The Lepape, described in a 1934 magazine as “one of the first front-wheel-drive cars”, dates from the end of 1894. The first known mention of the vehicle was in December of that year in La Locomotion Automobile. It was given the name of Locomoteur and was principally designed as a tractor unit. The rear bench seat seen in our picture could be added to convert it to a 5-seater Break, but normally it would haul “… all kinds of two- or four-wheeled carriage, simply by removing their front axle.”
Not only were the front wheels driven, but steering was by the rear wheels. The engine and all four springs were rubber mounted, “… to absorb vibrations.”
Transmission was by disc, as seen on the English GWK about seventeen years later: the axis of the water-cooled V-twin engine was along the car and drove a cast-iron flywheel/drive disc with a “special” covering. A driven disc slid along a shaft, parallel to the car’s axles, that also contained a differential in a small casing. At the ends of the shaft were the two small sprockets for the chains that drove forward to the front wheels – as we can see in the picture.
A clever series of levers and pivots enabled the driver to use a single tiller to engage or disengage the driven disc (down and up respectively) and to steer. Another lever moved the driven disc across the driving disc, for infinitely variable forward and reverse ratios.
By August 1896 Lepape had introduced a more conventional car rather than a tractor unit. However, this still had front-wheel-drive and rear steering. But Mr. Lepape was one of those engineers more interested in new ideas than in regular production. By 1898 his transmission was by movable belt between two stepped conical drums, and by 1900 his car was powered by a single-cylinder engine whose sole cooling was by the thickness of the metal in the cylinder. By 1902 the car had a perfectly normal gearbox, chain drive to the rear wheels – and a two-stroke engine.
Lepape’s creations disappeared from the market in 1906. Whether he ever made and sold any vehicles other than prototypes is a moot point – but his fertile imagination and creativity are not in doubt.
Picture courtesy of the Richard Roberts Archive
I think the combination of front wheel drive and rear wheel steering can not have been a very happy one. I have come across one other vehicle with this layout, the 1898 Egger-Lohner electric car which was the first design Ferdinand Porsche was associated with, he is supposed to have desogned the motor while still working for Bela-Egger. Two further Egger-Lohner cars were built, with front-wheel steering and rear-wheel drive. Porsche joined Lohner soon after.
More information about Hippolyte LaPape can be found in the Grace’s Guide to British Industry site. There is a fine article about LePape on PreWarCar.com with a photo of the only surviving LePape automobile. If not familiar with Automanie you can find information on this inventive genius with a fine collection of JPEGs of 6 LePape autos, one of them a reported 1903 model.