When the Marquis de Brox asked to Amedee Bollée senior, in 1886, to build a steam carriage, he passed the commission over to his 18-year-old elder son, also called Amedee.
Amedee Bollée Jnr had already built for himself a light two-seater steamer of advanced concept. The vast machine he designed for the Marquis was a 16-seater 'double mail coach' which appeared as archaic as the two-seater was ahead of its time.
It was not until 1896 that Amedee Bollée Jnr's first successful petrol car appeared. This had a 2.3-litre, twin-cylinder engine, cast en bloc, mounted at the front of a metal chassis. Belt primary drive transmitted power to a Panhard-type gearbox, from which a transverse countershaft, incorporating a differential, drove each rear wheel through separate longitudinal propeller shafts with spiral bevel gearing at either end. This was the first time that spiral bevels had been used in a car transmission, but the arrangement was soon abandoned for side chains.
The car was built under licence by De Dietrich; an early modification was the fitting of an automatic spray carburettor of sophisticated design. Amedee Bollée jnr took part in a number of speed trials, as a result of which it became apparent to him that an attempt to reduce the air-resistance of the average motor car body was essential.
He secretly prepared four 8 hp racing cars, with bodywork made entirely of aluminium, aggressively pointed at front and rear to give a smooth passage to the air; these torpilleurs, capable of a 'breakneck' 37 mph, were described by Express of Liege as 'fearsome but speedy'.
In the 1898 Paris-Amsterdam race, the four torpilleurs attracted much attention. Two of the cars, including that driven by Bollée jnr himself, were eliminated en route, but the others, driven by Gaudry and Loysel, were third and sixth. Gaudry might have been higher placed but for a 'bad spill' on the Etain road.
Vinet, though out of the race, concluded an excellent stroke of business by selling his car at Monter for the useful sum of 17 ,000 francs! Orders for touring versions of the new Bollée model poured in following the Paris-Amsterdam race.
De Dietrich booked orders exceeding one million francs within a few weeks. Towards the end of 1898, Loysel, driving his Paris-Amsterdam racer, won the Bordeaux-Biarritz race, while Thevin and Houry succeeded in driving Bollée-Dietrich tourers from Paris to St Petersburg and back.
Around the same time, the 'engineer-explorer', Taupeat de Saint-Syrneux, was the first auto-mobilist to reach the Niger, linking the valley of Senegal with Bamako, on a Bollée ; in 1899, he was the second motorist to reach Tananarive by car, and the first to make the journey without dismounting from his machine.
The most important speed event was the 1350-mile Tour de France organised by Le Matin; for this race, Arnedee Bollée jnr designed three new torpilleurs with a precocious mechanical layout which included an incredible number of 'firsts'.
The cars had rear-mounted, 20 hp, four-cylinder engines cast en bloc and fitted with twin carburettors, a boxed-up steel chassis, of unusual strength, independently suspended at the front (on double transverse springs) and underslung at the rear, twin track-rods and aluminium coachwork, which was not only smoothly streamlined above the chassis but also flat underneath to lessen air resistance.
There were, however, some archaic features - four-speed belt-drive, automatic inlet valves and hot-tube ignition. Hasty preparation spoiled the cars' chances, and road dust, sucked in by the carburettors, caused pre-ignition, which was a major factor in the team's withdrawal, though the cars showed themselves capable of 55 mph on the road. This fiasco marked Bollée's withdrawal from competition motoring. Henceforth, he was to concentrate on limited-production cars of great refinement.
One 1902 project had a twin-cylinder engine with a vibration damper consisting of a third piston running counter to the others in an open-ended cylinder. In 1907, came the Type E, possibly the world's first ergonomically-designed motor car, priced at the same level as, and far more advanced in concept than a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. The mechanical refinement of this model was further enhanced by the adoption of another Bollée invention, hydraulic tappets.
In 1908, Bollée played host to the Wright Brothers when they gave their first European displays of flying. The last production Arnedee Bollée car was the Type F of 1913; when the last of these had been assembled from pre-war spares in 1919, Bollée turned his attention to the manufacture of piston rings, in which field his factory is still active. He died in 1926. His younger brother, Leon, born in 1870, invented a remarkable calculating machine, which was shown at the 1889 Paris Exhibition.
Until he was twenty-six he involved himself with the design of automatic machinery, then, early in 1896, he conceived a small, fast three-wheeler of somewhat basic design, remarkable mainly for the fact that it was the first vehicle to be sold with pneumatic tyres as standard.
The elongated form of the tricycle, redolent of speed,' wrote Baudry de Saunier in 1896, 'gives it somewhat the semblance of a little torpedo-boat.' The machine was built under licence in France and England. English rights were acquired by the egregious Harry Lawson for £20,000 and a crude version of the machine, known as the Coventry Motette, was produced.
Powered by its air-cooled, single cylinder 650cc (3hp) engine and using hot-tube ignition and three forward gears, the Voiturette was at the time the fastest petrol-engined vehicle on the road. The vehicle had a tubular frame with a steel footwell at the front to protect passengers feet from puddles on the road, the driver sat at the rear.
However, the Bollée voiturette was only a short-lived venture. By 1899, Darracq were producing a new Leon Bollée, inspired partly by the voiturette layout. The Leon Bollee “Voiturette” first appeared in France in 1895. In 1899 the vehicle was superseded by a 4-wheeler vehicle and in 1901 the design rights were sold to Darracq. Even though the Leon Bollee name temporarily disappeared (re emerging in 1903 - 1933) the name “Voiturette” lived on.
After 1903, Leon Bollée turned to manufacture on his own account, building large conventional cars backed by Vanderbilt money; he died in 1913 and the subsequent products of his factory were indistinguishable from most other middle-class French cars of the 1920s. In 1924, the factory was acquired by William Morris, who produced mainly Wolseley-inspired models at Le Mans for seven years, until the Depression caused him to sell the works, which closed in 1933.