The Bollée family

The origins of the family were to be found in sixteenth-century Breuvannes, a town in Lorraine where itinerant maîtres-saintiers traditionally gathered to pass the winter after a peripatetic season of casting and repairing bells. Jean-Baptiste-Amédée Bollée (1812–1912) and Ernest-Sylvain Bollée (1814–91), who each chose to follow their grandfather’s calling. Jean-Baptiste-Amédée spent the winter of 1838/39 in Oucques, then moved to Saint-Jean-de-Braye, a village close to the city of Orléans.

Ernest-Sylvain Bollée stayed in La Flêche in 1839, intending to settle in Angers, but the flooding of the Loir persuaded him to move to Sainte-Croix, then about three kilometres from the centre of Mans. Bollée then built a small furnace in Mans, in rue Saint-Hélène, which was fired for the first time in November 1842.

Bell-founding continued in Saint-Jean-de-Braye, where Jean-Baptiste-Amédée was succeeded by his son Georges (1849–1930), his grandson Louis (1878–1954), his great-grandson Jean (1908–80?), and the current owner, his great-great-grandson Dominique. Founding also continued in Mans, but Ernest-Sylvain had far wider interests than mere bells. He obtained a patent protecting a hydraulic ram (bélier hydraulique) in 1857, and, in addition to the wind-engine protected by French Patent 79985 of 30th March 1868, designed steam locomotives and even a pigeon-arrival detector.

Ernest-Sylvain fell seriously ill in the 1860s, and was forced to delegate the day-to-day running of his business to his three sons. His eldest, Amédée-Ernest (1844–1917), was given charge of the bell foundry; Ernest-Jules (1846–1922?) supervised the hydraulic rams from new premises in rue des Vignes; and the youngest son, Auguste-Sylvain Bollée (1847–1906), assumed control of the wind-engine manufactory. The bell foundry in Mans continued to operate successfully, though gradually overshadowed by the exploits of the uncles and cousins working in Saint-Jean-de-Braye.

Above: a typical modern product of the Bollée bell foundry in Saint-Jean-de-Braye, which still prides itself on this highly-specialised skill. Photograph taken by John Walter in April 2001.

Above: the steam carriage 'La Mancelle', built by Amédée-Ernest Bollée in 1878. This vehicle still survives in the collection of the Musée de l'Automobile de la Sarthe.

It is not yet known how many Bollée-type hydraulic rams were made, nor if the family enjoyed a monopoly in the Sarthe district. However, the output was undoubtedly substantial: an order placed in January 1894 by M Léon Boudet, a ‘Propriétaire’ of the ‘Domaines de Beausen, Villaine et Chantermerle à Pruillé-le-Chétif’, was fulfilled with ‘small’ Bélier hydraulique no. 0.0594. Ernest-Jules Bollée was claiming to have made 1800 rams by the time the First World War began in the summer of 1914.

Auguste-Sylvain — perhaps suffering from health problems of his own — eventually lost interest in the Éolienne Bollée, sold the business in 1898 to Édouard-Émile Lebert, and retired to Paris to paint. Unfortunately, very little is known about the last decade of his life. His output of Éoliennes, which is known to have reached 219 by February 1894, is estimated to have totalled about 260.

Born on 10th January 1844 in Sainte-Croix, on the outskirts of Le Mans, Amédée-Ernest Bollée (known after 1867 as ‘Amédée père’ to distinguish him from his similarly named son) had a particularly inventive mind, and is credited with a series of steam vehicles that included L'Obéïssante (1872–3), La Mancelle (1878), La Rapide and La Marie-Anne. He died on 19th January 1917 in his home in Mans.

Amédée-Ernest-Marie, known as the ‘Amédée Bollee fils’ (‘son’) to distinguish him from his father (‘père’), was born in Mans on 30th January 1867. There he was joined on 2nd April 1870 by Léon-Auguste-Antoine (‘Léon Bollée’), and eventually by a second brother, Camille (d. 1940). Camille became a talented amateur photographer, but Amédée fils and Léon inherited their father’s enthusiasm for vehicles. However, both eschewed steam in favour of the internal-combustion engine.

Above: a surviving example of Léon Bollée's 1889-patent calculating machine, in the collection of the Musée des Arts et Metiers, Paris. Photograph taken by J. Kenneth Major, April 2002.

Léon Bollée patented a mechanical calculating machine in 1889, gaining a gold medal from the Exposition Universelle held that year in Paris, but had soon turned to vehicles (such as the three-wheeled Voiturette of the 1890s) and then became fascinated with aviation. The first flight by the Wright brothers in Europe was made in August 1908, at Léon’s request, but Bollée was seriously injured in an air crash in 1911. Worn out by the effects of his injuries, stress and overwork, he died in Neuilly-sur-Seine on 19th December 1913, aged only 43.

He left not direct descendants, but an indelible mark on the city of his birth. Léon Bollée had been a vigorous promoter of auto-sport, including the precursor of the Le Mans 24-hour race, and had been the founding president of the Union Auto-Cycliste de la Sarthe as well as the Aéro-Club de Sarthe. In an attempt to withstand the economic depression that followed the First World War, his car-making business entered an unsuccessful partnership with Morris Motors Ltd (1924–31) but finally closed in 1933.

Above: an advertisement produced by a Parisian distributor of the Bollée Voiturette. This machine was known as the ‘mother-in-law killer’ (Tue belle-mère) owing to the exposed position of the passenger! John Walter collection.

Amédée Bollée fils produced the Torpilleur car in 1896, but his business concentrated on the production of large, high-quality machines instead of the inexpensive Voiturettes; annual production averaged only thirty, compared with Léon Bollée’s output of five hundred chassis in 1908 alone. Greater long-term success lay in the specialist manufacture of piston rings, based on a patent granted in 1912 to protect a segmental design. He died on 14th December 1926 in Mans.

The Bollée family no longer has a direct connection with the automotive industry, as the piston-ring making business was swallowed some years ago in the giant Renault conglomerate. However, the bell-foundry in Saint-Jean-de-Braye continues to operate and several of the cars (and at least one of the steam carriages) are still to be seen in museums and at rallies.