Published September 26, 2011
Mercedes-Benz is celebrating the 125th anniversary of the automobile this year, which dates back to 1886 when Karl Benz was granted the first patents for a purpose-built gasoline powered vehicle. But that’s not to say his was the first “car.”
Wheeled vehicles powered by steam and other means were made in Europe as early as 1769. While they were expensive, cumbersome to operate and never caught on as popular transportation, some found use in both military and private applications.
One of these cars, the 1884 De Dion Bouton Et Trepardoux Dos-A-Dos Steam Runabout, is being offered for sale at the upcoming RM Auctions in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and it is believed to be the second oldest running car in the world.
The four-seat quadricycle, dubbed “La Marquise” after company owner Comte de Dion’s mother, was designed around a largely automated, more compact boiler system than was found on other self-propelled vehicles at the time. With a front-mounted engine driving the rear wheels and steering handled by the front wheels, the layout of the vehicle is very similar to many of today’s modern cars.
According to RM Auctions, La Marquise took part in the first ever automobile race in 1887, a round trip from Paris to Versaille and back, which it won by forfeit as no other cars showed up. The following year it beat a single challenger over the same route. Top speed of the vehicle is reportedly 37 mph, substantially faster than Benz’s first Motorwagen, which could only manage 11 mph.
De Dion went on to build and sell about 30 vehicles over the next few years, and a few still exist, but Le Marquise is both the oldest and the only one that is currently functional. But that’s not to say it’s the oldest “car.”
Another working steam-powered vehicle built in 1875 by Robert Neville Grenville in England currently resides in Britain’s National Motor Museum, and was up and running as recently as a few weeks ago. However, unlike the lightweight 2,100-pound Le Marquise with its spoked wheels and rubber tires, Grenville’s four-passenger vehicle looks more like a three-wheeled locomotive that jumped the tracks, complete with solid wood wheels and a large boiler that needs to be tended to by an onboard fireman.
The Grenville was never sold, and its value is unknown, but RM Auctions estimates Le Marquise will fetch $2-2.5 million when it hits the block in October.