Léon-Auguste-Antoine Bollée was born on 2 April, 1870, in Le Mans, France, in the family of Amédée-Ernest Bollée (1844-1917), who was the most important pioneer of steam road vehicles in France.
Bollée family were well known in France bell founders (working in this trade since 1715). Native of Lorraine, the grandfather of León Bollée—Ernest-Sylvain Bollee (1814-1891) has long toured France to melt bells and chimes before to settle in Le Mans in 1842. Ernest-Sylvain became seriously ill in the 1860s and was forced to delegate the running of his businesses to his three sons. The eldest son and father of León Bollée—Amédée-Ernest Bollée (see the nearby photo) was given charge of the bell foundry, while Ernest-Jules (1846–1922) supervised the hydraulic ram business and the youngest son, Auguste-Sylvain Bollée (1847–1906) assumed control of the Éolienne Bollée wind-turbine factory.
However, in early 1870s, Amédée-Ernest decided to switch to a recently established trade and became the pioneer of the automobile industry in France. Amédée Bollée produced several steam cars since 1873, including the pioneering L’Obeissante (the Obedient), which made the first road trip between Le Mans and Paris (some 500 km) in 18 hours, and the Mancelle from 1878, which is regarded as the first automobile to be put into series production. It is not a surprise, that later not only León, but also his elder brother Amédée-Ernest-Marie became automobile manufacturers.
León Bollée (see the nearby photo) was an energetic and restless man, and he proved his genius in engineering in the first blush of youth. In 1884, only 14 years old, he constructed a pedal vehicle (velocipede nautique). In 1887 the young Léon began work on three calculating machines (see the calculating machines of León Bollée): the Direct Multiplier, the Arithmographe and the Calculating Board. Especially the Direct Multiplier, which won a gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1889, was a remarkable and very advanced calculating device, a real masterpiece of engineering. The American most famous inventor Thomas Alva Edison proposed to hire Bollée in the United States, but he declined the offer.
León Bollée was the first in France to build small gasoline powered vehicles, beginning to do so in 1895. In 1896, he introduced a vehicle with three wheels, so called Voiturette (see the image bellow). At the time, these diminutive tandem two-seaters were the fastest things on the road, winning a variety of French road races at speeds of up to 45 km/h. The 1897 the Voiturette reached a top speed of almost 100 km/h. The single-cylinder 3 HP 650cc engine was designed by his brother Amédée. The Voiturette was the first automobile equipped with rubber tires. The cars sold well and several hundred were made for Léon Bollée by Hurtu & Diligeon. Encouraged by this initial success, he founded his business at Le Mans, the Léon Bollée Automobiles
The Voiturette of León Bollée
The next vehicle of Bollée (a four-wheel car) appeared in 1899. In 1903 Bollée produced his first big car. Renowned for its quality, the brand has instant success. Bollée built two 4-cylinder models, a 28-hp 4.6-liter and one 45 hp 8-liter engine, followed in 1910 with a 10-liter model. By 1911 his production facility manufactured 600 vehicles for year, quite a big number for the time.
León Bollée was also interested in aviation and aeronautics, taking a lively interest in the dirigible balloon inventions of several french inventors. In 1908 he invited the Wright brothers, the inventors of the world’s first successful airplane, at Le Mans on the occasion of their visit to France. Thanks to him, Wilbur Wright succeeded in finding common ground to steal his Flyer III A, the racetrack of Hunaudières near the current racing circuit of Le Mans, then at the military camp of Auvours between June 1908 and January 1909.
León Bollée in 1898
Léon Bollée was a holder of France’s Legion d’Honneur.
Léon Bollée had a daughter—Élisabeth Bollée (born 9 August, 1908). Élisabeth was a poet, she married the Count Jean Maurice Gilbert de Vautibault in 1927, and later divorced de Vautibault to marry the American painter Julien Binford. She died on 11 July, 1984.
In August 1911 Léon Bollée was injured in a flying accident and never fully recovered. As he also had a pre-existing heart problem, he died of heart attack in Paris on 16 December, 1913, aged only 43, and was buried in Holy Cross cemetery on the heights of Le Mans.