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'Oldest running car' a steampunk's dream

This 1884 Dos-A-Dos Steam Runabout, set to be auctioned off October 7, could fetch a price somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million.

The De Dion Bouton Et Trepardoux Dos-A-Dos Steam Runabout, aka La Marquise. Check out those headlamps. RM Auctions

I confess I'm a bit anticar these days. Hey, if you need one, you need one. Sometimes it's unavoidable. But I tend to side with those who think that too much of our shared public space has been given over to the motorized monsters.

Still, I'm not immune to a touch of the ohhs and ahhs when it comes to a cool auto. And I readily admit to being seduced by quaint old vehicular contraptions like the cable cars that are so famous here in CNET's home town of San Francisco.

So if I had a spare $2 million lying around, I might be tempted to scoop up a beautiful little gizmo that's going up for auction early next month.

It's the oldest running car, or so says RM Auctions, the house that's overseeing the sale. And as you can see from the photos here, it's a steampunk lover's dream come true. Can you envision puffing down Main Street on cruise night in this black beauty? Or bringing it to Burning Man and quite simply crushing every other "art car" like a grape?

A peek at the controls and boiler. RM Auctions

Called by historians the--take a deep breath--De Dion Bouton Et Trepardoux Dos-A-Dos Steam Runabout, the 1884 machine apparently was born when a wealthy entrepreneur, the Comte de Dion, spied a model steam engine in a toy shop and tracked down its builders, Georges Bouton and Charles-Armand Trepardoux. Despite his family's concern that he might be, um, mentally running on empty, the Comte persevered in bringing about a joint development project, and the rest, as they say, is history.

According to RM Auctions, the Dos-A-Dos was christened "La Marquise" after the Comte's mother; participated in the first automobile race, in 1887; and is capable of traveling 20 miles on a tank of water and some sort of combustible and of reaching a top speed of about 38 mph.

A closer look at the controls and boiler. With no gas pedal or foot brake, the Dos-A-Dos requires drivers to keep their hands moving. RM Auctions

Bouton and Trepardoux faced their share of challenges while engineering this sweet ride. According to the RM Web site:

The problem with steam-powered vehicles was that efficient boilers were huge and powered locomotives and steamships. So how could one be miniaturized?

The two started off by adding a steam engine to a tricycle and then built a Victoria quadricycle in 1883. This had belt drive and inconvenient rear-wheel steering, and its liquid fuel was prone to suddenly catching fire [!]. With its large vertical boiler up front, it looked like a coffee pot on wheels, so back to the drawing board they went. A year later, they came up with a much more practical arrangement, which is the car offered today....

This quadricycle is much more compact, steering with its front wheels and driving the back wheels through connecting rods, rather like a locomotive. (The same principle was applied to the contemporary Hilderbrand & Wolfmuller motorcycle, though it proved difficult to ride, with so much unbalanced weight whizzing around.)

Here's a great little movie put together by RM that shows the car in action. Looks like a remarkably smooth ride--and a car that even an automotive skeptic might fall in love with.

(Via The Wall Street Journal)