I’m very excited about this week’s Jason Drives episode for two main reasons: first, at 122 years old, it’s the oldest car I’ve ever actually driven, and second, it’s another chance for me to remind the world about how badass the Bollée family was, at least automotively.
Well, they were good bellmakers, too, and even calculating machine builders, but I don’t write for Toller (GMG’s bell-enthusiast blog) or Cruncher (the GMG calculating machine blog). I write for Jalopnik, and we write about cars. And when it comes to cars, I think you can make the argument that the Bollée Voiturette—meaning “little car”—was the first production sports car.
The Bollée Voiturette was built by Leon Bollée, the son of Amedee Bollée, who was building some of the first—perhaps the first—serially-produced cars in the world. The elder Bollée was building impressive steam-powered vehicles like the La Mancelle, and the L’Obeissante.
These automobiles were huge, steam-belching beasts, impressive and massive. When the younger Bollée began to build cars of his own, he took a decidedly different approach, best seen in the design of the Voiturette.
The Voiturette, which was first built in 1895, was designed to be lighter and leaner, and faster, design decisions that were proven when Leon Bollée and his brother entered two Voiturettes in the 1896 London to Brighton race, where they took first and second place.
I know it seems strange to look at that strange spindly three-wheeled contraption and think “sports car!” but I really do think that’s exactly what we’re looking at here.
The 650cc (or maybe 882cc—I have seen conflicting reports) single-cylinder engine only made three horsepower, but those are three very eager and motivated horses. It’s a mid-engine design, sort of. I suppose it’s a side-mid-engine design, but, whatever, the point is the whole way the engine has been packaged here—on its side and low—is a very sports car-like layout, keeping the mass in the middle and the center of gravity nice and low.
There’s minimal bodywork as well, to keep things nice and light, and, like so many sports cars to follow, it’s just a two-seater. Of course, here they’re tandem seats, and the passenger is up front, obscuring vision and acting like a big, meaty bumper in case of wrecks. That front seat was usually called the “mother-in-law seat,” because people used to like to joke about murdering in-laws back then.
Driving the Bollée is deeply weird, from a modern perspective. Remember, at this time there were no standards about how an automobile should be driven, so all kinds of experimentation was happening. The Bollée used a novel control system that kept your hands very, very busy and left your feet doing nothing, like miserable ten-toed, sock-covered freeloaders.
Your right hand operated the small steering wheel, which used a rack-and-pinion setup to turn the front wheels, while your left-most right hand operated an odd device that looked sort of like a shovel handle in a thick sleeve. This controlled the engagement or disengagement of the engine, the throttle/speed control, and shifting through the three gears of the very unsynchronized transmission.
Moving the whole lever back and forth actually moves the whole drivetrain in relation to the rear drive wheel, which increases or reduces tension on the drive belt, which acts sort of like a clutch and can be used for speed control. The same lever also controls the brake, but, to be honest, I can’t exactly remember how I engaged the brake.
Shifting requires twisting the shovel handle-thing into three detents, one per gear. It’s extraordinarily difficult, and is accompanied by stomach-churning gear grinding sounds that constantly reminded my that I’m abusing someone’s $150,000 or more irreplaceable century-and-a-quarter old car.
It’s a strange setup, but when you get used to it, it starts to make some sense. Really, when the Bollée gets going, it feels light and controllable, and, yes, even pretty fun. This is a car you can imagine driving for pleasure over 100 years ago. A car that could actually feel quick (I said feel, please note) and nimble. One of these even set a speed record in 1898, the first car to hit 60 km/h (about 37 mph).
I stand by it. This is a sports car.
Hundreds of Voiturettes were built by the firm Hurtu&Diligeon for Bollée, which is why I feel comfortable saying this was the first production sports car anyone with enough cash could buy. The Miata of its day, let’s say.
Driving this thing was a colossal treat, and even though ours overheated a few times, likely because it was never really meant to use a modern spark plug, I had a blast.
I feel like I should take a moment to point out that, if you don’t currently admire Beau Boeckmann, the guy you may remember from Pimp My Ride, you should. Who else would let me drive an incredibly valuable late-1800s car around Los Angeles streets and not have me worked over by security guards whenever I ground those gears? Beau’s a class act.