Whoever penned the jingle ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison, but my favorite car is an Avions Voisin’ hit the proverbial nail right on the head: you either love or hate the Voisin. And never was that more true than with the cars of the mid-1930s, when the uncompromising Gabriel Voisin, faced with falling sales, took the perverse and risky decision to switch from being a manufacturer of fashionable but idiosyncratic luxury cars to become an eccentric seeker after new directions in car design that would only appeal to rich clients with a taste for the avant garde. He may have been swimming against the tide of popular taste, yet he must have been doing something right, for one of Voisin’s most deliberately unconventional designs, a 1934 C25 Aerodyne owned by francophile Californian Peter Mullin, was named Best of Show in a secret ballot by the judges at this year’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
Voisin’s new dictum ‘a line without a function cannot be beautiful’ found its first flowering in the Aerodyne launched at the 1934 Paris Salon, an exhibition notable, as The Motor remarked, for ‘ultra-streamlined coachwork’. Even among the extreme fastback saloons displayed beneath the jazz-patterned false ceiling of the Grand Palais – a brace of Renaults from Gaston Grümmer, another from Labourdette, a ‘Yo-Yo’ Delage from Letourneur & Marchand – the Aerodyne stood out as being distinctly different.
The Motor sought for a new superlative to describe it, and commented: ‘“Super-streamlined” seems a fitting term for this Voisin saloon exhibited at the Salon in a striking color scheme.’ The Slade School of Art-trained Sammy Davis of The Autocar thoughtfully remarked of the Salon in general: ‘More unusual cars are to be seen than would be the case in London or New York, for the French public will welcome something that would be hard to sell on the British market, and one has the disturbing thought that here, amidst the glitter and beauty of the Paris Salon, is the car of the future, a car very different from the ones you have known in the past, and of a type very likely to cause a convulsion in works equipped only for the cars of today.’
He felt that the Voisin reflected racing practice and ‘looks well’, but seemed more taken with the ‘comfort, vision, luggage capacity and general usefulness’ of the rear-engined Tatra 77. It seems that he was particularly impressed by the design of the Aerodyne's teardrop-shaped front wings, for his report was illustrated with a drawing by one of the magazine’s skilled artists showing how the Voisin’s narrow front wing sat atop the car’s wide running board. On the Salon car the inner surfaces of the wings and the front apron were finished in a light color – either white or silver, judging from monochrome photos – that contrasted markedly with the dark paint on the sides, bonnet and roof.
The car’s arcuate profile actually had a practical purpose, for it allowed the metal roof, which incorporated triple skylights, to open fully, drawn back along rails by concealed chains driven by a small two-cylinder motor in the boot that ran off manifold vacuum. Says Mullin: ‘Actuation of this top is slow and almost completely silent – the effect is mesmerizing.’
The Achilles’ heel of the system was the uncomfortable fact that when the roof – whose action depended on the engine running – was fully open, neither the boot nor the fuel filler was accessible, meaning that it was not a wise move to run out of fuel toit ouvert… As Mullin adds: ‘Using the dynastart to turn the engine would be the way to close the roof to access the fuel filler and boot. If the battery is discharged, you must disengage the vacuum lines and manually push the roof into the closed position.’
Beneath its futuristic body the Aerodyne largely followed Voisin practice, though while the front section of the chassis was conventional enough, with channel steel sidemembers, the rear part was a load-bearing welded steel ‘punt’ to which the body and rear wings were directly fixed.
As was traditional in every Avions Voisin car – some 11,000 had been built since 1919, when Gabriel Voisin had forsaken aircraft manufacture in the post-war aviation slump to build automobiles – the engine was a Knight-type sleeve-valve unit, a straight-six basically similar to that of the preceding, more conventional C24 model. Incidentally, the ‘C’ of Voisin’s model numbers was a tribute to his brother and collaborator Charles, who was killed in 1912 in the short-chassis Alfonso Hispano driven by his aviatrix mistress Elise Deroche, who grandiloquently styled herself ‘Baroness Raymonde de la Roche’.
Voisin favored sleeve valves – used mainly by makers of dignified limousines – for their silence and longevity, while the engine’s ability to cope with high revolutions had been proven when a happy error in the casting of a set of pistons for the 1922 Touring Car Race had accidentally raised the compression ratio from the intended 5:1 to an unheard of 8:1; the engine’s top speed had risen from 2700rpm to 3900 thanks to the generous dimensions of the inlet and exhaust ports, which enabled the sleeve-valve unit to cope with the increase in compression. Yet Voisin didn’t worship speed for speed’s sake. ‘Speed,’ he declared in 1935, ‘is meaningful to me only in terms of the silent, flexible, effortless performance of machines that furnish only a moderate part of the work that they are capable of delivering.’
