Marquis Albert de Dion

9/3/1856 - 19/8/1946

Record updated 05-Apr-23

Marquis Jules Félix Philippe Albert de Dion, pioneering French motorist, aviator and politician. De Dion was an innovator and pioneer in the automobile industry. He also founded the first automobile club in 1895 and organized the world's first auto show in Paris in 1898.

Descended from a wealthy family, Marquis Jules Félix Philippe Albert de Dion was flippant, provocative and a notorious duelist. He was also very keen on anything mechanical so when in 1882 he saw a steam engine model in the window of a shop in the Passage de Léon, near the Rue de la Chapelle in Paris, owned by George Bouton. Albert approached him with a view to starting a company manufacturing automobiles. Bouton's brother-in-law, Charles Trépardoux, wanted to build a steam car, so de Dion's patronage came at an ideal time.

Thus in 1883 they formed a company and the marque de Dion-Bouton was born. Their initial design was a quadricycle and utilised a steam engine which drove the front wheels by means of belts while the steering was handled by the rear wheels. This was, maybe fortuitously, destroyed by fire as their next effort, the Marquise, had the layout reversed with steerable front wheels and the steam engine driving the rear wheels. They then built a machine capable of carrying four people with chain drive to the front wheels.

In 1887 they entered their quadricycle into 'Europe's first motoring competition' organised by Le Vélocipède, a cycling paper owner by one M. Fossier. de Dion won comfortably as there were no other entrants! However he did complete the course, a distance of 31 km between the Pont de Neuilly and the Bois de Boulogne, and reportedly achieved a speed of 60 kph (37 mph). This however is probably a slight exaggeration!

The company went into limited production making steam tricycles with the boilers mounted between the front wheels but the Count's interest was switching from steam. he had noted the work of Gottlieb Daimler and saw internal combustion engines as the way forward. This upset Trépardoux who left the company but not before designing the de Dion tube suspension system.

The de Dion-Bouton small single cylinder engine air cooled internal combustion engine

It took another six years before de Dion-Bouton introduced their small single cylinder engine air cooled internal combustion engine. It was light and powerful for it's day. At 185 cc it utilised aluminium and would run at 2000 rpm. It also featured a new patented electronic ignition system. Using this engine in their tricycles they finished third and fifth in the 1896 Paris-Marseille-Paris race, behind the much larger Panhard et Levassor machines.

In the mean time, on July 22, 1894, de Dion entered what is regarded as the very first automobile race, the Paris to Rouen trial, though his mount bore little resemblance to an automobile. Pierre Giffard of the Parisian magazine, Le Petit Journal, was asked to organise the event.

169 cars started the 50 km (31 mi) elimination event to pick the 25 cars that would start the main 127 km (79 mi) race from Paris to Rouen. de Dion was first into Rouen after 6 hours and 48 minutes at an average speed of 19 kph but was not classified as his steam car required a stoker which was not permitted.

Albert de Dion with his chauffeur/mechanic, Zélélé

de Dion's provocative nature came to the fore when he became involved in the Dreyfus affair. This was a political scandal with anti-Semitic overtones which divided France from the 1890s to the early 1900s. It involved the wrongful conviction for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a promising young artillery officer in the French Army. de Dion led a group of wealthy anti-Dreyfusards including Edouard Michelin and Adolphe Clément. On one occasion at the Auteuil horse track in Paris, Émile Loubet, the then President of France was stuck over the head with a walking stick wielded by de Dion. For this he served 15 days in jail and was fined 100 francs. He was heavily critisised by Pierre Giffard, the editor of Le Vélo and as a result de Dion withdrew all his advertising and set up his own rival paper, L'Auto-Velo. The name had to be changed to L'Auto, and it this guise it started the Tour de France in 1903 in an attempt to boost it's falling circulation.

The lunch at which the ACF was formed. Baron van Zuylen, the first President, is on the left, de Dion in the center and Mr. Mean, a motoring journalist on the right.

de Dion also founded the Mondial de l'Automobile (Paris Motor Show) in 1898 and was a co-founder of the Automobile Club of France in 1897 and the Aero Club of France in 1898.

By 1900, De Dion-Bouton was the world's largest carmaker with an annual production of 400 cars and 3,200 engines. de Dion also produced road maps, developed military equipment, was an aviation pioneer and a French politician as Senator for the Loire-Atlantique.

De Dion started to lose interest in motoring after the First World War and in 1932 he withdrew from his company. By then only the 12 and 16 HP models were being made and the following year even these were dropped. The company continued making commercial vehicles including buses and street sweepers as well as railway carriages until 1953 when the company ceased to exist.

Albert de Dion is buried in the cemetery at Montparnasse in Paris and there is a memorial plaque in the family chapel in Wandon in the Pas-de-Calais.