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The Serpollet brothers

Precursors of the automobile.

The Serpollet Brothers were born and worked in Culoz: Henri, the eldest (1848-1915) and Leon, 11 years his junior (1859-1907), pioneers of the automobile, sons of Auguste Serpollet, a carpenter craftsman in Culoz.
The first, the Serpollet brothers succeeded in making a usable vehicle, at the size of the individual, able to move on a road by its own means.

The invention came first from Henri’s desire to build an engine that could facilitate and accelerate the work at his father’s carpentry shop, research in which his younger brother Leon participated. It was Henri who came up with the idea of using steam and found the principle of the “instantaneous steam generator”, i.e. a machine without a boiler using only steam. The two brothers built this machine in the village forge, from which the first steam tricycle came out, in 1875.
The schoolmaster of Culoz then consulted a consulting engineer, Casalonga, who helped them to obtain a first patent on October 25, 1879. To live, Léon hires himself as a carpenter at the contractor Haquin, in the evening. At night, with a makeshift equipment, he realized “the first complete device, generator and steam engine”.
Between Léon and Henri, who remained in Culoz, an incessant collaboration was established – by correspondence – for the research of improvements to bring to the “common invention”: 600 letters exchanged in 25 years.

The financial question was resolved in 1887, when, through the intermediary of the father of a friend who was an architect, they met a businessman: Larsonneau, who had the 2 brothers sign the deed of Partnership with the corporate name “Serpollet & Cie”. Larsonneau puts at the disposal of the Company, the factory that he owns rue des Cloys, on the northern side of the Butte Montmartre.
In his new functions of Technical Director, Léon Serpollet can implement all the knowledge acquired in the previous years, he enters the business world.
In 1887, the “Serpollet Machine” allows domestic electric lighting, it equips pumping stations as well as small factories. It looks like a small stove of 55 cm high for a diameter of 45 cm, provided with 2 rather short pipes, one vertical, the other horizontal, “generator of force of 1/2 horse to 3 horses”.
A few months later, this same generator actuates steam boats as well as tricycles. Because Léon Serpollet is interested above all in the application of the generator to the means of locomotion, in particular to the “automobile” machine on road, the replica of the tricycle of Culoz. He works to build a second one, with a weight of 300 kg. The Administration is then worried about these generators and the Chief Engineer of Mines comes to investigate. After tests, the tricycle obtains the special authorization to circulate in the streets of Paris. A third type of vehicle was built in the Peugeot factories in Audincourt, which could be called a car because it had real seats with cushions, rear wheels – copied from cart wheels – with iron tyres and fitted with mudguards. In 1890, Léon decided to travel from Paris to Lyon: mechanical incidents and improvised repairs punctuated this 500 km trip, which lasted 10 days, at an average speed of 3.5 km/h. And it was by train that the car, driver and passenger returned to Paris.
Orders poured in, new models appeared: the “cab Serpollet model 1893” had a roof that sheltered the passengers, the wheels were of reasonable size with 2 smaller ones at the front. Serpollet built heavyweights including a van for the artillery.

In 1895, Léon Serpollet directed his research towards other means of locomotion: the tramway, the railway. Indeed, after further improvements, the Serpollet machine became “the Serpollet system”: the use, in the generator, of inverted C-tubes or gutter, allows to reach 75 horses – against 4 or 5 at the beginning. For fuel, kerosene is used, which is cheaper than gasoline.
To meet the ever-increasing demand, major industrialists participate in the increase of the capital of the Serpollet Company. Léon Serpollet is at the peak of his career: at 40 years old, he has become a personality alongside “the most outstanding personalities of Big Industry and Finance”. His name, synonymous with a new means of locomotion, was known throughout the world: Serpollet was known as Citroën, Peugeot or Renault.
As early as 1896, he was a member of the “Comité de l’Automobile Club de France”, which had been founded the previous year by the pioneers of the Heroic Times of the automobile.
However, the decline was to come…
At the time, a struggle opposed the partisans of the steam generator, the electric engine and the explosion engine.
In his model making workshop, Leon often had the opportunity to work on electric or explosion engine models. However, despite the advice of his friends who urged him to convert to the manufacture of the internal combustion engine, which had many advantages over the Serpollet steam generator (no hearth, reduced weight, instantaneous start, whereas the boiler was more cumbersome and slower to pressurize), Léon Serpollet always replied: “nothing will dethrone steam”.
However, tramways are electrified, orders are spaced out, the same goes for railcars.
The Company’s shares drop and some associates abandon Serpollet.

In 1899, Léon Serpollet associates with GARDNER, an American financier, as rich as he is enlightened. The “GARDNER-SERPOLLET Company” specializes in the automobile.
Factories are built equipped with all the improvements of the time.
Leon then brings his system to the highest point of technical perfection, having obtained the total servoing of the steam, the permanent control of the engine, thus the possibility of fighting against the petroleum engine in light and medium weights, with assets of 1st instantaneousness.
In 1900, the World’s Fair is for Leon Serpollet a personal triumph: the Gardner-Serpollet Company obtains the Gold Medal and Leon Serpollet, the Cross of the Legion of Honor.

Gardner-Serpollet then offers a whole range of car models. These cars, whose engine was entirely concealed under the seat, were equipped with “pneumatic tyre” wheels, the “air-filled bladders” experimented with by Michelin in 1895. They had a great success with the High Society of the Belley Epoque and replaced little by little the brilliant crews.
In April 1901, during the 1st Rothschild Cup, a race at the thrown kilometer, runner in Nice, Léon Serpollet reached for the first time the speed of 100km/h on one km. On April 13, 1902, during the 2nd cup, run on the Promenade des Anglais, Léon Serpollet surpassed his own performance: for the first time, amidst general enthusiasm, he covered the kilometer at a speed of over 120km/h.
The memorable date of this world record, held for a few months, as well as the car that had made it possible to obtain it, were chosen to be featured on the back of the commemorative medal, struck by the Monnaie de Paris, dedicated to Léon Serpollet. This car was nicknamed the “Easter egg”, as much for its aerodynamic shape as for the date of the event.
However, by 1905, the internal combustion engine had conquered the automobile and competition from gasoline-powered cars was such that Gardner-Serpollet no longer delivered any of its steam-powered automobiles. In 1906, Gardner withdrew and sold his shares to Darracq, a very innovative car manufacturer. A new factory was set up to build these Darracq-Serpollet trucks, omnibuses and lorries, which achieved high performance by running on heavy kerosene, which was much cheaper than petrol and not flammable. However, overworked and suffering from cancer, Léon Serpollet died in 1907. His brother Henry, inventor of instant vaporization and its application, living in Culoz, far from the Parisian automobile circles, of which he had been little known, was quickly forgotten: his name was not even mentioned among those of the relatives who came to attend Leon’s funeral. Henry lived until 1915 enough to witness the definitive success of the internal combustion engine before which the instantaneous vaporization boiler had had to fade away.
The first Serpollet car, built in 1931, entered the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers.
On July 26, 1981, the Syndicat d’initiative de Culoz inaugurated a fresco in memory of the Serpollet Brothers, located on the Place de l’Eglise.