them to build a full-size engine, such as might power a carriage. So, in much the same way as the aristocratic Charles Rolls engaged engineer Henry Royce some 20 years later, a multi-class partnership was formed between a wealthy entrepreneur and working class craftsmen.

Bouton and Trepardoux set to work in a run-down building on the Rue Pergolese, near Avenue de la Grande Armee, the center of Paris’s bicycle industry, whose workers would soon be building automobiles. The problem with steam-powered vehicles was that efficient boilers were huge and powered locomotives and steamships. So how could one be miniaturized?

The two started off by adding a steam engine to a tricycle and then built a Victoria quadricycle in 1883. This had belt drive and inconvenient rear-wheel steering, and its liquid fuel was prone to suddenly catching fire. With its large vertical boiler up front, it looked like a coffee pot on wheels, so back to the drawing board they went. A year later, they came up with a much more practical arrangement, which is the car offered today.

La MarquiseDubbed “La Marquise,” after the Count de Dion’s mother, this quadricycle is much more compact, steering with its front wheels and driving the back wheels through connecting rods, rather like a locomotive. (The same principle was applied to the contemporary Hilderbrand & Wolfmuller motorcycle, though it proved difficult to ride, with so much unbalanced weight whizzing around.)

De Dion’s little quadricycle can claim to be the first family car, despite its arcane power source. What makes it different from road-going locomotives dating back to Cugnot’s 1770 tractor is its sophisticated boiler, which can be steamed in 45 minutes. It is also compact at only nine feet long and relatively light at 2,100 pounds. But, it has four wheels, seats four, and can be driven by one person – like a modern car.

Writer David Burgess-Wise examined “La Marquise” closely for Automobile Quarterly in 1995. He pointed out that it is both De Dion’s prototype quadricycle and the oldest running real car in private hands, so its credentials are unmatched.

“The only older functioning vehicle is the 1875 Grenville,” (basically a powered gun carriage), he said. “Amedee Bollee’s ‘L’Obesissant’ of 1872, now in the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers in Paris, was working in 1923 and presumably could be got working again, but the museum doesn’t normally run its exhibits. There’s the chassis of the 1830 Gurney Drag in the Glasgow Museum, and the 1854 Bordino steam coach in the Turn museum is apparently complete, but neither is likely to run again.”