And in search of that effortless silence, all his cars were fitted with dynastarts rather than starter motors; he regarded the sound of a Bendix pinion clangourously meshing with a starter ring as ‘the noise that disgraces the automobile’. Likewise he adopted and adapted the silently shifting Cotal gearbox, described by Peter Mullin as ‘a very advanced and sophisticated transmission for its day. The Voisin/Cotal electromagnetic pre-selector gearbox features two gears coupled with an overdrive in each gear, giving it effectively four speeds. This transmission was the bridge between standard manual-shift transmissions and automatic transmissions, which would not come into use until after World War Two.’
It has to be said that the Aerodyne, advanced though it was, only represented the first step towards Voisin’s vision of the car of the future, which he described in a leaflet distributed at that same 1934 Paris Salon at which the Aerodyne was first revealed to the public. With a rhomboidal wheel plan – the single front and rear wheels were carried in steering forks, while the rearward-located driving axle was driven by a 150hp radial engine with ‘a choice of five, seven or nine cylinders’ – the six-seater ‘Voiture de l’Avenir’ had a theoretical top speed of 125mph and a designed fuel consumption of 19mpg. Needless to say, it never passed the design stage, though the seven-cylinder radial was tested in an old 13CV Voisin chassis.
In any case, flattered by the praise heaped on the Aerodyne at the Salon, Voisin’s quick mind was looking at ways of developing the ‘super-streamline’ theme further, in a development that he termed ‘Aerosport’. Launched on the new 3.3-liter C28 chassis (introduced to compete with the 3.3-liter Bugatti T57) at the 1935 Salon, it fully integrated the wings into the body, foreshadowing post-war design trends; it would be the last of the true Voisins to reach production.
A 12-cylinder ‘Ailee’ prototype whose rearmost cylinders projected into the driving compartment was a step too far, and the prototype was reserved for Voisin’s personal use. The financiers who now controlled the company’s destiny decreed that the new Voisin launched at the 1937 Salon should be powered by a supercharged Graham-Paige sidevalve six with three-speed and reverse gearbox with overdrive. Its sales echoed its codename ‘Brick’, and production ceased after 30 had been built.
The history of the motor industry has often shown that praise of new directions in design from informed critics doesn’t translate into public acclaim, and that often radical change confuses and alienates purchasers – remember the ‘jellymold’ jibes directed at the original Ford Sierra, despite a carefully orchestrated softening-up program with a European tour displaying the very similar Probe III concept car?
Streamlining was literally in the air in the 1930s, thanks to events like the 1931 outright win of the Schneider Trophy by the Supermarine S6B seaplane racer, or the victory of the de Havilland Comet in the 1934 Mildenhall to Melbourne MacRobertson Air Race. But while streamlining in the air produced pencil-slim beauties like the DH Comet, terrestrial streamlining was compromised by the need to carry a full complement of passengers.
By retaining separate wings and bonnet, Voisin managed to bridge the visual gap between ancient and modern with the Aerodyne, though the succeeding Aerosport was what the French term jolie laide, a phrase epitomized in Gabriel Voisin’s 1961 autobiography Mes 1001 Cerfs-Volants (‘My 1001 Kites’) by his recollection of a certain Helene de Bourg, an ill-favored woman with a pleasing silhouette, as offering ‘temptation in the rear; compassion in the forefront’.
Sadly, the Aerosport fell into that dichotomous category: attempting to combine the traditional Gothic-arch Voisin radiator with a full-width front end led to visual confusion. As Voisin reflected in later years: ‘My constant bright ideas affected our business. I alienated the customers. Finally, we were no longer fashionable.’
Nevertheless it was a brave try, and the effectiveness of the uncompromising Aerosport was proved by the chocolatier industrialist Antoine Menier (whose family had been influential clients since the dawn of French motoring), for he not only owned his Aerosport long after World War Two, but also entered it for many sporting events.
It was their pioneering and progressive design that first drew Peter Mullin – whose love of French automobiles has led him to establish a world-class museum featuring the finest Gallic examples from the Art Deco era in Oxnard, California – to the cars of Gabriel Voisin. ‘He demonstrated a sensitivity to weight-saving and simplicity that was generations ahead of its time,’ remarks Mullin. ‘These cars exist as the very definition of modernist thinking wherein form follows function. There is arguably no pre-war automobile that displays this spirit of invention more visibly than Voisin.’
