Why Dr. W.H. Crothers stuffed his 1901 De Dion-Bouton away on the second floor of a barn for decades, one can only speculate, but the fact that he did set the stage for a Forrest Gump-type story of constant brushes with fame and history to unfold around the little single-cylinder horseless carriage that will head to auction in March.
In fact, the De Dion was rather remarkable from its birth. While the De Dion-Bouton firm had built gasoline-engine voiturettes in its native France since 1898, a short-lived American venture — the De Dion-Bouton Motorette Company — set up shop at 37th and Church in Brooklyn to build a licensed version of the little vis-a-vis. The founders of the American De Dion, however, did more than just translate French to English — they bumped the 402-cc engine up to 5 horsepower and had many of the car’s components cast in New York.
Its commitment to quality fell short, and the venture only lasted a year or so, with perhaps a few hundred produced. One of those, chassis number 128, made its way first to Philadelphia and then, by 1903, to San Francisco, where Crothers, an ear, nose, and throat specialist, made use of it in his practice. Crothers’ De Dion apparently experienced none of the mechanical issues that troubled its kin, and the doctor made use of the Motorette for the next several years, traveling as far as Del Monte, California, to attend the races there. He even, according to lore, used it to deliver medicine around the ruins of San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake.
That bit of heroism, however, didn’t keep the locals from jeering him later in the decade as he drove it around the city. Perhaps it seemed outdated or insufficient for the city’s traffic. Either way, he took it with him when he retired to Campbell, California, where he placed it in a hay loft on a family estate.
While Crothers apparently had a local mechanic work on it periodically for the next 34 years, he never brought it down from the hay loft or acquiesced to selling it before dying in the mid- to late 1940s. The mechanic, Guy D’Avis, had pestered Crothers about selling the Motorette, but not long after Crothers’ death he passed on word to Alton Walker that Crothers’ widow was looking to settle Crothers’ estate, which meant selling the Motorette.
Walker, an airplane salesman from Monterey, had not long before developed an affinity for old cars and already accumulated 20 or so by the time he heard of the Motorette. He joined the first wave of car collectors who — spurred on by the Depression and the World War II scrap drives that combined to destroy a number of significant old automobiles — began to seek out, preserve, and restore old cars. While others, most notably Barney Pollard, may have been poking their noses in barns in search of socked-away old cars before Walker happened upon the Motorette, Walker likely invented the tradition of crowing about his barn find when he submitted a short story and a couple dozen photos of the Motorette’s extraction to both the Horseless Carriage Club’s Gazette and the Antique Automobile Club of America’s magazine for their fall 1948 issues.
“I had a check already made out for cash for an airplane I was buying that day and gave it to her and the deal was made,” Walker wrote. “I came right back a day or two later with the trailer.”
Removal of the Motorette involved a precarious wooden ramp and winching with what looked to be a sturdy rope with the help of a few of Walker’s friends. Walker then tore the car apart for a nut-and-bolt restoration and had it finished by the time he submitted the photos to the two magazines.
A couple years later, Walker decided the first Pebble Beach Road Races deserved a companion car show — a show that would become the first Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
The Motorette didn’t remain in Walker’s collection for too long. About the same time Walker was preparing the Pebble Beach show, MGM Studios approached him looking to buy a handful of cars for its upcoming Red Skelton film Excuse My Dust. While the film, set in 1895, doesn’t get any points for accuracy — the studio had the Motorette re-upholstered in red to make it look better on screen — it did at least feature a number of noteworthy cars, including Akron resident Achille Philion’s 1892 steam-driven cart.
MGM may have used it in other films as well; ultimately, the studio held on to the Motorette until 1970, when it sold off many of its props at auction. Since then, the Motorette — which, remarkably, still has its original engine — has returned to the East Coast, where it went through a thorough restoration in its original dark olive paint and black leather upholstery, and then returned to Pebble Beach, where it placed second in its class at the concours in 2012.
Bonhams estimates that the Motorette will sell for $150,000 to $180,000 when it crosses the block at the auction house’s Amelia Island sale, which takes place March 7. For more information, visit Bonhams.com.