Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours was born a Parisian in 1771, of a family soon to be granted a noble title by Louis XVI (in 1784). The du Ponts, especially father Pierre Samuel, had close ties to the government of France but were advocates of reform to the country’s finances, which were heading rapidly towards bankruptcy after the French, to spite the English, heavily funded the American colonists’ rebellion. The French Revolution of 1789 saw many reform-minded aristocrats such as the du Ponts (many of whom were members of Masonic clubs advocating democratic change) elevated to important positions. Pierre Samuel was even President of the National Constituent Assembly, and added ‘de Nemours’ to the family name to distinguish himself from other du Ponts in the new government.

Groundbreaking French chemist Antoine Lavoisier and his wife Marie-Ann, as painted in 1788 by Jacques-Louis David…who posed no objection in the French Convention as his friend Antoine was condemned and executed in 1794.

Tension between radical Jacobins and moderate aristocrats, both seekers of change, became increasingly focused on class distinction, and many nobles lost the titular d’ or du or de appending their surname, bowing to the fashion for ‘egalité’, and an increasingly hostile atmosphere towards inherited titles. For Pierre Samuel, his physical defense of King Louis and Marie Antoinette from a bloodthirsty mob in 1792 culminated in imprisonment by 1794, which meant the guillotine for any aristocrat, and thousands of others put to a defense-less trial, or no trial at all. But, as ‘revolutions eat their heroes’, the beheading of Maximilian Robespierre later that year meant du Pont and his family survived, but the continuing political and economic turmoil of the Directoire period (1795-99), plus the sacking of their home by a mob, saw the du Ponts sailing for America in 1799.

Éleuthére Irénée du Pont de Nemours

Éleuthére had worked with the renowned French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (before he was condemned with “The Republic needs neither scientists nor chemists”, and beheaded in 1794) at the Paris Arsenal, gaining expertise in gunpowder and nitrate extraction/manufacture, which would play a huge role in the family’s development of nitrocellulose lacquers, and ‘smokeless’ gunpowder, in the US. The family intended to create a French cultural community in Maine, but a hunting trip with a US military gunpowder procurer (and former French officer, Louis de Tousard) demonstrated the inferior quality of American black powder. Éleuthére’s expertise in the manufacture of gunpowder led the family to invest heavily ($84,000 in 1802) in the creation of E.I.du Pont de Nemours and Co., or simply DuPont, in the Brandywine Valley of Delaware.

The Delaware DuPont plant ca.1850

Subsequent generations of du Ponts arranged inter-marriage to cousins, keeping their rapidly expanding wealth, and family control of their business, close at hand. The Du Pont corporation grew into the world’s third largest chemical company, inventing things like nylon and kevlar and neoprene. As their wealth exploded, du Pont family members invested in many other areas, including, for a time, automobile (Pierre du Pont was president of General Motors in 1920) and motorcycle manufacture.

The 1929 Du Pont Speedster

The family dabbled in making DuPont automobiles of their own starting in 1919, when E.Paul du Pont, a lifelong tinkerer and ‘gearhead’, grew from making marine engines for the US WW1 effort, to full automobiles. As only around 600 DuPonts were made in the 12 years of the company’s existence, it was clearly never going to be an enormous success, especially after the stock market crash of 1929. E.Paul’s brother Frances had invested $300,000 (in 1923) in the Hendee Mf’g Co., makers of Indian motocycles, and Indian’s near-bankruptcy in 1930 meant the family was likely to lose a substantial investment. E.Paul merged DuPont Motors with Hendee in 1930, deciding in ’31 to drop autos completely, and concentrate on making Indians.

Éleuthére Paul du Pont in the late 1930s with his 1908 Indian ‘Camelback’

As the new president of Indian, E.Paul made significant changes; as a lifelong motorcyclist (having built his first clip-on moped as a teen, then owned an early Indian ‘Camelback’), he felt the days of motorcycles as utilitarian vehicles were over, and embraced the idea of a motorcycle as ‘leisure object’.

E.Paul was instrumental in creating the Indian ‘841’ for the US military in WW2; with vibrationless 90degree v-twin motor, hydraulic suspension, large brakes, and a shaft drive, less than 1000 were ultimately built. This is his personal machine, on which du Pont rode many thousands of miles, pronouncing it his ‘favorite motorcycle’.

To support this view, the company focused on three areas: the new production-based ‘Class C’ racing in the US, the DuPont Company’s huge automotive paint color palette, and the styling of Briggs Weaver. DuPont pioneered fast-drying nitrocellulose lacquer auto paint in the early 1920s, and suddenly brilliant colors were no longer a hindrance to manufacture, as previously only black paint would dry quickly enough for economical manufacture (Henry Ford’s famous ‘any color as long as it’s black’ was a practical dictum – only black paint dried quickly). Thus, Indian motocycles were shortly available in 24 different, brilliant colors, while their sheet metal grew more elaborate and Art Deco-inspired, and their racing team grew increasingly successful (E.Paul’s son Steven was an engineer and helped developed the ‘Big Base’ racing Scout).

E.Paul du Pont, an inveterate tinkerer, with one of his lathes at the Indian factory

By 1938, Indian had gone from losing hundreds of thousand of dollars per year, to amassing huge profits with their beautiful and iconic motorcycles – the Chief and Scout. Briggs Weaver’s styling of these models remains emblematic of Indian’s identity; the deeply skirted Deco fenders and Indian-head motifs are still our first image of Indians today, and the brand identity of every subsequent revival of the Indian marque in modern times. As WW2 approached, riders smelling an upcoming war bought out the company’s production, before civilian production stopped, and the factory concentrated on building motorcycles for the US military. The immediate pre-war period was the peak of Indian’s profitability, but E.Paul Du Pont’s health was declining, and the profitable Indian factory was very attractive to investors. In 1945 Indian was sold to an investment group headed by Ralph B. Rogers.

The gorgeous 1939 Indian Chief, with sweeping lines by Briggs Weaver, and one of dozens of possible paint combinations from the Du Pont paint catalog. [Mecum Auctions]
The family maintained an interest in motorcycles even after selling Indian, and E.Paul’s son Jacques du Pont became an avid motorcycle racer in the 1950’s, doing well in the AMA and competing for several years at the Isle of Man TT. The 3 generations of du Pont motorcycle enthusiasts amassed an interesting collection of machines which it occasionally displayed at a small museum. As the elder generation of du Ponts died, family interest in the motorcycles waned, and they sold most of their collection of nearly 50 machines at auction, including a factory-restored 1904 ‘Camelback’ model, and unrestored machines too. We don’t think of motorcycles, or even motocycles, when we think of the DuPont corporation, but the family kept Indian alive in the 1930s.

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