Mullin already owned half-a-dozen Voisins when he acquired the Aerodyne, and has since purchased several more, including a 1919 Voisin C3 Berline, the Grand Prix de Tourisme-winning 1922 Voisin C3S, 1923 Grand Prix Voisin Laboratoire replica and 1934 Voisin C27 coupe. He now owns 15 examples of the marque, the largest collection of Voisins in the world.
He bought the Aerodyne – ‘very original, complete but in a deteriorated condition’ – from Monaco-based collector Abraham ‘Abba’ Kogan in 2005. As Mullin says: ‘Abba Kogan owns some of the world’s most significant cars, and his ownership of this car provides some indication of its significance.’
The decision to restore the car was easy: ‘The Aerodyne is an automotive masterpiece whose exceptional quality is expressed through its details – its shapes, lines, interior design. It was a car that created a sensation when first introduced in 1934. In restoring this car I hoped to replicate this sensation.’
The task, which began shortly after the Aerodyne's acquisition in 2005, was entrusted to Stone Barn Automobile Restoration of Vienna, New Jersey. The company is owned by Rich and Debbie Fass and has a consistent record of success at Pebble Beach – including several Best of Show awards – and other top concours. ‘We selected Stone Barn Automobile Restoration based upon their reputation for excellence and references given by a number of our peers. This was the first time that we have used their services and – understandably – we couldn’t be happier with the result.
‘We knew we were starting with a very good, intact, largely complete car. We also knew that it was a very early example, based upon its chassis identity. In addition to our own research, we employed the services of a number of experts in the field of Voisin – most notably Philippe Moch, who is recognized within the Voisin community for his knowledge, based upon his length of experience and the number of cars he has owned.
‘Information on Voisins is very spotty as many of the records were destroyed. Our car was restored utilizing information from our own archives, and the limited records that do exist from the period.’
Every single component of the car was refinished, remade or replaced. ‘Our average restoration takes 12-14 months to complete: this project took almost three years.’
Among the major challenges involved was the search for the extremely rare electrical cut-out switchbox, a pattern used only on a handful of Voisins. The team spent a year-and-a-half searching for an original box before deciding to recreate one at enormous expense. And then, just two months before Pebble Beach, an original switchbox was located in the possession of an elderly gentleman living in the French countryside. It just needed to be rebuilt… The front grille was damaged, and repairing that alone – making the 1000 hand-soldered joints required – took more than 150 hours.
Recreating the typically bizarre Voisin interior trim was another challenge. Says Mullin: ‘To me, the ornate and rhythmic pattern of the upholstery sets off the entire design of the car. The late ’20s and early ’30s were the height of Art Deco and for me this “Jazz” pattern really evokes the excitement of that era. We were very fortunate to have three bolts of the extraordinary and rare fabric when we commenced this car’s restoration. This was our good fortune, and was the simple result of having acquired several cars from Philipe Moch, who had had this cloth woven for the restoration of the Voisin C27 coupe. It was made by a lady using the same looms used to make the original material. The interior required a special trimming braid and it took six months’ searching to find the correct loom in Switzerland. It then took four months to create the braid, with daily calls and emails to Switzerland to perfect the pattern and color.’
And out on the road, the restored Voisin didn’t disappoint: ‘The car handles very well for its time and for its intended use as a Grand Routiere,’ confirms Mullin.
The Pebble Beach victory was ample reward for the long restoration. Although Mullin has been showing at the Californian concours for 27 years, this was the first time he had won Best of Show there. ‘Winning with the Voisin is the most special, significant, rewarding thing that’s ever happened to me – outside of marrying my wife! It’s the ultimate thrill, although at first I wasn’t sure I’d actually won. I was sitting in the bullpen with the other two finalists [out of a field of 227 cars], the judges pointed at me and I thought I’d finished third. Then the fireworks went off!’
1934 Voisin C25 Aerodyne
Engine 2994cc straight-six, sleeve-valve, twin Zenith Stromberg carburettors
Power 102bhp @ 3800rpm
Transmission Two-speed Voisin/Cotal electromagnetic pre-selector gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and nut
Suspension Front: beam axle, leaf springs, adjustable dampers. Rear: live axle, leaf springs, adjustable dampers
Brakes Lockheed hydraulic drums
Weight 1200kg (approx)
Performance Top speed 81mph