Treasures: De Dion-Bouton Motorette Company

De Dion-Bouton (1883-1932) was one of the premier French manufacturers of horseless carriages and motorcycles in the early era of motor car production. Venturing outside of France and into America, De Dion-Bouton was one of the first foreign manufacturers to produce motor cars in America under the company name De Dion-Bouton Motorette Company headquartered in Brooklyn at the corner of Church Lane and 37th Street. Lasting only one year (1900-1901) they produced three models: the Brooklyn, the New York, and the Doctor’s Coupe.

Though they only lasted one year in America, De Dion-Bouton Motorette Company still had an impact on American motor car technology. The De Dion-Bouton Motorette Company was known for its one-cylinder engines, creating small, but reliable, concept vehicles. However, once in production, they did not meet the expectations of the American public, and went out of business rather quickly.  Not only did they produce motor car models during their short time in America, but they also sold parts and accessories including air-cooled and water-cooled engines, sparking plugs, and mufflers.

De Dion-Bouton Motors and Accessories catalog.

A few treasured pieces of De Dion-Bouton history are part of the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection. One of these is the “Motors and Accessories” catalog, published in April 1901 by the De Dion-Bouton Motorette Company. This catalog describes the company’s history in France, why the company has set up operations in America, and provides a list of engines and accessories for sale by the company. As one of the earlier period pieces collected by Vinson, it was probably one of only a few pieces of sales literature produced by the company during its time in America, making it an exceptionally rare piece of automobile literature.

The following is how Mr. Vinson described the catalog in his own words in A Collector’s Life: An Autobiography:

The De Dion appears to have been the first foreign vehicle manufactured under license in the U.S., hence the significance of this small item. The U.S. company was headquartered in Brooklyn and lasted but one year. It appears to have manufactured motors as well as cars (the De Dion firm at this point manufacturing many of the motors used in other French cars of the day). This catalogue must have been one of the few pieces of sales literature that the U.S. company issued.

As an example of foreign manufacturing in America, De Dion-Bouton attempted to bridge the gap between America and Europe in the motor car era. Louis Chevrolet, one of the co-founders and inspiration for the Chevrolet Motor Company, worked at the Brooklyn De Dion-Bouton factory during its time in America. This position helped Louis Chevrolet gain experience in the American motor car market before he eventually started his own company with General Motors founder William C. Durant in 1911.

This catalog, along with the many thousands of others that make up the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, represents a small, but important, piece of American automobile history. Not only were American companies, such as Ford, producing motor cars for the American public, but foreign motor car manufacturers were already setting their sights on expanding into the American market.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of The Automobile (2 Volume Set) Volume 1: A-L; Volume 2: M-Z. Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000.
Kimes, Beverly Rae, and Henry Austin Clark. Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942. 3rd ed. Iola, WI.: Krause Publications, 1996.

Robin Valencia is the Graduate Assistant on the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

One thought on “Treasures: De Dion-Bouton Motorette Company

  1. MY Grand mothers brother was the inventor of that 1 cylinder motor.
    TORBENSEN, VIGGO Valdemar. (b.11 Sept. 1858-3 Jan. 1947) pioneer in the automotive industry and founder of the Torbensen Axle Company was born in Branderslev, Denmark, the son of Hans Vilhelm and Maren (Josiassen) Torbensen. Viggo’s father William was born in Copenhagen and his mother in Gurreby, Denmark. He was educated in Danish public schools and studied engineering at the Naval Technical School, graduating in 1879. After 2 years as a machinist’s apprentice and a year working in England, he came to America where he was employed by a succession of firms. In 1892, Torbensen traveled to Germany for further training. Returning to the U.S. in 1899, he designed and produced the first internal automobile gear drive used in this country while managing the DeDion-Bouton Motorette Co. of Brooklyn, N.Y. In 1912, he founded the Torbensen Gear & Axle Company at Newark, NJ and moved it to Cleveland in 1915, reincoporating it as the Torbensen Axle Co. with a capital of $1.75 million. By 1917 the company was generating an annual income of $6 million from the sales of 30,000 axles, most of them produced at its 4-acre plant on E. 152nd St. Torbensen axles equipped one out of every three trucks made in the U. S. The founder retired in the early 1920s, when the company was absorbed by the Eaton Axle Co.

    He married Evelyn L. Smith of Philadelphia, and they had 3 children, Allen, Clara U. (Mrs Charles J. Long), and Mrs. Margaret Rauchmiller. Torbensen’s second wife was Gertrude Stritmater whom he married 5 Aug. 1922. He died in Cleveland 1947 and was buried in LAKE VIEW CEMETERY.

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