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Dutch Heritage

Over the last few months, while we were busy building the actual new Voisin prototype (and therefore excuses for the information gap), we have received kind messages from Dutch original Voisin owners and their relatives; quite unique stories: a gentleman who’s grandfather used to own a Voisin, probably a C12, and after the demise of Avions Voisin, designed his own Voisin and had it built by Rolls Royce (adding insult to injury for poor RR). Nothing however remains today from this unique automobile except for the famous cocotte, presently serving as a pressepapier on his desk -but we can rest assured that the late M. Gabriel Voisin, a functionalist pur-sang, would have approved full-heartedly. From Voisin’s later days, when he designed the Biscooter, appears the proud Dutch owner of a Biscuter (the later Spanish version of the Biscooter) who owns no less than 30 of these ‘scootmobiles’ as they were made in the 1950’s, including the Alweco Bambino Sport from 1957, made in Veghel. (In this case we can safely say “the’ as there remains only one). It would be nice to see a Biscuter in the Voisin stand on the AutoRAI, april 2011.

Voisin-designed ‘Biscuter’ with the tricolore (Dutch) proudly flying.

The Auto R.A.I. of 1931

special thanks to Frans Kamps

Avions Voisin, in Stand nr. 78, were naturally trying to cash in on their 50.000 km. record fame. The Dutch press were very much impressed, as we can read from the Autokampioen of 24 Jan. 1931 “Voisin zou niet Voisin moeten zijn, wanneer hij niet jaarlijks met iets bijzonders te voorschijn kwam, en zoo zien we thans als clou van den stand den 12-cyl. 5-liter Voisin surbaissé met 4 pers. cond. int. Myra, die een unicum op de R.A.I. is, zoowel wat bouw en lijn betreft als wegens zijn prestaties.” The journalist concludes with a PS: “Mocht u den heer van Doornik (sic) treffen, vergeet dan niet hem nog mondeling geluk te wenschen met zijn aandeel in den monster-record-rit van den 12-cyl. Voisin.”

Lofty praise indeed, but Autokampioen seems to be underbidding here, as we can read from comments from Th. van Swieten in “De Auto” of 9 Oct. 1930 as well as Henri Meyer in “Autoleven” of 16 Oct. 1930, the pair of them unanimously referring to this Voisin as not merely the clou of the Voisin stand but: “De Clou van den Parijschen Salon” , Th. van Swieten ventures even further: “De 12 cyl. Voisin surbaissé is een gedurfde creatie....Ook hier zal Voisin weer blijken een baanbreker voor de toekomstige industrie te zijn..” The future of the Industry was however largely determined by the Great Depression, and many automobile companies were happy just to survive. The Myra was priced at a staggering Hfl. 20.175, and it seems unlikely that sales went through the roof. At least one remains in The Netherlands: the Voisin C23 Myra 6-Cyl. ; a great asset of the Louwman Collection in The Hague.

The 17 Days of Montlhéry

special thanks to Frans Kamps

Exclusive dealership of Avions Voisin in the Netherlands was held by a company ‘Cobor’, residing on Prinsengracht 542, Amsterdam. Today, this 1917 building offers paid access to cars of all sorts, as it is occupied by parking ‘De Hoofdstad”. However, the site’s former lavishness and glamour still guarantees to attract celebrities like Wesley Sneijder and Yolanthe Cabau, celebrating their ‘amour fou’ in front of safety cameras like they wouldn’t have done in just any old parking.

The director of Cobor NV: Willem Borre van Doorninck, was incidentally one of the 4 pilots to drive the famous 12 Cyl., 5 liter Voisin to her endurance race glory of 50.000 kilometers on the Piste of Montlhéry in 1930. One trip around the world plus an extra 10.000 or so. The four men did it in 17 days, clocking an average speed of 120 kmph. One-hour distance record was set at 206 km.

12 Cyl. Voisin in the record race on the Piste de Montlhéry

The Car of the Future

At the 1934 Salon de l’Automobile in Paris, Gabriel Voisin seized the opportunity to outline his ideas for “la Voiture de l’Avenir”. This car would enjoy a top speed of 200km/hr, 150 bhp and fuel consumption of 15 liter per 100 km… So far so good, except maybe for the eco-efficiency. The fun part was that Voisin, in order to further streamline the car body, arranged the wheels in a diamond shape, and that it would have a Radial engine of 5, 7 or 9 cylinders. This rhomboid idea never took off, but it kept lingering in the minds of designers through the decades. In 196o Pininfarina presented the concept car X (which incidentally was offered for sale on eBay this month with a starting bid of 800.000 USD. No bids yet.) Later, in 2007 at the Detroit Auto Show a Chinese concept car “Rhomboid” -wheels in a diamond shape of course- made his first appearance. This prompted a New York Times blog to comment: “… The interior includes hemp. This is not surprising.” After reading this it will come as no surprise that Avions Voisin were delighted to grasp the TopGear Future Car Award 2009, with a car design featuring your average, run-of-the-mill, four wheels in a rectangular layout.

