Life behind the wheel of a rare 113-year-old Bouton classic
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Starting a 1905 De Dion Bouton isn’t a matter of hopping in, turning a key and prodding the throttle pedal. For starters, it was built when petrol was leaded.
Today’s fuel literally gets stale, and though your modern vehicle should adjust to suit, this car won’t.
Owner Barry Birchall prefers to park it with a virtually empty tank, so job one is to pour petrol in.
“It [old fuel] really affects this car. It’s a single cylinder, with a really long pipe on the carburettor,” says Barry.
That means quite a bit of fuel sits in the system, and job two is to prime the petrol, pumping a little lever to flush new fuel through. Then you check the advance-retard lever is correctly positioned to control the spark timing before cranking the start handle up front, being careful not to get caught if it kicks back.
“It has quite a nasty kick,” he says.
If it’s run regularly it starts easily, but Barry has five ancient cars, and even driving one weekly means runs aren’t always regular.
Luckily he likes to use his cars. He’s driven the 1903 Cadillac to Christchurch from the Waitakere foothills, and this De Dion’s inaugural post-restoration drive was to Palmerston North for 10 days of the Pan Pacific Rally, and back.
“It was the oldest vehicle of the 1500 there,” says Barry.
He’s even towed it to Dunedin and drove up the infamous Kilmog hill — which rises 300m in 5km — twice.
“It’s quite a climb, and we were the only single-cylinder that made it.”
That restoration was some time ago now. He bought the car in 1988 from a man with a tourist bus company, who “literally went round the world collecting De Dion Boutons”.
When he died, Barry gave the family a hand to sell the cars.
“This one didn’t sell, and when I looked at it, it was half restored but nothing was missing, only the radiator was poked.
“It had the original wheels, bonnet, engine, you rarely see one so complete. It took about a year to get on the road.”
That was after Barry built a replica radiator, and a new wooden frame.
This living antique is powered by a 942cc single-cylinder, 6kW engine with a three-speed epicyclic gearbox, and a new feature for the time — reverse.
Maximum speed was quoted at 50km/h, and thirst at 5.6l/100km.
“It’s a French company, but this one was first sold in London to a Melbourne dealer, and was imported from Australia to New Zealand by Hamilton man Arnold Koppins in 1970.
“A De Dion was the first popular car in Europe,” Barry says, “which is why there are so many on the London to Brighton run” for vehicles built in or before 1904.
“I wish this one was an 04, but I’m sure it’s an 05. The engine number is 05and it’s all one car, it hasn’t been made out of bits. I have an older engine, but I won’t put it in.”
He says a lot of De Dions are registered as 1904 cars, and very few 1905s, though the model was built until the following year.
“I’m sure that’s because they’ve been registered 04 to go on the Brighton run,” or to be eligible for it, as that alone boosts a car’s value.
By now the De Dion’s motor has turned over an asthmatically lazy few times, fired, and is chuntering peacefully away as I clamber aboard — you enter from the pavement side due to the brake lever to the right.
There is also a foot pedal, a floor-mounted oil tap, and four levers bristling from the steering column. There’s no clutch, and the top lever — the longest — changes gear, “They built them so ladies could drive it.”
The others are the advance and retard, a throttle and one that opens the valve.
So you set your throttle, put the lever into first and pull away. Soon we were trundling along in top gear, changing down for uphills, and taking downhills with a certain amount of breathless anticipation of imminent disaster.
The foot operates the kardon shaft brake, which acts on the transmission, while pushing the hand lever forward activates the main brake, that works on the rear wheels.
So one’s first impulse is to push down on the floor pedal, but that does very little, as I discovered when Barry moved over and let me have a go.
Forget “ladies could drive it”, I muffed my first gear change, though to be fair I was also trying to steer with one hand and brake with the other, thus running out of hands with which to change gear before a rapidly approaching junction …
Suffice it to say that Barry’s hair was already white, and he seemed remarkably sanguine about my hamfisted handling of his pride and joy along his favoured 8km undulating countryside loop.
As for me, I can confirm he wasn’t understating the fact that it doesn’t respond like a modern car.
But then it’s 113 years old, it has a right to be a little quirky.