Our Blog 1/2024

A load of Bollees!

Here we find Amedee Bollee (père) right and Amedee Bollee (fils) left, aboard one of the streamlined Amedee Bollee racing cars that they’d prepared for the 1898 Paris-Amsterdam race.

24-Jan-24 historicracing.com

The Bollee family were in the business of making bells. And in 1839 they’d started their own foundry in the village of St Jean de Braye near Orleans. In 1842 a second foundry was established in Le Mans, and a few years later the family would give this factory to the eager hands of the far-sighted Amedee (père).

Bells were OK, but Amedee (père) saw a world where steam engines ruled. And specifically, steam-engined vehicles designed and built for use on the people’s highways. More specifically, they would be designed and built by him!

In 1873 he wheeled-out his first prototype effort. And two years later would be demonstrating a full-blown passenger carrying steam carriage, L’Obeissante, to potential customers. With an epic, headline-grabbing, eighteen-hour drive from Le Mans to Paris.

The Amedee Bollee company would now become the first operation in the World to offer their services as manufacturers of private motor vehicles. Each carriage was designed and built to the exact requirements of their wealthy customers. And, by 1895, around fifty such punters had triumphantly steered their snarling purchases out through the factory gates. Several still exist today, the carriages that is, not the punters!

L’Obeissante is one of them, and may observed at your leisure, next time you’re lurking around in the recesses of the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris.

It was around about this time that Amedee (père) handed control of the company over to his eldest son, Amedee (fils), who would navigate the Bollee corporation into the emerging world of petrol-engined transportation.

He also saw the growing sport of motor-racing as an opportunity to gather the name of Amedee Bollee some well-earned publicity. And in 1898 Amedee (fils) entered a team of four purpose-built cars in that year’s Paris-Amsterdam event. One of them, driven by Etienne Giraud, would finish in third place. But most interestingly (yes that’s right - interestingly!) they were possibly the first racing cars ever to carry bodywork that was deliberately profiled in order to lessen wind-resistance. That’s yer aerodynamicals, that is!

Amedee Bollee (fils) turned his back on racing after a couple of years to concentrate on manufacturing, and by 1903, the company had already racked up thirty years of experience as designers and purveyors of motor vehicles. But they’d failed to grow with the industry they’d help to create.

Amedee Bollee cars continued to be built to the bespoke requirements of their customers (like this confection from 1913). And, although engines were standardised, no “production” model was ever offered. As a consequence, an Amedee Bollee was a very expensive bit of kit. And demand for the family’s products gradually declined until, in 1922, the venerable Le Mans factory was suddenly found to have delivered it’s very last vehicle.

Amedee’s brother Leon had rather more success. He’d coined the word “Voiturette” for his first motor-tricycle product.

Probably the first car ever to be deliberately aimed at the more impecunious motorist. And it’s success allowed the Leon Bollee outfit to become, for a while at least, one of the most successful car producers in France. And therefore, at that time, in the World.

But injuries received larking about in aeroplanes would eventually leave the company rudderless. And after WW1, Leon’s company began to fade like his brother’s.

Morris took over Leon Bollee in 1922. But the perfidious French customers didn’t like their British designed products, and in 1930, they too, relinquished control. Two years later, the Leon Bollee company followed the example of Amedee Bollee company, and the Bollees (pair) ceased production of motorized vehicles for good.

The family imagination wasn’t limited to car design though. Among their other successful products were railway engines, wind-pump turbines, hydraulic rams, a mechanical calculating machine and, our favourite, a mechanized pigeon arrival detector!

Amedee Bollee (fils) had also devised a very effective method for manufacturing piston rings. Which proved extremely lucrative and was later sold, lock-stock-and-barrel, to former rivals Renault.

The Bollee family hadn’t given up on bell manufacturing either. And pioneered a number of important foundry techniques that are still in common use today.

And back in the motorsporting arena, before his untimely demise, Leon Bollee had laid the foundations for an endurance event to be held through the countryside surrounding his hometown. And, although he wouldn’t live to see it himself, those plans would eventually come to fruition in 1923. When the good people of Le Mans gathered solemnly to witness the first running of the famous 24-hour race that would, from now on, arrive to brighten their lives, and blight their neighbourhood, each and every subsequent summer.

But despite all their engineering adventures, the Bollee family never turned their back on their roots.

St Jean de Braye has today been absorbed by the expanding suburbs of the city of Orleans. But the old bell foundry continued to pour its products on the very site where it first began working until 2011

Dominique Bollee, the great-great grandson of the foundry founder, found himself one day to be the latest owner of La Fonderie de Cloches Bollee, and managed its campanologisticly orientated affairs until 2011 when their last bell was cast. Located the Bollée foundry site, is the Campanaire Museum Bollée where you can find out about bell manufacturing techniques and their engraving and the history behind the foundry.