TopGear Magazine, december 2009

The Square Piston Man

Gnome et Rhône entrusted to Voisin and l‘Aeromechanique the design and development of a 2000 bhp. Radial engine, a 42 cylinder, with 6 rows of 7 cylinders in-star, connected to a central crankshaft with a master-and-articulating-rod assembly. In order to present the design to the visiting chief engineers from Gnome-Rhône, Voisin’s equipe built a basic mockup of a cross section of the engine where each one of the seven cylinders was presented in the form of a square box with the one square piston fitted with a master connecting rod.
At the end of the presentation one of the visiting directors made a very insightful point: “Monsieur Voisin, what prompted you to use square pistons? ” To which Voisin instantly and mockingly replied “ It is very simple: when using round pistons one would cause considerable loss of displacement; whereas with square pistons there is no such loss, and the arrangement of the cylinders is very much simplified.” While the others did their best to keep a straight face, the director sealed his fate by adding in a pompous tone: “I dare say, I have never really thought about this important question of maximizing displacement” This man, from that moment on better known as ‘l’Homme aux Pistons Carrés’, had become a figure of ridicule, but at the same time it serves to testify that Voisin was not, and perhaps sadly not, a man of politics.

Patent for a square piston engine by Ingersoll-Rand

Return to the Cradle

By 1938 Voisin Automobiles had practically ceased to exist. However, at that time Paul Louis Weller, managing director of the Gnome-Rhône aircraft engine company, offered Gabriel Voisin, age of 58, a chance to turn the clock back to 1906 and to dedicate himself to do what he had always liked best: research and invention without any interference or managerial burdens. The creative laboratory where this all should take place was named ‘l’Aéroméchanique’. A workshop of a mere 8 people, each from different professional backgrounds, working on every level from conception to manufacture, assembly and trials. Their location: Gabriel Voisin’s home residence at 72 Boulevard Exelmans in Paris. After the war Gnome-Rhone and the Société Voisin were incorporated by a newly formed National Conglomerate, duly named SNECMA. It was in those years that Voisin worked hard on his Biscooter, but due to continuing losses, SNECMA dropped the Voisin division and the brand name. Gabriel Voisin returned to the banks of the Saône, some 60 km. upstream from his birth place, where he worked on numerous projects, such as the ‘Isotherme’ a remarkable car design for use in hot climates, featuring air circulation between two roof surfaces and upward sliding doors.

Mock-up of l’Isotherme, 1962

About the Bird

For Voisin, a man with rational design principles, it wouldn’t make sense to put a life-size bird on a radiator cap. This, however, was inevitable. Car mascots were all the rage at the time, and car owners would put all sorts of animals, saints and mythological figurines on their car. So, in order to prevent worse, Voisin saw no other way than to make his own mascot. His feelings for this piece of ornament are well reflected in the name he gave her: nothing nearly as poetic as the ‘Spirit of Ecstasy”. No it was “La Cocotte”. French for “chicken” or (more commonly in the period) “prostitute”. This Art Deco harlot stood about 23 cm high (although they varied somewhat in size) on the Voisin and she was made of a few pieces of scrap aluminium, a couple of rivets and that was that. Now the Cocotte alone sells for 2800 USD to collectors. (http://www.arteauto.com/browseproducts/automobiles-voisin-mascot.html) The envy of her colleagues.

The Art of Languishing

Among the many celebrity Voisin owners of the date, Man Ray was certainly one of the more interesting. Not in the least because his Voisin C7 played a prominent part in his 1929 film ‘Les Mystères du château de Dé’ (http://www.ubu.com/film/ray.html) The picture above, I found aptly described as “Kiki de Montparnasse languishing in the passenger seat of Man Ray's Voisin 10 CV C7, 1928 (ca.)”, reminded me of Britney Spears getting out of her car ( link), or rather: it reminded me of what happened to grace and style since Kiki. Or since Voisin. Anyway, Kiki was Man Ray’s lover during the 20’s of the last century, and it is her back we see in Man Ray’s famous work ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’, 1924, (Getty Museum). While it is quite hopeless for us to try and restore the intensity and dynamism of les années folles, it is within the powers of a car builder to restore at least the possibility of ‘languishing’.

developable surfaces

At some point in the recently published correspondence between WF Hermans and Rudy Kousbroek (Machines en Emoties, De Bezige Bij, 2009) the famed writer confesses that he simply fails to see any sign of aerodynamic design in the early Voisins. Kousbroek in his turn makes the point that ‘modern cars’, (this is 1965 or so) with their double curved surfaces were the beginning of the end. Admittedly, these double curved shapes -like a woman’s breast- had a Freudian appeal, but in order to produce these double curved car bodies, carmakers had to invest large sums in development and production dies and presses, and consequently needed to make and sell more cars, leading to mass-production and the loss of authenticity and identity. The purest and most heroic design effort in Kousbroek’s view had been to use ‘simple bends’ as he calls them, in the pre-war era of the great automobile.

Heroic or not, ruled surfaces have stuck around, in shipbuilding and in architecture. 3-d software has made it easier to create irrational shapes using rational developable surfaces. The exterior of the Peter B. Lewis Building in Cleveland, Ohio, designed by Frank Gehry, is except for a few sq. feet, a ruled, developable surface.


The Dutch authority on Gabriel Voisin, Rudy Kousbroek, has testified that Voisin was, in fact, an ad man avant la lettre. Most of the Voisin models went accompanied by brochures and leaflets; advertising, or in the worst case: explaining the benefits of his Voisin. Embittered by his endless struggle against conventions and institutions, he became downright rude in his copy [quote], accusing his prospective buyers up-front of willful neglect of the workings and beauty of that delicate piece of expensive machinery that they were about to buy.

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