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Pedalling like Hercules: in the saddle of a 1901 De Dion Bouton Tricycle

1901 de_dion_bouton_tricycle_470

In 2012 Geoff Gray bought a 1901 De Dion Bouton motor tricycle in need of restoration. I suggested he first spoke with De Dion tricycle expert Mick Penney who is the UK’s best kept secret for all things De Dion tricycle. Upon closer inspection of the project, Mick found the engine was in a sorry state; and it eventually took three engines to rebuild a single good one. The original front forks showed poor repair, indicating the tricycle had suffered an accident in a distant past. It was also discovered it originally left the De Dion factory in Puteaux as a quadricycle which also explains the large leather seat which is still on the tricycle. However, Mick worked his magic and made a new set of front forks from scratch and replaced various later modifications with the correct fittings.

Geoff got in touch again recently to tell me the tricycle was back from De Dion hospital and invited me back to ride the machine for the first time. Now, it’s not often you get the chance to ride a 1901 French motor tricycle around an Essex housing estate, so I took up Geoff’s offer.

Upon arrival, Geoff reminded me of the controls and I remembered from my previous experiences, that you never have enough hands for the amount of levers on a De Dion tricycle. We turn on the fuel, prime the oil, open the de-compressor, prime the carburettor and set the throttle lever; then I limber up and prime my legs. I climb aboard the machine and start pedalling like Hercules, at the point at which I think I’m up to speed, I then close the de-compressor lever and the 2.3/4 horsepower engine behind me fires and away I go.  Geoff told me to keep turning left, so I did. Past the people washing their cars and mowing their front gardens; all blissfully unaware of the pioneer machine chugging past them. As the tricycle warmed up, I began to adjust the throttle and choke; all in a rather random way I might add, but I find a happy medium where the engine sounds and feels happy and I settle in to the ride; leaning into each corner as demonstrated in this short video.

The trick is not ride it using the throttle lever, but with the twist handle bar grip which neatly houses a kill switch. This kills the electric feed to the coil and you can feather the speed accordingly. Now, it does become tricky when you need to slow down while approaching a junction. The problem is; if you are going too slow and the throttle lever is set to its optimum position; you have to pedal to get back up to a speed the throttle is happy with; if you don’t, then the engine will stall and this is a time when the de-compressor may have to be opened; otherwise, your wedding tackle will suffer a chance meeting with the cross bar and the local choir will be requiring your services. It all sounds rather complicated, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. (It has to be).

I soon discover that the Circuit De Geoff is about a ¼ of a mile long; and after 4 laps I pull up to his house. I kill the coil and open the de-compressor and the tricycle grinds to a stop. Despite feeling like you have an engine strapped to your backside; the top speed is about 25 mph which is enough. Geoff is still getting to grips with his new machine, but plans are afoot to enter many veteran events; including the VCC London to Brighton run in November, along with the events hosted by the excellent 'De Dion Bouton Club'. Thanks Geoff, for letting me take your tricycle for a ride; a machine which was last on the road 100 years ago.  

(main photo is a still taken from the video by Geoff Gray; report and images by Tim Gunn)   


#2 2014-07-28 11:05
Oops, Thank you Tim for a very well written article and some great photos.

Happy motoring,

#1 2014-07-27 12:06
Thanks Joris, you've just openned the door to a wonderful new world. I'm going to try to be good so I can ask Santa for a DeDion Tricycle for Christmas.

editor: hi Warren, better say thank you to Tim Gunn who did the testdrive and wrote the report ;-)

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