A year before Gottlieb Daimler began pottering about on his big-bang-theory-propelled "motorcycle" and Carl Benz was seen perambulating around the neighbourhood in his similarly internal-combustion-powered three-wheeler, French Comte de Dion was twisting open the throttle valve on a four-wheeled contraption grandly named La Marquise and steaming through the streets of Paris.
La Marquise – named for the adventurous young nobleman's mother and looking somewhat like a Victorian-era hot-dog vendor's cart – is now a remarkable 128 years of age but still capable of being brought to the boil, making "her" the oldest still-operating motor car in the world.
It has been lost to time just what the De Dion Bouton et Trepardoux Dos-A-Dos Steam Runabout cost the upper-crust count, who was paying its creators, "mecanos" Georges Bouton and Charles-Armand Trepardoux, 10 francs a day. Or what he sold it for in 1906 to the family it remained with for the next 81 years.
But after being purchased as an incomplete basket-case in 1987 for about $90,000 by a British veteran car enthusiast, its price has increased like an expanding steam cloud. Its now fifth owner handed over $4.62-million for it at an RM Auctions sale last fall in Hershey, Pa.
Before the internal combustion engine was perfected, steam and electricity seemed like the best options for self-motivated personal transportation, with steam having a head start dating back to an artillery tractor created by Frenchman Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1770.
Various road-going steam-powered cargo wagons and multi-passenger bus-like carriages followed over the next 100 years, but the 1884 De Dion was among the first with "modern" car attributes such as four wheels and four-passenger seating, as well as being capable of operation by a single driver-cum-stoker.
De Dion, the man who stoked the fires of invention in Bouton and his brother-in-law Trepardoux with ten-Franc notes, reputedly came across them working in back-room obscurity in a toy shop that included in its wares model steam engines.
Already intrigued by the possibilities of a small personal steam-powered vehicle, the wealthy de Dion enticed them away to develop such a vehicle in 1882. The pair, who were more engineers than grease-monkeys, spent the next couple of years creating a steam engine and compact boiler system efficient enough to power a vehicle. It was first fitted to a tricycle, and then in 1883 a quadracycle. A partnership was also formed that year to create the De Dion-Bouton marque.
The first four-wheeler had belt drive and rear-steering, both of which proved problematic. La Marquise of 1884 addressed both those problems by providing front-wheel steering through a spade-grip handle and powering the rear wheels with twin engines whose connecting rods acted on rear-wheel-cranks much like a steam locomotive.
La Marquise is 2,743 mm long, weighs 952 kg and provides back-to-back or dos-a-dos seating for four on a pair of benches atop the water tank. Mechanical brakes slow it from its top speed of 60 km/h.
Its clever boiler design allowed it to get up to a 170 pound-per-square-inch working pressure in about 45 minutes; the heat was provided by coal or coke fed from hoppers in the bunker. It can travel 30 km on 160 litres of water and its coal bunker, which wraps around the front-mounted boiler, contains enough for about 60 km.
La Marquise may not only be the oldest running car but some say the world's oldest competition car. De Dion entered her in an 1887 Paris-to-Versailles exhibition "race" sponsored by the editor of cycling magazine Le Velocipede, but was the only competitor to turn up. He ran anyway, completing the 20 or so kilometres at a speed of 25 km/h.
By 1886, the company was getting up a head of steam and offering three- and four-wheelers, trucks and buses, but according to an Automobile Quarterly article, only about 30 steamers were produced in total, most of them tricycles. The company's emphasis shifted to gasoline-fuelled internal combustion in the 1890s and it became the leading auto maker in Europe in the early years of the 20th century.
Steam still had its devotees in the new century as did electricity and the latter remains a still largely unrequited Holy Grail quest, but the last wisps of the former vaporized in the 1920s.
La Marquise was seemingly still running at the turn of the century but was sold a few years later to Henri Doriol and remained in that family for the next eight decades. But after having copper and brass fittings stripped as contributions to the First World War effort, it never ran again until coming into the hands of Tim Moore in England in the late 1980s.
Moore, using an 1890 model in a French museum as a source of information, fabricated the required bits, replaced incorrect wooden wheels with the wire variety and refurbished other bits to make La Marquise run again.
Which she did, with Moore at the throttle in four London-to-Brighton veteran car runs, and was always first away as the oldest car in the field. She also collected some class awards at Pebble Beach.
La Marquise is the senior member of a pre-1905 automobile club that totals just 805 vehicles worldwide.