Steaming in Search of the Sun

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In the 1890s the motor car was the latest advance in a century of remarkable transportation developments; an opportunity for established engineering businesses, entrepreneurs and every backyard inventor. By the mid-nineties there were hundreds of car makers in Europe and the USA, the petrol engine and the steam engine were vying for pole position as the preferred means of propulsion but the motor car was still not big business. By contrast, the bicycle market was blooming and far, far bigger. So when car manufacturers wanted to present their products to the public they first made use of the hugely popular cycle shows.

This outfit made its appearance at the Salon du Cycle in Paris in 1896. It had been commissioned by the Prince of Oldenbourg to enable him to go in search of the sun in Southern Russia. The main living quarters were divided into two compartments and would have been lavishly appointed. A servant would have travelled in the partly open rear compartment; a footman among whose duties might have been the fending off of small boys and others tempted to try to hitch a ride. At night screens may have been fitted to enclose the compartment and with bunks it could have served as sleeping quarters for the footman and the driver of the de Dion-Routon steam tractor which pulled this caravan.

De Dion-Bouton was established in 1883 and became one of France’s leading car manufacturers. The company built a few light steam carriages in the 1880s, then a steam tricycle and in 1893 the first of a series of steam tractors. Developed for these was the famous De Dion axle system in which a dead axle carries the load and a non-load-bearing half shaft transmits drive from the differential to the wheels. The original tractor was coupled to the rear section of a Victoria horse-drawn carriage and took part in the 1894 Paris-Rouen Trial, in which it achieved the best performance but was disqualified from an award because two men were needed to operate it. The tractor was put on the market in 1895 for drawing both passenger carriages and commercial trailers, one being used in 1897 to pull a 35-foot bus trailer.


Note: Article published in Motorhome Monthly, Britain's former number one motorhome magazine, by Chris Burlace, now an author at Motorhome and Campervan Magazine.

Did You Know?

Canada's first road signs begin in 1913, Ontario Motor League starts its Road Signing Program. By 1937, more than 200,000 road signs are erected on Ontario highways by OML.

First Brakes The first brakes were based on those used on the horse-drawn vehicles and on bicycles. A solid block of wood, leather or metal was forced against the wheel rims by a hand-operated lever, or a contracting band of friction material acted upon the propeller shaft in conjunction with externally-contracting brakes fitted to drums on the rear wheel. The external brake demonstrated some serious flaws in everyday use. On hills, for example, the brake un-wrapped and gave way after several seconds. A driver unlucky enough to stall on a grade soon found himself rolling backward. For this reason, chocks were an important piece of on-board equipment. It was a common sight to see a passenger scurrying from inside the car with wood in his hands to block the wheels. In 1908, English inventor Herbert Frood came up with a combination of woven asbestos, brass wire, and resins that worked very well indeed, and it became the standard for the next seven decades or so.

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