The Rise and Decline of the De Dion Bouton Company
“There is a view that De Dion Bouton was as much an architect of its own demise as it was of its triumphant success some decades earlier.”
These words formed part of an introductory paragraph that Bill Boddy wrote for an article on the early French automobile industry.
By 1901 the De Dion Bouton Company was firmly established as both a successful innovator and a manufacturer of high quality engines and motor vehicles in Europe. The success of the motor tricycle at the very end of the nineteenth century had been followed by the launch of the voiturette, which in turn, had prepared the way for the first of the front-engined vehicles that appeared in 1901. More than 100 other manufacturers, including Renault, had installed engines bought from Puteaux into their own vehicles, and so De Dion Bouton had played a pivotal role in supporting the nascent car industry. In May 1903 the single cylinder vehicles were joined by the first twin cylinder offerings. This particular development had not been without its challenges, specifically around engine lubrication, but the launch of the Types S and W attracted considerable positive comment throughout 1904.
The lessons learned in 1903 were to serve the Company well because the range and pace of technical development dramatically accelerated from the end of 1904. Many of De Dion Bouton’s innovations with engine design, ignition systems, suspension and speed change mechanisms were well established, reliable and effective, but they were no longer ‘cutting edge’ or fashionable, and the Company was acutely aware of the need to demonstrate a willingness to change, difficult, expensive, and perhaps sometime unnecessary, as that might be. The competitive environment was changing: the days of De Dion Bouton hegemony were over as British, local French companies, and particularly American manufacturers, were demonstrating both their manufacturing prowess and their ability to attract customers with keen prices. The Americans overtook the French in the value of their automobile production in 1905 and never looked back. In France by 1913 Peugeot, Renault, Darracq and Berliet were all producing more passenger vehicles than De Dion Bouton.
The enterprise in Puteaux was vast, complex and extraordinarily expensive to maintain. Whilst the Comte de Dion was convinced in 1904 that the future prosperity of the company lay in small vehicles and trucks, it did not prevent him from launching a range of motor buses that became familiar on the streets of Paris, London and New York from 1906. The decision several years later to depart from the small-engined market and focus on four-cylinder vehicles was motivated by a number of considerations. By 1909 margins on single engined cars had been tightly squeezed; the success of the 12hp four-cylinder Type BH, had persuaded the management to cease production of the 10hp twin-cylinders. In essence passenger vehicle production in Puteaux was now centred on four-cylinder cars of various engine configurations: small cars had engines of 10/12hp; mid-sized cars were equipped with 14/18hp power units, and the top of the range vehicles had 25/30hp options, entirely adequate for formal Landaulet coachwork. The growth of the commercial vehicle business, for trucks and buses, for which the larger engines were necessary, was becoming very significant. In future different-sized four-cylinder engines would be manufactured, generating rather better economies of scale.
The economic rationale around four-cylinder vehicle production was robust but competition, especially in the small and mid-size four-cylinder sectors, was fierce and the large-scale operations of some American manufacturers, notably Ford, was already having the impact of depressing showroom prices. The enticing opportunity, something which the Comte de Dion generally found difficult to resist, was the launch of an eight-cylinder powered car, with the potential advantages of brand profile, price insensitivity and strong margins.
The first V-8 was available from July 1909, boasting a power output of 35hp, only marginally better than that of the bigger four-cylinder models available, but with a wheelbase of 3.5m, by some margin the largest production chassis to date, the installation of substantial coachwork was certainly possible. Between 1909 and 1914 Type Approval was sought for 12 V-8 variants, resulting in a wide choice of models being produced. In 1914 alone there were five V-8 options for customers to choose from, and whilst some of the Types were only physically distinguished by the option of bevel or worm final drive, there were still three different engine configurations to select from.
Some commentators have conjectured that the foray into V-8s was the critical step that led to the ultimate decline of the Company some twenty years later. Reliable production data does not exist but there is little doubt that V-8 manufacture was a major undertaking and expense. It does, however, need to be set in the context of other activity that was taking place at Puteaux in the period 1905-14.
The Company was generally very careful about focusing promotion on a limited number of specific models, and for this reason between 1902 and 1908 the number of Types offered ranged from 5 to 7. From 1910 to 1914 this number doubled. At the same time there was a radical increase in the number of Type Approvals sought (from 17 in the period 1901-1904 to 122 between 1905-1914). In the five years leading up to the Great a significant number of projects were developed, vehicles built, Type Approval sought, and then the specific models did not enter production. It is of interest that all the V-8 models for which Type Approval was sought, did go into full production. On the other hand, 35% of the four-cylinder projects for which Type Approval was sought, were abandoned.
This profligacy of passenger vehicle production (88 models and 26 different engine configurations in ten years), in addition to the commercial vehicle activity, was in stark contrast to many of their competitors. The demands on management stamina and the company’s balance sheet would inevitably take their toll at some point.